It can all begin in early childhood, when a child might be brought up to believe in patriarchal concepts like favouring a boy over a girl in a family or be encouraged to exert his authority over female family members simply because he is a boy. He may even feel that he has the right to control them, with these poisonous concepts sometimes being encouraged in deeply rooted ways by Egyptian society.
Even today, in the case of education, some people, especially in rural areas, may still believe that teaching girls is not as important as teaching boys. According to the 2018 World Bank Women’s Economic Empowerment Report, Egypt’s 2017 census says that 30.8 per cent of Egyptian females over 10 years of age (10.6 million women) are illiterate compared to 18.5 per cent of men.
In some sectors of Egyptian society, men are the only members of the family allowed to work because men are thought to be supposed to work while women should stay at home to take care of the children. The 2017 Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum shows Egypt as ranking 135 out of 141 countries for the economic participation and opportunity of women. Men are also often given priority by employers. The formal private sector employed only 1.5 per cent of women of working age compared to 12.5 per cent of men in 2012, the World Bank report says.
Because of the prevalence of such patriarchal concepts, some people also believe that men should be given priority in taking jobs. The two rounds of the Survey of Young People in Egypt Report, conducted in 2010 and 2014, revealed that many women still believe that when jobs are scarce, priority should be given to men, as they are thought to be the main breadwinners. Employers often perceive men as being the breadwinners in the family, which in their view can also justify giving them higher salaries, the report says.
Some members of society also believe that men are the only decision-makers in a family because making decisions is regarded as a man’s job. In some cases, women are not even given the choice of a husband. According to a 2018 Japan International Cooperation Agency report, due to poverty and social norms in Egypt, child marriage and forced marriage is still high in rural areas, especially in Upper Egypt where more than 20 per cent of women have experienced forced marriage.
Such social injustices, harmful to women, are also harmful to men, since they teach them wrong concepts of manhood and encourage inequality between men and women. As a result, a group of young people in Egypt is determined to overcome the problem by raising awareness of other members of society.
Habiba Hussein, 22, a mass communication student in Cairo, is determined to put an end to such “toxic masculinity” through her initiative Ragel Sah (A Real Man) through which she promotes the concepts and values a real man should have, not the ones that are still sometimes prevalent in Egyptian society.
“I am an advertising student at the Faculty of Mass Communication in a private university. I started the initiative with two of my colleagues, Ali Ashraf and Mustafa Mohamed. The person who came up with the idea was Mustafa,” Hussein said.
She gives examples of such “toxic masculinity” by pointing to the fact that “our society is constantly framing men just like it is framing women. This has made most members of society used to the frame to the extent that if they do not use it to understand others, they become shocked.
“For instance, men from the beginning of their lives are told that men do not cry since a man must be strong both physically and emotionally or that a man should only wear dark colours because in our society this is expected and bright ones are considered unmanly,” she said. She added that some families had complained that men were unable to wear bright colours or even to cry at a funeral because “a man should not do that” or “a man should not express his feelings.”
Hussein said that if a man decides to act differently, he is discouraged by society. “In the media, especially television, you see violent scenes of a man beating his wife or other people all the time. If a man expresses his love or respect for his wife even on social media, he is sometimes mocked by his closest friends because they are not used to this gentle behaviour,” she said.
“This obviously has a negative effect on women, who are the victims of this kind of ‘normal’ violent behaviour on the part of men,” she added. It may also be the reason why some men in rural areas insist on practicing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) against their daughters “to preserve their dignity”, making girls live in a state of constant fear.
TOXIC BEHAVIOUR: Other topics Hussein has tackled through her initiative include gender roles, harassment, and physical violence.
“In Egypt, we have problems with gender roles. One example is when a man does not help in the housework, while his mother or sister are doing it all — which is a form of discrimination against women just because they are women and he is a man and housework is thought to be not his job,” Hussein said. Some Egyptian mothers even treat their sons like royalty, and as a result when a boy grows up and wants to get married he looks for a girl who will clean his house and cook for him, “still the norm in our society, unfortunately,” Hussein said.
Women, whether in urban or rural areas, spend more time than men on household activities (five hours and 1.7 hours per day, respectively), according to a UN source.
Hussein believes that all of this makes no sense, and it encourages irrational behaviour. “We don’t let men grow their hair, but it is ok if they beat their wives. We think that this is normal, and of course we don’t expect a man to help with the housework. We think that it is not OK for him to wear pink, but it is alright for him to harass a girl. So, gender roles in Egypt are topsy-turvy: the things that don’t really affect a man’s manhood we deny him, while the things that really affect it we allow him,” she said.
