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Some reflections on International Women’s Day from one of the many dumb males on this globe

By Kristof Decoster
on March 11, 2015

International Women’s Day (IWD) was celebrated last Sunday, March 8. It’s been again an outburst of female  voices mainly, which is a bit politically correct perhaps, but understandable. No man wants to be slammed down on this day, while making some sort of controversial statement. Still, it would be good to also hear more male voices on IWD, at least if they’re  trying to go beyond  the politically correct rhetoric, like the “need for empowerment of women”, “our shared commitment to achieve gender equality by 2030”, etc.  There’s enough politicians and UN staff already doing that – as the ongoing two-week High-Level meeting on Gender Equality (59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women ) in New York will no doubt show again.

Anyway, my overall impression of IWD is that awareness of women’s rights has increased around the world, which is no doubt a good thing. However, for me, a key question remains whether even “fully recognising and affirming the human rights of women and girls and gender justice”, as advocated by female advocates, will ensure the transformative agenda needed to achieve gender equality. As relevant and necessary as that is, maybe something else is also needed. Let me explain a bit more clearly what I mean.


India’s Daughter

One of the key discussions this year centred around the broadcasting of the movie/documentary  India’s Daughter (on the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in December 2012, which sparked an India-wide movement).  The discussion on the documentary even reached the global level.

As an outsider (and a man), I’ve been following a bit this debate from a distance, obviously, reading a number of related pieces in the press. Two conclusions were inescapable: (1) the more you read about it, the more you feel this is a complex issue (like many other issues). On the question whether it’s stigmatizing or not for a country, to broadcast this documentary, I tend to side with the ones saying that the benefits of airing it are bigger than potential  disadvantages, even if I understand that men don’t like being considered as being all “potential rapists”.  Nevertheless, as often happens to me, the more you learn about possible angles when looking at an issue, the more you get the feeling that it’s not a straightforward conclusion. (2) Just reading in the Guardian about what happened to Jyoti Singh felt already so repulsive to me and full of horror that I actually felt  like vomiting. One finds it hard to understand that these things happen. Worse, that they happen so often.

Unfortunately, they do.

As one of the many dumb males in this world, I’d like to reflect a bit further on this issue.  Not that I have any answers, it’s just one more angle.

Let me start with a short anecdote from the time when I was backpacking in India (in 2002). Call it “anecdotal evidence”, if you want. At some point, I had ended up in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, for a three-day camel trip in the desert. I had a few foreign companions with me, as well as a local guide, if I remember well. My ass hurted like hell after a few days and the camel turned out pretty smelly as well – I don’t recommend anybody a camel ride since that time. But I also recall a short discussion related to something that had happened the days before in the same area (or at least so the rumour went). An Israeli girl, also travelling in the country, had been raped by local guides for hours and hours in a remote desert area.  At some point, one of my companions for the trip (whom I didn’t know before), an Indian guy who lived in the US, said something like this, with a dark grin: “But hey, we men, don’t we all have rape fantasies?”

The fact that I still remember this cynical quote  probably means that I didn’t exactly agree  (I have to disclose here that I was going through some sort of spiritual “Jiddu Krishnamurti epiphany” period at the time, so the remark was a bit of a rough wake-up to the world, having also visited the “Hugging Mother” Amma and Sai Baba’s ashram in the months before  ).

But anyway. You don’t have to be a genius to acknowledge that all men find themselves on a continuum:  going from Prince –style “Darling Nikki”  dirty minds to the “Pure Land” that Buddhism would like our minds to be. We are all somewhere situated on this continuum ( not sure it’s a Gauss curve).

Chances are – although I’m not exactly a “connoisseur” of the female psyche – that the same goes for women. You do have a few ‘nuns’, no doubt, but the scores flocking to ’50 Shades of Grey’ present  a slightly different picture.  So many of us human beings have complicated minds, including at the level of fantasies. But we’re talking about a continuum – with people positioned from one side to the other  (it’s not like we are all Marquis de Sade’s) – ànd of course, about – in the words of this postmodern era – ‘virtual reality’.

When kids become teenagers, they lose their innocence, with all the good and bad things that entails. You can’t stay an innocent child forever, one has to grow up. The adult life is thus a lot more complex – as the ancient story of Adam and Eve already let us know. Part of this more complex adult life, is that there is – and there probably always will be – something (potentially) dark about sexuality (but also about violence, for example), at least for most people. We’re wired like that. Human complexity.

