Tired of being a “soldier”
I’m tired (mentally exhausted) of being a soldier.
Well, first off I’m not actually a soldier in the real sense of being enrolled (by force) in the Egyptian military. In fact, I was lucky enough to escape that whole ordeal (thanks to an archaic and very sexist exemption rule.) But, what I mean is I’m tired of being a different type of soldier, and I will elaborate more as I go along on what I exactly mean by that.
First of all, even if I’m not a real soldier, I am in today’s world (my country, included) expected to resemble a “soldier”, to act, think and become like one. To give myself in to the constant pressures and expectations of being a strong masculine figure, one who is entitled and invariably in control, by any means, and preferably (if needs be) violently. A soldier whose role is omnipresent, omnipotent protection of clan, family, community(ies), religion and nation, and the list goes on. One who is expected to fend off all immediate or perceived threats to their stability, to their functions and to their reputations. Don’t get me wrong, of course, I may care (I do care) about many of these things, but where does one draw the line(s) between responsibilities, expectations and the reality of maintaining oppressive behaviour and systems?
And, how has all that affected my own well-being and my mental health? Well..
In my case, as a man who was raised up and lived in Egypt for most of my life (in what is a militaristic/nationalistic and religious/conservative environment) you are indoctrinated through various means of socialization to become or, to pretend to be as strong, as a soldier. The strong, masculine figure who is never vulnerable. It’s interesting, as in many ways, the most desirable and accepted soldier is the submissive and obedient one (funny, no?). The “soldier” who maintains patriarchal power, as well as the political and socio-economic status quo, and on whom which the status quo mainly depends on.
In a simple way, that is what I find exhausting. My tiredness stems from all this supposed role as maintainer of the current social order (with a lot of injustices and unfairness embedded in these things). Like, one is taught that it is okay (even desirable) to be on the defensive, to be emotionally honest only within socially accepted ways, such as through anger and control, to be (in certain, yet frequent contexts/situations) coercive and violent especially if it is for the “greater good”, or even for one’s own “sake”, or so it seems. This can manifest itself in power, and in personal, professional or other relationships in life.
When one must defend their family’s honour and name, one must defend the “honour” of women in their family, and one must be a defender of religion, as well as nation (i.e one must pledge allegiance and offer themselves with unquestioned loyalty). To do that often means to remain silent on the wrongs, on the injustices carried out in the name of protecting (unsettling) all these things and their reputations. In doing so, in attempt to change them, to expose them, that effort amounts to and borders on treachery or betrayal. And, very seldom do we honestly question and openly discuss all these well-meaning notions and entities, in which we “belong” to in one way or another (by choice, by coercion, or by a bit of both.) In fear of upsetting and destabilizing our sense of belonging(s) and, often, personal or others’ safety.
Yes, we all want to have a sense of belonging, but, I have to ask myself as a person (who cares about many of these things, but also cares a lot about justice, truth, equality and my own values), why do I need to always be on the defensive for the sake of it or for the sake of image/reputation? Is it for my own sake or for these concepts’ sake? For safety reasons, for social acceptance just so I can “fit in”? or is it to maintain my many privileges of going along with the deeply gendered and militarized system? Yes, there are many instances and acts of resistance, there are challenges to open up these things, but still silence has the upper hand. Still, systemic change is not to be seen..
And, of course I realize that I do get and enjoy a lot of privileges being a man in Egypt. That is unquestionable. Men have so many freedoms and privileges, that women and others do not have. I get to walk without the fear of harassment, of constant objectification, sexualization and marginalization. A lot of my choices, sense of worth, and the validity behind them are not questioned, and are regarded as valid in their own right. I, relatively speaking, have some degree of control over my body. Yet, that privilege is also still, in a way, contingent upon my submission to playing along with the role of male defender; of my blind acceptance of honourable man and “soldier” status.
