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A crisis of Indian masculinity

india Updated: Jul 22, 2012 14:47 IST
Suprateek Chatterjee

Five years ago, when I was studying in an engineering college in Pune, I watched a Hindi film with a hostel-mate from Jammu. The son of a prominent professor from an upper-middle class milieu, he had a reputation of being one of the friendliest people in our year, with a sharp sense of humour and a love for world cinema and rock music.

The film had a scene in which a distraught wife, during a fight with her husband, laments how she sacrificed her career to be a housewife and raise a child. "Chal oye," my friend snorted with derision.

I asked him why he had reacted like that. "Well, isn't that what all women are supposed to do? Obviously, only one thing can be managed at a time," he replied. When I pointed out that his own mother, a government employee, had managed to balance home and career, he hesitated and said, "Haan yaar, I know, but society has always functioned like this, so why tamper with it?"

He wasn't alone. In our hostel, students from cities and towns across Maharashtra and the rest of India — Delhi, Jammu, Kanpur, Baroda — who while outwardly politically correct and respectful towards women, clung to the ideals of patriarchy .

Many of the students from Maharashtra came from conservative, lower middle-class families in small towns, where women usually married by their early 20s and almost never had careers. Students from outside the state generally came from more affluent households and had studied at more élite schools, but deep down, they weren't very different.

We didn't have rowdy eve-teasers or roadside Romeos. But most of the young men were highly repressed, sexually. Many watched pornography on their computers with the volume turned up. From their windows, they leered at young women walking by.

I discerned a clash in cultures and moralities. Let me explain. We live in a time when the internet has made everything accessible, yet our television shows and movies are heavily censored. Our advertisements show bikini-clad models chasing the guys who spray on the right kind of deodorant, but our neighbourhood swimming pools still have separate ladies' and gents' timings. Our movies also reflect this dichotomy : The hero desires the hot woman, but the demure girl who dresses conservatively is still the one he takes home.

It is, therefore, a confusing time for men in my generation. Born in the '80s and early '90s, we grew up expecting the benefits of patriarchy, and have, since then, been forced to adjust to the idea of women not just competing with us but sometimes surpassing us. Their newfound liberation and confidence, their refusal to stifle their natural sexuality is new, and threatening. Men are asking: "If women can do all that we can, often better than us, and more, what good are we?"

His masculinity threatened, the young Indian man turns back to the traditional mother-sister ideal of femininity. Using black-and-white logic, he facilely concludes, "My mother and sister aren't dressing like this or doing these things, and they're obviously good, so these women must be bad." Other women, the majority who haven't rebelled yet, might also reinforce his view.

Agonisingly, many of these men find these liberated women attractive. Yet they don't often stand a chance with them, so facing rejection they attack the women's morality to soothe their bruised egos and maintain the power equation.

Ultimately, what my college experiences taught me is that egalitarianism isn't always a by-product of education and upbringing. I have been called "egalitarian" but it could have easily gone the other way. At some point in my early teens, I consciously decided to spend less time with a group of misogynistic alpha-male boys and more time with mixed groups. I chose to think about how my mother, female relatives and friends would react if I disrespected women. Admittedly, for slightly selfish purposes, I realised that being that way would make me more attractive to the girls I found attractive. Egalitarianism is a conscious choice, and the incentives are plenty.

Also read:
'Men do not harass without provocation'
'The male gaze in India makes women ashamed of their sexuality'
How bollywood perpetuates stereotypes