Masculinities and Practices of Memorialization

Memorial for the Missing Perons in Argentina

Bojana Djokanovic and Rachele Sbrissa examine the impact of gender on memorializing the missing.

Globally, the majority of people who go missing from armed conflict and human rights abuses are men  and boys. This means that memorialization practices are mostly centered on the experiences and practices of women mourning and commemorating the death or enforced disappearance of male family members. While recognizing this fact, this article seeks to consider the practices of male commemoration and memorialization and to offer some thoughts on why these practices differ from those of women.

R.W. Connell, one of the most prominent theoreticians of the studies of masculinities, argues that gender and masculinity have to be understood as social practice structures reproduced within daily actions and historical settings ―masculinity is inherently relational and does not exist except in contrast to femininity.[1] Thus, like femininity, masculinity is a social construct and is defined as everything that femininity is not: in other words, it relies on a whole set of dualities, such as: active/passive, strong/weak, productive/reproductive, dominant/subordinate. Social practices are learned and internalized from a very young age – starting from the family, through school and socialization with other children, and then institutionalized through the media, through state apparatuses and through general day-to-day practices.

Writer and consultant Nikki Van Der Gaag notes that “[o]ne of the strongest messages given to boys today, even at a very young age, is: ‘Big boys don’t cry.’“ [2] She cites the US masculinities expert Jackson Katz, who states that “boys and men learn early on that being a so-called ‘real man’ means you…have to show the world only certain parts of yourself that the dominant culture has defined as manly. The qualities of a ‘real man’ are defined by: a real man is physical, strong, independent, intimidating, powerful, in control, rugged, scares people, respected, hard, a stud, athletic, muscular, a real man is tough.” [3] “Being tough also means not talking about your emotions…boys are silent.”[4]

Regarding dominant traits of masculinities, it is important to note that, as Aleksandra Milicevic suggests in a paper on nationalism and war in the former Yugoslavia, “men have to be prepared to sacrifice themselves in order to protect not only their women (mothers, daughters, and wives), but also their nation. Real men, thus, are seen as warriors, guardians and heroes of the nation.” [5] These ascribed roles become very useful in times of conflict and are a significant means of mobilizing men to protect their nation, territory, household, and of course, women. However, the question that arises is what happens with these traits and expectations once the conflict ends and men go home to find that society no longer needs them to fulfill these roles? And how are warriors and guardians expected to express their grief and mourn their disappeared or killed relatives if they are meant to be strong, tough and ruthless?

In this respect, it can be argued that men and women, as a consequence of their gender role socialization, are likely to exhibit different grieving patterns. Grief is an emotion, but also a social construct, “shaped to a large extent by dominant gender expectations, rather than a ‘natural’ response to loss”.[6] Mourning is also a social construct as far as it represents a set of expectations as to how a person should cope with the loss of a dear one.[7]

Two recognized grieving patterns are intuitive and instrumental. When a person grieves intuitively, a high intensity of affective expressions is displayed, often at the expense of functional cognition, and this is considered to be feminine and emotional.[8] Instrumental grief, on the other hand, often identified as being more masculine, is characterized by higher levels of personal control and the diversion of energy away from the expression of feelings and toward strategies and activities that will help the individual master the situation.[9] Alexis Versalle and Eugene McDowell point out that in traditional patriarchal societies, women are raised to be more passive and dependent as well as more emotionally expressive than men, while men are raised to be decisive, strong, successful, and inexpressive. [10] At the same time, within patriarchal societies, men hold the power of hegemony and impose their codes of conduct and their expectations on women and on other men who are effeminate or who are not considered to be masculine enough. This link between hegemony, power and masculinities places men, the dominant group, hierarchically above others. Patriarchy in that sense is the visible expression of the connection between men, gender and power.[11] In line with this pattern, in the quest of their need for independence, autonomy, and protection of their place in the hierarchy, men are socially and personally discouraged from expressing grief so as not to be seen as lacking independence and being feminine.

Impunity Watch reported in 2012 that while it might appear equally difficult for men and women to live without knowing the fate or whereabouts of a loved one, women who were interviewed felt they were worse off than men.[12]

“Every war survivor is worth compassion…but the mothers looking for their missing children are in the worst position by far: ‘We are talking about flesh and blood, a child you carried for nine months and then gave birth to… a child who was taken away from you and of whose whereabouts you now know nothing. How can you as a mother possibly move on?’”[13]

It is worth noting that this statement reflects societal notions of motherly roles – suggesting that mother instincts are always stronger than those of fathers and that the most significant societal role given to women is that of mother.

On another note, women experience more socio-economic problems when they are dependent on only one income to support a family. Women whose husbands have disappeared more often than not remain single, refusing to remarry, while men who have lost their wives are more likely to remarry.[14] Traditionally not expected to perform the role of a breadwinner – since this role is ascribed to men – women find themselves in additionally challenging socio-economic positions following the death or disappearance of a husband.

