Papagomo and the crisis of masculinity

FEBRUARY 7 — “Anyone called a brother or husband or father would do the same thing I did.” That was the response by blogger Wan Azri Wan Deris, also known as Papagomo, after he not only beat up a foreign worker for allegedly harassing four women he knew, but recorded the whole confrontation and posted it online for others to see.

The four-minute video which has since gone viral showed how Wan Azri, together with six other men, confronted three foreign workers before singling one out, purportedly a Pakistani worker.

He was then recorded repeatedly slapping, punching and kicking the man. One of his men joined in with another slap. There was no mistaking what had occurred.

On Friday, already a few days after the original video was posted, the police announced that they would investigate Wan Azri for his vigilantism. But you can imagine how easily he could have got away with the physical assault if the issue did not turn viral.

But first, a recap of his return to the media limelight. In the run-up to the 13th general elections, Wan Azri was a popular anti-opposition blogger.

But the former police officer was disgraced after he lost a defamation suit against then Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. As Papagomo, Wan Azri had accused Anwar of a sex scandal, and therefore immoral and unfit for public office.

He was ordered to pay RM800,000 in damages. Since then, he has been laying low, staging his comeback.

Blogger Papagomo in a 2014 picture at the time when he was sued for defamation by then Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. — Picture by Pathmawathy Subramaniam
Blogger Papagomo in a 2014 picture at the time when he was sued for defamation by then Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. — Picture by Pathmawathy Subramaniam

Wan Azri went to the gym religiously. He reinvented himself as “Sir Azri”, a far cry from his previous sleazy-sounding moniker. He joined in the racial Low Yat scuffle last year. But yet, Sir Azri arguably has not been as big as Papagomo was.

Now, every man dreams of being a hero. And soon Wan Azri found his crusade: sexual harassment.

Claiming that his two sisters, together with two other women, were sexually harassed by foreign workers, Wan Azri took the step to “teach a lesson” by way of a beat-up.

He was so near the right track. In his defence ever since the video blew up, Wan Azri said “sexual harassment cannot be accepted in society, not only in Malaysia, but the whole world.” He admitted that he had previously been blind towards the issue, and hoped the authorities would take it more seriously.

It is a pity then, that his response — one which will be copied by many as a preferred way to tackle sexual harassment — is violence against other men.

In a way, it is symptomatic of the so-called “crisis in masculinity” that is sweeping the whole world, and inevitably, Malaysian men too.

Times have changed. Women are realising that they do not need to be confined to traditional gender roles. More women are outperforming men in academia and the workplace, while more are challenging established privileges held by men.

Some men are rolling with the changes, even enabling them. More husbands are pitching in with housework, and are only glad to be more hands-on with parenting.

At the same time, the boundaries of gender identities and sexual preferences are being blurred.

Suddenly, being a man is no longer as obvious as being a heterosexual cis-male. This makes things scary for some men. And deeply insecure.

And yet, some parts of society are slow to adapt. There is massive inertia towards gender equality.

Malay men are still driven by the Muslim sentiment that only men should be the caliphs of the mortal world, while women were merely created from men’s rib bone to be their companions.

A common response to this confusion is for men to assert their “masculinity” the only way they know how: aggression.

Recently, “neo-masculinists” led by one Roosh V called for global rallies to galvanise like-minded men who argue that gender equality is a myth, and women’s nature is to be “feminine.” It was cancelled, purportedly after “security concerns” from counter-protests.

Add that to the “seduction community” that Roosh belongs to — pick-up conmen masquerading as artists, selling emotional manipulation and sexual harassment by seeing women as simply “games” where they can “score” and subsequently “win.”

Then there are the so-called “meninists”: Internet trolls whose arguments against recognising women as fellow human beings tend to be reduced to just strawmen and extreme caricatures of feminism.

For some men, the only way they can be more masculine is to push women back to “where they belong.”

In Wan Azri’s case, he is being emboldened by the 1.5 million shares of the video on Facebook, and the encouragement that he has received from women who see him as a “gentleman”, “protective”, and “doing what is right.”

In his world and many others, women should just flock under men’s wings, and they will be safe.

But in truth, such violence rarely do women any favours.

If anything, women are being taught that they should not stand up for themselves and confront harassers on their own. But rather, to leave it in the hands of men, or rather, their fists.

Similarly, men are not being taught to respect women, but just to refrain from sexual innuendos. Not as a recognition of a woman’s position, but to respect the men who happen to be a father or brother or husband of that woman.

By choosing vigilantism, it will only encourage indifference and negligence on the part of the police when it comes to public safety, especially women.

It is evident why Wan Azri did what he did. It might well be for the women’s sake, but it was as much for his honour and to reassure himself of his masculinity.

“I am not a gangster but I am a man who is a brother to my sisters,” he explained himself on Facebook. “Should I have let ugly things happen to my sisters, and only then cry like a sissy?”

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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