What are Masculinities?

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By Bakhtiar Rasheed


Simone de Beauvoir in a distinguished sentence claims: “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (P. 295). Based on the same analogy one could also say, “Man is not born masculine, but becomes one” – meaning that, as Beynon rightly notes: “if ‘maleness’ is biological, then masculinity is cultural” (Beynon, P. 2). That includes all those attitudes, manners and mentalities etc. that are used as gender stereotypes for both sexes in a particular context.



Masculinity (manhood) is used to pile up and express all those human characteristics and virtues that men typically use as a way of both legitimising and reinforcing their own privilege in society. Moreover, they very often believe that only they alone deserve to have them. Examples of those characteristics include (but are not limited to): bravery, a high prowess, independence, truculence…etc. That partly explains, I am sure, why in the Kurdish language we often come across phrases as a, “man’s word (promise)”, or naming favour “piawaty”- which means manliness (disregarding the fact, of course that doing a favour for someone has nothing to do with the sex of the doer!). Moreover, occasionally the word “man” (piaw in Kurdish) is used as an adjective to describe those males who are approvingly accepted within the community, and the same can be seen in the Persian language with the word “Mard” (Man in English) which is an adjective to describe both human virtue and bravery.

Masculinity, despite all the virtues and characteristics that are attributed to it, of course lends itself to its somewhat antithesis: Femininity. In this unbalanced seesaw, the side typically preferred is, of course, the first one. Patriarchal ideology is thus interwoven within the language and thus, in often very latent (but very impactful) ways, males are instilled with painfully false images about both themselves and the opposite sex. This knitting of traditional patriarchal ideology only substantiates the norm for male behaviour as one characterised by rationality and virility whilst the other archetype is characterised is effetely sentimental. The males are advertised as the protectors of the community whilst the other, by contrast, is the one needing protection. Males are characterised as leaders and, moreover, the head of the family, whilst women are relegated to a rank chiefly characterised as obediently subordinate.

Here we don’t intend to deny the anatomical differences between the two sexes, but our aim is to demonstrate that those differences are overstated and nauseously exaggerated as an excuse to legitimize numerous forms of iniquitous treatments toward women in order to repress women and to maintain their subjugated state. Not only that, it is also used to buffer disgusting forms of violence against women.

Due to various reasons, the above mentioned gender orders and stereotypes could prevail and survive in the pre-modern world. However, modernity has undermined and challenged them in many different ways. The new world is distinguished from its predecessors by many features that the other world were not able to have. In this piece, I only shed light on three of the major “privileges” that this world has, and through them I study and analyze their impacts on human life styles and its mentality. Those three features are: Bureaucratization”, “Rationalization” and “Mechanization”.

German Sociologist, Max Weber believes; bureaucratization processes have impacts on social arrangement and its hierarchy. This is due to the fact that in the traditional world those social casts which were privileged with a stable social and political position were not able to maintain it [at least in that old fashioned way]. The new world distributes labour (jobs) based on talent and capacity, not on blood or clan ties. In other words, modernity has changed the nature of work and its bureaucracy and management has increased in an unprecedented way. It constantly works to impersonate and standardize work. What this means is that in the new world both office and procedures govern human beings and not the vice versa. Now, this trend has led to a situation where the majority of labour is unisex – that is, open to both men and women. The main requirement is that workers be talented and capable. That is why we see jobs being increasingly given to those who are trained and have degree and have particular skills, as opposed to the son of this or that noble family (off course in an ideal context).

This reason made Weber come to believe that bureaucratization has a major role in both the democratization process and in social levelling (P. 104-108). Though, what Weber highlighted is only relevant in the social and public spheres. Yet its impacts clearly go beyond that, to the extent that it changes gender order and hierarchy-arrangement within the family on account of the fact that, in the bureaucratized world, office work and management do not only disregard a worker’s family background but also its sex/gender. Like I have said, its main concern is the capability of the person doing the actual work, and the quality of the work. And this explains the reason why with the dawn of the new world women started to increasingly have more and more jobs.

