Some time after the movie ‘Rang De Basanti’ had released, a group of young men in Pune were brought together for a discussion on risk taking behaviours. These were youngsters who were tagged as ‘unruly’ on their college campuses.
Topping a long list of 52 ‘dares’ that they identified they had taken or wished to take was the iconic scene from the movie in which beer bottles are guzzled in one gulp by Aamir Khan’s character and his accompanying friends even as they are precariously perched on a height.
Other risks identified by the Pune youth included jumping over Bushi dam in Lonavala when it is in spate, a feat that regularly claims lives and is widely reported in the media, making hoax bomb calls, another prank that commonly features in the news, and proposing before friends to a girl who is unknown, a staple scene in Indian films.
This identification of risks led the youngsters to understand that their perception of risk taking was influenced by what was happening around them at the time. It was dynamic and malleable, and most importantly, they understood that risk taking was a learned male behaviour, it did not emerge biologically. They also said that in performing these risks they wanted to prove that they were different – better – than other men, a discussion that helped them perceive that behaviours framed as masculine were a process of creating ‘superior’ men. Some of them concluded it was okay not to take risks, that they did not need to indulge in such performances aimed at projecting strength and uniqueness to establish their male identity.
The angry young man is getting angrier
Reflecting on the idea of the Indian man’s masculinity is at the centre of the work with men and boys on gender that has been taking place in the country in the past 15-20 years. Understanding patriarchy and masculinities is being seen as key to achieve gender equality.
“Working on masculinities with men is conceptually different and potentially deeper and more sustaining than just mobilising men and boys to stop gender based violence,” differentiates masculinities’ trainer Anand Pawar. Pawar had conducted the sessions with the youth in Pune as part of an HIV/AIDS prevention programme that was taken well beyond mitigating sexual risk-taking behaviour to examining the construction of masculinities in the context of all forms of risk taking by men.
A new form of Indian masculinity is influenced powerfully by the market forces of globalisation with its increasing disparities and competitiveness, and by virulent forms of nationalism and religious fundamentalism. It is in the process of being shaped, one that is ready to commit violence in society and even on the self and family to save the so-called honour of family, community, nation and religion.
“Legitimisation of this violence in the garb of justice is found in the media’s glorification of violence and revenge as it bays for the blood of rapists, the country’s ‘traitors’ and even sporting ‘enemies,” points out gender and media commentator, Nasiruddin. The image that is being continuously manufactured is that of an angry, aggressive man who is like a superhero protector establishing control in battlegrounds against a constructed ‘other’.
This construction of the dominant, violent Indian male who is at liberty to go from road rage to ‘sports rage’ has direct linkages with growing gender violence. Men see themselves as the active players with impunity to display violence, strength and power, as opposed to women. Like the nation and religion, male honour in South Asia lies also in the bodies of women. Its perceived violation is an offence inviting punishment either for the transgressing women or a revenge violation of the ‘enemy’s’ women. That is why we continue to see honour killings, mass rapes and brutalities like Muzzafarnagar in recent times.
In individual instances too, there are increasing sexual attacks on women and other derogatory assaults on them including through social media, aimed at reinforcing patriarchal norms. An example is the vicious trolling of cricketer Mohammad Shami and his wife Hasin Jahan for affronting culturally sanctioned and increasingly tightening mores of dress and behaviour.
It’s a view of masculinity that also leaves no room for acceptance of non-heteronormative masculinities, where there is intolerance and violence towards the spectrum of sexualities that encompass homosexuals, transgenders and others. Subhash Mendhapurkar, a gender activist, says, “A homogenisation and stamping out of diversity are the trademarks of this new masculinity that has left behind the region’s earlier syncretic traditions of plurality and acceptance of androgyny and feminine characteristics.”
Working on masculinities for women’s rights
Over a decade of working intensively with men and boys within communities on issues of gender justice and masculinities, practitioners have evolved certain paradigms on how to mobilise men and support the work on women’s rights to be more effective.
Social activists Abhijit Das and Satish Kumar Singh, who are among the pioneers in developing the work with men, say, “During many years of our work with women we realised that even women who were economically empowered and in public life had no controls on their mobility and autonomy. In addition, there was no reduction in norms like dowry, sex selection, women’s unequal share in property and their burden of contraception, even as women and girls had poorer health, education and economic indicators and also faced very high rates of violence in public and private.”
Methods were developed for groups of men to examine gender power relations particularly in the sphere of home and family. Organisations like MAVA (Men Against Violence and Abuse) in Maharashtra, networks like MASVAW (Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women) in UP, the Samajdar Jodidar programme in Maharashtra and the ‘Chuppi Todo, Hinsa Roko’ campaign in north India started having an impact in hundreds of villages, communities and some universities. The movement has since grown with the FEM (Forum to Engage Men) network and Ek Saath national campaign.
The key to this mobilising is sustained engagement with men for reflecting on their gender privileges and difference in access to spaces and opportunities. “A huge sense of male entitlement is built, particularly in South Asia, due to the unequal distribution of power and women’s position in family, community and larger structures of state and market. A hegemonic masculinity threatened by any form of women’s empowerment has been created,” say Das and Singh.
Transformative change in men’s relationships sustains gender equality
The work with men operates on the principle of identifying men in the community who are uncomfortable with the high levels of violence and discrimination against women but are silent bystanders due to social compulsions. A consciousness change takes place when they are engaged in reflecting on their male privileges, realising the values of equality, and the burdens of a masculinity pressuring them to be providers, decision makers and sexually virile even as it restricts them emotionally.
Personal actions for gender equality are initiated, like sharing domestic work, caring for the children and developing close relationships with them, and lessening sexual jealousies and establishing mutual trust with the wife. Along their trajectory of change, the men are able to identify and collectively challenge discriminatory norms in the community. It is helpful for men to work with each other in peer groups that support this process of change. The collective is also a support against resistance by patriarchal forces.
Thus, in districts in Maharashtra where men’s groups have been mobilised since 2010, dozens of villages have eliminated the practice of dowry, achieved complete joint ownership of property between husbands and wives, women’s gram sabhas have been revived, women are supported in standing for panchayat elections and positions of authority, they enter temples where they were earlier denied, and health and anganwadi services are greatly improved. Moreover, it has been found that the work with men in analysing patriarchal structures also helps them analyse and challenge other intersecting inequalities of caste and class, reducing social tensions in the community.
The resistance to men going against discriminatory norms can be immense. In Sholapur district’s Boregaon village Manikchand Dhanashetty, a men’s group member who was sensitised enough to protest against entrenched forces holding back social equality says, “I faced threats, ridicule, isolation and resistance to my efforts towards equality even from my wife and mother, at first.” Eventually, he says, “Establishing close relationships with my children and wife, and the fact that a woman in our area won the sarpanch election for the first time ever were my rewards. Boregaon also is very different with its apathy to injustice broken.”
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