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Why It’s Important For Us To Create A New Definition Of ‘What Is A Man?’

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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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Were you told to hide or control your emotions while growing up?

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.

How Gender Roles Suppress Men

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.

Representational image.

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.

Representational image.

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.

The ‘Ideal Man’ Prototype In Indian Society

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.

Sanju Ranbir Kapoor
Representational image.

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.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.


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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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