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Why “Be A Man” Is Pretty Much The Worst Thing You Can Tell A Man Or Boy

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Editor’s Note: This post is a part of What's A Man, a series exploring masculinity in India, in collaboration with Dr. Deepa Narayan. Join the conversation here!

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Have you ever been told to pursue a field of study or career because it suits your gender more?

By Shambhavi Saxena

‘Be a man.’

Coach and former NFL player John Ehrman has called these “the most destructive words” told to every man and every boy, forcing them to conform to societal expectations of masculinity, which often involves being authoritarian, controlling, and (whenever ‘necessary’) violent. Is there then a link between embodying ‘masculine’ traits and perpetrating varying forms of violence, particularly towards female partners?

A recent study on ‘Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference,’ conducted by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has found that a link exists.

The sample survey was conducted across 7 states in India, and found that masculinity in India has two interconnected dimensions, the first being “relationship control” or to what degree a man can dictate the terms of his wife/partner’s choices and movement; the second being men’s “attitude towards gender equality.”

“Why would boys as young as 18 feel alright with abusing their partners physically and sexually? Why would they feel it is their ‘responsibility’ to ‘protect’ their elder sister by not letting her go out at night?” Asks Phansiri Soumya, pointing to the effects of patriarchal masculinity, which is exactly what the survey tries to answer.

Who Controls The Relationship?

Lamya Chopra (name changed for privacy), a survivor of intimate partner violence (IPV) spoke to YKA about the reasons she thought drove men to violence: “Patriarchy demands a man keep his woman ‘in check’ and the general idea that men are physically more powerful than women often results in assault.” This tendency to treat women as property has produced the dangerous notions of modesty, chastity and virginity, but also has more subtle manifestations.

The survey revealed that of the men sampled, a third did not allow their wives/partners to wear certain clothes, and a fifth suspected their wives/partners of trying to attract other men by wearing certain clothing. Finding corroborated by what this one survivor of IPV told us: “I enjoyed a healthy work relationship with my clients and boss, something he did not approve of and called me slutty.”

It’s then a question of who wears the ‘pants’ in the relationship. Traditionally men have, which means they have the power to circumscribe their partners’ freedoms, and if they’re ‘liberal’, they have the power to ‘grant’ their partners those freedoms.

From Masculinity To Violence

When YKA asked another survivor, who wished to remain anonymous, about her husband’s behavior, she said: “(It was) his own masculine ego and insecurity that drove him to be violent.” Differences in their professions, in particular, had contributed to her husband’s bitter feelings. He was answerable to his parents on all matters of their family business and often frustrated with his clientele. “He always said I was too good to be with him,” said the survivor, “which meant there was an inferiority complex somewhere.”

The study found that “Men who experience economic stress are more likely to be violent,” and that this stems from the idea that a ‘man’ must wield financial capacity over his female partner, failing which, his status as a man is supposedly revoked.

It is this controlling, abusive, competitive type of masculinity that is damaging men. “Breaking down into tears, hugging another guy friend for too long, holding another boy’s hand while walking, having emotional talks are seen as ‘sissy’ and hence most boys refrain from them,” said Phanisri Soumya, who also spoke to us about IPV. “This has serious psychological impacts in the long run.”

Soumya believes that “‘Masculinity’ is universally oppressive,” because it enables men to behave in these ways, and often against their own nature. “Violent and dominating behaviours are not only seen as normal for boys but also encouraged,” she further added. “Even if a boy knows that indulging in physical violence is wrong, he has to do it in order to avoid name calling and social exclusion.”

Gender Equality The Only Solution

Relationship control and these aggressive attitudes about how to behave come from the understanding that men are the more powerful of the sexes. “Even today when we appreciate independent women,” said Chopra, “we tend to use masculine adjectives and things like, ‘ye meri beti nahi beta hain (she’s not our daughter but our son)’.” 

Undoing these attitudes is necessary to change violent masculinity. “Education… appears to lower the prevalence of IPV,” the study reports. Further, boys who see an equal division of labour at home have been shown be more equitable. To be clear, gender equality and a healthy attitude to both genders starts at home, and must begin early.

Having an equitable attitude towards gender means recognizing that power should be shared. Without this, it’s easy to see why 60 percent of the men sampled in the ICRW-UNFPA study have perpetrated IPV. It is interesting to compare this statistic with women’s reporting of the experience of violence in the same study. As against the 60 percent men who reported perpetrating violence, 52 percent women reported that they had experienced any form of violence.

As reported by the study, men’s higher reporting of the perpetration of violence, especially in relation to sexual, and emotional violence, may need to be seen in the context of the stigma associated with the experience of sexual violence, and also due to the acceptance or internalization of violence and control by women – women may thus accept and expect that men will exert control in their lives. These findings reinforce the idea that efforts towards deconstructing masculinity and engaging men and boys, need to run in parallel with ongoing efforts to empower women and girls.

Disclaimer: The views presented in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of UNFPA.

You must be to comment.
  1. B

    The author has very cunningly linked 'being a man' with 'domestic violence against women' to emasculate men.
    Point 1: 'Being a man' is about treating wife with love.
    Point 2: There is just as much domestic violence against men. Men just bear it and keep silent. Women perpetrate physical, emotional, psychological abuse on husbands.
    Point 3: The biggest perpetrators of violence are mothers-in-law, who mentally torture and control sons-in-law and daughters-in-law.

  2. B

    There is no such thing as 'domestic violence'. It is either 'domestic violence against men' or domestic violence against women'. People who use the term 'domestic violence' to automatically mean 'domestic violence against women' are those who promote injustice against men and think only women are human beings.

  3. B

    Being a man is about toughening up, not showing weakness. nothing to do with asserting any control over anything other than your emotions. if one of your superiors tells you to do something that you don't want to do, “man up” doesn't mean that you say that you aren't going to do it, it means you toughen up and do it.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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