Several years back, in my book ” Child- Man”, I had written ” Religion in the modern world is no longer an opiate which lulls people into resigned acceptance of their fate, but more of an aphrodisiac which provides a release from the rage, resentment and the feelings of impotence with which the modern man lives. Not surprisingly, religion in danger, has become a strong motif for the mobilisation of collective outrage the world over. It would seem that the projections of purity and vulnerability which, in earlier times were made on the female gender are now being made on religion. Hence by seeing himself as the saviour of his religion, modern man can reclaim his masculinity which otherwise seems to be under attack from all other sources”
The reality of this process became very stark the other day when I saw that the news item of a Haryana government minister extolling the virtues of ghunghat (veil) was followed by scenes of lynching in the name of “cow- protection”. Transference of the need to protect the honour of one’s womenfolk ( symbolised by ghunghat) to protection of cows (quasi- religious symbol of sacredness) could not have been more vivid.
Historically, being a protector has been a very significant part of the male psyche. There are several reasons for it- evolutionary, sociological, psychological and cultural. Whatever be the reason, inability to protect is experienced as a major affront to “manliness” by most men. The protection could be of land, women, family honour, tradition, religion or any other motif. Thus, not having anything to “protect” creates an existential vacuum for many men- as though their very reason for being is taken away from them.
In such a scenario it is not unusual for them to take the counterpoint location of being an “aggressor”. In either case, Protector- Aggressor remains the primary lens through which their notion of masculinity is constructed. In the 21st century world, this paradigm of looking at masculinity is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Consequently, it becomes highly problematic both at an individual and collective levels. At the macro level, we are witnessing the havoc being caused by this frustrated masculinity, but even in our day to day lives, its manifestation is clearly visible.
Today, most socio-economic roles have become gender- neutral or fast becoming so. Women are making their presence felt in most professional spaces and Men’s participation in “home making” is steadily increasing though perhaps at a slower rate. Many people are dealing with this emerging fluidity of roles by minimising their gender related differences. In fact, in many quarters it is considered “politically expedient” to side-step any talk of gender related differences lest one be seen as biased or stereotyping. Not surprisingly, many people feel more comfortable being a “person” rather than being a “man” or a “woman”
The obvious consequence of this is that all gender related associations are repressed but continue to operate in a subtle manner. The stronghold of the Protector-Aggressor paradigm of masculinity is often manifested in the way many men relate with their women colleagues. For example, they find it easy to relate to a woman colleague who they see as a victim of societal discrimination as compared to someone who is seen as aggressive and dominating.
The harsher and starker version of this Protector-Aggressor syndrome in men is reflected in the domestic violence, insensitivity and oppression suffered by many working women particularly if they belong to a social strata where gender roles are tightly defined. Many times, it is the unease of the man in feeling that his Protector-Provider role is being undermined which gets expressed through rage towards the woman.
The real difficulty of the modern man is that he does not know what to peg his masculinity on. His conventional ways of looking at his masculinity are no longer viable and he has not found new ways of integrating his masculinity with his personhood. While, women are also facing the same difficulty, I think, they are doing a much better job of dealing with it than men. I have no hard evidence to support this assertion but only my personal experience to fall back upon. I find many more women who have been able to redefine their notion of womanhood in this fast changing scenario than men.
In this context, I find it strange that a huge focus on gender-related work remains on women, whereas it is men who need more help in this area. My colleague in Sumedhas Academy for Human Context, Sarbari Gomes, runs a Gender & Identity Lab every year with the objective of exploring the dynamics between one’s gender (manhood and womanhood, as the case may be) with one’s personhood. However, in her experience there are more women than men who use this opportunity. It would appear that whereas women have realised the need to reconfigure their notions about what it means to be a woman, not many men are willing to do so.
I believe there is a lot at stake here, both in terms of our personal and social lives. The current happenings world over seem to be warning us of the consequences of unleashing this frustrated masculinity. Mere condemnation of it is not going to take us very far. Unless Men can learn to be Men in new ways, we will be in deep trouble. There are no clear answers to what these new ways will be. However, what can be said with reasonable degree of certainty that denial of one’s gendered identity and only focusing on a gender neutral personhood will not suffice. At the same time it is equally important that we reconfigure our notions of manhood and womanhood both individually and collectively.