As the Coordinator of MenEngage Alliance Pakistan from 2011-2013, Zaheer cultivated his passions for eliminating violence and studying masculinities. He was residing in Baltimore, Maryland (USA) as part of a yearlong global leadership program with the McCain Institute for International Leadership. Partnering with the organization Cure Violence, Zaheer hopes to adapt their models of community-based intervention to dismantle systematic violence back home in Pakistan.
Authored by Derek Siegel, MenEngage Communications Intern
“Back in my school days, when there was a fight among my peers, I would be tasked to look after the bags during the conflict,” Zaheer jokes with a stifled grin, “I wasn’t too strong so they wouldn’t have trusted me to protect myself.”
Tongue-in-cheek, Zaheer notes that such violence may seem innocuous before understood as a pattern and even a way of life. After all, not only were boys exposed to violence at a young age, but they are also expected to participate, beyond the schoolyard and as members of their communities.
What was it like for Zaheer to grow up in rural Pakistan, where inter-tribal conflicts have claimed the lives of his classmates and the near-destruction of his village? In a word: suffocating. “Boys admired the combatants,” Zaheer recalls. It seemed inevitable that one day, at the ages of 15 or 16, they too would be expected to fight. This enormous pressure carved a narrow pathway for manhood, leaving boys little option other than lifting the arms as their fathers had before them.
In this way, we can observe the intersection between violence and gender. “It’s a man’s job to protect,” Zaheer explains, “If there’s some outside group coming into your area with intent to harm your family members or your property and business, you have to be ready to push back and retaliate.” While men are expected and rewarded for perpetuating violence, women are taught to obediently accept the status quo, despite their stake in ending the conflict. Zaheer laments the minimal role women are permitted to play in their communities, a generational silence maintained through child marriages and educational inequalities. Custom dissuades men and women from breaking with their respective roles.
Yet challenging these community norms that tolerate violence is exactly what Zaheer intends to do. During his training in Baltimore, MD (USA), Zaheer has learned to treat violence as a type of sickness, one that must be tackled through community-based public health intervention rather than individual incarceration.
Zaheer has also piloted a series of training program on ‘gender, masculinities and violence’ with the staff (violence interrupters, outreach workers) of Baltimore Safe Street Program. These projects are necessary because at the same time that we dismantle cycles of violence we must also address cycles of violent masculinities.
Hegemonic masculinities are self-perpetuating, as Zaheer explains, in that “they not only mark the behaviors and thinking of individual men but also inform the collective ideology of masculine social and public institutions such as militant ‘jihadi and sectarian organizations, political parties and law enforcement agencies like police and the military.” At Cure Violence, the intervention approach acknowledges this intersection of self and society by enlisting formerly incarcerated individuals to engage at-risk populations from their own neighborhoods, as “credible messengers.” These participants interrupt conflicts as soon as they emerge, de-escalating tensions through mediation and demonstrating alternative forms of masculinity.
Zaheer believes this approach can be adapted to Pakistan, where programs might partner with credible messengers (ex-warriors of various political and ethnic groups) to interrupt inter-tribal conflict. Building off of his work with MenEngage Pakistan—where he helped organize the first symposium in Pakistan to address the mainstreaming of masculinity studies into academia—Zaheer hopes to spark honest dialogue between men. Such a project would create a platform for ex-warriors to share the consequences of violence, holding himself and other men accountable to challenging violent masculinities.