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!
Gender being a social construct and as the roles and assigned codes of conduct, the responsibilities associated with each identity is largely learned it imposes various stressors on the individual.
In a heteropatriarchal society like ours in India, men do have the leverage of having the most favourable opportunities, of accessibilities to resources and agency over decision making about their lives. Yet we cannot overlook how the burden of social expectations and pressure of abiding by conformist behavioural patterns are consciously and unconsciously placed in the psyche of a biological ‘man’ right from the time he is born.
Activities or decisions that may seem quite innocuous such as colour tagging a baby boy’s clothes to a ‘manly’ colour blue to choosing gender-stereotyped toys such as guns, cars, lego sets or even jig-saw puzzles for the young male children go on a long way to inculcate the pressure of complying to the gender roles when they grow up.
Young school going boys who are not ‘adventurous’ or are ‘delicate’, ‘girl-like’ (terms that are often used to ridicule, criticize and public shaming) who don’t engage in physical fights in schools or with neighbourhood playmates are usually brutally bullied, which crushes their innocence.
The traditional gender divide in the type of work and choice of labour is again ingrained at Indian homes, where boys are often barred to do any kind of domestic chores terming it a ‘girl’s domain’. There is strict compartmentalization of what is a woman’s work and what is a man’s monopoly domain and any transgressions in it are strongly refuted and disapproved.
Boys who exhibit interests in playing with dolls, toy kitchen sets and enjoy more ‘girlie games’ are laughed at and restricted. They are also taught ‘not to cry like girls’, encouraged to be ‘strong, aggressive and brave’.
By far the Indian style of parenting is thought to be authoritative wherein the parents or the elder guardians decide the stream of a career that a boy must follow. Often under the garb of following family tradition, of keeping up the family prestige and legacy that young boys are forced into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and commerce education and consequently into work choices even though they might be excellent at social sciences, arts and humanities.
Taking up literature, professional cooking/chef, fine arts as a career option is looked down upon with disgust, shame and is equated with lower intellectual capabilities in Indian society. Again, when a married man who takes a sabbatical from the regular paid work life, who intends to support his working wife with domestic duties and child care responsibilities, or remains at home to pursue his hobbies becomes an eye-brow raising event and attracts snide remarks from society. The term ‘house husband’ is definitely not acceptable as is the ubiquitous ‘house-wife’.
Earning less than his wife creates egoistical problems in the man’s psyche as society questions his manliness. The breadwinning role of a man is considered ultimate and is put to tests often by questions on kitna kama lete ho? (how much does he earn?), which becomes the decider on fixing arranged marriages in India.
Though educated and socially aware men do break the hegemonic rules and overcome the taboos but not without fighting through scrutinizing public interrogation and character trials.
Consider a recent father who takes up paternity leave or who washes dishes after dinner or the one who allows his daughters to stay out of home till late; are subjected to scorn, are scolded for being ‘sissy’, ‘weak’, ‘unworthy’ father and husband, ‘who cannot reign his wife’ by physical force or by sexual domination, ‘who is joru ka ghulam’ (slave to his wife).
Men who don’t get carried away by anger and aggressive emotions and don’t voice their opinions are hurled with various other derogatory phrases like, ‘churiya pehen rakhhi hai kya’ (‘are you wearing bangles’ symbolizing softness, the fragility of women).
These rigid social mores are propagated through popular culture mediums such as movies, tele-serials, advertisements that showcase an ideal Indian man, defining the boundaries of his activities and duties. Advertisement imageries and visuals project men as owners of houses and vehicles, office workers, mechanics, factory workers, and other gender conforming roles. Who can forget the awed image of an ‘angry young man’ in Indian cinema in the 70s and 80s who seldom talks, is brooding, short-tempered and is the saviour (messiah) of women in distress.
Often the role of men as protector, provider and procreator overlooks their vulnerabilities as humans. This is because men are looked upon to lead from the front, to be fearless, logical and to overcome the shackles of emotional weakness.
Men can and have to sacrifice and bear the struggle for the upkeep of family name. Men are often found to succumb to such societal pressures unknowingly and forego their choices, lie to their inner existential core and their potential remains unrealised. The social expectations overshadow their desires and belittle their problems.
Issues of mental health are not openly discussed and are conveniently ignored. ‘Mard ko dard nahi hota’ (Men don’t feel pain) is one such wrongly propagated cultural tagline that assumes men to be stoic, unperturbed and ‘super-humans’. Likewise, sexual health problems such as impotency, erectile dysfunctions and ‘performance anxiety’ are stigmatized and kept in denial, silence or even unrecognized.
The traditional definitions of masculinity and personality traits associated with it are water-tight and uncompromising. Men are supposed to look and dress up in a certain way that displays ‘toughness’ and ‘assertion’. Any deviation from the normal is separately nomenclated; like for men who indulge in personal grooming, wear non-conventional colours are termed metrosexual.
Men who prefer wearing the colour purple, pink, orange are assumed to be gay; one’s sexual identity is colour coded.
An ideal Hindu male figure in India must be virtuous like Lord Ram who is an embodiment of dignity, justice, valour and wisdom, are ‘Maryada Purushottams’ (the supreme man who is champion of honour and righteousness) and are bound by their kartavvyas (obligation/duty).
The archetypal models of manhood are framed in images of men holding up hookah, cigarette and gulping down alcohol; which demonstrates power, authority and control. Then again, the term ‘gentleman’ signifies a civilized man who is chivalrous to open a door or pull up a chair for the lady and who pays the bills at the restaurants.
But it is time that we look beyond the boxed notions on what is a man and how he must live.
Author Details– Dr. Sudeshna Roy has a PhD from JNU and she writes on health, gender, livelihood and urban issues.