Is there any statement that you can make with certainty concerning masculinity, and if so what is it? When I thought about this question, thought about what I know and could claim with certainty concerning masculinity, I thought of my childhood home. Memories long forgotten came crashing back in waves, one after the other. Memories of making garlands, of nights spent munching on maskaashi (coconut and dried fish), surreptitiously listening to the men of the house talk politics in hushed tones. Memories of the smell of burning incense. Memories of starry skies. Memories that leave me feeling bittersweet. This puzzled me. This puzzled me because out of all the things that I could have thought of concerning masculinity, it was my childhood home that immediately came to mind. It puzzled me even more that these memories felt bittersweet. I couldn’t put my finger on why I thought and felt this way. What could my childhood and the home I grew up in possibly teach me about masculinity that I could claim to know with certainty?
I grew up in an extended household, surrounded by my aunts, uncles and cousins. My earliest memories are of days spent playing with my cousins under the shade of the moonima gas in the sweltering afternoon sun. Just us girls. We used to collect the moonima and huvandhuma that had fallen to the ground. When we had collected enough flowers to make a mound we would sit in a circle and string them together, basking in the fragrance. But this peace never lasted long. Almost always, one of the boys would show up and stomp on all the flowers we had collected. We’d scream, cry and run to our mothers who were busily cooking away for when the men came home expecting lunch. They smile knowingly when they see our tear streaked faces and the crushed flowers in our hands. They tell us to pay no heed. That’s just the way boys behave. They tell us to dry our tears and start all over again. Boys, will always be boys. There was nothing we could do about it but begin again.
I grew up in a home where men discussed politics in hushed voices when the power went out at night. Hushed because this was a country where one man competed in the Presidential elections for thirty years and always “won”. Hushed, because my grandfather had once been to prison and exiled. Hushed, because no one wanted to risk the neighbours overhearing. Power outages always brought out the inner politician among the men of the house. The men always sat in a tight circle in the middle of the courtyard, illuminated by the light of the moon and stars. Not surprisingly, the women stayed in the kitchen adjoining the courtyard preparing maskaashi for the men to eat. It was a household tradition during power outages. Us children, we stayed indoors eating maskaashi in the dark. The courtyard was a space for men, where women hovered around the edge, occasionally breaking the circle to offer food. There was an unspoken understanding that this was the way things ought to be. The men talked. The women gossiped and pretended to not hear or understand. Us children, we played our games and pretended to not hear or understand. But we saw, we listened and we understood. Things stayed the way they ought to be as long as we pretended to not hear or understand.
These men that gathered to talk politics under the stars had another secret. A darker more sinister secret that everyone pretended to not know. We used to lie awake at night listening to the sound of fists against flesh, of muffled cries and whispered pleading. Unable to sleep we tossed and turned in bed only to pretend that we do not see the bruises the next day. We talked, laughed and ate breakfast together like the night before was just a bad dream. We pretended to not hear these men, who spoke with great disgust of the torture carried upon men in Dhivehi prisons, beat their wives black and blue. We pretended to be unaware of the violence that was perpetuated in our very own home. We feigned ignorance because we were taught to believe that it was a man’s right to raise his fists in anger. We were taught that men will always be men. There was nothing we could do but weather the blows and hide the pain. So we pretended to not see, hear or feel this violation of human dignity.
So what is it about masculinity that I can claim to know with certainty? Masculinity is a mask behind which nothing resides. It is a performance that conceals a secret that does not exist. Yet still, it is as real as the crushed flowers of my childhood. It is as real as the battered women I know. It is real because we are all guilty of ritual collusion*. We pretend to see what we think exists behind the mask even when we see otherwise. We interpret masculine signifiers that are performed by others as being truly indicative of who they really are as opposed to a performance they put on. No matter how many times the mask of masculinity is taken off, we continue to define boys and men we know according to it. We believe that boys crush flowers because that’s how boys are supposed to behave. We believe that men beat their wives because violence is their heavenly right. The place from which the gendered gaze emanates is as implicated in the doing of masculinity as the site on which it is performed. The endurance of the mask of masculinity is a testament to the power of pretence. But in our recognition of the mask of masculinity lies hope for change. In our recognition of the mask lies the possibility of a world where we are not left with crushed flowers but beautiful garlands.
* Michael Taussig, ‘Schopenhauer’s Beard’, in Constructing Masculinity, edited by Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, Simon Watson, Routledge, New York, London: 1995, pp. 107-114.