This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s talk on Masculinity and India’s Young Men at OTV’s Prerana 2019. With 230 million men below the age of 18 in India, Rohini talks about how we need to start doing the work of questioning our understanding of masculinity and providing safe spaces for boys and men to express themselves.
Over the past few decades we’ve seen advancement in the field of women’s empowerment. At least 70 million women are in self-help groups in this country and they’re learning to find ways to make themselves stronger. But it has been a very hard journey and we still have a long way to go. Every day we hear of rapes, we hear of violence, we hear of fear. The MeToo movement has allowed some of these issues to come out.
But if we look at the flipside, there are 230 million young men in this country below the age of 18, and another 80 million men are between the ages of 18 and 25. If you look at the data, millions of these young men are uneducated or under-educated; unemployed or underemployed. Their jobs and livelihoods are at risk because the job scenario is changing very fast. Too many of them don’t have good role models in their house, instead they’re trapped by what we call the ‘patriarchy,’ in unhealthy masculine roles.
We expect our boys and men to behave a certain way, and they feel the pressure of always having to be like that, especially young people. Through my work, I’ve noticed that there is a lot of fear and a lot of insecurity among the men of India today. It’s a global phenomenon as well, because the future of work is not what it used to be. In their houses, they may find that their sisters or mothers or daughters are doing well, while they may not see their own path so clearly. So men in their own right, especially young boys, need some help. They need us all, as women and as citizens of this country, to notice what is happening to this cohort of 200 million young men. Unlike women, they don’t have safe shared spaces to speak about their masculinity, their sexuality, or fears. When do they talk amongst their peer groups, the same message of toxic masculinity gets reinforced. So there is no place for young men to go, young boys to go and ask questions.
My daughter has asked me, “Ma, how come you expect me to be very, very responsible but you don’t expect the same thing of my brother?” It’s true that we don’t expect much from them in the house as we expect from the daughters. But we expect other things, other signs of masculinity that we need to question. Do we always expect them to be the breadwinner of the family? Do we want them to be kind of sensitive along with being strong? They should know that if their wife earns more than them, that doesn’t mean they’re any less of a man. We need to start doing work that questions and allows them to question these narrow ideas of masculinity.
I’ve found that there are very few organizations in India that are doing this work. Many organizations who are working with women need to also start working with this group of young, vulnerable boys. They need to have a space where they can ask questions without being ridiculed. We need to create a society where men do not have to be burdened with old ideas of masculinity. It is 2019, and if women have changed so much, we need to give men the space to change. Otherwise, when an empowered woman enters a disempowering situation at home, she has two bad choices: One is that she can regress, or the second is that she has to rebel. Both are very bad choices. A better option is for those of us who have sons, begin these conversations in our own homes. We need men to be as empowered as we want women to be.