Kamla Bhasin Leads Students in Demystifying Masculinities and Femininities - 04 September
Students from Hindu College in Delhi University had a hearty laugh and a fun time debunking conventional perceptions of masculinity and femininity and how they were linked to one another. They then dug deeper to examine its connection with instances of gender based violence.
Around 60 students participated in a vibrant panel discussion held on September 4 in the college on the issue Demystifying Masculinities and Femininities, excited to be sharing space with renowned feminists. Panel members comprised Kamla Bhasin, founder of Sangat South Asia and Convener of One Billion Rising South Asia; Satish Singh, Deputy Director, Centre for Health and Social Justice founder member of MenEngage Global and convener of Forum To Engage Men (FEM) India Network; and Karen Gabriel, Professor of English at St Stephens College, Delhi University. Also present on the dais was internationally known dancer Navtej Johar.
The mood was set by light-hearted, rhetorical questioning by Kamla Bhasin on patriarchy and the trend of glorifying ‘macho-ism.’ The students cheered and joined her in laughing about it, at the same time taking back a thought, a reflection and a journey towards questioning traditional practices that implicitly form the backbone of various hegemonic structures of privilege and power within family, society and among ethnicities.
'Conditioned' into Patriarchy
Kamla Bhasin picked on particular rituals, conventions and beliefs that conditioned us to accept and practice patriarchy. She also showcased statistical reports from surveys conducted by UN and state bodies on the declining sex ratio and proliferation of domestic abuse at various levels to emphasize that misogyny was a cultural and political practice significant in maintaining the status quo of power residing in the control of the man. She said supporting an aggressive, 'macho' oriented masculinity inevitably promoted misogyny and devalued anything feminine. It leads to women being considered weak, incapable and inefficient which subsequently leads to their agency over themselves being transferred to the superior sex which is projected as being more ‘dependable’ than them. This also starts the story of commodification and objectification of women who are seen as the property of the family and of men, as a medium of transaction of power between men, and finally of the legitimacy of men to punish their women.
While addressing the young men in the crowd she threw light on how the privileges and power they invariably possessed due to their gender, limited their capability to feel, express and deal with emotion. As a result, when men are faced with emotions they tend to become escapists and if forced to confront it, their only response is aggression and violence. She said if women were being stereotyped through the lens of a patriarchal gender, the same process also stereotyped men. Hence, the notion of a ‘free’ man versus a ‘bound’ woman was a myth. The truth was that patriarchy limited all genders in various ways. She recounted Prophet Mohammed, Guru Nanak and various other male leaders and saints who endorsed respect for women as an integral part of the doctrine they preached. This had still not culminated into a movement or practice, she observed, because men feared losing the privileges due to their ‘superior’ gender. Feminism, she said, was about the liberation of everyone from a forced coercion into practices and cultures that violated their desires and choice. To hold onto one’s own power without reflecting how that affected and deprived the other was not power it was greed and morally and ethically wrong, she stated. She also commented on how the constitution of a democratic country like India was in direct conflict with the patriarchal culture that continued to exist in the country. She observed that to respect the constitution, we should uproot patriarchy. It is we who create a particular cultural environment and if we do not like it, it is up to us to change it. Finally, she spoke about the popular media promoting aggressiveness and being ‘naughty’ as a desirable image of a man and why that needed to be checked.
Journey from the Personal to Public Activism
Satish Singh from CHSJ shared reflections from his childhood when being non aggressive and non violent was a reason for being taunted by peers and others. He shared how the present system of socialization and its notion of ‘essential’ nature of manhood necessarily induced violence and aggression in boys and young men. He spoke of how as a non violent and non aggressive boy, he felt quite confused and alone. He shared how understanding gender and engaging with it had been a journey of self discovery that enriched him by helping him stand up against violence. He observed how the general tendency in society to favour boys a “little more” over girls went a long way in promoting misogyny and subsequently gender based violence. He said marriage is a politically fraught social practice and we needed to reflect upon and rework such cultural practices. Talking of domestic violence he asked why state and society were not ready to look at a woman within the closed world of the household as a citizen. He raised concern over how the notion of sanctity of “family” and “marriage” prohibited the acknowledgment of a woman’s basic rights within family and marriage. Finally, he observed that men had the tendency to feel entitled to some form of power as an essential part of their gender, emphasizing the need for such stereotypes to be discussed and thrown light upon.
Karen Gabriel of St Stephens said it was important to link the hegemonic understanding of masculinity to other forms of inequality based on race, caste and class. She spoke of how gender was the first basis on which hegemony of one human was established fundamentally over the other. She observed gender was integral to the notion of power. While reflecting upon and reworking this dynamic of power, she said one also needed to focus on the manner in which gender overlaps with other hegemonic system of power such as race, caste and class. She also spoke on the relationship between nationalism and masculinity, observing that Nationalism and Military are manifestations of hyper masculinity. Nationalism and military were often deployed as tools of oppressing the voices of the minority. A culture based on heralding hyper masculinity invariably tends to throw an invisible cloak over voices coming from sections of the population that are different. She observed how promoting self at the expense of others is a problematic understanding of ‘competitiveness’ and that that such a culture of competition needs to be reflected upon.
The discussion was then opened to students for their comments and queries. Concerns were raised on how men and women both were responsible for discrimination of women since both had an equal role in maintaining society and following the favoured mode of socialization. Rajender, a student from Hindu College, was of the opinion that a woman, as a mother, had a big role in her son’s socialisation and also asserted that sometimes she herself teaches him misogyny in unconscious ways. A girl student raised concern about why a girl felt dependent and what aspects of society conditioned her to be so. An interesting query was put forward by a BTech student who asked whether a society where equality and freedom proliferated could be a manageable system or not. Deliberations were also made on how to negotiate with the family on issues of power and freedom.
Kamla Bhasin quoted ritual practices within families, like ‘Kanyadan,’ recommending the need to eliminate them, as also terminologies such as “pati” or “swami” for the husband. She observed how these practices were also unconstitutional as they referred to women as a form of property. Most relationships in a patriarchal family were based on a conduct enforcing a form of hegemony of power. She concluded that we could bring equality based conduct in these relationships so that the bond remains but it would no longer be to maintain a hegemony but to celebrate the love.
Satish Singh said negotiations were a part and parcel of living. Everybody negotiates for privilege or profit and one has always been doing so. Negotiations are the basis on which relationships are made. If the nature of a family today can be said to be more “progressive” than before, then it was so because of negotiations that are leading to its evolution.
Negotiating a Better World
Karen threw light on matters of intimate relationships where negotiations are hard to make. She observed how creativity becomes a part of the negotiations, suggesting that if people are approached with care then there are chances of a more positive response. These negotiations, she said, are necessary not just to confront differences but also to represent a sign of care, that is, the ability to understand each other better, to be able to tolerate each other and last but not the least, to be able to respect each other beyond all differences. Renowned dancer Navtej Johar, also on the panel, spoke about his own journey of choosing a passion that is not a popular choice for boys. He observed that ultimately as humans we know the difference between right and wrong. He spoke about the disturbing fact that today, even a child knows the world around him or her is unequal. It is important to learn to deal with it. He observed how there was nothing as beautiful as the feeling of freedom, urging the students to follow their hearts and not succumb to any forced obligations. He also encouraged them to reflect on how participating in inequality means giving one’s freedom away. He suggested that the students be reflective of their decisions and actions and simultaneously feel free to choose.
The event concluded with rousing slogans by the panel members and students - slogans of freedom for women and freedom of choice, before the audience and the panel departed with a note to stay in touch and be together in the fight for a ‘gender just world’.