At Jantar Mantar in Delhi, where the protest marches moved in the aftermath of the 16 December bus gang rape, Prakash Chhabria, 32, who works in the pharmaceutical industry and introduces himself as “a middle-class, frustrated citizen of India”, is angry. His wife is at the receiving end. “You are a hypocrite; only an opportunist can be infatuated with Yo Yo Honey Singh one day and then come here to be counted as a protester. Be committed if you want to do anything for women’s rights. Be a woman,” he yells.
Another place, the story continues. Bangalore-based Shemeer Babu Padinzharedhil, 29, runs Maps4aid.com, a unique documentation project where he uses technology to link victims of crime with organizations that deal with prevention, rehabilitation and support. A one-man project presently, the idea of Maps4aid struck Padinzharedhil when, in 2011, he stumbled upon the TrustLaw report, a Dutch study that labelled India the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women. “Data on crimes is not only scattered but it gets forgotten or lost once a case has died down. The least I could do was to document it properly,” says Padinzharedhil.
In the last few weeks, numerous personas of the Indian male have climbed out of closets, dare we say, in India and Bharat. If there are revelations about misogynist politicians, there is also the rise of the male feminist. So if this time of heightened negative passion is, as some argue, the worst moment to debate another crisis in Indian masculinity, it is also, perhaps, a good time.
“Masculinity has been a contested territory for years. So if we must reflect on it, it’s important to understand the history that has led to this point instead of turning it merely into a debate of the moment,” says Shohini Ghosh, Sajjad Zaheer Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. “Genders and sexualities have become vast and complex fields. The presence of transgenders and transsexuals has complicated our understanding of men and women,” points out Prof. Ghosh.
She adds that we must not forget that men too are not spared the violence, as in honour killings—where both the girl and boy are killed—or even in the recent Delhi rape case, where the friend of the victim was beaten and brutalized.
She is right. The male victim of patriarchy is real too. Recent public outrage has put the spotlight on young men, who are not a mere sum total of patriarchy and macho arrogance. Quite a few—certainly in the educated classes—are re-examining themselves, making an effort to challenge their attitudinal reflexes despite a traditional upbringing. The unshackling of authority in families and society has contributed to the churn.
“Once upon a time, power hierarchies in office, schools, families, marriages were inflexible, but today there is a blurring of lines,” says Santosh Desai, managing director and CEO at brand consultancy firm Futurebrands. He emphasizes that the responsibility of reciprocity in relationships between men and women is getting institutionalized, leaving some men unnerved. “Earlier, only men had expectations. Now young Indian men who love staying boys and would float and drift endlessly realize that even they are being evaluated in relationships. They have to perform as emotional, dependable partners. What’s freedom for women is turning out to be responsibility for men,” he adds.
A responsibility that 40-year-old Indian Air Force officer and poet Vikrant Dutta, who wrote Ode to Dignity, a ballad novel, last year, took rather seriously. “I was a regular reader of Femina for years since I turned 20 as I wanted to educate myself about the female psyche. It was an important part of dating and preparing for a relationship and marriage. Gender sensitivity is hard work,” says Dutta, now posted in Bangalore.
Emerging signs of emotional sensitivity among men play out alongside macho swagger in popular culture, sending out confusing messages. Consider this: Young cricketer Virat Kohli is openly abusive on the field, whereas the Raymond man in the suitings commercial continues to be staid, “complete”, well-textured husband material. If actor Hrithik Roshan is happy baring his ripped abs, quite like a “parody of Sridevi in her wet sari”, as Desai coins it, there is Aamir Khan consciously wiping away a tear or few on his television chat show Satyamev Jayate. There are cinema’s “unbeatable protagonists”, as Prof. Ghosh terms them, then there is the preening John Abraham in a committed relationship with his fairness cream.
Last year, Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan slugged it out with others in public, but there were also Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes, two Mumbai boys killed for standing up against the sexual harassment of their female friends. If there is Punjabi rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh singing depraved lyrics, there is Raju, a polio-afflicted teacher from a small town near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, who cycles many kilometres each day to teach poor children—many of them girls from disempowered homes. In a recent interview to NDTV, Raju admitted that he only made Rs.100 a day but refused to give up teaching and supplemented his income by repairing cycles.
"EARLIER, ONLY MEN HAD EXPECTATIONS. NOW YOUNG INDIAN MEN WHO LOVE STAYING BOYS AND WOULD FLOAT AND DRIFT ENDLESSLY REALIZE THAT EVEN THEY ARE BEING EVALUATED IN RELATIONSHIPS. THEY HAVE TO PERFORM AS EMOTIONAL, DEPENDABLE PARTNERS. WHAT’S FREEDOM FOR WOMEN IS TURNING OUT TO BE RESPONSIBILITY FOR MEN."
These conflicts don’t just confound women, they leave men too deeply perplexed. “We are in the middle of a great social upheaval whose bells and whistles hide its actual impact on individuals. The same state, city, colony, village, even family is now likely to have different men affected by the changes in the economic and media environment in completely different, very personal ways which stay hidden under the convenient, all-purpose cloak of ‘Indian culture’,” comments lyricist and writer Jaideep Sahni, whose song Mit Jaaye Gham created a furore around Rohan Sippy’s 2011 film Dum Maaro Dum because its lyrics included words termed offensive by some.
