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Masculinities in Contemporary Africa

2005

The struggles for social equality between men and women remain an area of continuing relevance to any quest for a holistic understanding of economy, society, culture and politics in contemporary Africa. And yet, the general, instinctive assumption has persisted, even in otherwise knowledgeable circles, that any reference to gender is little more than a code word for raising concerns that are specific to the interests of women. In a bid to correct this erroneous instinct and, in so doing, open new frontiers of reflection on gender issues in Africa, CODESRIA has decided to focus the 2005 session of its Gender Institute on masculinities in terms of the contemporary patterns of the projection of masculinity, the factors and trends that shape masculine behaviour in Africa, the modes by which these masculinities express themselves in different spheres, and the implications of contemporary masculinities for the continent-wide struggles for gender equality. The decision of CODESRIA to focus on masculinities as the theme for the 2005 Gender Institute has come at a most opportune moment. This is because the theme of masculinities has recently began to enjoy a revival in the social sciences, most often tied to discourses around identity politics, the all-pervasive youth involvement in armed conflicts, the macho culture which the environment of armed conflicts and urban violence has spurned, the global spread of an American/Americanised urban youth culture, and the social consequences of economic crises and structural adjustment.

To be sure, the interest in masculinity in Africa dates back a long time, connected to the onset of European imperial forays into Africa and the accompanying racialist caricatures of the African (male) which some of the earliest anthropologists attempted, under the guise of a scientific enterprise, to typologise in their description of the quintessential African personality. Many of these racist caricatures continue to be refracted into discourses and policies around the world, as well as in the images of the African which are portrayed. But beyond the racialist characterisation of masculinity, every African society invests considerably in the socialisation of male and female members of the community in ways which attribute masculine and feminine values, complete with formal and informal rituals and rites that mark a coming of age. The notion of what it means to be a “man” and a “woman” and the gender division of labour that is built on them, both historically and contemporaneously, has been the object of an extensive critique by African feminists in an environment characterised by patriarchy and widespread male chauvinism. This critique has been fed into discussions and debates about masculinities and femininities in useful ways that have contributed to the advancement of knowledge and which must not be conflated with the racialist anthropology that accompanied, and even justified the European imperial project. This is not, of course, to suggest that the feminist critique is not without its weaknesses – indeed, some of the on-going contestations in the debate on gender is linked to arguments about the validity in an African historical context of the Western feminist perspectives that predominate in the literature.

Masculinities are founded on certain assumptions about the role and responsibilities of a male member of a household or community. However, the validity of the assumptions is repeatedly questioned by changes in context and circumstance which, in the most dramatic cases, result in the reversal of roles between men and women within the household and the larger society or, at a minimum, a more balanced sharing of duties and responsibilities brought about by structural shifts in the economy, a re-ordering of social relations, or re-interpretations of “custom” and “tradition”. In other words, the foundations on which masculinities have been built have regularly shifted over time and in different stages, although the overarching ideology of male power may not always have reflected these shifts or done so rapidly enough or comprehensively. Some of the changes which have been most frequently cited in recent times include the loss of economic power by males mainly drawn from among the working poor, the increase in the purchasing power of women through the spread of formal and informal income-generating activities, and the emergence of female-headed households. These developments have had implications for the shaping of contemporary masculinities that have been the object of many anecdotal observations but which deserve to be reflected upon much more closely. It is proposed to undertake this reflection in the context of on-going theoretical debates in gender and feminists studies, including particularly the discussion around the validity of “Western” notions of feminism, gender and the gender division of labour to Africa.

Participants in the 2005 Gender Institute will be invited to, among other things, explore various aspects and dimensions of masculinities in contemporary Africa, beginning with the conceptual challenges which are posed. The wealth of empirical, theoretical, and methodological issues involved in the study of masculinities, including the extent to which it can be understood and researched as a category independent of femininities, will be explored by participants in the Institute. So too will the range of factors that account for the changing content and context of masculinities. The extent to which inter-generational differences could be observed in the contemporary expressions of masculinities in Africa will be examined, as will the indicators of changing forms of masculinities as captured by language, dressing, musical genre and general discourse. The many different modes of mobilisation of masculinities, including the specialist magazines published for male audiences, the types of values which they seek to project and the reasons for doing so will be discussed at the Institute. Transnational influences in the shaping of masculinities in Africa in the current phase of globalisation will be explored. Participants will also be encouraged to explore comparative issues in masculinities in historical, spatial and ideological terms. The implications of contemporary masculinities for the struggle for gender equality and for a civic identity and culture in Africa will be a concern which will underpin the reflections at the Institute.

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