That’s what happens then to privilege(s), or to stability and safety when one refuses to obey the orders of the script of nation, of religion, of gender, of binaries and more. And, as an intersectional feminist, I need to (and I have to) always be questioning my identity/ies and “loyalties”. This is essential self-reflection, which allow me to be critical of myself (my role), of my community(ies) and society and of the wider world. Even my own family. As to make these connections and inter-linkages that constantly sustain pressure on me to conform in various ways and roles.
But, I am still in several ways, conforming (and although I refuse to consider myself a “soldier”) I have not resisted enough within a context where the nation does not tolerate non-conformists. Those, for example, who are brave enough and resist so powerfully by openly refusing to be part of unjust scripts, like those who refuse to be enrolled in the military, the Egyptian conscientious objectors. Like, those who transgress the binary of men/women, masculine/feminine and are simply not “enrolled” in a (gendered) script that is essentialist and neither self-reflective, nor critical.
Often, I have found that my true self, my desires, my affection, my sensitivity, my dreams and what I want or feel to be right are sometimes in conflict with many of these things. This is clearly known to be the case for many others too. But, personally, I always strive to learn from others, on how to speak up when needed, and to enhance my approach in living, in working, in thriving, in struggling and in loving. Fully and honestly, with integrity to one’s own values. That, in itself, is essential, yet exhausting, as it is carried out to resist not just power structures, but also close friends, family and loved ones. Do we have to bother and upset them with our honest objections or heartfelt reservations, do we have to always “kill the joy”? Can’t we just “fit in” or belong as unequals rather than risk being too marginalized or harmed in case we speak up about our position/the status quo? That is a major dilemma.
I tell myself, (to respond to these pressures, by pressuring myself to confront them) to refuse a lot of the silence, to not follow blindly and be in collusion with that which I do not see fair or in line with my own values. With my own ideas of justice, equality and full humanity. So, I must challenge myself first, and those around me, and to unlearn what I was taught, to learn what I was was not at the same time in order to be more compassionate, kind, loving, patient, understanding, honest and self-reflective. More so honestly and not to conceal it under any male veneer/soldier privileged status, and also to revisit myself, my ideas/beliefs, my loyalties and my role in all these domains. This is to, me, extremely important and something that I also would like so much to ‘defend’. To defend the malleability and constant growth/change of oneself, but of the surrounding social environment and the world too.
With constant pressures, defenses and pretenses, I am tired of refusing to be the kind of man I am repeatedly being “forced” to become (i.e submitting to a specific rigid toxic masculinity which has been offered and mostly presented to me as all these concepts as desirable and unquestionable). The man who is in many ways privileged (thanks to patriarchy), but at the same time, not privileged, (thanks to hetero-patriarchy) who is put in a contradictory position. In transgressing the concept of “manhood”, I am also transgressing the notion of “nationhood” that is built on male dominance, control and violence. The concept maintained with obedience, with the monopoly over (the threat of) violence and with silence. In transgressing that, I have betrayed these domains as a man, and as an Egyptian. Even if I am well-aware of all that, still it all boils down to, by default, to feelings of failures and betrayals of “manhood”, and of “nation”, with all the baggage which comes with it on different levels.
I am just a “sensitive” man, why should that be an issue of concern? Why is that an issue to me? It is not, (for me). Well more often than not, it is. And it’s just complicated given the context(s) in which I find myself in, which has constantly made it an issue. A daily issue. In the context(s) I am in, it is rarely desirable, let alone tolerated, to be an emotionally honest and sensitive man who seeks acceptance, but also refuses to accept certain concepts or structures or behaviour or rhetoric or ‘givens’ as they are.