Surveys support the notion that conflict best defines Indian men. The initial findings of Evolving Men, an International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), reflects the contradictions in the attitudes of many Indian men. For the three-year study, conducted in a few countries between 2008 and 2010 by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Instituto Promundo of Brazil, the initial results of which were put out in 2011, researchers interviewed men and women in the ages of 18-59 about their intimate relationships, health practices, parenting, sexual behaviour and violence. The survey was carried out among 1,037 men and 313 women in New Delhi and 497 men and 208 women in Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. A report by Gillian Gaynair, an ICRW writer, said the sites were chosen because of their geographic diversity and earlier efforts to involve men in the promotion of gender equality. While upwards of 74% of men supported quotas for women in executive positions, university or government, only 47% supported gender equality overall.
While they are aware of the laws against violence on women, it does not coincide with their values: 65% of those surveyed said they believe there are times that women deserve to be beaten. Indian men were among the least supportive of equitable male-female relationships and roles. Researchers applied the Gender-Equitable Men Scale, which measures men’s attitudes about societal messages. More than 80% of those surveyed in India agreed that changing diapers, bathing and feeding children are a mother’s responsibility. India was the only exception among countries where IMAGES did the research for its men’s attitudes towards household work: Only 16% said they had a role in domestic matters.
“A change in the Indian male vis-a-vis women is not possible till there is definitive change on basic levels. Boys are raised with a sense of dangerous entitlement that extends to a woman’s body, as seen on repeated occasions. The family as a unit is guilty of fostering that entitlement. It has nothing to do with social class,” says Advaita Kala, author of Almost Single.
The sentiment finds many echoes. Madhuri Banerjee, Mumbai-based film-maker and author of Losing My Virginity And Other Dumb Ideas and the recent Mistakes Like Love And Sex, says, “Women understand that my stories are dilemmas of modern relationships and that’s why there are sensual scenes, whereas most men call me an erotic writer.” Banerjee, who writes “Love Guru”, an agony column, for The Asian Age, says her first film as a student was on lesbianism and working on sexuality doesn’t liberate or enslave her as men think.
A double-bind that Sanjay Srivastava, professor of sociology at The Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, doesn’t find surprising. “Popular sexuality surveys reveal this conflict. The Helen in their minds is the progressive, free and sexually open girlfriend. But most are never sure if they should make her the wife,” he says.
That’s why romantic exercises like Dutta’s, who wrote poetry to communicate with his wife, remain an exception. But as Srivastava points out, romance itself can be deceptive. “Even though romance is ostensibly about choice and a romantic relationship about equality, women find themselves putting up with a lot of rubbish in the name of romance,” he explains, adding that the rise of romance in modern India hasn’t made a couple more of a “couple”.
Self-confessed “male feminist fast turning into a masculine rights activist” Chhabria will tell you why even he takes rubbish in the name of his love marriage. “Awareness has taught me to stand up for everyone’s rights, including mine,” he says, bringing up the Harassed Husbands Association. First started in 2009 by Bangalore-based NGO Save India Family Foundation (Siff) after their helpline for men was bombarded with calls, it now operates as men’s groups in different cities to air the relationship disillusionments of men dealing with betrayal, cruelty, and even abuse from wives. And as Padinzharedhil says: “A number of men now work on women’s issues but we rarely see women working for men’s issues. Awareness about violence as well as rights should be gender neutral; both men and women should be told what their rights are, or what exactly constitutes sexual harassment.”
Men’s rights have begun to bob up in other ways. In 2010, The Punjab State Commission for Women received 1,390 harassment and matrimonial cruelty complaints, out of which 227 were from men. Similarly, in 2009, 900 complaints were received and 78 were from troubled husbands. These may be small arteries feeding off a larger gender rift in Indian society but they are significant.
As an overview, masculinity in India appears like a bloody battlefield dominated by what Desai calls the rise of the provincial male. “This is a highly fantasized type of masculinity, evident in films like Dabangg, Rowdy Rathore, even in the lyrics of Yo Yo Honey Singh—an almost ironic primitiveness to reclaim the space that men seem to have lost,” Desai says.
It spills out of the guts of modern Hindi cinema, from Dev D to Gulaal and Gangs of Wasseypur; from Son of Sardaar to Khiladi 786. This prototype of the momentarily funny, but mostly corny, man who rules choice and decision in families, clans, in the bedroom or the sleazy bar, disturbs masculinity as a flexible and evolving construct, more tolerant of women. That’s why it is important to ask the question why so many Indian men have alpha fantasies, says Sahni.
“In a society where there is practically no support system for young men to discover who they are and what they believe in, semi-thuggish political leaders, well-connected businessmen, spellbinding religious entrepreneurs and larger-than-life movie stars step in as role models, each broadcasting their coarsest attributes,” says Sahni.
The debate reminds you of the deepening crisis in malehood in the West that feminist writer Susan Faludi wrote about in 1999 in her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. She analysed the collapse of traditional masculinity, which left men feeling betrayed.
As a subject, it continues to fuel many ongoing debates worldwide. In this scenario, Bangalore-based theatre person Seema Sathyu’s parting shot is relevant. “It’s always the woman labelled forward or modern by the not-so-liberal-thinking members of society. They don’t celebrate the liberal man who treats women equally,” she says.