Disappearing cultures and myths — interview with Saodat Ismailova, a film director and artist from Uzbekistan
Sharing on spiritual practices in Central Asia, forced emancipation of eastern women, and life between Paris and Tashkent.
— Could you please talk a little more about Promundo and the way that organization works and to what principles do you abide by in your work?
Promundo works to engage men as allies and partners in achieving gender equality. We do that with a combination of research, program approaches and global advocacy campaigns. Our operating principle is that gender equality needs men and men need gender equality. Our belief is both that is we need to hold men accountable to be a part of gender equality, but in our lives as men we benefit when we buy into and believe in gender equality.
— How long has the project , the organization been around?
I co-founded the organization in Brazil in 1997, so that is almost 24 years. And then we've had an office in the US for 10 years.
— Why did the organization start in Brazil and not in any other country? What prompted that?
I would say, Latin America is probably the region of the world that first started some of the most transformative work on the topic of men and manhood. So our work was inspired by work that was happening in Mexico and Nicaragua and then colleagues that I had the chance to meet in Brazil, I think with some of the first direct program work of engaging men as allies for gender equality.
— Would you consider expanding Promundo’s work to Central Asia or do you have any items on Promundo’s agenda that have to do with Central Asia?
We have partnered with the UN and with other organizations in parts of Central Asia. We've done some training in Kyrgyzstan, we’ve done some training in Azerbaijan. I was on a session earlier today with UNFPA working with the European Business Association for Ukraine. We had 30 individuals from corporations from across Ukraine. We've also done research and done some training in Afghanistan. There are some NGOs that we have connected with, but it's mostly been in partnership with the UN, both UN Women and UNFPA in the region.
— We know that the feminist movement has changed the role of women in the last few decades specifically. But how did they affect the perception of men? How did they affect the image of men?
I think that is the big question of I think the feminist revolution has brought massive changes in the lives of women. I think the question mark has been, «What should men do?» I think, to me, the key issues that we have to talk about within that agenda are «How do we engage men to support women's equal leadership? How do we engage men to do our share of the care work at home, given that women are in the paid workplace, as should be?».
I think that's the other revolution we have to have in men's lives. And I think as we've called out men's use of violence against women, we've talked about accountability, but we've not talked about prevention. What is it that we need to do to engage men so that all men know that harassment or violence are not OK?
I think we've got to hold the call up to men of how healthy your ideas about masculinity are, and promoting being caring, supportive, empathetic, connected, and thinking how we, as men, need to embrace a healthier idea of masculinity as well. So I think the revolution in women's lives has not yet had the revolution in men's lives and that's why we do what we do as an organization because we think that part of how men need to change is not done.
— Do you think these changes are feasible? And if you, do you have any estimates on when that might occur? How many years from now? Do you have any idea?
I think some of the changes are happening and I'll just talk about men's caregiving work, men’s involvement as fathers. There is a steady increase. Certainly, we see this in most of Western Europe. We see this in North America. We see this in urban areas in parts of Latin America, parts of Asia where men are doing more hands-on care of children, more of the care of children.
Slowly men are catching up with the amount that women do. We have estimated, however, that at the current rate of change, to achieve equality in who cares for children at home, we’re about 92 years away. So we think that is too slow and that we need to find ways to speed that up. We know as well from the World Economic Forumthat we are 136 years away from full economic equality for women. So just to think of those two numbers we have, that's far too long. We have to figure out how to speed that up.
— In your presentation, you mentioned the so-called Paradox of modern manhood. Could you please elaborate on that?
What I meant to say is we as men get privileges by being men. We make, on average, 20% more for salaries. Women do three times the amount of care work in our homes. We occupy 70% of congresses and parliaments across the world. We are more likely to be the heads of our businesses and corporations. We have privilege as men. And the Paradox is that we also suffer by trying to live up to these ideas of manhood. We are three quarters of suicides in the world. We die five years earlier than women, mostly because of causes related to how we treat our bodies: smoking, drinking, bad food, the risks that we put our bodies in, not going to the doctor when we need it, not seeking medical help when we need it.
The ideas of manhood that we try to live up to his men, give us privilege. And we also pay the price in our health, mental health, and the lack of connection to others that we would like to be in connection with.
— You said that three-quarters of suicides in the world are men. So, do you think those negative notions of masculinity can contribute to suicide?
Absolutely. We have we have done surveys in a number of countries where men who believe in these more harmful ideas of manhood are more likely to say they feel depressed, to have thought about suicide. And they also report that they have fewer social connections and fewer people they can turn to when they need help. So, it is clearly not the only thing, but we know that it is definitely related to men's thoughts about suicide. Men are far less likely than women in most settings to seek help when they have a symptom for depression than women are, so the fact that men don't seek help when they're facing a serious personal problem is an issue. Men also tend to have less vocabulary, less ability to talk about some emotions, including depression, sadness, vulnerability. They feel they can not ask for help and they do not have a language to talk about the things that are causing them deep anxiety, deep anguish.
