Lebanon – new male images paving the way for equalityFor the eighth year running, passion, professional knowledge and personal experiences continue to drive American-Lebanese psychologist Anthony Keedi. His gender equality initiative among men focusses on changing the traditional image of the dominant man. A secondary aim of the initiative is to fight violence against women. KVINFO spoke to him about the experiences, challenges and reactions he has met over the years.
Gender plays a key role when it comes to mental health. This fact became clear to American-Lebanese psychologist Anthony Keedi during the third year of his psychology course. Statistics were a particular eye-opener, explains Anthony Keedi when talking to KVINFO about how he became involved in working with gender and equality.
“When we look at the statistics for depression, for instance, it’s apparent that females are twice as likely as men to have depression. On the other hand, men are overrepresented when it comes to anti-personality disorders, psychopathology in terms of psychopathic behaviour and substance abuse. There are also statistics showing that women are more likely to attempt suicide; however, men are more likely to actually commit suicide”, explains Anthony Keedi, who today lives in Lebanon.
Already during his time at university, Anthony Keedi began to put his knowledge about gender and equality into practice with his voluntary psychosocial work with men living in Palestinian refugee camps.
War and conflict have a negative influence
The many wars and conflicts that since the mid 1970s have plagued Lebanon have played an important role in defining the current status of equality within the country. These conflicts have had a very negative influence on gender equality between men and women, and this is a factor that Anthony Keedi believes must be taken into consideration.
“As many important women have said at conferences on peace, security and development, there can’t be any peace with out gender equality. The way I see it – and what statistics kind of show – is that when conflict or violence is prevalent in a society this acts as natural antagonists to human rights in general and to gender and gender equality specifically. The minute violence comes into the picture, not only are gender issues put in the background but society naturally starts to violate the natural rights of women – and men become much more socialised in a hegemonic sense with violence”, tells Anthony Keedi.
Militarism and gender based violence
When KVINFO asks whether he sees any correlation between the social power relations and militarism in Lebanon on the one hand and the violence carried out against individual women on the other, he draws two power pyramids: one for the public sphere and another for the private sphere. He then proceeds to show how when it comes to men’s privileges and the role of men the holders of power the two pyramids reflect and influence each other.
“The same rules apply: men at the head, men who enforce through punishment of some sort and women being subservient and obeying the men. That is the similarity between them.”
“It is just that one takes place at the individual level – this is how one person interacts with another, or with the many different people in their family or their social circle. On the individual level again it is more to do with the social norm of men as the head and to do with men who dictate the rules of the family and enforce these rules through violence.”
“And the other takes place at a societal level. This is how men act when it comes to politics, the juridical system – when it comes to how we interact in large groups out in a public setting. When we talk about sexual harassment in the street”, tells Anthony Keedi, pointing out that the power pyramid is particularly dominant within the military.
“So the reason we always talk militarism is because militarism is such a perfect example of patriarchy and violence and obedience that feminism and gender equality is obviously trying to deviate from. To try to give more people decision-making capacity, and ensure that we have men and women in those decision-making positions. We have to begin to deviate from violence as a way of ensuring the order of that structure because violence being at the heart of anything is the cause of the problem. We want dialogue to be at the heart of everything”, explains Anthony Keedi, who goes on to explain that the military power pyramid and power relations have an affect at both the social and the individual level.
Growing up with Western and Lebanese values
Anthony Keedi’s parents were forced to flee from Lebanon in 1979 due to the civil war, and Anthony Keedi himself was born and raised in the industrial town of Rockford north-west of Chicago. Consequently, he grew up with American values such as democracy and civil rights as well as values from his family’s Lebanese-Arab culture.
Despite growing up with both American and Lebanese values, at the age of 18 Anthony Keedi felt no link to his Arab background and therefore decided to study at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. Here, not only did he have the opportunity to study at a world-renowned university, but he was also able to acquire a greater understanding of his Lebanese background.
When he moved to Beirut he originally planned only to stay for the four-year duration of his education. Today, however, six years after graduating Anthony Keedi still lives in the Lebanese capital. Here he heads the Engaging Men Programme at ABAAD, a resource centre for gender equality. ABAAD, which is one of KVINFO’s partners in the Middle East, works for sustainable social and economic development, equality, and the protection of marginalised groups within society.
