April 15, 2021 5:30:49 pm
How do you define a man? More importantly, how do you define ‘masculinity’? For centuries, in India and around the world, gender roles have trapped men inside the falsehood of machismo. It has caged their thoughts and perpetuated falsities about ‘manhood’. ‘Ladkey rotey nahi‘, and ‘mard ko dard nahi hota‘ are some of the adages that they have picked up from films, furthering a belief that a man is a different species.
But in the last few years, this belief has been challenged. Today, many Indian men are not afraid to cry, or admit they are in pain. Mard ko dard hota hai, and they are unafraid to express that dard. So, amid this constant self-duelling, and unlearning of things, how does the modern man perceive masculinity?
Deepa Narayan, an award-winning researcher, author, social scientist and an advisor to the World Bank, attempted to understand this through her podcast What’s a Man: Masculinity in India. In the 10-episode series, she interviewed 250 middle and upper-class boys — some as young as seven — and men, to understand the different models of masculinity and their consequences.
“How can you achieve gender equality or women’s empowerment without involving men? It’s an insane, incomplete approach. If we want to reduce violence among men, against women and against self, we have to talk to men and listen to them,” she told indianexpress.com recently.
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The idea for the podcast came to Narayan when she was researching for her book ‘Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women‘. “I had interviewed middle class and elite men, but what emerged about educated women was so complex and surprising that I couldn’t do justice to men… And then the pandemic hit. My goal is to open a conversation with men across the gender spectrum and of course between men and women. The more I thought about it, I realised I should do a research-in-process podcast and share now rather than waiting for two years for a book to be published. Of course, I knew nothing about podcasting before I started, but I love it,” she said.
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Given the novelty of the podcast topic, Narayan was met with both “silence” and “laughter”, when she talked to her participants. “When I tell people that I am interviewing men to explore and understand their lives, first there is silence. Often there is laughter, especially from women and men who don’t know what to say.”
“Everyone assumes that educated middle and upper-class men have no real problems, that men themselves are the problem. And that men can’t talk and have no interest in talking about themselves, or that they have no interest in changing themselves. Men feel alone, afraid, unsure and want help. They just can’t ask for help, so it gets very twisted,” Narayan explained.
She added that she observed men feel the pressure to “constantly perform”. “They feel fear — afraid to say anything because they will be attacked by women, or won’t get all the words right. So, it’s almost as if there is a stand-off across genders. All is not well.”
For the first episode of the podcast, the focus was entirely on what ‘masculinity’ means. Unsurprisingly, the answers that Narayan received were indicative. “I asked what is the first image that comes to your mind when you think of a man, or what are the first three words that come to your mind… No matter how the question was asked, the definitions [were always] ‘strong’, ‘muscle’, ‘power’, ‘domination’, ‘control’, ‘authority’ — traits that are considered the opposite of being a woman.”
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“The way ‘power’ is defined by eight-year-old boys automatically excludes women and puts pressure on boys. I remember a seven-year-old boy, who said if he is not “strong” he will be “ashamed”. And these are all boys and men who say everyone is equal,” she told this outlet.
Narayan explained that for the podcast, there was “six months [of] extensive thinking and reading to narrow down the research topic and then start the interviews with men”. Educated middle class and upper-class men from Delhi, Mumbai and other metropolitan cities were chosen, because “we assume gender inequality is a problem of the uneducated poor; it isn’t”.
She, of course, had help. Independent journalist Zehra Naqvi, too, has been working on the podcast, with editing and stitching the interviews, and writing the script. She told indianexpress.com that she envisions this podcast to both comfort people, and to bring grave issues to the forefront. “The podcast is essentially an attempt to create a conversation that includes men, instead of isolating them. Bypassing men has been proving detrimental to the cause of gender justice. Through this podcast, we are attempting to create a bridge, start a conversation, so that we can move towards a state of harmony between genders.”
Narayan said the “biggest surprise” has been that the men “we spoke with, including seven-nine-year-old boys, said men and women are equal”. “So many men in their 40s said: ‘In this day and age, I believe in gender equality’. But, it breaks down quickly when we get into issues of power — who earns money, who makes the decisions. Clearly, we have not had meaningful discussions on equality and everyday behaviours,” she offered.
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The male privilege
While it has been seen that a man is extolled for doing the bare minimum at home, there is also a sense of embarrassment surrounding this privilege, in that they are aware of it — of the fact that the yardstick is much higher for women. “In fact, privilege is the definition of being a man. But, this is true [even] in the US. In Brooklyn, New York — a hipster town — when my son-in-law used to push the baby carriage down the street, he would attract attention and at coffee shops, women would say nice things to him. But, a woman pushing a pram, for example, is normal. It is expected and if she is not looking suitably adoring or smiling, she is quickly judged as not [being] a ‘good enough’ mother,” Narayan shared.
When she first thought of doing the interviews, Narayan had wanted to “limit it to caring behaviour”. “I am glad I didn’t as it is revealing to look at large-scale surveys. [Economist] Ashwini Deshpande’s research shows initially, men were more involved in housework, but by August last year, the number of hours that men did dropped dramatically; women still carry a disproportionate amount of everyday care work.”
Toxic masculinity versus feminism
The researcher believes men can truly be feminists. “Men are already saying all men and women are equal, and among younger people, this equality extends across genders including trans people.”
“It is shocking, though, how little conversation is happening among men about how to be a man. Women read endless self-help books, there are books that wake them up to feminist thinking. I haven’t met a single man who has read a book on how to be a man, unless you are a college student and have signed up for feminist studies,” she said, adding that on the other hand, “patriarchy is poison for men”.
“It seduces them by promising total power and control. It completely dehumanises men. No human being can live unto constantly feeling powerful; men feel powerless, too. But, patriarchy does not allow this, nor [does it allow] fear or weakness. Men feel the pressure to constantly prove themselves in ways that women don’t have to,” she weighed in.
In the last few decades, big changes have taken place, Narayan said, feeling hopeful. “…since the MeToo movement, particularly among young men, [there has been] a desire to change their behaviour, to get it right, but they feel afraid to ask questions. There is greater occupational choice, in spite of lots of pressure to be like a ‘Sharma ji ka beta‘. Among college-going men and women, [there is] much more awareness and willingness to learn about mental health issues, go to therapy, try meditation, exercises, etc. This is is still a minuscule group, but it’s happening…” she concluded.
What’s a Man: Masculinity in India is streaming on popular platforms, but you can also listen to it on whatsaman.com. New episodes drop every Wednesday.
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