Significantly, the Impunity Watch report highlights the fact that little is known about how men deal with loss since they are more reluctant to seek help[15] and characteristically avoid overt displays of emption, which may be a consequence of general societal expectations – where women can publicly mourn over the loss of a child, for example, men are expected not to show emotions and to be strong.[16]

Similar grieving patterns have been seen in the case of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, in Argentina where a great number of young men between the ages of 20 and 30, but also teenagers, children and elderly people, disappeared under the military regime in the mid-1970s. The army kidnapped individuals, hiding information about their whereabouts. Searching for their missing sons and daughters, Argentinian mothers came together, forming a new organization which, since 1977, has met regularly in the main square of Buenos Aires and staged protests. Discussing the absence of fathers in the Argentinian movement, Şehitnur Kürüm explains that mothers and fathers of the missing were affected by the disappearance of their loved ones differently, suggesting that fathers were likely to acknowledge and accept the situation more quickly in comparison to mothers: “[i]n the course of time, fathers believed they could not overcome the wall constructed by the military junta; therefore they consider that it would be useless insisting on asking for the fate of their missing children. After pursuing each place that the families could go by themselves or with the help of a human rights organization, they noticed all they did was hope for the impossible – finding the disappeared. Eventually, they decided to behave ‘rationally’ and acknowledged the situation of the disappearance of their children, and gave up fighting the military junta publicly.”[17]

It is important to note that while gender role socialization influences grieving patterns, it may not be the determining factor.[18] For instance, intuitive and instrumental grieving practices may be viewed as part of a continuum and do not always mirror the gender of the griever: there may be women who grieve in an instrumental way and men who are prone to intuitive mourning. Nevertheless, as a consequence of societal constraints placed on the role of men, those who experience grief in a strongly intuitive way may be limited in their expression and adaptation to a greater extent than women.[19]

Memorialization is a key issue in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s post-conflict recovery. ICMP’s Missing Persons from the Armed Conflict of the 1990s: A Stocktaking cites a figure of 32,152 people reported missing as a result of the conflict of the 1990s, of whom almost 87 percent were men.[20] Consequently, attention has been focused on women, who have been statistically more numerous and therefore more visible in the role of mourners, while less attention has been focused on male mourners.

However, in some parts of the country, for example in Prijedor, in the North West, men have been active participants in the search for missing children, wives and other family members. Each year, together with women, men take part in marking “White Armband Day” on 31 May and are as prominent as women in memorialization practices and in expressing their demands to the authorities to release information regarding the whereabouts of their missing relatives and seeking permission to build a memorial for their missing children.

From what has been presented in this article, it is possible to conclude that, primarily as a consequence of societal gender roles ascribed to them, men and women have different ways of expressing grief and mourning. These different grieving patterns should not be viewed as an indicator of the depth of sorrow but as a reflection of social factors.

Clearly, more research is needed on the grieving practices of men, in order to shed light on how men deal with disappearance and the search of their loved ones, and also to encourage men to express their emotions publicly, provided they have recognized the constraints placed on them by ascribed gender roles.

[1] Whitehead, S. M. And Barrett, F. J. Eds. ―The Sociology of Masculinity‖. In The Masculinities Reader, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006) : 26

[2] Van der Gaag, Nikki. “Feminism and Men”. 2014:59. Zed Books, London; Fernwood Publishing, Halifax, Winnipeg.

[3] Ibid:59-60

[4] Ibid.

[5] Miličević, A.S. Joining the war: Masculinity, nationalism and war participation in the Balkans war of secession 1991-1995. (London: Routledge, 2006) 268.

[6] Thompson, Neil. “Masculinity and loss” in Field, David, Jennifer Lorna Hockey, & Neil Small. Death, gender, and ethnicity. Psychology Press, 1997, 76-88. 76.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Niemeier, Janet P. Book Review, Journal of Women & Aging: K. J. Doka & T. L. Martin (2010). Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn, 2nd edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Versalle, Alexis & McDowell, Eugene E. “The attitude of men and women concerning gender differences in grief”, OMEGA, Vol. 50(1) 53-67, 2004-2005. 56.

[11] Greig, A., Kimmel, M.& Lang, J. Gender in Development Monograph Series. (UNDP, 2000) 6.

[12] Impunity Watch, 2012. Maja Šoštarić, “War victims and gender-sensitive truth, justice, reparations and non-recurrence in Bosnia and Herzegovina”. 39.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Kürüm, Şehitnur, “Mourning for the disappeared: the case of the Saturday Mothers”, Graduate School of Social Sciences of Istanbul Sehir University, September 2012.

[18] Cfr. Martin, Terry L. & Doka, Kenneth J. “Men Don’t Cry… Women Do – Transcending Gender Stereotypes of Grief”. Taylor & Francis Group, LLC, 2000.

[19] Ibid.

[20] International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). “Bosnia and Herzegovina. Missing Persons from the Armed Conflicts of the 1990s: A Stocktaking”, available at:, (accessed on 20 July 2015).

[KB1]This is not the case with trafficking or migration….