The smell of your gender norms lingers on me now ... now that I'm older and wiser, I kind of understand the meaning of Fergie's song "Big Girls Don't Cry" in quite a different social context, though.
Enter the cliché "Big Boys Don't Cry" also known as "shed 7alak" or "get a grip" in Arabic.
Both expressions, usually associated with younger children, feed into the socially constructed notions of masculinity and femininity. From a very young age, boys are told to suppress their emotions if they want to be perceived as "big boys." So when those boys turn into adults, the concept of masculinity heightens and another cliché awakens — the "real men" model.
Real Arab men (as if that's a real thing) are told to never put their emotions on display. The sentiment of anger is the only exception because the more rage, the manlier, right? "Real men" are stronger than the watery droplets produced in their eyes. Their tears don't have two fates, like most of us. Their tears must be drained off before they are even formed. Why? Because their masculinity depends on it — or does it?
Throughout their childhood, adolescent, and grown-up years, these real men are constantly reminded that their emotions are red lines that shouldn't be crossed or showcased if their masculinity meant anything to them. A 2015 YouGov survey conducted in Britain actually revealed that women cry a lot more than men, so the repression of those emotions isn't just an Arab feat.
Biologically speaking, there may be a reason as to why women cry more than men. Testosterone may hinder crying, while the hormone prolactin (higher among women) may elevate it. But crying as an emotional reaction is not biologically related; it is either imposed or stigmatized depending on your gender and the society you live in. A 2011 study revealed this very fact by examining 37 countries, explaining that "women cry more than men, although there were some (mainly African) countries where the differences were minimal."
So nature is just a minor percentage of the story. Nurture, aka social norms, are the more relevant part of that very same story.
Social norms have given birth to this mythological "real man" creature in the Arab world who feeds off a distorted idea of strength. This false perception of power has become a real Arab man's best friend and the only weapon of survival in the land of archetypal masculinity. You have the rare few lone-wolfs who have rebelled against the system, but let's not focus on the exceptions now. Let's shed light on the norm.
Enter the Arab douche-bag.
The typical Arab douche-bag, known in Lebanon as jagual, takes pride in his idea of masculinity so much so that humiliating female relatives or friends by violently approaching the men who dare speak (yes, speak) to them is deemed noble. Meanwhile, they freely converse with other women and do not have any problem with disrespecting them, too.
Real Arab men engage with women unreservedly but expect women to stay reserved. Real Arab men love the idea of independence except when a female subject is involved. Last but not least, Arab men are all about heteronormativity, the belief that heterosexuality is the norm, that their mental dictionary is plagued by derogatory terms for homosexuals.
The jagual - aka real man - is known for having superman powers: he doesn't shed a tear, he doesn't hold back his anger, and he lives for the double standards that advance his power in society. Hence, the jagual can't handle any type of female autonomy or agency because somehow it puts his manhood at risk?
"You are a man, you shouldn't cry like girls"
Enter the disastrous "toxic masculinity."
Once boys grow up to be men they start adhering to the traditional male gender roles they've been told to conform to since they learned to walk and talk. Presenting themselves as the shoulder-to-lean-on is just one result of the socialization process. Thus, they start believing their duty is to save and protect women. Thus, the alpha male who gets high on dominance is born. This obsession with power gives him a sense of entitlement to police women's bodies and choices ... even if that means violence is part of the game.
To many real Arab men, showing aggression and violence is an acceptable emotional reaction, but wiping a tear is not; the so-called "honor killings" are a case in point. Real men in many Arab countries have and continue to associate their honor with any female character they share blood (or a bed) with. Honor killings, or crimes committed against women who are "seen as having transgressed social codes of honor," are still a major problem in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Syria.
So it is OK to be violent in the name of honor but a shame to be sensitive in the name of emotions?
Honor is one side of the bloody coin; abuse is the other.
A 2017 study titled "The International Men and Gender Equality Survey - Middle East and North Africa (IMAGES MENA)" revealed that a majority of men across Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and the Palestinian territories committed acts of domestic violence and sexual harassment against women.
Around 10 percent to 45 percent of ever-married men (men who are married or who have been married) reported physical violence against a female partner, and between 20 to 80 percent of men admitted to emotional violence against their wives. The survey also revealed that up to 90 percent of the men surveyed in some countries think they have the right to control their wives' freedom - from how they dressed to how often the couple had sex. After all, marital rape is rarely ever acknowledged in the Arab world, so how do you expect real men to think otherwise?
Real Arab men have embraced toxic masculinity with two well-toned biceps and triceps, and present themselves as God's gift to the planet ... and helpless women.
Enter masculinity's discriminatory partner, "gender inequality."
Hegemonic masculinity has enabled real men to think they are (and should always be) in control. The fact that laws are almost always in their favor doesn't really help in overturning that narrative.
So does it really surprise you to hear that the Middle East and North African region has the world's lowest score for gender equality in the workplace? Or that the majority of Arab men still believe a woman's role in society should be taking care of the household?
The 2017 study mentioned above also revealed that a majority (two-thirds to more than three-quarters to be exact) of men in the region still believe in gender roles ... and it probably has a lot to do with the fact that they are afraid of losing the power they've been told should be in their hands. Sexually harassing women is one way real men try to validate their superiority and existence.
Enter the vile "sexual harassment" that these systems have given birth to.
"Real men" feel entitled to shame women (in some cases murder them), degrade women in their speech, and catcall women under the pretext of a compliment. Men harass women by lowering their voices, rather than their gaze, by dessert-inspired latshat (catcalls). "Shu ya ashta?" is just a sample of the offensive back-handed compliments men have popularized in the Arab world. And heaven forbid women call out their behavior.
People in the Arab world often resort to victim-blaming and shaming when it's a sexual harassment case under the microscope. This phenomenon acts as a fertilizer to the system which normalizes harassment, abuse, violence ... all to keep the masculinity intact.
There have been attempts to criminalize sexual harassment in all its forms in many countries in the region, but is that enough? It's far from enough, but it's a start ... though it's had its pitfalls. It certainly doesn't help when some celebrities have gotten away with harassment and rape. It just sends a message that such cases are normal, justifiable, and forgotten about the morning after.
Handing a woman a pill won't make those violent incidents of abuse disappear. In a comparable manner, telling an Arab man to conceal his emotions doesn't mean those sentiments aren't there. Rather, as we've seen, those feelings end up manifesting in bundles of violence and abuse, harming not just the man himself, but women in his social circle too.
Violence is the opposition; tears are the real comrade. We hope future generations will stop telling men otherwise.