This feeds into my struggle (within the context) with fully developing and accepting my “sensitive” side. That rigid and unspeakable big-no-no for boys and men. And, I find myself uncomfortable when I have raw emotions, feelings that I want to convey honestly to those around me. To those whom I love, and to those whom I constantly feel the pressure of even owing an explanation to all of this. That I have failed as a good soldier then, I am pushed to the margins. When pushed, I feel I have to even question my honesty and my vulnerability for the sake of not being too marginal. It goes back to the ridiculous idea of if I am vulnerable, then I am “feminine”, I am weak, I am “less”, unworthy, incomplete, or even more “like a woman” (the horror!). And the interesting bit is that what if I embraced all of that sensitivity and vulnerability? What would that make of me, a failed soldier or just an honest guy? But, honesty, it seems, comes with a price. Or, perhaps, honesty would make me brave in the eyes of others and myself? But, why is ”bravery” still deeply gendered in my mind? I know why, and I wish to shut down and push this idea out of my head.
It’s hard to remove yourself entirely from the hetero-patriarchy, the sexism and the militarism surrounding you and still be safe, still be your ‘current’ self, still silent for fear of endangering yourself and the ones you care about. Always in the back of your mind, there will always be this constant frustration stemming from the fact that there is a need for silence. To let things go, to let the reinforcing and following of gender roles/expectations continue unabated. Ones which are very restrictive, essentialist and fail to account for the complexity of what is “myself” (a fellow man/human being) and also of other human beings with myriad intricate and diverse characteristics. So, why the need to constantly silence and police oneself to fit in? In what is a neat, stable and unquestionable identity/ies for the rest of my life? And, for whose sake do I continue passively?
Surely, the irony here is crystal clear, where passivity has always been regarded as ‘un-manly’, but here it is in fact desirable and required; to be passive (as a man, or a soldier, etc.) in service of reinforcing toxic masculinity and patriarchal thinking and behaviour, and allying oneself passively to the system.
Still, I have realized that more times than not being or behaving as “transgressive” often means trouble. The policing to avoid trouble was so ingrained in my psyche, in so that what I feel deep inside whenever it floats outwardly (publicly) I have to in one way or another, refine or suppress it. For stability. For safety. For fake comfort. To keep myself “safe” and stable as a strong man who has it all. At all costs. Even at the expense of myself and my well-being. To do my “good service”, to be a man soldier. And, sometimes I get tired of all these calls for arms, these defenses, these constant pretenses of a never vulnerable being who is to be the ultimate defender; the honourable soldier of everything at all times. Like, I am only myself, but boy that self ain’t easy to merely exist in real peace, so how is that even humanly possible?
And no, I am not one for hyper-individualism. But, selfishly I sometimes wonder, what about what I want to be, and who I want to be? Who I choose to love? Where do I fit in this world of stifling binaries of gender and of social being? Of closed and restrictive nation states? Of connected (yet disconnected) polarized communities seeking and allocating more resources and time to “defend” and less to self-reflect and change?
Even more, I would like to always steer myself along with what I see fit. This can change throughout life. But, I find the labels and boxes, the neat identities falling in on me from all directions. Be it national, cultural, sexual, etc. Yes even from the LGBTQI+ community, there is pressure to accept and conform too to homonormativity (which I will be writing about). Maybe I would like a break from all that, just for once. It’s not realistic, obviously, but, it would help to take time to reflect without all these constant pressures and obligations. And yes to defend values or entities I care about a lot, but, one still has to invariably question, for what, for whom, and at what or whose expense do I always “defend”? (And especially if when “defending” is essentially nothing other than “attacking”, from violations i.e. marginalizing and humiliating others to “fit in” in boxes). Nonetheless, my ultimate loyalty or whatever you want to call it, first and foremost, lies with humanity and a sense of fair justice. This is also something I care about and would like to defend.
