By Suvanshkriti Singh
Let me begin with a confession. There are times I find myself feeling wary — and weary — when a conversation on gender inequality begins to shift its focus toward men. In my unease I sense seeds of the same disdain which, until a few years ago (and, on some unfortunate occasions, even now), would meet my invocation of feminism. In such instances, I check myself, not wanting to break faith with a feminist education that has taught me better than to reduce the world into a battle of the sexes.
Realistically considered, a gender equitable utopia is an impossible outcome in a model premised on zero-sum interactions. The United Nations, in fact, estimates that given present global attitudes, such a world is 136 years away. Maybe just a tad longer than I can, in good conscience, wait.
Men, I know, must be a part of the conversation — just as I know that the patriarchy that cramps and censors women also boxes up men. But, what are the contours of this box in which men are placed? What are its dimensions, how much breathing space does it afford? What kinds of conversations are possible within it — and without?
Machismo and its discontents
Deepa Narayan is a social science researcher, author, and, most recently, host of the podcast What’s A Man? Masculinity in India. The podcast, a research-in-process, aims to unpack the inner lives of Indian men and boys. Unsurprisingly, her first finding is that “men’s definitions of masculinity are very narrow, very macho”. It doesn’t take a scholar to recognise in these narrow ideals of machismo the roots of rape culture. But, Dr Narayan’s interest lies in the mechanism of this transformation, especially in tracing the ways in which masculinity moulds men.
What she finds is years of indoctrination, subliminal and explicit, forcing boys, adolescents, and then men to repress their emotions, deny their fears, and embody a strength characterised by dispassionate self-sufficiency. They are taught to be protectors and providers. “There is so much pressure on men to be masculine all the time that they just compete with each other constantly. So, it takes a lot for men to share their doubts, to share what’s not working,” Dr Narayan says. Repudiated though they may be, these insecurities, ranging from anxiety regarding their bodies and confusion over their sexual impulses to struggles with depression and unfulfilled longings for displays of fatherly affection, are never far from the surface. And therein, she asserts, lies the rub. “Men just don’t have permission to cry, to be depressed and unsure, all of which comes out in violence.”
This violence is as often psychic and directed inward as it is physical and directed outward. In 2019, the most recent set of data available with the National Crime Records Bureau, more than twice as many adult men committed suicide as adult women. For persons between 30 and 45 years of age, the difference was more than triple. These statistics sit somewhat uncomfortably with the fact that women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression as men, the range of biological and social factors affecting women’s health being better understood.
For Neeharika Jaiswal, a Delhi-based psychiatrist, this disparity is explained by the pervasiveness of rigid ideals of masculinity. “Certain disorders are not even detected in males because of the stereotypes we have about men,” she says, adding that “they have been taught to suppress their discomfort and pretend that everything is alright for so long that many males don’t even realise they suffer from clinical disorders, let alone seek treatment.”
Conversations on mental health are still not normalised in Indian society — although this is thankfully changing — and combined with the expectation of stoic machismo, men are dealt a double whammy. Dr Jaiswal’s male patients tend to be in the age bracket of 35 to 45 years, nearly all of them only seek her help when they’ve already “come to the point where they have become plainly, sometimes even severely, dysfunctional, and don’t really have a choice otherwise”. And, even then, many of them often have to be brought in by their families.
A thousand small sanities
No one seems to be happy with the notions of masculinity that have been paraded about for entirely too long. Women find it makes the world a more burdensome, more hostile, less safe place. Men are inclined to agree. It’s a fertile field for change. And change is certainly afoot.
Within the academy, there is a growing challenge to the culturally valourised one-dimensional machismo. Shelly Pandey, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the Goa Institute of Management, whose research focuses on gender, work, and culture, explains that there have always been various forms of masculinities through which men practise manhood in our societies. Masculinities, too, are influenced by the intersections of caste, class, and religion, and must be located through their vulnerable as well as hegemonic forms.
Dr Pandey hopes that the expansion of urban, service-oriented, middle-class in India could be one of the fundamental factors influencing the changes in socialisation. “With nuclear families and women seeking careers outside the home becoming more prevalent, women also face the double burden of balancing home and work. And that is where the discourse of gender equality seeps into the family — mothers will want to bring up their sons in a different way, to lead more equitable lives with women in the future,” she says.
On this last count, she couldn’t be more right.
Sonora Jha is a media scholar, a mother, and author, most recently, of the bracing memoir-manifesto How to Raise A Feminist Son. In the book, Jha’s commitment to feminism is absolute, its need so clearly felt that it seems unimaginable her son could have a full life without being a feminist. However, not everyone was on board with Jha’s expansive understanding of the value and aims of feminism when she was raising her son. And, perhaps, even now the focus on a feminist upbringing is not as central as one would wish. “There are pockets, here and there, that can be pointed to as great examples,” she admits, “but what is needed is a growing trend toward that”. But, she sees the tide turning, surely if slowly.
For one, there is a concerted effort to blur the binary between masculinity and femininity by focusing on the processes through which it is formed. Take, for instance, Rajat Mittal, software engineer-turned-creative maker. His newsletter series, Boyish — an effort to break stereotypes about gender performance and expand the scope of what being a man can look like — originated, in part, from a father’s instinct to prevent his own son from being limited in the expression of his gender. Mittal’s newsletters narrate the journeys of men in professions as wide ranging as belly dancing and nursing. These are success stories of men who could just as well be my neighbour or yours. But, they constitute equally a sensitive examination of the ways in which non-conformity to the ideals of traditional masculinity are punished, especially in the delicate age that is boyhood. Insofar as they are also stories of pain and perseverance, they lay bare the influence of bullying and peer pressure in the development of men’s gender identity.
