A bit of an old post here, but I've been thinking about these areas. This was written about a month and a half ago, after I read The Gender Knot, which has to be one of the best works on gender in circulation at present. It may be a bit dated, but here it goes. Things in India have, regrettably, not changed, and both male and female culture need to change.
Enough has been said, justifiably, about the despicable treatment of women in India. The horrific rape and murder in Delhi in December was followed by a massive public demand for justice, and the recent gang-rape of a university student in Manipal has set off similar protests in Mangalore. The clamor for justice is absolutely justified – in these and ceaseless other crimes of violence against women, the perpetrators must be caught and incarcerated. However, no amount of punishment, not even the death penalty, will stop these crimes from continuing, or bring about true justice. The real issue lies with the culture in which men grow up, and it’s not about how men treat women in particular, but with how men see themselves and their world in general. As sociologist Allan G. Johnson put it, we can explain individual acts of violence as the work of sick or angry men, but we should really ask what sort of society causes such male anger and causes it to be directed against women.
Boys are taught to ‘be a man’ from their early school years. Sensitive kids are routinely scolded by parents and teachers and told to become tough. Bullies pick on them. As they grow into teenagers, cliques form, led by the boy who demonstrates his macho-ness the most, through acts of physical strength, tough-talk, or blatant indiscipline in the class. Conformity is imposed; differences of any sort are frowned upon. Academic pressure grows. The ability to stay in control and control others (through force or otherwise), becomes a higher virtue than having a happy, adjusted life or a proper sense of self-worth. We take this sort of ‘competitiveness’ in schools and colleges for granted, and even encourage it at the cost of such things as empathy and emotional development.
Girls are often kept aside, treated in practical terms as the property of the ‘tough’ or ‘cool’ guys. It becomes worse in college, where first-years are ragged by seniors in any manner of insidious ways, where seniors overtly exert power over juniors and junior girls are objects of desire. Boys fight over girls as a status symbol, and girls, conditioned to see this kind of behavior as ‘normal’, and frightened by the violence involved, step aside. Now, this is certainly not the trend where boys and girls interact with each other more (and therefore see each other as human beings), but with grossly skewed sex ratios in many schools and engineering colleges in India, girlfriends become valuable trophies – and there is nothing like winning a hot girlfriend to boost a young man’s social status.
Men who feel constantly under control and who have no luck finding girls grow increasingly frustrated. They want the trophies that they have been taught are theirs (a hot, young, intelligent girlfriend or wife) and want to get those trophies through methods they think are legitimate (violence), driven on by a growing sense of shame and inadequacy. Their desires are constantly renewed by endless ‘escapist’ movies and posters and advertisements showing men in a position of dominance, and females as objects of desire. These forms of media portray as well as shape real-life gender expectations, and fan the flames of frustrated men.
Broken, utterly lacking in self-worth, angry, and ashamed of themselves, these men would have been pitiable if they didn’t choose to satisfy their broken egos through attacks on women. Women are ‘the other’, inferior, things through which one can prove their self-worth and their manliness. They don’t see the women on the other end as human beings – the women they rape are just tools to them. This goes for the other, less violent forms of sexism as well – women are treated as things to use, just as a bully uses his victims or a clique leader uses his followers as a way to boost his self-esteem. Some of them go as far as to justify their violence against women, in claiming that they were ‘protecting them against other men’, or ‘teaching them a lesson for being loose’. Disgusting or despicable as this may be, none of this is extraordinary: this is how an extreme patriarchal system justifies its gender roles.
How does one go about and deal with it? Education is no solution, as even educated men have uttered grossly sexist statements and committed the basest crimes against women. George Orwell pointed out in his wonderful essay ‘What is Science?’ that an education in scientific fact doesn’t grant anyone a scientific frame of mind. In the same vein, merely teaching anatomy or basic sex education does not help. Toning down the present culture of competitiveness would be impossible with the present school system. But we can remove the associations of force and competitiveness from masculinity. We can, as so many feminists of both sexes state, stop explicitly or implicitly comparing our boys to girls. One thing we need to get rid of is the notion that girls and women are some ‘other’ group. Girls are just as human as boys, and boys need to learn that just because girls are different does not mean that they are inferior. In schools and colleges where interaction between the sexes is freely allowed, sexism is far less pervasive, thus making a case for improved communication. There is a long way to go before male culture can be changed, but we need to begin the changes – for the sake of men and women.