Behavioural change in men – a lever for increased equality
In brief, Anthony Keedi and ABAAD work to create greater gender equality by focussing on men and the role of men. Among other things, their work includes an initiative that deals with violence against women in close personal relationships, as well as a psychological counselling clinic for men which is run by ABAAD. The work with and for men aims to act as a lever to improve the status and rights of women. A key focus area therefore involves dismantling the traditional perceptions of male roles by looking at the sorts of behaviour people expect of a ‘real man’.
“Whilst I was studying for my Master’s degree, I started focusing a lot more on masculinities and on how the traditional hegemonic masculine gender role debilitates someone from a mental health perspective”, tells Anthony Keedi.
The primary objective of the work is to get men to replace negative and aggressive behaviour with a positive approach where they show understanding, patience and are able to tackle stress and personal crises without having to resort to violence.
The process is not an easy one and it takes a great deal of time due to the fact that it requires the breaking down of social constructions that have been the norm for several hundred years. Traditional perceptions are anchored in the family, cultural structures and society in general, and these play a key role in the way we are socialised.
Violence breeds violence – or fear
“Even today, it’s difficult for a man to show that he’s vulnerable. When I myself am vulnerable, a lot of people have and opinion about it, such as ‘Oh, well, why is he doing that?’ or ‘Why is he crying?’. Or someone will say ‘Are you kidding me? You want me to cry right now? How is that going to solve anything?’”, explains Anthony Keedi. But he sees no other alternative.
“At the end of the day, you have to realise that the alternative is always negative. Violence has two responses: further violence or fear”, elaborates Anthony Keedi.
Experiences from his own personal U-turn
Not only does Anthony Keedi support these messages with well-documented knowledge, but he also acts as a role model. He himself has made a U-turn in his own life.
“In many ways, I’ve dealt with different issues in my life or in my relationships with other people. I was a very violent individual – even in my childhood. I grew up at a time where gangs were really influencing a lot of areas in the United States – not least where I grew up. And even though I never officially joined a gang, a lot of my friends were in gangs and I would do a lot of things with them that were very violent in nature. I had a very dominant way of interacting with other men. If things got negative, it would come down to physical altercations. Even though I was never violent to females, it really opens your eyes to how emotionally and psychologically violent you can be. And that’s something that definitely resonated with me”, tells Anthony Keedi.
“I don’t want to talk about it”
One incident from the time Anthony Keedi was studying proved to be particularly pivotal.
“I was back in the USA and browsing through a bookstore when I came across a book by an author named Terrance Read. The book was called I Don’t Want to Talk About It. I thought ‘that’s what I always say’. And whenever I’m stressed – whenever I’m under pressure – I would say either that I was tired or I would make excuses. Or I would say ‘Yah, I don’t want to talk about it’.”
“The book focuses a lot on the things that I’ve been talking about – we’re raised under a perception that showing vulnerability is weakness. And a man should never display weakness. He should always be strong. He should always be confident. He should always be the one who is there for other people and never be the one who needs other people himself.”
“I bought the book … and I couldn’t put it down. And it got me thinking so much more about myself and my interpersonal relationships”, tells Anthony Keedi.
He himself believes that this is one of the reasons why he can be a good role model.
“Perhaps I’m able to speak about it rather passionately because it comes from a theoretical perspective. It comes from a very personal place where I remember how much I used to feel, and I am so much happier now”, tells Anthony Keedi.
The strategy used by Anthony Keedi and ABAAD plays on several levels. The messages are communicated via several different platforms, including the Internet, TV advertising, and in collaboration with other NGOs or religious leaders. But the most important element is entering into a dialogue with the men. One of the channels used is through the psychology-counselling clinic where men come to find help in dealing with their aggressive behaviour. Here, the objective is to provide the men with tools to help them deal with their challenges.
“When they’re in the room it is more a question of dissecting the gender aspect and showing them how much their life will benefit by changing a lot of what socialisation has conditioned them to always believe to be true.”
As part of this dialogue, Anthony Keedi places much emphasis on showing the men how increased gender equality and better rights for women is a win-win situation for them. He does so by using specific examples such as showing them that men are more likely to die from cardiovascular diseases and that life expectancy for men is much lower than for women. And he also shows them how men display much higher levels of risk behaviour.
“It’s important to open men’s eyes to these things. When they see how much others also benefit, this solidifies the process even more for them. They personally feel that their life is changing for the better.”
Social change and change within the individual
Much of Anthony Keedi’s and ABAAD’s work centres on increasing awareness of men’s violence against women – not just among men but also within society at large. But is this sufficient to stamp out violence?
“If awareness was a strong enough psychological or social mechanism for change in itself then we would be living in a utopia. That’s why we’re definitely pushing for societal changes, for example in the form of legislation or the introduction of gender and feminism issues within the curriculum of schools and colleges”, explains Anthony Keedi, who stresses the importance of connecting with children and teenagers in their formative years.
“Regardless of the societal changes that we want to make, for the system to truly work all changes have to inherently happen at an individual level.”
“And legislation is always wonderful. But we have a lot of laws in Lebanon that no one follows.”
“Gender and equality can be part of the curriculum, but whether or not a teacher decides to follow the curriculum is going to be an individual decision. Whether they skip over a couple of chapters is an individual decision. Whether a police officer or a judge enforces the law to its full extent is going to be an individual decision. Whether someone files a case of domestic violence that they have overheard taking place at a neighbour’s house – now they are legally able to do so – or whether they follow more social norms of just saying ‘whatever happens in their house between that family should stay within that house – that man is doing what he needs to do as a man’ – that is an individual decision. So I don’t think you can look at it as an issue just for society or the individual. It has to include both”, tells Anthony Keedi.
My sexual orientation is brought into question
There are many different reactions from those around him when people discover that Anthony Keedi is working with gender equality and women’s rights.
“On a personal level, it always shocks people. Sometimes my sexual orientation is questioned, which gives you a perspective of masculinity. And why does a man working on gender have to be of a different sexual orientation? Because, again, this is something that works against the typical gender role.”
“There’s usually a lot of criticism or a lot of joking. But there’s also a lot of support. It gets frustrating sometimes, always having to qualify yourself for something as beautiful and natural as working with something like this. But I also realize that being a pioneer and starting a trend is never going to be easy. So you just explain it, and I actually love talking about this stuff, as you can see. And I don’t mind explaining it. I don’t mind talking to them in the same way that I would talk in any awareness-raising session or with any men who ever question why men should be engaged in gender equality or women’s rights. I always point out how much men are hurting themselves by conforming to these societal gender roles. So why do it? And then, on top of that, we’re hurting women with these societal gender roles. And we’re also hurting society when we fail to listen to women’s perspectives on politics and peace and things like that. We’re literally taking half of our population and half of our society and silencing them”, tells Anthony Keedi, noting how he finds his situation different to that of his female colleagues.
Women are not heard at all
“Every time I speak with my female colleagues, I can’t imagine how difficult life is for them. I can’t imagine how difficult addressing a lot of these issues is – especially because, as a man, I’m criticised for talking this way – from men and women alike. But sometimes, as women, they are not even heard. People still listen to me even though they disagree – and in the worst-case scenario they will criticise and be negative. Not always. But a lot of my colleagues are not even heard. And I can’t imagine how that would feel”, explains Anthony Keedi
In response to the question posed by KVINFO regarding what he sees as the biggest challenge to gender equality in Lebanon today, Anthony Keedi returns to the issue of socialisation.
“That’s why so much of our work is focused on the socialisation process. For instance, when we hear that women should be subservient in the home, this affects how much we don’t have laws and regulations criminalising domestic violence against women in Lebanon. If we are raised to think that women should not be leaders and that women are illogical and overly emotional and therefore have no place in politics, this naturally affects how many women are taken seriously when it comes to political issues. And it also influences how many women, when choosing a career or an educational path, opt to go into something that relates to politics” adds Anthony Keedi.
He is convinced that once a person’s or society’s mind-set has been changes it will no longer seem strange for a woman to lead a nation.
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“And then naturally we are going to see the laws, politicians, the structures of politics, society and the structures of our households change”, he reiterates, whilst stressing that this is his personal opinion and that he is not speaking on behalf of ABAAD.
Positive experiences inject renewed energy
Despite the opposition he has encountered along the way, Anthony Keedi explains that the many positive experiences he has enjoyed make continuing with his work for gender equality a worthwhile cause.
“I can’t single out one specific event. There are so many. It could be at a micro level where you’re working with one individual in the men’s centre or in a workshop. Or it could be after giving a speech at a conference and a man or a woman really hears something for the first time that they intuitively have always known to be true and then they start to talk.”
“Every one of those experiences is euphoric and incredible. Because that’s the whole point. It is every little step – every little step is going to lead us forward. Big achievements need to be celebrated, and small achievements need to be celebrated. And because the process of changing society is a lengthy one, when you’re in this type of work people really, really need to enjoy every little victory. And I do. Sometimes even the negotiations and dialogues with men who still resist change are in themselves wonderful things. Because if they are talking to you about it then it means that they are thinking about it”, ends Anthony Keedi.