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'Many men want to change, but they don’t know how': Dr Deepa Narayan

Award-winning author and one of the world's most influential thinkers, Dr Deepa Narayan shares thoughts on masculinity, gender equality, and her new podcast 'What's a Man?'

May 29, 2021 / 10:29 PM IST
Dr Deepa Narayan

Dr Deepa Narayan

Former senior adviser at the World Bank in Washington DC, Dr Deepa Narayan wrote the influential series Voices of the Poor and is the award-winning author of 17 books including the groundbreaking book Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women (Juggernaut, 2018). She was named one of the 100 most influential global thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine and as one of India’s 35 Great Thinkers by India Today.

She went on to launch Chup Circles and is the creator and host of the podcast What’s a Man? Masculinity in India. A TED speaker, her talk focuses on how to support women in leadership. The 10-part podcast series was launched in February 2021, with the final two episodes being aired on May 26 and June 9.

Through a series of humorous, moving and thought-provoking interviews with renowned guests ranging from comedians, to writers, army generals, LGBTQI persons and Bollywood actors, it offers new insights into our relationship with masculinity.

In this interview, Dr Narayan talks to eShe about the changing modern notions of being a man, why gender equality is incomplete without addressing men, and how we can bring up our children in a more gender-fluid environment.

Please explain to our readers why you believe that gender equality can never be achieved without addressing men?

Men hold the power, in homes and offices, they are over 50 percent of the population and they are stuck in narrowly defined roles and expectations that lead to violence. It’s not exactly true that men are happy. Men kill each other, men kill women and men kill themselves in far greater numbers than women do. Many men want to change, but they don’t know how.

And yet we ignore the men. Gender equality or women’s empowerment strategies right now are like building dams to hold the water in an unruly river but the dams collapse because the force is too great. Instead of building dams, we need to change the course of the river.

Even though it’s not explicit, we have assumed that men are the problem, the enemy, so let’s bypass men. This has to change in attitude and action. That’s why I decided to ask basic questions of men, to put my assumptions aside, to start and open up the conversation with men and among women and people of all genders.

Through over 250 interviews with educated middle and upper-class boys and men from across India, what have been some of the interesting findings and insights you have gathered on our relationship with masculinity and what it means to be a man in India today?

Each episode or theme has at least 10 insights, so let me just name a few from the foundational question that I ask in Episode 1, what does it mean to be a man? I like asking basic questions because we don’t ask them, we assume we know the answers. Ask yourself this question. How would you define a man? Think about it, reflect on it.

So our story and investigation starts by asking boys and men this question. I also focus only on the educated well-off middle- and upper-class boys and men in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities because all these people believe firmly in gender equality. In fact, many said, “You shouldn’t even ask this question about equality because of course, nowadays men and women are equal.”

But then why don’t we see equality in practice, in everyday behaviours, in offices, home and schools? Men and boys define men as “strong, muscular, egoistic” and many other things but two words were used the most: strong and muscular. If men are by definition meant to be strong, what happens to men who are not strong, are they not men? Immediately you understand the appeal of film stars like Salman Khan.

Second, if you are always supposed to be strong, how can you show any vulnerability, confusion, doubts, sadness? These deep expectations sink into our psyche, and limit the full range of human possibilities for men and cause problems for men and for everyone involved in their lives. Adult men laughingly said their hero was Superman or famous bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This is not a problem, but it puts tremendous pressure on men to be a certain way and feel inadequate or like failures when they don’t fit this image in their own psyche. One 17-year-old boy, who was slim, said what hurt him the most was being called “effeminate”.

How can parents refrain from bringing up their children with gender stereotypes (blue cars for boys, pink dolls for girls; math for boys, literature for girls; boys don’t cry, and so on)?

By waking up to their own behaviours, changing their own consciousness and by making a deep promise to themselves that they will do their best to raise their children as free as possible from limiting gender stereotypes. We all will make mistakes, but without staunch determination and constant renewals of promises, it will not happen. This is something that should be talked about in families as kids grow. Make it a game, spot gender-stereotyping in each other, in movies, magazines, books, ask questions at dinner time.

How many parents apologise to their children when they make a mistake? How many parents can watch their boys try on a sari or wear heels or play with dolls instead of trucks without making fun of them or letting others make fun of them?

As parents or as anyone who cares about the future of the country, we also need to challenge stereotypes where we see them and take action alone or with friends to amplify our voices. In the malls anywhere in the world, I have tried it. When you go into any large clothing store and ask for baby clothes or children’s clothes, the first question is, “Girl or boy?” Protest, write letters to the company.

Further, how can we change the gender climate within schools to make it more fluid, and expand children’s sense of self?

These are big questions. Schools change because of enlightened leadership within schools or pressure from teachers inside or pressure or resources from outside the school. First and most important, we must recognise that we have a problem. Only then can we change. If we shortcut this process, the transformation will not happen as every male and female teacher will have to change.

I am sure if you were to do a survey of school principals in India, particularly private schools to which the children of the educated go, and you asked, “Do you believe in gender equality?”, the answer would be yes. But principals either don’t have the deep conviction or they do not have the skills and ideas on how to make school spaces gender-open.

For example, girls and boys are made to sit separately, and boys are expected to be good in sports, while girls are discouraged. We will not see changes in schools till teachers are supportive of change and I believe that most teachers want to change but don’t know how. This is where programmes like Gender Lab and Breakthrough that provide training in gender awareness in schools become important.

Do you feel that modern notions of being a (metrosexual) man are changing, with men increasingly being portrayed in popular culture wearing pink T-shirts/face packs, and so on?

Yes, absolutely, becoming active on social media, particularly Instagram, has been eye-opening for me. There are so many young men who are powerful influencers in opening up the space for young men to experiment with makeup for example. You see it in fashion as well.

Yet it is limited. In Delhi, I have yet to see a young man wearing makeup in malls, shopping areas, markets or other public spaces. I have seen them in arts gatherings or performing-arts spaces.

My point is that most men still don’t feel safe to show themselves on the street breaking boundaries, although there are an increasing number of transmen and queer men in public spaces being themselves.

I see the differences on university campuses in Delhi, where there is now much more experimentation with gender identity and what it means, much more questioning. What needs to change is below the surface, so men feel they have a greater degree of freedom to express the “weak” part of themselves.

For your book, Chup, through 600 detailed interviews you found that Indian women across the board are trained to habitually delete themselves. Please share with us some of your startling findings in this regard.

In my TED talk hosted by Shah Rukh Khan, I manage to distill my findings to 12 minutes. Three things startled me. First, we have changed a lot from the outside, how women dress, how they look, where they go at least during the day, where they work and what they do. But from the inside, many highly educated talented women doubt themselves and are disrespected by others including men.

Second, we are in collective denial because the more educated you are, the harder it is to say “I am afraid” or “I feel alone” or “I feel insecure” or “I have been harassed”. Women have been taught to be ‘good and moral’ and speaking up and showing you have problems challenges these notions of being good. It isn’t just an intellectual problem, it’s a moral problem. But because we don’t speak about it personally, each woman feels alone even though she may be surrounded by friends.

And third, women are taught not to trust each other. This is the ultimate travesty of patriarchy, because if women trusted each other, systems changes would happen faster. I think this is shifting as on social media, it is so energising to see women praise, support and lift each other. We need more of this in offices and homes.

First published in eShe magazine

Neha Kirpal