Gender roles and the ‘macho male’ complex in India
It is the year 2014 and much has changed in the world. Technology has made monumental strides towards advancement – today we can communicate with another person sitting across the globe with the mere touch of a button or the swipe of a finger. Medical and public health initiatives have worked synergistically to eliminate some of the most virulent diseases plaguing the human race, such as the polio virus in India. One can confidently state that “everything is subject to change” with respect to all arenas governing our lives.
But despite these notable achievements, it is disconcerting to observe that our attitudes, as South Asians, towards gender discourse remain deeply entrenched in antiquity. Many of the laws in India place men and women into rigid gender roles and, thus, limit gender expression.
“Kya ladkiyon ki tarah sharma rahe ho!”
(Why are you shying away like a girl!)
A comment like this has the potential of angering and offending any male of Indian descent. The suffocating confines of Indian culture have rigorously demanded men to be physically strong, have limited emotionality, be sexually dominant in a relationship, be the head of the family and the keeper of property. Any sign of potential weakness and vulnerability is looked down upon.
At a very young age, boys are encouraged to play with toy cars, action figures and things of that ilk, never dolls or tea cups. These male gender roles and preconceived expectations restrict the fluidity in a boy’s behaviour. The male specie is made to feel so insecure about masculinity that they will do the utmost to safeguard this ‘macho’ image.
I was fortunate to have parents who created strong spiritual underpinnings for me to grow and establish myself as an individual free from these restrictions. They encouraged me to play the sports I enjoyed, assist in performing domestic duties like washing clothes, sweeping floors and cooking whatever pleased me. Gender roles were never discussed. There were no restrictions, just unconditional love.
As I became older, my parents and I realised that I had a natural leaning towards expressing myself in a more feminine manner. After careful introspection, my behaviour evolved into an honest acceptance of enlisting myself under the umbrella term “transgender”. After accepting this reality, I embraced the fact that this was just who I am and the circumstances around me helped to expedite my awareness of it. Nevertheless, I am free to live my life, be a productive member of society and make my family proud through my work, character and overall comportment taught to me by them and our spiritual guru, Sai Baba.
But a study conducted in 2006 examining gender attitudes involving males included 126 men from Mumbai, between the ages 18-29, who used heavy drugs, alcohol and tobacco in order to avoid social derision from their peers showed that India did not believe in the same upbringing that my parents gave me. One of the study participants said,
“During one of the festivals, all the boys were sitting together and had their bottle with them. They tried to force me to drink but I refused. So all the boys began teasing me by saying you are a ‘gud’ (feminine boy). This put me off. I drank four glasses of raw liquor. It was so strong that I was unconscious for days.”
Another common sentiment noted amongst the individuals was that “a real man should not have baila (feminine mannerisms)”, considered the characteristic of homosexual men. There are many levels of expectation and pressure shouldered by many Indian men, though they may not be as routinely evident when compared to females.
In the same way that men are bound by gender roles, women are also subjected to the same. While the men are taught to be gregarious and socially engaging, girls are encouraged to be more introverted and taciturn. A frequently recited Hindu wedding blessing meant for females is,
“May you be the mother of a hundred sons.”
Sons, not children, but sons.
Traditionally, women are supposed to rear children and complete domestic responsibilities while the men are to be the main source of financial strength. If a woman does have a career, she is expected to relinquish it if the needs of the family demand it. To be female is, at best, to be protected, but nearly paternalistically. It would not be an exaggeration if an Indian female tacitly believes,
“Basically, we (women) are made for them (men). We are made to serve them. We die serving them and there is nothing in between.”
According to a study conducted by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) in 2011, Indian men were among the least supportive of equitable relationships and roles between men and women. Nearly 80% of the men surveyed agreed that it was the responsibility of the mother to change diapers, bathe, and feed children. Furthermore, only 16% of Indian men acknowledged any domestic responsibilities such as cleaning the house and preparing the food.
Ajay Singh, a researcher for the ICRW, noted that
“Throughout India, social norms and practices are mostly governed by patriarchal ideologies that define the roles of men and women. Men are confined to it, and it’s reflected in their attitudes and behaviours.”
It is extremely sad to have to read a whole litany of such studies and newspaper articles littering the front pages of prominent daily papers. The plight of women has been documented every day with progress being slowly achieved, though with many more milestones to reach. As for South Asian males, it is a silent plight, a suffering that encompasses one’s physical, mental and emotional welfare.
We, as South Asians, should encourage our males to conduct their lives with a freedom as we do our own even if they do not encapsulate the expectations society maintains of them. Any archaic ideas of gender roles should be vanquished. We should be helping our younger developing boys understand that being sensitive, nurturing, less sexually focused, or artistic does not compromise their masculinity in any way; character development is most essential.
South Asian parents, would you not desire a son who is responsible for his family, academically sound, and contributes to the betterment of society, regardless of whether he is willing to undertake roles traditionally assigned to a female, expresses himself uniquely, defers any important decisions to his wife, or agrees not to be a dominant figure in a relationship?
It is my belief that many South Asian males maintain surreptitious sentiments like mine as well. What I don’t understand is why a male-child is conditioned to block that sentiment out completely. What is gained if a male child dealing with such feelings suffocates himself just to please society? Do we not think that he could be at risk for depressive symptoms and may even become suicidal?
On a macro level, imagine how gender functions in the real world – from homosexual men and women, to the transgender community, to masculine women or feminine men, and all the majestic shades of gender ambiguity in between, gender is not an absolute quantity so much as it is a spectrum, a rainbow coalition, if you will.
In the country’s poetry and ancient mythologies, Indians have conceded the fluidity of gender; it is only in the laws that we stick with the binate system of male and female. A change in India’s thought process where gender is thought of as one of the various hues in a rainbow would offer a more dynamic and hearty nation that would be on the ascent because of its children. Here’s hoping for that change; the change that is good.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.