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Business News/ Opinion / Being ‘man enough’: Rape and our ideas of masculinity

It is now one year since the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi. While it is great that we honoured her memory this week by taking out marches and lighting candles, these are the easier things to do. Far more difficult is to challenge our own comforting assumptions—about the feminisms we subscribe to, the notions of gender we live by.

For instance, some of the most chilling images from the anti-rape morchas of last year were those of ultra-aggressive male protesters making shrill demands of capital punishment for rape. Where did their aggression come from? Did these men—ostensibly out on the streets to support women’s rights and fight patriarchy—ever interrogate their lived sense of masculinity, or that of their male peers? Or were they the kind who, after marching against rape, would go back and rape somebody, as one of them allegedly did?

A number of gender scholars and activists have come to believe that the conventional feminist critique, which holds patriarchal male privilege responsible for fuelling sexual offences by men, does not wash with all men—definitely not with the vast majority for whom their masculinity is wedded to those selfsame patriarchal privileges, which includes a deep sense of entitlement to the bodies of women. Therefore, any strategy for action against rape, they argue, must include an engagement with men’s ideas of masculinity.

Havovi Wadia, head of research and development at Magic Bus, a children’s non-profit organization, and an activist who has worked in the area of gender-based violence says, “Notions of masculinity need to be challenged perhaps more urgently than notions of femininity. After all, it is the hetero-normative masculine discourse (which holds male heterosexuality as normal and all other expressions of male sexuality/gender as “not masculine" or abnormal) that situates the woman’s body as a site of conquest. Sadly, even feminism has continued to occupy a space within this discourse, resisting masculinities by positing equally problematic versions of the female."

Wadia’s view is echoed by another gender scholar, Ravi Verma, regional director, Asia regional office, International Centre for Research on Women, New Delhi. Verma spent several years studying the processes by which children, teenagers and young adults imbibe normative ideas of gender. He believes that to be able to really address sexual violence against women, it is necessary “to go beyond post-facto responses, such as stringent law enforcement, and get into primary prevention work".

But what does he mean by primary prevention work? “We should expand the gender discourse beyond women’s empowerment," Verma said in a telephone interview. “We have always presented equality from the perspective of giving agency to women, without bothering to normalize the man’s responsibility in achieving gender equality. Where do you see sensitive portrayals of men who are trying to transform themselves but might find their masculinity challenged, or feel frustrated in the process?"

According to Verma, rape falls at one end—the extreme end—of a broad spectrum of more subtle but firmly patriarchal expressions of masculinity that men absorb and exhibit from their childhood onwards. “You cannot stop rape overnight by legislation alone—that’s impossible," he asserts. “In fact, limiting ourselves to legislative intervention might even have the opposite effect."

The counter-productive impact of punitive intervention is also underscored by another research scholar, Romit Chowdhury of the Kolkata-based Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. In a recent essay in Economic and Political Weekly, he notes, “The existence of laws which criminalize men’s sexual assault on women have not deterred male violence because it has become merely another ground on which men can prove their masculinity." And how does that come about? He explains: “The possibility of getting caught provides an avenue for proving masculinity, showing that you can take big risks without being daunted by the prospect of danger."

The centrality of “proving behaviour" to patriarchal definitions of masculinity, wherein a man feels compelled to “prove himself" in order to bond with his peers is well-documented in masculinity studies. While the domain of proof could be male friendship, or a skill of some kind, it typically derives from a patriarchal idea of masculinity. It has no space where one can ask: why does masculinity have to be proved at all? Common instances of such “proving behaviour" include who could drink more, who could drive faster, who is a truer friend, and of course, who could “take" this or that girl, says Verma.

Being undaunted by danger, and being able to get away with risk-taking and violence are widely reinforced as central facets of masculinity in popular culture. Almost every mainstream commercial film unfolds narratives that associate masculinity with violence. And whether you interpret that as reflecting societal norms or shaping them, given its ubiquity and glamorous potency, can we hope to stem the tide of male sexual violence without first systematically challenging these definitions of masculinity, and mainstreaming alternative expressions of male sexuality?

Indeed, one simple step that we as a society could have taken to counter the kind of aggressive masculinity that leans in the direction of rape was to decriminalize homosexuality, and thereby create a congenial climate for the normalizing of alternative, anti-patriarchal masculinities. Instead, with the Supreme Court’s 11 December ruling, we have done the exact opposite.

Both Wadia and Verma agree that an effective strategy against gender-based violence must involve systematic intervention at the institutional level, ideally at a stage when an individual’s gendered identities are yet to solidify. Wadia advocates engaging with children in the playground as a powerful way to challenge patriarchal definitions of masculinity. “The best part about this process—and this is what my organization does—is that it brings girls out of their homes into public spaces. In this case, it is one that, in India, is almost universally occupied by males—the public playground."

Verma, who has been involved with gender-focused research studies in schools across Maharashtra and Jharkhand, also believes that intervention at the school level is critical. “You walk into any school and you will find that boys and girls are already receiving subtle messages that reinforce patriarchal definitions of gender. Go to the playground, and you will find boys, when they are 12 or 13, forming their ideas of selfhood based on aggression, violence, bullying. Women, too, fall into the same trap of patriarchy. Unless we address regressive notions of masculinity, especially with regard to notions of power and entitlement, we cannot make much progress in tackling regressive notions of femininity held by men as well as women."

In the aftermath of the “Nirbhaya" case, by and large, the institutional responses to combat rape have coalesced around the twin ideas of punishment and deterrence. The punitive focus has been necessary because for far too long crimes against women have gone unpunished. But it is also vital to extend the battle beyond it—for legislations can always be reversed, as the bitter saga of Article 377 has showed us. Enforcing equality is one thing. Securing it is another thing altogether.

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Updated: 19 Dec 2013, 03:00 PM IST
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