Photograph courtesy of The Quint

Today is International Women’s Day

A recent discussion about “toxic masculinity” has prompted a great deal of comment, particularly as the host and his guest appeared to comment favourably on the media personality Andrew Tate and the academic and speaker Jordan Peterson as positive role models for contemporary men.

It has been pointed out on Twitter by Ambika Satkunanathan that Andrew Tate has been indicted on charges of violence against women and that such a person should not be being looked up to as a role model. Jordan Peterson is being used as a charioteer in the gender wars, cited as an inspiration for incels and their misogynistic contempt for women and all those identifying with feminine traits.

In Sri Lanka, traditional values operate in every social interaction in which we engage and the traditions that are upheld by constant reinforcement are mostly patriarchal and masculinist. In 2024, most positions of socio-political influence and authority are occupied by men, both in the public and private spheres of society.

Professional women are contributing their skills and knowledge effectively in the corporate and governance sectors and more enlightened management structures are adapting to increase and facilitate the rise and recognition of these women.

The fact is that the undervaluing of women as a gender and their relegation to second class status regardless of their merit in many spheres has caused a significant deficit to the country. Many community organizations and NGOs are working to remedy this but the spheres least open to change are those in which men have wielded the most authority and are keen to sustain their hold on this authority.

In the absence of changes to the workings of central authority in regard to female equality, the level of discussion in the community at large is often led by pseudo intellectual influencers such as Tate and Peterson, who seem to offer solace to the confused and ego injured, affirming that women as a species are money driven, passive, parasitic and shallow, can be graded on a scale of 1-10, and that “high value” women are looking for successful men in exchange for their own trophy status, measured only in terms of their youth, fertility, beauty and sex appeal.

As youth and beauty necessarily have a time limit, it makes sense for women of worth to seek recognition for their more lasting attributes and sources of excellence. In Sri Lanka, a sense of emasculation felt by men and boys is possibly linked to 500 years of colonisation at the hands of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. This may seem like a stretch but we can all acknowledge that power and agency were brutally taken from those who enjoyed both prior to the violent advent of colonial domination. This left deep resentment and a need to assert pride and honour, to remedy the injury on the psyche and culture.

Unfortunately, given this underlying ego injury, men in this country find the battle cry of restore male power very appealing and are in a hostile state of opposition by default against the female liberation movement, which challenges whatever power they still feel they retain. Peterson calls feminist doctrine that challenges patriarchal notions “harpy warfare” and asserts that there is an obsession prevalent in contemporary feminist thinking which he identifies as wishing to “castrate” and emasculate even positive traits of masculinity in the quest to be safe from oppression and male dominance.

Women draped like accessories or embossed augmentations on sports cars or trained as escorts and dining companions to men in the Top 100 Companies, although highly visible, are in reality a minority. The vast majority of girls and young women in their twenties and thirties in Sri Lanka today have bigger and bolder visions for themselves and a stronger sense of their own capabilities. This emergence, if responsibly reported on by the media and discussed in an expansive and open way in the wider society, should not in any way compromise their ability to form fulfilling relationships with those who are not threatened by their growing confidence.

Self-respect is a crucial component of any woman’s resilience and success story. And it is hard won in a society where dysfunctional extended families with traditional mindsets undermine entrepreneurial individualism or professional ambition in young women. The same society directs respect at mothers and disrespect and doubt towards women who choose to remain single. There is a distinct difference in status and respect between being called childless and child free and built in to the praise of motherhood are ideals of self-sacrifice and selfless devotion.

Exercising the right to independence and autonomy seems to threaten traditional thinking men and women, who have grown up absorbing paternalistic beliefs. Men, if successful, by historical definitions are supposed to provide; the woman is supposed to be grateful for being provided for and it is expected that, having attracted such provision for herself and her progeny, she should conduct herself in such a way as to bring credit and praise to the person who provides for her.

The controls and brakes applied to women by this system of reductive objectification and imposition of stereotypes operate to enforce docility and obedience. In the 21st century, clashing with a rise in women’s recognition of the need for personal fulfilment, these controls and restrictions via expectations enforced on women do not guarantee happy families, such as we see promoted in advertising campaigns during Sinhala and Tamil New Year.

Many women who were brought up by traditional cultural values have found navigating contemporary Sri Lanka challenging. They wish to learn how to provide for themselves and their families. If their husbands disappoint them once the honeymoon is over, they need to raise their children themselves, upholding them both financially and morally, providing economic and emotional security. It is unsurprising that many have a “heroic single mother” narrative in their portfolio.

Young Sri Lankan men and women need to grow some brain cells and develop their critical thinking skills. Moral codes are as important in the evolution of the species as muscles and mammaries. The ability to resist being manipulated by marketing moguls is a major component in every lasting human success story, especially since the rise of the internet and the popularisation of social media. Any success measured in the number of people we can attract (grossly termed a body count by people such as Tate) and the amount of followers we gain through cheap controversy and the amount of money we accumulate via trash talk, is surely nothing to be proud of in the long term.

Cliched and stereotypical thinking should be invalidated and replaced with original and personal evaluation of what is being offered as commentary. Are we ingesting the intellectual equivalent of chemically saturated energy drinks or are we being selective about what we hear and take in? It is up to us to assess the nutritional value of what we absorb, whether physical or intellectual.

High quality living means choosing life, not just a lifestyle. On International Women’s Day this year, let’s leave the shallows of conformism and concocted acceptability and head for bigger horizons of personal liberation, even if it means that we get into deeper waters. Let’s exercise our evolutionary instincts and transcend binary thinking and its predictable iterations.