Hussein added that she has read a lot about the problem of poisonous manhood, hoping to find out its causes and figure out a solution.
Even so, some women still think that it is normal to be beaten by a male member of the family because “it is socially acceptable for a man to do so.” According to the Economic Cost of Gender-Based Violence Survey conducted in 2015 by the United Nations Population Fund, the National Council for Women, and the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, around 7.8 million women suffer from violence every year in Egypt, whether perpetrated by a spouse or fiancé or individuals in her circle or even from strangers in public places.
Sexual harassment is a widespread and serious problem in Egypt, as the country ranks second in the world after Afghanistan in terms of this issue.
Hussein explains that she and her friends are working to raise awareness about correct concepts of manhood through social media. “We have Facebook and Instagram pages for our initiative through which we run our campaigns. We would like to spread our campaigns in clubs and youth clubs after the end of the coronavirus pandemic,” she said, adding that they are currently shooting an advertisement with the aim of raising people’s awareness about gender inequality and the correct values a man should have.
The group is currently working in Cairo and Alexandria, but they will also target other governorates in future.
Among the characteristics they are focusing on are international problems such as “male violence, harassment or rape, holding back feelings, male domination, and the idea that a man does not share the housework with his wife. As for characteristics that are purely Egyptian, we are targeting judging a woman upon her physical appearance even among educated people and practicing FGM against female relatives, though the latter is now punishable by law,” she said.
Hussein thinks there is more than one reason for a man to grow up with ideas of toxic masculinity. “First, there is the way he is brought up by his parents, especially his mother who in some cases teaches him his negative values. Some fathers express their astonishment if they find that their sons are not talking to girls, and to make things worse they tell them stories about their negative or, in some cases, erotic behaviour towards girls when they were their age, setting a bad example for their sons of manhood,” she said.
“There are also other factors like representations in the media, mainly serials and films, that in some cases encourage men to harass women, be violent, betray their wives, or be dominant,” she said, adding that some parents are not convinced that they are a “mirror” for their children, or that what they do in front of their children is what their children will do in the future.
To address such problems Hussein lists some practical solutions. “A parent should bear in mind that they are human beings who make mistakes and that they should not deal with their children as if they know everything. There should be someone parents can consult whenever they face a problem in bringing up their children. Unfortunately, this is not the norm in Egypt. A practical solution would be for parents to choose someone they trust in their extended family to talk to about their children’s problems,” she said.
Psychological consultation is very important for raising children. Some children could be suffering from psychological disorders that their parents are not aware of. When parents realise that their children are behaving strangely, they should not say it is due to their personality but should seek professional advice to help them. If a child grows up with mental issues and is taught wrong concepts, the problem worsens, she said.
It will doubtless take time for social attitudes to change, but in the meantime Hussein and her group are fighting against comments that embody wrong perceptions, like the idea that a man should always be dominant. However, she says, university-based campaigns can only do so much, and they do not have access to significant funding.
For Hussein, people can do more on their own to fight against such issues. “Parents should have consultation sessions to help their sons in time. They should read more and be aware of the psychological diseases that may attack a child in early childhood and that may even affect him as an adult. Girls should not be afraid to speak out if they are subjected to harassment or beaten or even raped. If they are not afraid to talk about it, this will make the problem decrease because men will be shamed,” she commented.
“A man who thinks that he does not make mistakes has a serious problem that must be solved. This is the result of mistakes made by his parents while bringing him up. It could also be the result of a poisonous or negative personality trait in him that he knows that he has made mistakes but refuses to acknowledge them,” she said.
Dealing with toxic masculinity
HABIBA Hussein gives some tips to parents on the strategies they can use to deal with toxic masculinity in the family setting:
Parents should be friends with their children. They should not boss them around because they think they know what is good for them because they could be harming their personalities. They could be giving a boy an inferiority complex, making him insist on being dominant and wanting to control his sister and his wife or making him narcissistic.
Parents should make their children, whether boys or girls, feel safe to make their own decisions and reassure them in doing so.
Parents should understand that they do not own their children, so they should not be overprotective with them. This can result in a child living a dual life in his teenage years, one at home and another outside it that his parents know nothing about.
Parents should tell their children not to be ashamed to seek help if they are experiencing problems.
Parents might try breaking the norms by telling their sons that it is alright for them to wear bright colours and to express their emotions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly