Intro by Guy Edmunds
Curated by Monica Ellena
For many men, the answer is bound up with tradition: toughness and bravery, independence and self-control. Being a man is loyalty, patriotism and strength, inner and physical. In a region long caught between the ebb and flow of competing empires – Russian, Ottoman, Persian and others – a man’s role is to fight, defend his homeland, and protect and provide for his family.
Recent history, in the shape of the bitter wars over Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has reinforced those ideas. Yet while armed conflict – however frozen – persists in the region, most men no longer have wars to fight; their battles are closer to home, as traditional ways of life are disrupted by urbanisation, migration, technology, and the challenges of life in a market economy. As Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia undergo their own transitions - political, economic, social – concepts of masculinity are evolving too.
For some men, this is cause for regret: as more and more people trade small communities for the comparative anonymity of life in the city, a man’s word is no longer his bond; instead, money trumps older virtues as the main measure of a man’s worth. Other men find solace in the traditional gender roles prescribed by organised religion, which offer a sense of certainty in an age of flux – regardless of the impact on women.
Still other men find the changes brought by the modern world liberating. For some men, doing business in the twenty-first century means embracing technology to manage complexity. Others use modern transport and communication technology to experience different cultures and choose their own path; that can mean challenging restrictive gender roles and exploring different sides to their identity. That offers hope for women’s rights advocates too: for instance, as more and more women embrace the role of breadwinner, should men embrace a greater role in the home? What of paternity leave for new fathers? Such conversations are just beginning.
But life in the modern world can be unforgiving. Job insecurity, unemployment and poverty can be constant sources of anxiety for men who see their roles as the head of the family. Nor does the government necessarily offer much hope, with allegations of corruption and nepotism widespread in the region. With men trained not to show weakness, those frustrations can emerge in other ways, such as alcoholism and addiction. At one extreme, we see men driven to suicide. More often, the result is domestic violence, which is rife in the region.
Masculinity matters – to men and women alike.
“Being a man for me means being determined and tough. [Yet] women also have those qualities. Masculinity is setting up targets and making them happen. My main life goal is that my daughter and son achieve their goals. Masculinity is when you stay strong. My father died too early, I was young. I am sorry that he never met his grandchildren and couldn't see me and my brothers grow up. Keeping the family [safe] should be the most important value for men -- you start with your family, that’s how you keep your country safe, too. For me it is also very important to give my children the right education, so that they become good people."
“In a patriarchal and conservative society like Armenia, full of taboos, a man is strong, has a specific strict posture and is resolute when facing difficult decisions. Artificial and, for me, stupid responsibilities and dogmas are dumped on men from their birth. The result is that a man, as a cultural and civilized creature, is prevented from enjoying life, from opportunities of self-expression, from breathing freely. All their life men are told who they should be and, as a result, they don’t realize who they could be.
That’s it. I don’t think there is anything special about being a man. I have always fought against gender-based stereotypes.
“I connect masculinity with family. As a child, my father was my male role model. A mature man for me is someone who has a family and keeps it as happy as possible. Also, a man keeps his promises. Today I am my own role model. I may sound too self-confident, but that’s how I feel. For me, a man should always work on self improvement, like you shouldn’t be afraid to enroll in a university at 40. Armenian men are very devoted to their families and it is sad that many forbid their wives to do anything outside the house. I think this speaks more of their lack of self confidence than their masculinity -- no matter how strong they are, many men don’t like to have a strong woman next to him. This is the main reason why strong women are often alone.”
What is masculinity? That is a very hard question, it doesn’t have a definition, it is a set of information installed in each of us from the childhood.I associate masculinity with hard work, purposefulness and physical strength. In complex situations women rely on men and of course the other way round is also possible. In our Armenian reality the role of the man is very important. Radical feminists would oppose what I say, whatever I say, and claim that without them the world would collapse. Let that opinion exists, but I find that if there is a need to cut wood in order to light a fire in the stove it should be done by a man, because a man is stronger physically. Also, neither masculinity nor femininity is related to a person’s sexual orientation. A homosexual man can be very masculine and a heterosexual might not have characteristics that are typical for men.
“What being a man means differs from one person to the other, but I don’t know a specific definition. I’m generally conservative, for example, I think that if a man likes a woman he should ask her father’s permission for dating. I believe every Armenian man should be like that. The man is the head of the family, the leader. For me the most important characteristic of masculinity is loyalty. I’m a very jealous person. In fact it is common for Armenian men to be jealous. I can’t say whether it is good or bad, but that’s a fact. In 2016 I fought during the April war in Artsakh [Nagorno Karabakh]. I was 19 and it deeply impacted me. I became mature. It made me sober, and detached, yet also more human.