The question, for me, is whether people are sufficiently ‘grounded’ by the time they become sexually active to face that dark aspect within themselves, to then take moral decisions which respect other people. Also, and perhaps even more importantly, whether they’ve encountered in their life enough love, in the broad sense, as an antidote to the potentially darkest aspects of their sexuality (and other human complexities).

Cause let’s face it. One might think the situation is much worse in the streets of Delhi, at night, and according to friends this indeed is the case, but it’s not like in the West we are immune for sexual aggression and depravity.  The news from the UK in recent weeks and months is just one of the latest sad examples. Or see for instance how in war situations, armies from all over the world tend to engage in sexual exploitation. In civil wars, usually the first victims are women. It’s as if shedding civilization, which unfortunately tends to happen in wars, inevitably leads to sexual debaucheries from many men. Sometimes it’s just a decent commander who stands between soldiers and their having their way with local women or women “from the opposite camp”.

So let’s start from this assumption. That some men – perhaps many men – in situations where they think they can get away with it, will exploit women’s bodies, unless if they have learnt to respect women.  (Just one sad case in point: in My Lai only a few soldiers  refused to take part… )

Obviously, a whole of mix of DNA, mirror neurons, socialization and good & bad experiences during childhood and teenage years, role models, reading books, having learnt to empathize (or not) (even if 99 % of us have this ability), cultural and religious traditions, …  play a role in the behavior chosen by men. But by the time you reach adulthood, as a man, ideally you have learnt what it means to respect women, and internalized it.

Even more important, by then most men also have already encountered the joys and bliss of falling “truly, madly and deeply” in love with a woman or girl, where they can show themselves the way they are. Which includes being vulnerable sometimes.

Unfortunately, though, many men haven’t learnt to respect women.  I have no sympathy whatsoever for what the rapists of Jyoti did or said, but the question becomes: can you really “blame” them for their very repulsive views and acts, knowing their trajectory before? I’m well aware that If I had grown up like them, in the same circumstances, there is a chance that I might have engaged in the same kind of horrific behavior. As a man, there’s no hiding from that truth. What is so shocking, perhaps, is that this all just seems ‘normal’ for them…they didn’t even think they did anything wrong. And there was so much anger in in them.

Now they’ve done this, obviously they need to be put behind bars. But the broader question seems: how can we avoid things like this to happen in the future, not just in India but everywhere in the world? Sexual violence seems to be increasing, even if that might be just an impression – maybe it’s just that we’re more aware of it now than in the past. But it’s still disgustingly common.

Of course, a lot of sexual violence has always occurred within households (intimate partner violence), according to statistics, which underlines even more my general point about men.  Human rights only go this far in preventing bad things to happen.

In the turmoiled  times we live in (see below), too many men (and women?) objectify and think in terms of ‘instant gratification’ instead of love and respect for a woman, sometimes looking for empty self-justifications while engaging in these acts of humiliation or worse (as in “she deserved it”, “she’s not a good girl”, “these are my conjugal “rights” as a husband” etc).

How can we prevent men from reaching this stage, with ingrained superiority ideas, or worse? They weren’t born like this, presumably. As mentioned, children tend to be innocent, even if they can be “pain in the asses” on a bad day. Why is it that we fail in many countries, households and other settings to raise boys and men in a way that they learn how to love the opposite gender?


The role of spirituality (in a broad sense)  in a potential transformative agenda

The recent reportSpiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges’ gives a few hints, in my opinion, even if the report doesn’t really address explicitly the most horrific aspects of the gender divide (as a 21st century challenge). But part of the transformative agenda we need in the coming decades, even if we acknowledge that sexual violence has been with mankind since the very beginning, might come from some ideas in this report (see chapter 4: ‘Spiritual pathways to personal, social and political transformation’). None of them are straightforward “calls to action”, as you can imagine. But they need to be part of the answer.

The report aimed to give the idea of spirituality improved intellectual grounding. This would then in turn assist in finding, what they call, ‘spiritual pathways to personal, social and political transformation’. It’s one of the more interesting (the word ‘beautiful’ is probably more appropriate) reports I read in recent years, and definitely worth reading in full.