— So we hear terms like toxic masculinity or negative masculinity a lot these days. Do we need some kind of good masculinity? Some sort of an ideal that men should strive towards and how can unrealized masculinity be expressed? We refer much more to positive masculinities, or healthy masculinity, so that we're emphasizing ways of being men that are good,that already exist. So I think rather than saying «These are the men in the harmful versions and these are the men in the positive,» it is better to say all of us, as men, have positive and healthy aspects of masculinity, just as we may also have some negative ones. We will often start conversations with men about identifying qualities that they like in other men and typically they're things like honesty and integrity, someone who listens to me, someone who shows me the way to be good to others, who is true to his word. So I say that all to emphasize that most men know how to be our better selves, how to be the best men that we can be.
We are often acting in a world that we think wants us to be some of those negative things. To tell a sexist joke, to have three more drinks than we should, to make a woman into a sex object instead of respecting her in her fullness. I think it's not as if we have to fix men. We don't see that our work is about helping fix men. Instead, we are trying to find ways that men can be the good men they already want to be and I think that's a different way that we come to a conversation. If I say “I know that you want to love, and empathize and be connected, and support your family, and find a way to express yourself in the world and be heard. Let's talk about the best way you can do that.” Rather than if I come in the room and say “You’re bad, you’re violent, you’re sexist.
— So can we say that positive masculinity could help us get rid of the problem of domestic violence?
Yes, absolutely. We know that men's violence against women is driven by men's belief that they are superior to women, that they deserve to know where their wife or girlfriend or partner is, that they have absolute control [over them]. Another thing is whether you have witnessed violence growing up. When boys see their father or another man use violence against their mother, boys internalize that violence is normal. All those aspects I would call negative masculinities.
So we do think that teaching boys that you have no control over women, they are autonomous, full human beings who get to decide where and what they do, that, we have no superiority, we don't get to make the decisions. We're making decisions together and that we show dialogue and rather than the use of violence pilots and that we acknowledge that men, many men who use violence against women, are also harmed or traumatized mean. So we also need to make a space that says «We need to let you talk about the pain that you experience by seeing. violence in your household growing up.” So yes, we believe that positive masculinities — together with good laws — hold men responsible when they use violence and we need the discussion about positive masculinities.
— It is common to call women «the fair sex». We can see that the demographics paint a different picture. I guess you could say that shorter life expectancy, higher rates of various diseases, suicides and the general lack of attention and care about their health, and various high-risk jobs, actually put men in this «fair sex» position? Do you agree with this statement? What is your opinion on this?
I do. I mean biologically, boys die at higher rates than girls do because of the XY chromosome being less protective for some genetic diseases than the XX chromosome. So biologically, men, if we think about our life expectancy, are the weaker sex. I also think that any man who has been with his partner during childbirth would completely not think that he is stronger than any woman. I think we have to get away from the notion that somehow one is stronger and one is weaker. In another language we speak of the opposite sex, male and female as being opposites instead of talking about complementary. Instead of saying weaker or stronger, what if we say «Well, I have weaknesses because biologically, I have these challenges. You have those strings together, we produce something stronger». And rather than saying women and men are the opposite sex, to say how we're complementary and how we're relational. I think it sets us up for a conversation that's not quite as useful as saying «How do we compliment each other?»
— How do views of masculinity differ between the people who live in big cities and people who live in small towns?
I mean, we tend to find that there are more progressive views in urban areas, for the most part. They have been the spaces where women have had more freedom, they've been closer to equal in the workplace, more mobility. So, typically, urban areas are more progressive on those issues. But there's also huge, huge variations.
— Do you have any examples when people in smaller towns actually showed more progressive views or did not place such a strong emphasis on traditional notions of masculinity?
What we find tends to be more defining about more progressive views is often what you lived at home. Were your parents more progressive? Did your mother work in the paid workforce? Did your father do more of the caregiving, for example? Individuals, regardless of urban or rural settings, who have parents who lived equality or closer to equality, tend to believe in equality.
Higher levels of education are another contributing factor. So individuals with secondary, complete, and some tertiary education tend to have more progressive views in most of the world. So where there’s individuals in small towns who have some of those backgrounds, they tend to be more progressive. You know, a rural area in Sweden would be different than, say, a rural area in my home state of Texas. Rural Sweden is quite progressive, rural Texas is quite conservative. So I think there’s context, but what really seems to be important is when you were growing up, did your parents or other individuals model gender equality? That seems to be even more powerful in terms of explaining individuals believing in gender equality than whether you’re from a small town or whether you’re from a big city.
— Based on the research you’ve done over the years, could you say, how the expression, the outward expression of masculinity, differs in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the post-Ssoviet countries? Obviously, there are differences, but do you happen to have a specific number that you could put on it or any specific examples that you can give?