Similarly, the rationalization-process has had a notable role in taking back many privileges that traditional society (pre-modern) has given to men – privilege acquired merely on account of them being males. In addition to that, it has eliminated countless numbers of prejudices levelled at women. Put another way, modern forms of rationalization has strongly undercut the ideological basis of patriarchy because its claims about sovereignty of male power were revealed as being deeply irrational. The new world’s ‘rationality’ started to slowly wilt the structures of privilege and, by extension, undermine any putative justification for patriarchal systems. As it constantly works on rationalizing social relations and their arrangements, women’s-rights movements could use the new worlds’ mode of thought as both rational tools and a criterion from which to enact their rights in the hope of abolishing the residue of old traditions with its oppressing anti-female rules. In fact, feminist movements in the west had a major role in changing public opinion in both its theoretical and practical goals as a result of social relations being supplanted with structures that place high import on rationalization.

Lastly, we get to mechanization. Mechanization too has a deep impact on shaping the new world, especially in the work sphere. This is due to the fact that the more mechanized work becomes, the more it makes “manly” physical power unnecessary, and thus producing powerful tools that can be utilized by both men and women. Undoubtedly this was one of the reasons for creating a new scope of work opportunities for women that were, unpardonably, impossible before.

Masculinity in Crisis

As the title of this piece indicates, masculinity is plural in form. What this means is that there is no single form of masculinity – every historical stage shapes its own particular form. However, what is noteworthy now is that in the new world the traditional forms of masculinity are now in crisis and desperately struggling to survive. Those myths and fantasies in the pre-modern world that men were trying to embody and, despite how odd it sounds, provided meaning to their lives are not available or reachable in the new technified and industrialized societies, at least in those traditional forms. Men’s status in contemporary societies are undermined in different ways, and in the following points I will try to make a short reference to the traditional masculine roles. I also hope to draw attention to the challenges that the traditional masculine roles are facing (not to forget, of course, the above mentioned points; Bureaucratization, Rationalization and Mechanization have a determining role in creating this crisis).
  • Man as provider: Previously a father was the only breadwinner in family, and this afforded him a high status. His absence was considered a crisis for family (at least financially). However, nowadays most girls receive, alongside boys, good quality education, and this has given them the chance of getting their own jobs. As it can be seen, especially in the developed countries, high rates of women are employed (and most of them are actually mothers). The result of this, amongst others, is that it has undercut the man’s (father) status as the only source of sustenance within a family.
  • Man as protector: in the pre-modern world in which state institutions were weak, in the face of any danger men had an important role in protecting their families, and providing them with some certainty and security. Nonetheless, in the contemporary world, states and its strong institutions especially in the developed ones have taken this role as part their duties. Now, family does not need a man with bat on the front door, the related state institution can be the best sentinel and protector for women and children, and to some extent this factor has undermined this masculine role of men unnecessary too.
  • Muscle Power: men’s physical power had important roles for works in the pre-industrial era and in the beginning of the industrialization, especially in heavy industries, but this is also becoming unneeded day by day. Tools and machines which are stronger than men’s power by hundred times are liable to be used by a small handle or a single button. These tools have replaced men’s muscles and hands. Besides, this change has created job opportunities in the heavy industries for women such as car and ship industries.
  • Man as impregnator: in the past, woman needed a man in order to conceive, but science has taken back this role from man. Today, in many developed countries many Sperm Donor institutions have been established, and they can provide woman with sperm without revealing the identity of the donor. In this way, woman can have a child without having to get into any relation with man, as a girlfriend or wife, which sometimes ends up in subordinating woman.
  • Man as warrior: in the traditional world the wars were made by men, because in those wars some preliminary tools such as sword, spear and shield etc. were mainly used and they needed strong physical power. Moreover, people of that time believed that, that “only men are predisposed to become warrior, since naturally they are daring, brave and tough, unlike woman who are emotional, cowardly and faint-hearted. Thus, war was a good occasion for men so as to embody their masculine fantasies, and create their myths in it. Again, science through its invention of different kinds of killing tools from gun powder to fighter jet and missile have decreased men’s physical role in war to a great extent. As it can be seen now, the contemporary wars are gender blind, they only include various killing machines and their pertinent training, which can be done and be used by both sexes. Unlike before that war was seen as a field which is only fitting men and through it he spectacles his warrior spirit.

Modernity, has taken back those and many other roles from men, but this does not mean that they are omitted in men’s heads. On the contrary, as yet those traditional roles are the main foundation of modern men’s life order and its meaning. Often, this leads to problems in their lives, since they look up to a bigger role than what the new age and its life styles let them to have.

Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man states: “obviously, the physical transformation of the world entails the mental transformation of its symbols, images, and ideas” (P. 69). Evidently, the physical circumstances have changed, and have left deep impacts on life styles and this entails mental and symbolic changes. The new world’s material condition and its rationality do not let embodiment of many masculine myths and dreams. Men have to realize that from now on their position as the head of family is not going unchallenged, it’s not only men who to become president and high commander, men are not the only candidate for CEOs’ and head of departments! The new world has opened these opportunities for women as well, and in many times they proved that they can have a better performance than men. In short, men have to give up on the delusions about their sovereignty and women’s compliance, also accept that that the new world’s criteria for offering job opportunity and status are skills capacity and degree not anything else.
Anthony Clare in On Men Masculinity in Crisis says: “Phallic man [phallus signifies penis, authority and dominance] authoritative, dominant, assertive-man in control not merely of himself but of women- is starting to die, and now the question is whether a new man will emerge phoenix-like in his place or whether man himself will become largely redundant”. (P. 9)

Hegemonic Masculinity

  1. W. Connell in Masculinities and by borrowing a concept (hegemony) from Italian writer Anthony Gramsci draws attention to the relations among different types of masculinities, since in every historical era a particular kind of masculinity or manhood makes hegemony over the others and through that it maintains legitimacy of patriarchy. (P. 77)

In other words, a list of human characteristics is attributed to a particular form of masculinity and are given a high status, also men are advised and praised to look up to them. On the other side, the other types of masculinities are undervalued and subordinated. The reason behind that, supposedly those characteristics which are adopted by those men and the life styles that they are leading are contradictory to their manly and masculine sprit, and it’s a disgrace for a man to betray his own natural essence and assume some attitudes which are feminine and spring from the feminine essence of woman.

As it has been said before, any refusal to commit to the dominant form of masculinity will bring social punishment with itself. An example, Iraqi Sociologist Dr. Ali Al-wardi in A Study on the Nature of Iraqi Society, highlights on the tradition of the Arab tribes in the desert (Bedouin). Based on his study, “warrior” and “raider” were the two main dominant forms of masculinity among them. In addition, they were valuing the bread which was won via sword not work. They even looked down upon work and career as cowardly and unmanly, the other types of masculinities were subordinated in relation the other two forms which were robbery and combatant.

Dr. Ali-wardi continues: “the son of shopkeeper”, which means the one who is father has a profession was one of the worst swearwords among the tribes. He tells us that, once a woman who heard someone said that swear to her husband she divorced him for that! However, when those tribes moved to the villages, the condition changed and they could not rob and raid as much as before, and men had to start working but to a certain extent since mental changes needs a longer time to change as compared to material changes. That is why; still we see Arab countryside women are working more than their men because their men find work emasculating for them.

Stereotype Waning and Gender Role Fusion

What is seen in our time is that the traditional gender roles are diminishing in the face of the new socio-economic status, the new condition creates new forms of masculinities. The contemporary male looks for new masculine role to embody and try give it the dominant status, disregarding the fact that, once that particular attitude might have been considered as feminine. Male fashion and facial accessories consumption might be good examples for that, this proves the claim that there is no steady and stable masculinity.  In other words (masculinities) do not spring from male essence but a by-product of a particular culture and history.

The contemporary world needs a male consumer not a male warrior. Rather than an adventurous male it prefers male in suit and with bureaucratic and technician capabilities. Many men believe, the new condition systematically undermines masculinity and patriarchy, and emasculates them. The new world did not leave them with a space to embody their masculine dreams because it framed majority of them in a few meter squares, which is their workplace. Now, men have no choice but to get used to the new status quo, for sure this won’t be accepted without costs.

Anthony Clare in the above mentioned book draws attention to the rage and violent reactions of men against these new circumstances, and for that he demonstrates many examples most notably is suicide, which based on the statistics that he uses from Europe, both Americas and Africa, men’s suicide rate is higher from double to five times as compared to women. For him, beside showing that men cannot accept the new condition, it also shows that they refuse to admit that they are weak and need help since they believe if they appear like that and ask for support, it will be emasculating, which is seen as the greatest insult for them. Clare states: “the problem with suicide is that it is at one and the same time a declaration that life cannot be controlled and a demonstration of the ultimate in keeping control. The individual who decides that death is preferable to life may have sought advice and help prior to making such a decision. Many male suicides, however, never seek help, overtly any rate” (P. 84). This shows that, how men sometimes prefer physical death over symbolic death, which is losing their masculine identity. For that they are ready to commit suicide but not asking for help lest not appear weak and feminine!