Spirituality is conceived here as something much broader than what is usually considered as spiritual (and certainly than ‘religion’ – which, it goes without saying, has often played a rather negative role throughout the ages, when it comes to (justifying) violence against women ).

Spirituality in this report comes close to human existence, or what it means to be truly human. It’s about our ‘ground’ in the world rather than our place in the world, for example; that we are alive at all, rather than about our status.  More detail is being provided in the report on what this means for core features of human existence, and contemplating them, like love, death, self & soul (not an exhaustive list, of course,  you can also add the relationship with nature, for example).

Spirituality in this report is “not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation.”

One of the key claims of the report is that we need the spiritual, in this large sense, to play a greater role in the public realm. Spirituality needs to become, among others, a “counterweight to the hegemony of instrumental and utilitarian thinking.”  Now, that might seem naïve, especially in our times, but it is crucial. How to build a respectful relationship with the opposite gender, while acknowledging the dark side in oneself,  is one of the key 21st century challenges, in a more and more globalized world where old forms of ‘grounding’ are disappearing, and where objectifying and instrumentalizing people has become the norm. According to the report, we have “lost touch with sources of intrinsic value (meaning, community, transcendence, the sacred), which is a large part of why, as Michael Sandel says, we are no longer a society with a market, but more like a “market society”.”

Many men (and no doubt also plenty of women) are in a state of spiritual confusion, in this sense.  I think far more men are in a state of spiritual confusion than there are potential rapists. Rape is one of the symptoms, porn addiction is probably another one.  There are many other symptoms.

In the West, Sloterdijk has called this even a “cynical era” – our postmodern era is one where all narratives and bigger stories have been pierced, mercilessly. Add to this the now existential threat of climate change – which is more and more seen as the existential “societal” threat, the equivalent of death  for human beings at a personal level , that people prefer to look away from (rather than facing it) – and you understand this increased cynicism even more.  Not everybody agrees with this label, and it’s no doubt a bit of an exaggeration (there is still a lot of voluntarism and ‘can do’ spirit in some circles), but there is some truth to it, definitely in the North.

Perhaps one quote from the report can shed some more light on where part of this cynicism comes from:

There was an uneasy calm about the post-millennial world – shattered by 9/11. Then we were talking about the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ rather than ‘The End of History’. Strangely, despite apocalyptic predictions, two failed wars and a loss of life on a terrifying scale, 9/11 seems to mark a diversion rather than a fundamental change. There is actually something bigger that is going on. Then came the crash. At the time, we were worried about man-made climate change. Suddenly, we were worried about our entire economic structure. We no longer feel able to control our destiny. Complex systems – economic, cultural and environmental – surround us. Yet we have lost a sense of agency. There is a reason for that. We have.” (p. 80 – Anthony Painter)

Many of us end up with flattened emotions (even if you don’t have the personal experience of the “poisoned blessings” that Big Pharma has in store), as flat as our flatscreens.

In LMICs probably the prevailing sentiment is not (yet ) a postmodern cynical attitude, for many, but the shocks of globalization, materialization and urbanization are also ripping apart old sources of “belonging”.  Extremists are filling up the vacuum in some places, as the news headlines tell us on a daily basis.

My point is: I seriously wonder whether we can do something substantial about sexual violence or some of the worst aspects of the gender gap  in a ‘market society’ world that sends to people from all ranks all the time the other message (i.e. than a spiritual one, in this broad sense): that everything is for sale. A world where global and national role models are more often than not ruthless, shallow and ready to ‘take what they want’, as money can buy apparently everything. To misquote Gary Lineker : “The world is a simple game. Billions of people chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the rich always win.”

Even if it has existed from the early days of mankind, sexual violence, whatever its form,  is for this reason also very much a 21st century challenge, in my opinion, as instrumentalizing people has never been as widespread. Spirituality, in this broader sense, needs to be part of the answer.  The pathways to transformation (in the last chapter of the report) are not straightforward, as mentioned, but they need to be considered. And not just for this fight, by the way.

It’s not the only element of course – we all know that some countries in the world have made huge progress due to great policies, frameworks, etc.  and thankfully so. So there’s much else we can do. But something more will be needed, is my feeling, to address the ‘causes of the causes’ of sexual violence in the 21st century.

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