The December 16 gang rape has triggered innumerable debates in which women alone remain the focus — as victims and as agents of change. Meanwhile, violence against women continues unabated. These acts are not random, but the outcome of a systematic, pernicious mix of misogyny, male privilege and aggression, which are at the core of patriarchal gender relations in India. Yet there is an uneasy silence on men in their part as aggressors. Discussions on the toxic nature of dominant masculinity have remained peripheral. Coercive laws and policing in the absence of a healthy attitude towards women will not make streets, homes, institutions and other spaces safe. By leaving out men, we are implicitly accepting that ‘boys will be boys, men will be men’; so let’s fix the rest. How can we prevent gender-based violence if we don’t demand more from men and hold them accountable?
There is overwhelming evidence that demonstrates a direct link between the inferior position of women and the privileged position of men. The more men take over spaces, the less they become viable for women. This is evident in public spaces that are dominated and structured by men, unsafe and preferably avoided by women; in the growing incidence of violence against women in intimate spaces, and in the gross insensitivity and negligence meted out in institutional spaces.
Each time an incident of rape comes to light, it also exposes other forms of sexual violence (lecherous gazes, lewd comments, groping, sexual harassment, and ‘eve-teasing’) which are hideous and pervade all strata of Indian society. Acts of sexual violence, including rape, are unsolicited transgression against one’s volition; reflecting the male prerogative to aggression along with the unspoken right to be in control. Many such acts, for instance, eve-teasing, are often masked as innocuous acts of fun.
That men have to be macho — strong, aggressive, financially and sexually successful with women — is honed into boys in different ways. While millions of women have moved on breaking traditional barriers, most men are reluctant to let go of traditional gender roles in the fear of being seen as less of a man; of losing privilege. Traditional masculinity that draws its legitimacy from aggressive macho behaviour is in desperate need of transformation if gender justice is to materialise. In the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape, millions of men must have felt that this had nothing to do with them, or that they were being blamed for a rare dastardly act carried out by men unlike them; supposedly psychopaths. While most men are not rapists, many indulge in varying degrees of sexual transgression and violence. The vast majority are guilty of condoning violence through silence and denial. Instead of introspecting on men’s capacity for violence, a dangerous divide is quickly produced, between the ‘Us, nice guys versus those bad guys’ whereby the aggressor, the ‘other’ is typically represented as unsophisticated, poor, uneducated, unemployed, from a rural and/or marginal caste.
Transforming entrenched systems of oppression is indeed an onerous task. But we can no longer shy away from asking men to do more or hide behind tiring rhetoric such as ‘all of us have to change’ or shift the onus for socialising boys on to mothers. Fathers need to treat their wives with dignity if their sons have to behave respectfully towards women. That goes for brothers, friends and colleagues too. While women will — and should — take the lead in transforming gender oppression, the real question is how are men going to contribute? Simply blaming disempowerment or engaging in reactive, anti-women politics won’t cut.
The government needs to support people’s efforts to challenge and transform gender-regressive institutions and norms. Men need to become aware about male behaviour that makes women uncomfortable and insecure, and spaces inaccessible. Giving up a bit of privilege need not be such a bad thing and need not lead to (more) violence. The media needs to stop valorising male strength. Making public spaces safe will also have to be sustained by valuing women, their labour and their ability to achieve their potential. Men need to support the entry of more women in spaces dominated by them and be willing to share household responsibilities. Lastly, schools, colleges, and fathers and mothers should facilitate a healthy discussion among boys and men about their role in creating equitable relationships.
Sharada Srinivasan is Associate Professor at York University, Canada; Juhi Tyagi is pursuing her PhD at Stony Brook University, US
The views expressed by the authors are personal