Masculinity and Resistance

Masculinity in Civil Resistance

  • Civil resistance, next to a nonviolent culture, is rooted in a warrior tradition of defiance, resistance, struggle
  • Warrior culture often overemphasizes direct action, open contention and close nonviolent combat that favor short-term, protest-centric perspective on resistance
  • Longer-term resistance processes such as alternative institution building, in which women often take a leading role, are often ignored and their impact underestimated
  • Warrior culture may tend to define women in nonviolent struggle as 'saints' or 'carriers of culture and tradition' rather than self-made action-takers that can exercise real political power

Traditional dominance of masculinity in resistance

Changing entrenched views about the effectiveness of armed resistance is particularly hard as they are usually rooted in a warrior psychology that is shaped by violent masculinity and patriarchy. Struggles for independence have typically privileged male leadership. As a consequence, conspiracies of belligerent men plotting in small, secretive circles in an atmosphere that congratulates violent bravery and rewards machismo, leave little room for recognizing the importance of nonviolent alternatives or the contributions of women or non-fighting-age young men to the struggle. In fact the discourse of hegemonic victors tends to conform to a masculinist construct that, as Jean Bethke Elshtain maintains, from antiquity through to the present has divided society into “just warriors” (male fighters and protectors) and “beautiful souls” (female victims and noncombatants). The circle of just warriors is also limited as it would normally exclude men who wanted to play other roles (i.e., gays) or their virility did not conform to the prevailing warrior archetype. Furthermore, teaching history, including the rise of nations, formation of state institutions, conduct of state politics, and development and implementation of public policies, shapes a nation’s commemorative landscape and punctuates it with stories of military battles, patriotic risings, wars, and violent defeats—all dominated by men, be they soldiers, scholars, politicians, or other elite actors. This has inhibited people from remembering, acknowledging, and understanding the presence and efficacy of civil resistance, including the central place of women at the forefront of nonviolent actions during nationalist struggles—a role that is highlighted in most of the chapters in this book. Here, we see women engaged in writing and distributing petitions; organizing and leading demonstrations and protests; setting up and running autonomous associations and educational institutions; and supporting and participating in social and economic boycotts, strikes, and sit-ins.


Masculinity, women and nonviolent struggle 

While armed struggle and violent masculinity are almost symbiotically joined in the historical imagination, the question of systemic male domination in civil resistance is more complex and ambiguous. Foreign occupation and colonization has frequently been based on economic exploitation and has often involved cultural genocide or extreme forms of coercion such as slavery, forced migration, resettlement, and conscription. Often a systematic part of foreign domination has been sexual exploitation of women and (as mentioned in Chapter on Egypt) humiliation of indigenous men. In conditions where a foreign colonizer’s racist stereotypes affected both a symbolic and real emasculation, the oppressed population—particularly its men—often saw “regaining manhood” as a basic element of independence equivalent to self-respect or dignity. Becoming men is thus a common theme to be found in both armed and nonviolent anticolonial struggles, as indeed in other struggles against other kinds of oppression. A further common feature in many independence movements and not only in armed struggles is that after liberation women activists retreat—either voluntarily or under social pressure—to the private sphere and men resume their traditional dominance in public life. Women have been at the forefront of grassroots organizing, movement building, and waging nonviolent struggles for independence, and not only when male activists were in prison or exile. However, revolutionary struggles for statehood, with perceived high stakes for power in newly emerging nations, defined resistance in existential terms and forced women to subordinate their gender-specific demands to overriding national priorities such as state building, territorial integrity, and defense of the ethnonational community. Little if any room was left to consider the lingering problems of discrimination of women and their unequal representation or to acknowledge the historical role of women in the civic part of the struggle. For example, in Poland, the role of women as social activists, teachers, organizers, and writers during the resistance was rarely extended beyond that of a silent, supporting cast whose nonviolent activism was first and foremost needed for national liberation rather than gender emancipation. In Kosovo, women were at the heart of the opening phase of the nonviolent struggle and feminist questioning of patriarchal traditions broadened the vision of change. This, however, was eventually subordinated to more militant nationalist and militaristic themes.