Hazi Aslanov is a beacon of what it means to be a man. He was a Soviet hero [a major-general of the Red Army during World War II] who was born here, in Lankaran. Real men seem to be a thing from the past. Up until 50 years ago, a man could express himself knowing that his words counted. They were valued. Today we don’t feel that is true anymore. Years ago a friend of mine’s grandfather went to Jalilabad and his words prevented a murder -- what he said had value. Nowadays youngsters just cannot do that. Also, society values men with money. In today’s world everything is for sale. To understand what it means to be a man, it is enough to look at Aslanov’s portrait. No need to add anything else.
I was born in Gadabay [Azerbaijan] in 1962. I’m Azerbaijani, I have a passport from Russia, a driving license from Armenia and a military card from Georgia. Now I live in Tbilisi for my business.
Manhood comes from being a man and being a man doesn’t mean you can cope with everything, but you try -- think of being at war. I was in Füzuli during the [Nagorno Karabakh] war [the city fell to Armenian forces in August 1993]. In war, you smell death; war demands you to stay strong. That’s manhood. Also when you drive a car: if your foot shakes when you press the brake, then a car won’t stop. You should hold the steering wheel so strong that you have full control on it. Nothing can beat a man -- except a woman. People say that women are weak, but I think a woman is the strongest human being.
To be a man today means commitment and responsibility towards family, work and friends. It means to be able to remain faithful to your moral principles during your ups and downs, so that the ones you love feel you are there to support them with a firm hand. To remain grounded is hard: we live with constant communication, immersed in flows of often unnecessary information. Making important decisions in stressful situations can distort the perception of reality, create false goals, false friends and enemies, false principles.
I have been practicing yoga for seven years and I have been a trainer for four. The practice has shaped my idea of masculinity and femininity. Each of us is a mix of both energies - as a father, I can be strict and severe but also affectionate. I work hard to internally balance the Yin and Yang which create the flow of vital energy that enables us to cope with life and its hurdles. In Azerbaijan social norms suppress a man’s feminine spirit, but as a woman can set up her business and manage it perfectly so can a man open and work in a kindergarten. For a man it is also important to see beauty in everyday actions or to cry his emotions out. They are signs of a well-balanced person. These feelings should not be oppressed, because suppressed feelings migrate from our inner self to our body -- and make us fall ill.
Being a man for me means firmness. To live 70-80 years, one needs to be solid, grounded and to be loyal to nature. I call manhood a man’s capacity to take care of himself.
I have raised two children. They are independent. We cannot make them dependent on us just because we raised them. We can only contribute to raise them, then let them go.
“For me a man should focus on his family. He should keep his word and be just. Fishing for me matches this idea. As a child fishing fascinated me - and it still does. It is not no longer just a hobby, it is a sport and it relaxes me. But I abide by my idea of being just: I always free the fish I catch.”
“To be a man means to never give up and steadily move towards your goals. I am doing it. I want to affirm Georgia’s territorial integrity and do this. I am walking across the whole country, I counted it is about 1,600 kilometres.
On September 14, 2018 I walked from Tbilisi to the Enguri Bridge [marking the borderline with Abkhazia],about 340 kilometres. I finished the trip on September 27, on the day of the fall of Sokhumi. On April 9, I started another leg of my trip to Gori. On May 27 I will finish the trip in Mestia, Svaneti.
“A Georgian man should be born, live and die for three things - homeland, honor and faith.” “I served in the Georgian Armed Forces from 1997 to 2009. I am a war veteran, I fought during the war against Russia in August 2008. I started practising mixed martial arts when I was seven years old, 30 years ago. In 2018 I won the Golden Magnus world champion title. When I fight I am not afraid of losing. The only thing I fear is to disappoint the people who believe in me.”
“For me to be a man means to be aware of what you do and being responsible for your actions.
In May 12, 2018 thousand of young people protested against a special operation police conducted in a few Tbilisi clubs the night before. On May 13, the protest reached its peak and Georgian neo-nazi and religious groups announced a counter demonstration. I spent the whole evening among the counter protesters. They were aggressive and shouted discriminating slogans while trying to break the police cordon. They did not manage to. That counter protest clearly showed how positive masculinity can become toxic. One year on, I still don’t have an answer to some questions I thought about while there. What would happen if these men would get to the other side? Is Georgian men’s path one of violence?”
“To be a man or a woman means simply to be human. I started playing music as a teenager. In 2015 I founded my first metal group, Quemmekh. This word means "cannon." We chose it to mean that sound of our ideas about modern Georgia should be loud, for people to hear it, to help them to be as free as possible. It is an example of transforming aggressive masculine energy into art for the society, for the people.”