I came up with the idea of an initiative called ‘Mardon Waali Baat’ when I realized that there are hardly any safe spaces or meaningful opportunities in India for men to gather and talk about gender stereotypes, body shaming, patriarchy, masculinity, sexuality, emotional well-being, violence against women, and their own experiences of surviving sexual abuse. These conversations demand vulnerability and empathy, qualities that go missing when men are repeatedly ask to ‘man up’ and present a false brave front that distances them from acknowledging what they are going through or seeking support.

On June 24, the Chennai-based NGO Prajnya invited me to facilitate a two-hour conversation titled ‘Guy Talk’ with men in the city around these topics. It was a deeply fulfilling experience for me, and I am grateful for the encouragement I received from Prajnya’s founder Swarna Rajagopalan who championed my efforts. Unfortunately, the date coincided with the Chennai Pride March, and I guess a lot of people who would have shown up for our event went there instead. Though only six men showed up, it was evident that the quality of conversation was honest, profound and heartfelt. I would love to facilitate such sessions with men’s and boys’ groups in many other parts of India and the rest of the world.

Here are the questions they were invited to discuss in pairs during one of the activities I had designed:
1. What are the things you would really like to do but are unable to because they are considered ‘not manly’?
2. How do you look after your emotional well-being?
3. What are the various things you do to make yourself more attractive to a partner?
4. What are the challenges you face with women at your workplace?
5. If you were accused of being ‘sexist’ or a ‘misogynist’, how would you respond?
6. If you are asked to work with a new male colleague who is gay or bisexual, what concerns would you have?
7. How do you feel when women say that all men are potential rapists?
8. How would you describe your relationship with your father, and other males in your family?
9. How do you feel about using porn or sex toys for your own pleasure?
10. What are the things you would love to experience sexually but are too afraid to ask your partner for?
11. What, according to you, is the difference between flirting and sexual harrassment? Is it sometimes confusing for you to understand the difference?
12. What is the kind of man that you would like to be? What efforts are you making towards it? What kind of support or resources would you benefit from?

We made an agreement of confidentiality regarding the responses that came up, so there is no record of what people said. However, I am posting these questions here to give readers a flavour of the range of things we discussed. The ice-breaker activity before this one brought up issues related to body shaming, consent, jokes that contribute to rape culture, feminism, the gendered distribution of household chores, etc.

During this session, and in other sessions that I have facilitated before, I have found that men and boys are willing to be vulnerable once they feel that there is no pressure to be politically correct. We begin with a safe space, and gradually push it towards a brave space. Both are essential aspects because it takes time for people to open up and own up, especially about male privilege.

A curtain-raiser sort of article about the ‘Guy Talk’ session appeared in this newspaper. It assigns me the role of an expert. I am really not one. I am a facilitator, and my job is not to demand that the participants think in a particular way. My task is to challenge gently, encourage new ways of thinking, spark off conversations between people who can learn from each other, and leave them with the will to change. Yes, that’s a reference to the book by bell hooks. Read it if you can.

It was enriching to hear men talk to each other about these issues because it helped me reflect better on the gender-themed sessions I have facilitated with high school students at Ecole Mondiale World School in Mumbai, and the ones I have helped designed recently for the Blue Ribbon Movement’s Gender Lab with high school students in Mumbai, Delhi and Indore. This work needs to happen with boys as well as men, across the spectrum of sexual preference and gender identity. I hope I continue to find allies along the way. If you would like us to collaborate, email me at chintan.backups@gmail.com or tweet @chintan_connect

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