“If you want to ‘be a man,’ you don’t cry. If you want to ‘be a man,’ you have to be tough…You have to use violence. Whoever hits you, you should hit him back,” says Hassan Joumaa, speaking about what it means to be a “real man” in Lebanon today.
A shortage of good-paying jobs in Lebanon, especially for young men with lower levels of education, can leave many frustrated with their inability to be financial providers. Indeed, men who experience unemployment, and a lack of income and social recognition, may be more likely to use violence and participate in armed conflict.
Taking on a breadwinner role is just one social pillar of manhood, along with appearing strong and hiding emotions. The pressure to meet these expectations grows as young men reach adulthood, with negative impacts for both young men and the women in their lives.
These social expectations about manhood both shape and are shaped by conflict. Experiences of conflict can change men’s ideas of self-worth and create identities rooted in extreme violence, while underlying patriarchal norms encourage men to adopt dominant, violent behaviors.
Shifting perceptions, shifting reality
Hassan wants to shift this reality. “I want to be a part of a society where I made something, changed something,” he says. “We have to work to improve the attitudes, to improve the behaviors, of men – to engage men and boys to reach gender equality.”
There might be certain advantages for young men who act in more stereotypically masculine ways. New research carried out with young men in the US, UK, and Mexico found that they are often rewarded for fitting into the “Man Box”, or being a “man’s man.” Such rewards include feeling accepted, being respected, and living up to society’s expectations.
However, there are also harmful consequences associated with conforming to society’s expectations about how men should behave.
Research finds that young men who adhere to rigid beliefs about manhood are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, to cut themselves off from intimate friendships, to resist asking for help, to experience depression and suicidal ideation, and to use violence.
When young men behave in such ways, it not only impacts those around them, but has also been shown to put young men themselves at higher risk for early mortality and morbidity. And, when young men feel unable to live up to unrealistic expectations of manhood, they may also express this frustration through violence, substance abuse, or other self-abusive behaviors.
To work towards a more positive future for young people in Lebanon, Hassan devotes his time to facilitating interactive workshops and inspiring student activism through Lebanese NGO ABAAD. Called Programme Ra, based on Promundo’s Program H, the sessions Hassan leads encourage young men to challenge stereotypes related to what it means to be men.
For example, in one session, youth engaged in role-playing, being either “persons” or “things” and treating each other as such. A deep discussion then followed, exploring the ways in which we treat other people like “things,” as well as how youth themselves are often treated as “things.” The purpose of such discussions is for young people to become aware of the harmful gender norms and attitudes that exist in their communities, as well as engage in new ways to challenge those norms.
Such approaches to engage young men in redefining the way they think about the intersections of gender, power, and violence are desperately needed in Lebanon. The country is still experiencing low-intensity conflict on its southern border with Israel and its western border with Syria where civil war, although drawing to a close, continues to impact the everyday lives of the young men and women. However, the experiences of young men in Lebanon are not wholly unique.
“I thought that we have violence and we have racism only in the Middle East. But, when I began traveling to many countries in the world, I found that some places have even more than us,” says Hassan.
John Crownover of CARE International, who has been implementing Program H in the Balkans region for more than a decade agrees, saying, “I think the struggles of young people are similar in every place. I think there’s universality to a lot of what we’re doing…Gender-based violence isn’t just a problem of the South, it’s a problem of the whole planet.”
Indeed, from the United States and Mexico to Brazil and India, the experiences of young men are similar, with consequences both for young men’s health and well-being and for the health and well-being of young women and others around them.
Program H aims to work with men to create safe spaces where young men can not only find reliable information, but also think critically to challenge harmful ideas about what it means to be a man, and share their fears, hopes, and dreams for the future. This methodology, 15 years after its launch in 2002, is still having an impact in a shifting and globalized world: it is encouraging tens of thousands of young men across more than 20 countries to redefine manhood in an effort to create a kinder and more socially just world free from violence.
As Hassan says, “I don’t want my children to be raised as I was. I want them to be feminist, advocate for women’s rights, and have the freedom to express their feelings and their emotions.”