As a very empowered yet typically feminine woman, the idea of masculinity has always been intriguing to me- and when I moved to India, that interest only grew further. See, I grew up in a household with a typically masculine father. Although he always enforced the idea that a man was not defined by his physical strength, ability to fix things, or the amount of hair on his chest, but instead by how he treats others, he was still very much the man of the household. I always saw a man who was very secure in his position as a male figure, so wearing pink or learning to do his daughter's hair never came across as being an attack on his masculinity.
However, when I moved to India, a still incredibly patriarchal society, where masculinity is often held above all else, I was dumbfounded when I saw heterosexual men- who had been raised to understand that a man must have power, must enforce his rules and must above all else be respected as the head of the household- swinging their arms and holding hands like little kids as they walked down the street. Yet, the second someone mistook them for being a couple; it was an insult to their masculinity and overall manhood. It was as if the connotation of being gay or having any typical feminine trait took away a part of their manliness. So, what does masculinity mean in India? Is it still a based-on tradition where men must be aggressive and strong, or are we moving forward as world views change to showcase the idea that masculinity is more about what it takes to be a good man? Honestly, as a woman, I don't think I can fully answer that question, so instead, I asked seven different Indian men from the ages of 19- 80, what they believe masculinity/ being a man means in Indian society.
It was interesting to hear their answers as each had very different views on the subject. Dhillon Advano, a heterosexual 19-year-old med student, believed masculinity not to exist in Indian society as it is still incredibly traditional and somewhat stuck in the past, which is not what he thinks it is to be a man. He explains, "The concept of masculinity among the upper class in India highlights and glorifies all the worst attributes associated with being a man. These men tend to be entitled, aggressive and egotistical, but are praised for their behavior because of their social class and gender." Whereas Viral Malnika, 33-year-old heterosexual senior manager at Mariott understands "In our society, we are told that men must be masculine" but refuses to believe it as correct "Men are biologically and socially influenced to choose masculine traits such as being dominant, strong, independent, assertive, and in charge. Whereas woman are supposed to be feminine and as such nurturing, compassionate, empathetic, kind, and loving. Yet, these are all the traits a man should exhibit as well."
Rick Advano, a 56-year-old heterosexual business owner, took a different approach utilizing experts to explain the future of masculinity "According to Taryn van Niekerk from the Department of Psychology University of Cape Town the 11 masculine norms include risk-taking, disdain for homosexuality, violence, winning, emotional control, power over women, dominance, playboy, self-reliance, primacy of work, and pursuit of status." But he does not believe any of these traits make a good man and as a result, attitudes are changing, "Even in India where masculinity has been practically deified for eons, being classically masculine is being more and more frowned upon by society as women become more independent and outwardly stronger." Similarly, Makarand Khandekar, a heterosexual 61-year-old retired product engineer, sees a change in Indian society but looks to the past to explain the present outlook on not only masculinity but its link to homosexuality. "Indian Society is predominantly patriarchal, barring a few states like Kerala. Therefore, till the early 80s, the male child was expected to be strong and virile. He was expected to maintain the family line, be the provider and protector of the family. This automatically made homosexuality looked down upon. Over the last 3-4 decades, though, the understanding of the human mind and behavior has increased, and homosexuality is no longer as much of a taboo due to exposure to western media, education, and travel enhancing the viewpoints."
However, two of the men asked took a very different approach to what masculinity in Indian Society is today. Both Abhishek Kansara Adwaney a 38-year-old gay doctor and his heterosexual father a retired store clerk, Haresh Kansara aged 65 believe masculinity to have nothing to do with attributes but instead a sense of personal growth. Abhishek explained masculinity as "Being one's own self, and not what the society might think of you," whilst Haresh suggested, "Being a man and/or masculine means taking responsibility." This idea blew my mind through a whirlwind and made me reconsider even my initial own question. Still, it somehow helped me understand Deep Pathare, a gay 22-year-old LGBTQ+ activist, story a little better when speaking about what masculinity in India means to him. First, he explains that he likes to be very "fluid" when it comes to having specific gender characteristics, so as a result, masculinity has become very subjective to him. However, he explains, "Being an open gay 'man' in India, is very difficult. A lot of cis, straight people often use me as an example or like a black sheep of sorts. I remember when I was in my early teens, someone's mother told her son not to cry or use a lot of hand gestures while talking, or he'll 'become like' me..?!" Although, at that age, he didn't understand what that meant, he is grateful to "express his femininity in a man's body."
So, what did it all actually mean? After speaking with all these incredibly diverse men the one idea that really stood out to me was that "Masculinity does not exist," but I don't believe that to be true. Masculinity in India is changing day by day and to each, it means something different. Maybe the men holding hands and showing affection, although still afraid to be considered as less of a man, are staging an unconscious protest against past definitions and societal expectations of masculinity. Maybe it's a sign of progress being made or maybe not. All I know is that masculinity can no longer be defined in one simple statement, especially in Indian society, where there is this constant war between maintaining traditions that are typically patriarchal and moving forward as a whole. So yes, I believe that masculinity is defined in a very traditional manner in Indian society, but it is moving forward, and as long as we have men like those mentioned above, we will continue to do so.
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Photos By Riley Brennan @riileybrenan