For another, issues of masculinity are increasingly becoming a focus area for development and advocacy work. For instance, The YP Foundation (TYPF), a youth development organisation facilitating feminist and rights-based leadership among young people, runs a programme called Mardon Waali Baat, dedicated to engaging young men and boys in investigating and reflecting on their own masculinities to reject patriarchal norms that lead to gender-based violence. It also aims to impart a comprehensive sexuality education for adolescents, focusing on sexual, reproductive and health rights.
Finally, there is popular culture and media representation. In Bollywood films, the traditional tropes of masculinity — options run the gamut from abusive alcoholic to entitled nice guy — have not yet been retired for good. But, setting off that toxicity are offerings like Udaan, Tanu Weds Manu, Aligarh, and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, films in which the masculinity of the male protagonists is not threatened by their gentleness or vulnerabilities. A secure masculinity, a masculinity at ease with itself, we are beginning to be told, doesn’t need to announce itself aggressively. It doesn’t hurt that one of the most popular male icons from the Hindi film industry can sport skirts with as much ease as he does tuxedos, and execute a homoerotic scene with as much conviction as he plays a gunda.
Dr Narayan’s research, Jha’s book, Mittal’s newsletters, and the development work of TYPF is united in insisting on taking at face value the pressures men — whether or not they subscribe to rigid gender norms — face in a patriarchal world. This, of course, is admirable. Yet, there remains the problem of balance. How does one address these pressures while also confronting the privileges conferred on maleness? More so, when the pressures stem from the privileges.
This, I am told, is an internal dilemma all development professionals working on masculinities face. Avali Khare, programme coordinator for Mardon Waali Baat, says, “When young men and boys have conversations around gender, they have a tendency to quickly label themselves as victims, to read their privileges as vulnerabilities and oppressions.” The dilemma then, they explain, is to create a space for men and boys to reflect on the oppressions without denying the fact that those oppressions have also already been privileges. For, only a few casual missteps separate this healthy, even essential, focus on men’s experiences of patriarchy from an attitude that justifies hashtags of NotAllMen or Meninism and misogynist subcultures like the incel movement.
Khare goes a step further. For them, “it is crucial that boys’ and men’s understanding of their oppression is cognisant of the fact that the violence perpetrated because of the experience of violence in itself is a privilege only afforded to them”. So, too, is the recognition that challenging some patriarchal norm doesn’t mean that one can claim to be no longer privileged.
Dr Narayan, too, is emphatic in maintaining that understating men’s problems and perspectives on their own terms is not to let go of accountability. Tangible strategies for keeping one’s eye on both balls, however, is rather a harder nut to crack, if you’ll forgive the puns.
The obvious answer, reflective conversation, only raises more questions. What are the spaces where these conversations can be safely broached? On whom does the burden to initiate them fall?
In this regard, Manak Matiyani, feminist, queer activist, and executive director at TYPF, is of the opinion that the answers are relatively more straightforward when it comes to young boys — though not, by any means, easy. This is, in large part, due to the existence of a policy framework for the well-being and education of children and adolescents around which institutional and civil society support may be galvanised. The other contributing factor, of course, is that attitudes toward gender are much easier to influence when socialisation is not yet complete.
While recognising that not all men have had the advantages of feminist interventions or upbringing, Matiyani holds men accountable for educating themselves. “At least for men in urban spaces, there is enough material on the internet for them not to expect other genders who face the brunt of belligerent masculinity to come and educate men on why they should not be aggressive,” he states. For Jha, too, “Fixing sexism and misogyny should not be the burden of women.” Her incentive for men to break out of the mould of an old and ailing masculinity:
“There is more love on the other side.”
In spirit, Mittal agrees. As a father, he is committed to re-educating himself. Childhood training, however, can be insidious. “Much as I would like to say that I have been able to let go of that conditioning, it is truly hard to drive to zero 20-25 years of conditioning,” he says. For Mittal, the project is one that must be undertaken on a daily basis, with the hope that one slowly minimises the effects of a patriarchal upbringing.
Queering the endgame
Gender is not easy — it isn’t easy to learn, or perform, or unlearn. Perhaps, then, there is something to be said for queering the very notion of gender. It may not be possible, in our lifetimes, to move beyond a patriarchal world, with its attendant systems of stratification. But, perhaps, considering everything we’re denied by keepin’ the divide is not a bad place to start.
There is so much pressure on men to be masculine that they just compete with each other constantly. So, it takes a lot for men to share their doubts, to share what’s not working
— Deepa Narayan, social scientist and host of podcast What’s A Man? Masculinity in India
When young men and boys have conversations around gender, they have a tendency to quickly label themselves as victims, to read
their privileges as vulnerabilities and oppressions
— Avali Khare, coordinator for Mardon Waali Baat, The YP Foundation
Fixing sexism and misogyny should not be the burden of women
— Sonora Jha, author, How to Raise A Feminist Son
It is truly hard to drive to zero 20-25 years of conditioning. The project must be undertaken on a daily basis, with the hope that one slowly minimises the effects of a patriarchal upbringing
— Rajat Mittal, creative maker, Boyish, a newsletter to break stereotypes about gender performance
Certain disorders are not even detected in males because of the stereotypes we have about men. They have been taught to suppress their discomfort and pretend everything is alright for so long that many don’t even realise they suffer from clinical disorders, let alone
— Neeharika Jaiswal, Delhi-based psychiatrist
Suvanshkriti Singh is a freelancer