Ironically, I found that being “undesirable” in many ways has actually made me strong(er) as a (sensitive) man. I may “fit in” at times but, at the same time, I also don’t. But, I also have learned that embracing it has done more good than harm, on a personal level. It is not something that I should be ashamed of. That I’m sensitive, that I’m vulnerable, that I’m emotional (I’m even tempted to “justify” myself here, but I won’t) to be all these AND be a man. I can be, I should be and I am sensitive. But, that has not been the easiest journey of self-discovery and acceptance, of my own self. And, that fills my life with honesty and integrity when I say I am sensitive, or an emotional kind of man (who also happens to be attracted to the same-sex) and not simply because all this just goes against everything I was told to be and screams rebellion, but because that is who I am now, and I am genuinely happy and comfortable with that myself. And, now I would like to live honestly, fully and openly with myself, and with others around me. I do not wish to hide. I wish to share, and I wish to be all that with those whom I love and those who love me. I feel that constitutes a fundamental part of who I am as a human being; as a cis gay/queer male.
What society can deem a strong, socially acceptable “man” often at the expense of the”honest” man. Yet, from personal experiences, acceptance and honesty from those around me (from many of my compassionate and supportive friends and family) made me belong and”fit in” but, in my own way and as myself. As it has not only been a great source of comfort, psychological well-being, liberation and strength on a personal level, but also it has pushed me to go even further. To take small steps to increase this expansion of resilience and resistance to craft more spaces, opportunities and bonds to which this can support (and include) others too, and not simply/selfishly myself.
Finally, it seems to me being queer and being “sensitive” is what sort of compels me to speak “truth” to power and to challenge what is stable oppression inflicted on others too, whom I see a common struggle with. Whether they are indigenous communities, women and other marginalized groups who face a crisis of marginalization and of belonging, and who are experiencing the major crisis of a decline in human rights. Yes, we are all priorities, but we also shouldn’t be afraid to sometimes confront said “allies”. For together, we learn from each other, we discuss, we challenge, and we push for the total dismantling of silence, that upholds interlinking unjust social structures and oppression(s) that are built on our obedient silence and marginalization of different ‘others’. And in the end, how can one be true to oneself, how can one embrace oneself and others, without that emotional honesty that makes oneself fully alive with integrity and dignity?
Thus, I appreciate and owe ‘queerness’ as it has truly (provided) powerful means to question rigid exclusive notions of “manhood”, “nationhood” and anything (whose existence and continuation) is supposedly reliant on status quo, exclusion and marginalization. Anything reliant on silence and on the system of all the harmful binaries of today. For nothing is simply only black or white. So, along with questioning manhood and disturbing the oppressive tenets of hetero-patriarchy, I rebel for my own sake and for my own liberation. But, also for the sake of a more healthy and honest manhood, (and in a sense a more encompassing and inclusive nationhood) that does not have to be all-controlling, but accepting, loving, resilient, emotionally honest in various ways and open. But, at the same time, “questioning” per se is not enough when what we need and *deserve* is structural and systemic changes.
Yeah it seems not much to ask for, but it’s everything to ask for, if you think about it in the heterosexist, homophobic. militaristic, racist, patriarchal and neo-liberal capitalist world of today. Okay, too much, right?
Still, I often try as much as I can to distance myself from being this kind of “soldier”. The one in service of injustice, of patriarchal domination, of tradition and for the maintenance and entrenchment of unjust status quo(s). Nonetheless, coming to terms with being sensitive as a man has been a daunting task. It has been quite painful to unlearn prejudices, to unlearn sexism and homophobia that prevented me from seeing the full and equal humanity of not just others, but of myself. My own sense of worth, self-esteem, well-being and full dignity has been under immense pressure for quite a while…But, very luckily, I have had to all that revisiting with the also immense support of compassionate and understanding others. Be they my own family, friends or loved ones, or people/writers whose words resonated in many ways with my own struggle. They are all (especially the remarkable feminists and inspiring queers, and writers from all around the world) whom I have learned and continue to learn and unlearn from (so much!). It has been a privilege, and an honour to be on this exhausting(yet needed) process of (un)learning and of self-reflection. That crucially needs to be done -as painful as it is- especially as I was never taught or encouraged to be sensitive, to be emotionally honest or emotionally powerful (hah?) as a man, let alone to fully embrace it.
As a boy, perhaps. But, not as a man. And certainly, not as a soldier.