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Men and Women, War and Peace

Book Review: "Male Roles, Masculinities and Violence - A Culture of Peace Perspective", edited by Ingeborg Breines, Robert Connell and Ingrid Eide.

Acclaimed British feminist author, Fay Weldon, reviews a challenging new book that examines the link between men, women and violence.

This is an extraordinarily interesting book, in spite of the formality of its title. Nor need the reader be a specialist in gender analysis to gain insight from its contents, though I can see it might help in its few dense passages. It is even exciting, that much misused adjective, and not one normally applied to books published by UNESCO. Worthy, yes, or necessary: but there is a rare exhilaration about this one, based as it is on the first international discussion on the connection between men and masculinity on the one hand, and peace and war on the other (Oslo, September 24-28, 1997).


For once, it seems, there was much to be said which had not already been said, and needed to be said: for once the exchange of information led to wisdom, and for once I wish I had been there to hear and learn. Next best thing is this collection of essays, with its insights into the nature of human societies: what connects them, what separates them. How men and women relate, it leads one to induce, and how that relationship changes, is the key not just to war and peace, but to the prosperity and success or otherwise of our various cultures.

These 20 essays are each based in a different country, a different culture. All are refreshingly different in style and approach. All concur on certain points: violence is (now, but not necessarily in the future, as women become more empowered) a male problem; not all men are violent; war arises out of a society, not merely out of politicians; and the suggestion is that the more passivity is imposed on men the more violence towards women they will display. (Darwinian interpretations are notable by their absence in the book, currently dismissed as "reductionist biological explanations"; the next step forward in the field of gender studies is, I imagine, not to shy away from them but allow them into the discussion. The distinction between "male" as what is species dictated, and "masculine" as to what is learned behaviour is a start, but not enough.)

The editors have done a brilliant job: Australian Robert W. Connell’s opening chapter on "Arms and the Man" sets up the volume. Albert Godenzi’s Table of Gender Empowerment - ranging from Sweden at the top of the list to Afghanistan at the bottom (from the UNDP’s Human Develop-ment Report 1995) - is illuminating, (and, as one goes on reading, fearful: with its implicit correlation between the improvement of wo-men’s position in society and increased rates of rape and violence towards them in the home, as the Norwegian studies show). Notable are a tragic piece by Hassan Keynan out of Somalia, "Male roles and the and the making of the Somali Tragedy", a brilliant and poetic piece by Irina Novikova "Soviet and post-Soviet masculinities: after men’s wars in women’s memories" and a scrupulously fair piece by Canadian Michael Kauf-man. To mention a few is not to deny the others. All are insightful, all are notable for their aspiration and their belief that all is not lost; in a changing world all can yet be saved, if new understandings and new insights can only be applied.

Half of the essays are written by men, half by women. The men are, if anything, slightly more supportive of the women’s cause than the women are of the men’s. But then – in the light of horrific statistics – it is difficult for informed women these days not to see themselves as victims and it is difficult for men not to see themselves as guilty.

"Muscle culture"

How to stop war, how to start peace? How to deal with violence in the home? Does this latter increase if men are deprived the outlet of war? (True enough that in Israel, in the Gulf War, when political expediency prevented its soldiers fighting to protect, as they saw it, nation, family and home, violent crimes against women increased greatly.) Does the fading of the "muscle culture" of the past, as technology takes over our cultures, inevitably lead to increased violence towards women? If so, how best can the socialisation of men proceed? Testosterone alone, it seems, is not the source of the trouble.

All agree that war is "bad" by definition. Though you could argue that in its new moderated form – our Olympic games, our football matches – war still plays a significant part in keeping our technological societies healthy.

At the beginning of the 20th century, war was commonly seen as "good", an opportunity for young men to show valour and nobility and the spirit of sacrifice. Millions flocked to join the army at the beginning of World War One. Women gave white feathers to men who declined, mothers claimed they were happy when their sons died for their country. By the beginning of the 21st century, at least in the West, such attitudes have become unthinkable. But then war has become "smart", a technological nightmare, and its main victims are now civilians, not young male soldiers. But all that’s another story. I hope there is another conference.

Fay Weldon, UNESCO Sources


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