If we take the issue of caregiving — which countries do men do more of the care of children at home — as one indicator of gender equality, Western Europe, North America, Australia tend to be the most equitable. Then urban areas of Latin America, Central Europe, and some parts of Southeast Asia, may become next, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East parts of South Asia come last in terms of the most inequality around that indicator of who does the care at home. If we look at men's violence against women, domestic violence, globally, about one in four women will or has experienced violence from a male partner. There is not as much difference there. We see there’s a difference in the forms of violence and there are countries where the rates are quite a bit higher. A few countries in Sub-Sahara northern Africa, Afghanistan, and a few other countries in South Asia have demonstrated higher rates. But there the differences are not quite as big.
If we look at attitudes, for example, do men accept women being in the workplace, equal to them? I think the trends follow what I cited before — that Western Europe, Australia, North America on the top of being the most progressive, and then after that, urban Latin America, Central Europe, some parts of Southeast Asia next, and then typically Middle East, parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia typically last in terms of those views. But even saying that, with all of those regions, they’re vast. There are very progressive men in India and there are very conservative men in parts of Western Europe. So there’s those trends, but there’s also a huge diversity within those places.
— Have you conducted any research during the pandemic and if it has impacted views on masculinity? If yes, could you please share the information that you have?
We did a survey in five countries on men’s caregiving during Covid, who did the care of children in the home during Covid, and found that many men did increase their time spent on the care of children. They saw the amount of time that their wives or partners had been spending, they became more sensitized to her time spent on that topic. A few countries — the U.S., Canada, Sweden, Germany — there were also men reporting they saw the benefits for themselves when they were more involved in the care of their children. So in effect, reinforcing a notion that being involved as a caregiver, showing my care, has brought them happiness in addition to reducing stress on their partners otherwise. We have also seen some evidence suggesting that in some countries, more young men have been spending time on some websites and have become less supportive of gender equality. So we’ve seen some positive and some negative at the same time.
— Which direction do we need to work in to get rid of stereotypical notions of masculinity? Are there some specific things that we should be doing?
One thing we can do is talk to our sons from the earliest ages onward. I think we make harmful masculinities by the way we raise our sons. And I think that the importance of parents and teachers and coaches and the media, talking to boys early on about what we believe is a healthy way to be men: aring and connected, calling out when we see other people use violence, raising our sons to see that there is no real way to be a man, that being a man is about being true to your word, about supporting others, about being caring and empathetic as much as it is about being competitive and being prepared to be in the workplace. So I think to me, the roots of healthy manhood start in healthy boyhood and the importance of starting young with those conversations by mothers and fathers and everyone else who raises our sons and daughters.
— Is it possible to raise a child in a somewhat gender-neutral environment?
Yes. And I think, sometimes when we say gender neutral, it means we won't have any of the things that we consider male or female. I'd rather turn it around and say to hold all of those gendered expressions to be equal and to make them available for our sons and daughters, so that our daughters can play with spaceships and trucks and our sons can play with dolls and with a stove. It's about the fluidity of those, rather than saying we will have no pink or we will have no princesses. It's about saying, «Let all our sons and daughters both see those as those as equally valuable and to feel free to play with any of them: dragons or unicorns or spaceships, all the above.» Not that we have to get rid of any of them that are seen as being gender-expressed. You know, my son could feel comfortable role-playing a princess and my daughter could feel comfortable playing the astronaut. And the next day, he might play the astronaut and she could play the princess. It is more important that we feel comfortable with letting all those things be considered equal, not that we necessarily get rid of them.
— What advice would you give to women on how to talk to the men in their lives — to their brothers, to their fathers, to their boyfriends, husbands? How can women explain to them that some of the traditional notions are actually not right and that no gender is above the other and that we should actually be doing things equally?
The challenge, of course, is standing up and saying “You're wrong.”ometimes it works. But often it creates defensiveness and anger and it ends the conversation. Typically men also have other men around them who make them feel powerless. So how to get a conversation going where men acknowledge that «Oh yeah, you're upset with the way I act. I don't like the way he acts because he's got this power over me and he thinks he knows so much.” Instead, how do we get men to be able to connect the moments when we, as men, have experienced humiliation from another man, violence from another man, have been made to feel powerless before another man, and to use that thinking to then say, «Wow, I see that. And I'm starting to understand how women feel when men treat them the way that we often do.» That's typically the path which we try to get a conversation going about it.
Obviously, that's easier to say in an interview than in your home life. Simply saying, «You're wrong and stop thinking you are so important» — that almost never works. I think behind every man who's presenting that facade there's probably lots of issues that we have around things like «I feel unsure — I'm not sure how I am going to have the career I want, the job I want. Am I going to be able to convince that woman that I like, that she will like me? Do my children respect me? Will they be okay in the world?”Men have tons of fears that we hide behind tough looks. And it’s typically the tougher the look, the more fears we have behind it. So I think if we can find a way that we can get men to put that armor down for a little bit by asking, «Hey, tell me about a moment when you felt vulnerable. Tell me about how you feel about not having a job, about your uncertainty ,» then that tends to be a better way past it than to say «Stop acting like a jerk, stop acting like you're in charge» .
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Sharing on spiritual practices in Central Asia, forced emancipation of eastern women, and life between Paris and Tashkent.
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