Femininity or masculinity are both inventions and classifications of society so as to frame and tame humankind, because those traits before being divided on gender basis belong to human being. One can embrace all of them at the same time. A Kurdish female fighter can be a tough warrior while be a kind girlfriend as well. Human kind before being male or female or even feminine or masculine is human and human consists of a complex mixture of characteristics and multiple facets and have both trends. And any process that leads to either direction will result in repressing the other side. Just as we see how boys, in their socialization process, their feminine side are repressed, the same is true for girls, their masculine aspects are suppressed. From this point separation and gender role divisions starts to shape. Though, now this repression side-effect of masculine ideology is realized and acknowledged, and many psychiatrics and institutions work on the revitalizing the repressed feminine side of men and try to help them so as not to be ashamed if they appeared sentimental and express it. Besides, ask for support in difficulties.

From all these, one can understand that, that although patriarch and masculine ideology might give privilege to males over females still they put difficult responsibilities on their shoulders and put some ideals and masculine standards in front of them which are impossible to achieve, and this lead them to be in a constant struggle for those dictated goals. Furthermore, on the inner level, they make him a police to repress any sentiment which that culture finds it feminine. Patriarchy is not only suppressing woman, men are also suppressed but in different ways, especially by undermining those models of masculinities which do not live up to the prevalent model. In different phrase, men are not just perpetrators but victims at the same time, and for this very reason, in any project which aims at woman freedom must also make a space for men liberation. Our culture needs to be democratized, a culture that can tolerate different forms lifestyles.


Masculinity in Kurdish Contemporary Society

Hitherto masculinity has not become a subject to be thought about and discussed: neither on paper nor for sure on the social level; and two main reasons can be suggested for that; first, masculinity has entrenched to a degree that people see it as a natural and normal phenomenon, second, Kurdish intellect is still very simple and weak in seeing and thinking in abstract. Occasionally, a short article or translated piece is published, or in different contexts the writers speak of it. “Man Studies” need efforts and serious works. Here, I brief some of my daily notes on Kurdish masculinities:

Kurdish masculinity is still traditional and rural, though factors such as; the recent city enlargements and urbanization process have burgeoned urban living styles, the small changes that occurred in the nature of works, also employing large number of women in civil service sectors have created a preliminary condition for some primary changes. However, they have not endangered men’s masculine status in family. Currently working women contribute to family revenue, and men also share some of the housework’s with their wives, but power relations in family have not changed much.

What can be noted is that working women are not asking their husbands for money as before, and because of their jobs and its income, they have pushed men to make some compromises. Some women could buy their own car, and if this trend continues and if state institutions succeed in providing a secure condition for independent women and ease their fear and anxiety, it’s expected for them to buy and have their own room and house in the next two decades. This is an important start, but we still have a traditional and masculine market, in which its condition is unfriendly with women in many respects. Technology and science have not yet intervened in its arrangement, but certainly modernizing it will leave deep impacts on its gender component. We must not forget that, despite its importance, employing women in civil service sectors has blocked women from thinking of other kinds of jobs, and making more efforts to enter into the market. Market is the place where men believe belongs to them and undoubtedly they fight for it fiercely.

Here, market and a great majority of public spheres are in the hand and monopolized by men. For that those changes that are expected to happen need to treated carefully, because men are not going give up on their dominant and masculine status easily and without violent reaction, and possibly people who might fall victim to that struggle.

It has to be known that modernity has an inordinate power in abolishing old traditions and imposing new ones, a power which is impossible to resist. Hence, we can say that the prosperous society is the one, which is instead of irrational and frail reactions to the changes, tries to understand them and considers the methods that help them to successfully treat them, and with the least possible cost step forward from one era to another one.



  1. de Beauvoir. (1982) The Second Sex. Penguin Books.
  2. Beynon. (2002) Masculinities and Culture. Open University Press.
  3. Weber. The bureaucratic Machine, edited by Charles Lemert, (1999) in Social Theory. Westview Press.
  4. Marcuse. One-Dimensional Man. Routledge.
  5. Clare. (2001) On Men Masculnities in Crisis. Arrow Books.
  6. W. Connell. (1996) Masculinities. (p.77).
  7. Ali Al-wardi (2015) A Study on the Nature of Iraqi Society. Rozh Halat Printing House.

Written exclusively for Culture Project