Reconstructing Indian Masculinities

The quest for women's liberation has slowly but surely changed the context and substance of men's lives. This quest may be traced to Mary Wollstonecraft's pioneering work Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which was a product of the intellectual ferment generated by the Enlightenment and its political fallout, the French Revolution. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the feminist project was continued by women such as Margaret Fuller, Tarabai Shinde, Emmeline Pankhurst and Simone de Beauvoir. The 1960s and the 1970s witnessed the rise of the 'second-wave' feminist movement and the allied discipline of Women's Studies, which foregrounded the notion of gender as a constitutive category shaping human thought and practice in almost every significant sphere. They pointed out that unlike 'sex', the biologically based distinction between men and women, 'gender' involved the socio-cultural construction of male/female identity, that gender constructs were seen as natural and served as the ideological props of a ubiquitous regime of power designated as patriarchy.

Patriarchy is said to secure the subordination of women and the empowerment of men. Thus, women are considered to be essentially passive/emotional, suited to child-bearing and home-making. Hence they are confined to the private or domestic sphere, resulting in their marginalisation. Whereas men, who are thought to be naturally active/rational, are accorded a prominent role in the public or political sphere. Quite logically, feminists have subjected the patriarchal construction of femininity to a penetrating critique.

The male response to feminism has often involved indifference, if not outright hostility. But this is not the whole story. Many men have treated the cause of women's liberation with sympathy and solidarity. If one were to prepare a short list of such men over the last two hundred years, it would include stalwarts like J. S. Mill, Friedrich Engels, Jotiba Phule and arguably, M. K. Gandhi. In his seminal work, The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill gave a feminist slant to liberalism by advocating that women be granted equality of citizenship and civil liberty in the public realm. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels showed the relationship between women's subordination and the introduction of private property, modern monogamy and the patriarchal family. Phule valiantly fought to end the oppression of women inherent in the traditional Brahmanical order. Gandhi revalorised femininity and mobilised women on an unprecedented scale.

A more self-reflexive continuation of this tradition may be found in the profeminist stream of the men's movements triggered off by second-wave feminism. Profeminists have been interrogating the dominant constructs of masculinity. They are engaged in critiques of male socialisation and gender roles with the objective of helping women secure socio-economic and political parity. They particularly seek to reduce male violence against women, children and other men. Another major concern of profeminists is the elimination of various expressions of sexism such as rape, pornography and homophobia or hatred of homosexuals. In the U.S.A. this tendency is represented by the National Organisation of Men Against Sexism. Its local counterpart is the Mumbai-based group MAVA - Men Against Violence and Abuse. MAVA conducts several awareness-raising programmes geared to gender justice. Especially noteworthy is its annual Marathi publication Purush Spandan that it brings out in collaboration with Purush Uvach - a like-minded group in Pune.

A different response to feminism has been articulated by the men's rights movement in the U.S. It focuses on modern constructions of gender, which place unfair legal and psychological restrictions on men. It particularly targets legal and social realities that place the male at a disadvantage: military conscription, the judicial tendency to favour mothers in child custody suits, as also higher rates of suicide and violent crime among men. It deploys feminist methods in the analysis of gender from a male viewpoint. Its extremist fringe, however, rails against 'feminist excesses' and the 'social overvaluation of the female', and may therefore be seen as a backlash. An Indian example of the men's rights tendency is the Nashik-based Purush Hakka Samrakshan Samiti, which seeks to safeguard the interests of harassed men who are said to be under constant threat from misuse of certain sections of the Indian Penal Code by women.

A third strand of masculinism in the U.S. is spiritual revisionism, also known as the mythopoetic men's movement. It has roots in the counter-cultural tendencies of the 1950s. Like the men's rights tendency, the revisionists are deeply dissatisfied with the traditional male roles, which cause men to suffer alienation from their bodies, emotions, work, other men, women and the earth. They seek to overcome this alienation through a spiritual and psychological transformation of men. Their therapy involves attention to the individual self and the disorders of the soul, use of myths and rituals originating outside the industrialised Western world, small support groups, weekend retreats and workshops.

