(This article was first published in the July 2018 issue of Viewpoint.)
What are some of the things you would really love to do but are unable to because they are not seen as ‘manly’? This is my favourite question to ask when I facilitate conversations with groups of boys and men. The answers vary from one setting to another, but it is always worthwhile to sit and listen. There are so many dreams and aspirations, fears and anxieties tied to this question that people wonder where to stop once they have begun talking.
A 17-year-old boy, who loves sports and works out at the gym, told me about the friends he lost after he decided to pursue pottery. He wanted to spend time doing something that would calm him down, and pottery is what gave him that. However, his male peers saw it as a girlish activity and mocked him for making that choice. Fortunately, he was secure enough to stand by his own decision and to let those friends exit his life. If they were not going to value what mattered to him, they were not worth keeping.
One might think that such maturity is rare for a person of his age. While I can see where that perception might come from, I was personally not surprised at all. Having worked closely with high school students, I have glimpsed tremendous amounts of self-awareness and inner strength. That said, boys and men are under great pressure to distance themselves from what they love doing. There is an expectation for the man to be the primary breadwinner even in families where women as well as men work outside the home.
Another 17 year old, with three brothers, told me that he would like to become a house husband. One would assume that growing up in such a male-dominated space would have led to more conventional ideas about masculinity; about going out there and proving himself. However, he harboured no ambition of scaling peaks on the corporate ladder. He liked the idea of being at home, cooking, taking care of the house, and creating art. (Incidentally, both these 17 year olds live in the US.)
These are qualities that Indian parents typically expect their daughters to have, regardless of their academic brilliance or professional achievements. A son displaying such interests is considered an anomaly, and it is commonplace for parents to discourage boys from exploring what they like doing. I find this practice absolutely mind-boggling because more and more women are choosing to work outside the home, and expect to have husbands who can be partners in the truest sense of the term by splitting household chores in an equal manner. We need to raise boys who think of cooking and cleaning as life skills, not gender roles.
A 45-year-old woman who attended a teacher training session I facilitated recently spoke of how her husband offered to stay at home and look after their baby in his early years. He was proud of her and wanted to support her career. She was touched by the offer but was not sure if she could deal with the implications of that unusual arrangement. She was not sure he was capable of full-time parenting. As the mother, she felt that childcare ought to be her primary responsibility. This meant a break from her career for ten years until she was convinced that going back to work would not hurt her child’s progress at school.
When we read about such cases, it is easy to point fingers and assign blame. We like to divide the world into heroes and villains because it simplifies things and absolves us of the responsibility to deal with nuances. When dilemmas present themselves, one is not faced with the simple matter of making this choice versus that one. We have our own personal histories of guilt and shame. We want to do what will fulfill our innermost needs but we also crave approval from people around us. We want to break away from scripted ideas of what it means to be a woman or a man but we are afraid.
The problem with a lot of gender sensitisation work is that it does not take into account the emotional terrain that people have to walk across in their own lives. In discussions with men, I have encountered tremendous resistance to feminism because of their perception that it is a man-hating ideology that portrays every man as a potential rapist. The reality of gender- based violence in our society is something that we cannot shy away from confronting, and it needs to be addressed by people of all gender identities. Men are willing to be allies but they tend to shut down when they are framed from the very beginning of the conversation as perpetrators.
There are very few spaces and opportunities available for men to articulate their pain, and seek support to address mental, emotional and spiritual needs. Patriarchal conditioning makes it terribly difficult for men to get in touch with their own vulnerability. Since they are expected to be protectors and providers, they often lack the skills to say that they are hurting deep down from things that happened to them in their childhood or in later years. When their wounds are not healed, they begin to hurt other people. This is not to say that violence by men towards women ought to be condoned.
What we need is a reimagining of masculinity itself in a manner that breaks away from patriarchal and heteronormative notions of what a man ought to be like. There are, and there need to be, various kinds of men. I find it a bit odd that one needs to spell out something that is so obvious. Masculinity does not have to be a toxic force that makes life difficult for everyone because it seeks constant validation only through violence. Men can be loyal, mindful, gentle, kind, humble, intelligent, sexy, confident, and nurturing just as they can be annoying, jealous, controlling, awkward, daft, aggressive, dogmatic and insecure. In fact, they already are. We already are. Normativity is what kills the joy of life.