The common denominator for men and women of my generation, born before 1980, was that no one was above a good beating. Our parents were from the school of hard knocks. They swore by the words, ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child”. I grew knowing my parents wrath came from a place of good intentions. The punishment was structured and one even got to fetch the cane that would be used to inflict pain and deliver a lesson. When disciplining was over, we were reminded that the world would not be so kind. That is what good parenting entailed.
One of the first things that men quickly learn when they start coupling is to talk less and listen more. Experience teaches one that a closed mouth, gathers no foot. At some point, early in the relationship, a man figures that when a woman says she wants to talk which is the politically correct word for vent, it is translated to mean, “Do not reach for solutions or an alibi”.
When she says, we need to communicate, what a man hears is, “I demand an openhearted confession with full disclosure” which only serves to keep him firmly behind the iron curtain of silence.
Men and women communicate differently but it is not that men do not like talk. They just do not like to talk about some things. Those things that make them feel uncomfortable and out of control. In the universal male socialisation script, a man is brought up to speak to a woman’s heart, to say only those things that will make her happy and glad. It is a hard habit to shake off.
Before Bud Spencer, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, the movie action heroes of my youth, there was Muhammad Ali, The Greatest. The real life, Three time, heavyweight champion of the world.
My older brother John was an amateur boxer and Ali was his icon so I grew up in the shadow of Ali’s outsized legacy. He was the reason I wanted to learn how to throw a decent punch. I not only wanted to box well but I wanted to do it with style and flair. I was not a naturally gifted brawler, so I dug in hard in search of form and inspiration in my big brother’s school of hard knocks. Despite my best efforts to shuffle out of danger like Muhammad Ali in the midst of a flurry of jabs from bigger opponents, I would get corned and hammered over and again until I got tired of ducking and learned to keep my guard up.
Senate Minority leader and Bungoma Senator, Moses Wetangula has rolled from one image challenge to the next with brazen boldness of a Kenyan socialite. The latest incident should not have made the news then again in Kenya, no one passes up good gossip about prominent personalities. Have you heard? Moses Wetangula and his wife Ann Wetangula both filed domestic assault cases against each other at a police station.
The details around the domestic spat were sketchy but the newsmakers on social media arrived at conclusions quickly and Wetangula was turned into a subject of ridicule. Every time a married man accuses his wife of assault (read beating him up), he rarely attracts sympathy and empathy from his male peers. Instead, the snickering starts behind his back and the gate keepers of all things African emerge from the thickets thumping their chests and rehashing the masculinity script aka ‘The Real African Man’ bible.
Real African men do not cook. Real African men do not cry and as one would expect, a real African man can never be a victim of partner abuse. Men who confess to abuse are looked at with disdain. What kind of man lets a woman beat him? The implication here is that a woman cannot assault her husband within a marriage without his permission.
In our local media, cases of men caught on the wrong end of a spouse’s rage are reported tongue-in-cheek with the newscaster often suppressing laughter. When pictures emerged, of a domestically abused man from Nyeri County whose privates were severed, wrapped in bandages like an Egyptian mummy the public reaction was, “I know I should not be laughing but this is funny”.
The underlying cultural belief in our hyper masculine society considers men who suffer from violence at home as weak. The kind to be shamed and ridiculed and pinned up as examples of men who were simply “not man enough”. Admitting to domestic abuse is taboo and as harmful to one’s social worth as say an erectile dysfunction. When this level of reasoning is accepted as a ‘cultural standard’, it provides the incentive for men to become hyper aggressive. It enables a society of men who believe that their respectability as husbands lies solely in reminding a woman of her place in the marriage and if a few slaps is what it takes, so be it. Men who are emasculated by life’s frustrations, return home ready to a blow a fuse over the slightest infraction committed by a partner. Anger is a convenient escape from reality of an unhappy marriage and personal failures can be excused when we have someone to blame.
Male aggressors of high social station enjoy the privilege and the benefit of doubt. The female victim with her confidence shattered, is left with the heavy burden of restoring her dignity and getting justice.
The domestic violence conversation in Kenya is centrally about women as victims and men as aggressors. Statistics have shown that women are 4 times more likely to suffer spousal abuse. The pervasive nature of violence against women happens at all levels in society. From the tin shacks of Korogocho to manicured gardens of Runda.
For largely this reason, battered men remain invisible, left with nowhere to turn, in a society that firmly believe that ‘weak men’ are second class victims squarely to blame for provoking the ire of their partners. What does man do when his wife turns violent? Man up! Perhaps!
Dismissing the plight of male victims of domestic violence serves only to sanction violence as a tool of choice for asserting power in a dysfunctional relationship and ingraining the cultural stereotype that victims of domestic abuse had it coming.
There is no chapter in our inherited rites of passage that deals with the conflicting emotion of anger. Men are socialized to retreat from anger, bottle it up and cool off with a drink at the bar. Anger is not something that is resolved. It is an emotion that has to be repressed for the modern African man must remain a beacon of control. Men are socialized by example to restrain, to remain cool and refrain from hitting back. When the violence becomes cyclic, one would rather live in denial to salvage whatever is left of male pride than admit abuse.
Domestic violence is not bound by gender, economic status, social station, age, culture, race or religion. Addressing domestic violence through a singular gender viewpoint undermines the equally real struggles of abused male victims.
We must not only teach our sons to respect women but to also to recognize when they are being abused by women. Do not be a silent victim, entrapped by pride. They say relationships never die a natural death. They are murdered by attitude, behaviour, ego or ignorance.