Last Thursday, students in my Men and Masculinities in the Caribbean course engaged in pro-feminist men’s movement building on the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine campus, Trinidad and Tobago. They created games, posters, pamphlets and popular theatre that tackled issues related to fatherhood, violence, pornography, suicide, health, homophobia and popular culture. This assignment aimed to create peer learning outside of the classroom, challenging students’ real-life capacity to explain patriarchy as a source of both men’s privilege and pain.
There are many kinds of men’s movements, differentiated by their politics regarding race, sexuality, capitalism, militarism, religion and women-led feminist struggles. Pro-feminist men’s movements, which are also called feminist men’s movements, are not motivated by a desire to return women to ‘traditional’ or subordinate roles. They are not compelled by competition with women in the struggle for rights nor by an empirically-unfounded position that women now have too much power and men are the ‘real’ victims. Thus, such men’s movements are best for achieving gender justice, which requires us to dismantle and transform the hierarchies created by our ideals of manhood and womanhood.
While masculinity studies seems new, the study of men in the Caribbean emerged in earlier studies on the family. Since at the least the 1930s, anthropologists looked at Afro-Caribbean families, which didn’t fit colonial nuclear-family models, and concluded that men were marginal to them. Later feminist scholarship debunked that, arguing that while Afro-Caribbean fathers may not reside within families, which may therefore end up mother-centred, other men such as sons, uncles, brothers and grandfathers were not marginal to family life at all.
By the 1980s, a new discourse, not of marginality, but of marginalization was introduced. It argued that women’s gains were a direct consequence of black men being held back from advancement in the teaching profession in Jamaica. Men were being marginalized to keep them subordinated and prevent them from threatening colonial rule, it claimed. Despite the inaccuracy of this interpretation, and its denial of women’s own efforts to advance in the labour market, the myth of male marginalization caught fire across the Anglophone region as those who saw women’s advances in terms of men’s feelings of emasculation found a flag to wave in backlash to Caribbean feminism.
Nonetheless, from Jamaica to Trinidad were experiments with pro-feminist men’s organizing. Anyone active in men’s movement building in 1990s Trinidad and Tobago would remember MAVAW, Men Against Violence Against Women. UWI Lecturer Jerome Teelucksingh revived International Men’s Day commemorations on November 19th, his dad’s birthday, to mobilize men to improve gender relations and promote gender equality, through a focus on men’s health, positive male role models, and men’s contributions to community and family.
Unfortunately, the turn of the century witnessed an about-face by campus principals, state bureaucrats, politicians, policy makers and fathers’ groups. A language of ‘balance’ began to displace one of equity. A vocal men’s rights movement emerged, increasingly attacking rather than collaborating with feminists. A once visible (pro-)feminist men’s movement shrank, leaving those men who continued to invest in challenging patriarchal relations feeling isolated, and reproducing the fear, shame, silence that Michael Kimmel describes.
That said, a vibrant gay men’s movement emerged in this very period, but it too gets little love from the men’s rights approach. This is one example of where pro-feminist men’s movements can take responsibility for challenging men’s rights groups as well as discrimination that men still face.
This turn ignored women’s long solidarity with men’s movement-building, and both Indian and African men’s solidarities with women’s rights in the region. In the 1990s, I often worked with young male activists from the YMCA who sought to transform masculinities to create a kinder, gentler world for subordinated boys. Women in UN organizations and university departments generated funds and developed curricula for masculinity studies, facilitated workshops for men, established peace-building programmes, and supported networking amongst men across the region. Neither the women nor men always got it right, but we were not enemies. Rather, we shared struggles from different, contradictory and shifting sites of power.
In a globally right-wing moment, it remains necessary to mentor men and women to change the nexus of power, privilege, pain and powerlessness in boys and men’s lives. My students engage in pro-feminist movement building to better understand the project of men’s movements, like women’s movements, to fairly and lovingly value us all simply because we are human. When that pedagogy works, it garlands the bread of solidarity with roses of hope.