Socialists in the men's movement view the construction of masculinities as part of the larger economic processes, and are aware of class differences between men. They generally take a profeminist stance. African-Americans broaden the agenda of the movement by drawing attention to the question of racial injustice. The gay rights movement seeks to end discrimination against homosexuals through political activity. It emphasises the adverse effects of homophobia on men, which include alienation and insidious forms of self-hatred. Both the socialist and gay tendencies are present in India. While the former has a diffuse presence, the latter has vocal and media-savvy spokesmen like Ashok Row Kavi, fora such as Bombay Dost; and Penguin has recently brought out an anthology of gay literature. The African-American tendency could find an echo in the dalit movement, particularly as dalit women have already articulated the need for an autonomous space of their own.

It is clear that many of the above-mentioned currents overlap. Most agree that traditional forms of masculinity, which valorise self-centred, unemotional, competitive, aggressive and sexually promiscuous behaviour, require serious reevaluation for enhancing the well being of both men and women. In the West, this ferment has led to the development of Men's Studies - an interdisciplinary area of inquiry akin to Women's Studies. Men's Studies has acquired an impressive following in the U.S., resulting in the formation of professional associations and journals devoted to the discipline. The resulting investigation of masculinity from historical, political and socio-psychological perspectives has yielded a rich harvest. In India this remains practically virgin territory. Recent years have witnessed the publication of important studies of Indian masculinities, but these have come mostly from NRI or foreign scholars.

An early attempt to understand the construction of masculinities in India can be found in the writings of social psychologists like Sudhir Kakar and Ashis Nandy. Kakar has inquired into the specificity of the normative matrices, family structures and socialisation processes which shape the psyche of Indian men. Some of his views on the subject are sampled elsewhere in this issue. He has also examined Indian masculinities in the context of sexuality, popular culture and communal violence. Nandy has provided an influential account of the impact of British rule on the restructuring of masculinities in India. He argues that the hyper-masculinist British imperial ideology warped the fluid gender identities which characterised pre-modern Indian society, resulting in the inflation of the Kshatriya model of masculinity, which had earlier occupied a limited social space.

However, this thesis has been recently challenged by two historians - Rosalind O'Hanlon and Mrinalini Sinha. The former has underscored the centrality of martial masculinity to society and politics in the late Mughal period, while the latter has pointed out that 'British manliness' and 'Indian effeminacy' were conjointly constructed within the imperial social formation. Other important insights of historical and contemporary relevance have come from Joseph Alter's anthropological study of wrestling and nationalism in North India, Sanjay Srivastava's study of the Doon School, and Thomas Hansen's analysis of communalism. But this is only a beginning; the dark subcontinent of Indian masculinity still awaits exploration.

The feminist movement has acted as a catalyst stimulating a wide-ranging interrogation of masculinity over the last few decades. The reconstruction of masculinity along emancipatory lines must therefore proceed in tandem with feminism. But masculinism needs to repay its debt by pointing out and seeking to correct the flaws in the latter. This is particularly true of misandry - a belief that masculinity itself is responsible for most of the world's woes - which sometimes raises its ugly head in the women's movement. Moreover, it needs to develop an agenda of its own.

Some elements of such an agenda would include the salvaging and strengthening of fatherhood, encouragement of healthy male-bonding and mentoring to generate new forms of solidarity, defeating the 'machine man' archetype so as to achieve true physical and psychological/spiritual well-being, and establishing a nurturing and creative relationship with nature. A great deal of study, soul-searching and organisational initiatives are required to translate this agenda into practice. In the process, men may lose more than their chains, but they surely have a whole world to gain.

Originally published in the May 2001 issue of Gentleman, Mumbai, India