Hand-holding is the latest touchy subject


Hand-holding is the latest touchy subject

When I was growing up, there was nothing unusual about boys holding hands in a show of friendship, comfort and solidarity. But it's another practice under threat from Western notions of masculinity, writes ISMAIL LAGARDIEN.


I RECENTLY made a single comment on a social platform (TikTok) that I have not used in any significant way. I left Facebook many years ago because it had become like the filter of a sewer system; it collected all the nasty bits of human activity. I abandoned Twitter, before it became “X”, because of abuse and threats from our favourite revolutionaries. I left Threads this week because I really could not be bothered to even consider the views some people.

I don’t always get it right, but there are writers and intellectuals who are  unimaginative, predictable and certain to the point that what they write is tedious and boring. Without fail, you know which side of every state of affairs they will take, and what opinion they will defend. There is an ideological component which is exhausting, and that verges on being exhausted. 

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

I started using Instagram more than a decade ago because photography was (and remains) a big part of my life. But it, too, is becoming seedy. TikTok is becoming a horror show. I am not sure how the algorithm reached the conclusion that I am interested in Holocaust denialism, which in the case that keeps popping up is promoted by someone who self-identifies as “Rhodesian”.

The post I responded to was by a US commentator and public intellectual on the extreme right of a conventional spectrum. I am, of course, being ideological myself. Candace Owens is mean and offensive, besides being a vocal (sometimes confused) supporter of Donald Trump, opposing Black Lives Matter and hating on Colin Kaepernick, the former gridiron player who decided to go down on a knee when the US anthem was sung at the start of a sports match. I am not a fan of national anthems, especially not ones that promote or celebrate war, conquest and injustice. The Washington Post reminded readers of the beginnings of Francis Scott Key’s poem of war: 

“Before the now famous and familiar refrain in the third verse, ‘And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave/ Oer the land of the free and the home of the brave', Key’s original lyrics made clear that the people of colour who aspired to emancipation would pay for their impudence: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” The assumption of white supremacy and black slavery was integral to Key’s patriotism.”

Men holding hands and the end of all that

I am taking much too long to get to the point. The TikTok post took offence at two adult women holding hands. Owens commented on a picture of the musician Taylor Swift and a female friend holding hands in public, saying: “It (two women holding hands) should make you cringe… two 34 year old woman [sic] do not hold hands”.

My immediate thought cannot be repeated here. It made me think, though, about changes in sensibilities, selective moralities, and how we have (correctly) started erring on the side of caution. But I still have no problem with holding hands with a male of our species. It’s more than that, though. Perhaps more people will remember this, but my childhood was spent in the coloured, Indian and African townships, so I can only speak about that.

When I was growing up, there was nothing unusual about boys holding hands. Also, when we found patches in the khakibos, we would sommer lay down and rest our heads on the bodies (stomach, thighs or crotch) of other boys. Normal does not begin to describe it. I suspect it happened in Afrikaans communities, too, but as mentioned, I don’t know. The only white people I knew were those I saw in films, or whose voices I heard on the wireless. For a long time I did not even know they were “white”.

Before I get to more details of the custom, habit or tradition of boys and men holding hands, I have over the past couple of years experienced what I came to understand as “touch starvation”. I guess it’s part of the life I chose; sitting at the desk writing and on chairs reading, then cooking, cleaning and the rest of it keeps me busy. I would learn that there really is such a thing as being “touch starved”. I first learnt about it (not knowing the concept) in a study I read almost four decades ago about how newborns need to be held by humans.

I am not keen on new-age things. I upset a good friend when I dismissed her comments about “spiritual healing” and other Deepak Chopra nonsense. It’s an old cliché, but I spent almost all my childhood and teen years with paraffin lamps, a Primus stove and candlelight; I don’t get the value of lighting candles for the dead or any reason other than Eskom. Winternag and Daffodils are beautiful and evocative poems but neither helps me put food on the table or pay for medical insurance.  Sorry. Actually, whenever I read some commentaries I remember Roy Campbell’s words: “You praise the firm restraint with which they write — I'm with you there, of course: they use the snaffle and the curb all right, but where's the bloody horse?" So I’m being a bit disingenuous.

In most communities it is common to see men holding hands. In my second meeting with Nelson Mandela, he held my hand while talking to me. In my all too limited time in India, I was thrilled to see boys (and grown-up men) holding hands as a sign of friendship. It is a tradition or custom that grows into adulthood. Women, too, hold hands. It’s never about sexuality, it’s about friendship, comfort and solidarity.

In the regions in eastern and southeastern Asia where I spent a lot of time over the past four decades, the tradition runs deep. Males holding hands or sharing physical space is normal in many places in Asia. There are, of course, countries where the “morality police” will arrest unmarried men and women who hold hands; we cannot ignore that.

In the US, men holding hands (and, once, my wearing a sarong) is greeted with jeers of “faggot” and “girly-men”. Unlike in places across Africa and Asia, there is a lot more “competition” among males and much less contact, trust or solidarity. Men holding hands has nothing to do with homosexuality.


Where men are guests in their home

On an only slightly related note, I expect to be travelling back and forth to central, eastern and southeastern Asia in 2024. I will, of course, not surrender this column — not until I am asked to, and not even if I become a millionaire. My travels will be funded because some people think I have contributions to make; people have terribly low standards.

One of the peoples of southeast Asia whom I find especially interesting are the Minangkabau who live on Sumatra and the west coast of Malaysia. They are one of the last remaining matrilineal societies. In the Minangkabau home, the man is a guest. Women inherit homes and land, and men (sons and husbands) have to make do with scraps of property. The sons have to leave home to learn, but upon return they are back in their place. Much of the Minangkabau culture is being eroded by the “advances” of late capitalism: communication, travel and urbanisation (away from traditional villages).

While Minangkabau culture and customs are gradually being eroded, the core tradition of women as “owners” and leaders of homes, villages and society remains intact. This is sometimes referred to “women-rule”, other times as “mother-rule”. The Minangkabau are more stable in the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan, where greater efforts are under way to preserve the culture than elsewhere. Among my interests in Minangkabau are their architecture and the balance they have struck with community life and the environment. These are separate discussions.

Men holding hands, as a practice or custom of friendship, solidarity or simply contact, is under threat from a society where time and energy is spent on mechanisation and automation, the redundancy of human touch, and where masculinity remains dominant. Manliness, such as it is, really is not important, unless you think it is and that “boys will be boys” and that “locker-room talk” normalising “grabbing women” by the genitals, as Trump has said, is acceptable. It’s hard to imagine Trump living in a Minangkabau home in Negeri Sembilan. I’m being silly. But sillier is the idea, as the TikTok post suggests, that two adult women cannot hold hands. I guess in the mind of some folk, men holding hands is even worse.


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