Walking the scarred path or discovering the sacred masculinity in us?

by Nitin Paranjape


For the past year, I have been a part of an interesting co-learning experiment called “Mensversity”. The idea first took root in informal dialogues over lunch or chai during the Indian Multiversity Alliance (IMA) meeting at the Deer Park Institute in Bir, Himachal Pradesh. The Indian Multiversity Alliance is a flexible, open and learning-oriented network organization started in 2017 to discuss ideas, alternatives and actions related to higher education. More than 75 members from all over India are engaged in deepening learning on a variety of issues related to alternative education, either formally or informally. From these informal conversations alongside the meeting, a need emerged to form a men-only group for continuing the dialogue about men and masculinity. 

These days in India, when we hear the words ‘men’s group’, we immediately think of Men’s Rights Activists abusing women on the Internet or organizing marches to ‘protect the family’. Exclusive men’s groups are also associated with discriminatory power and reek of misogynist privilege – from current world leaders to wealthy sporting bodies to typical ‘boys only’ Whatsapp groups. So, what was different about this men’s group that emerged from the seeds of discussion in Bir?

The formation of a men’s group was based on the need to learn and unlearn issues related to “being a man’. More specifically, group members agreed that there was a need to create a safe space on a regular basis to discuss personal experiences about gender, manhood, masculinity, relationships, power and privilege, aggression, sexual desires and experiences, attitude towards women, among other such matters. The need for a few members was also because they had never had the experience of sharing their intimate experiences with other men. They were comfortable discussing issues with women, but never men.  For most men, being masculine has meant generating fear and exerting power over others. Many families have suffered because of this prevalent culture.  While it is agreed that women have borne the brunt of this domination, men have suffered equally from patriarchal expectations of masculine behaviour. 

The common feeling in the group was a deeper search for meaning and connection. The need to become vulnerable before other men was also something the members wanted to experience. Hence, the name ‘Mensversity’ was coined to keep the focus on the educative nature of the forum and the focus on generating learning from peer-to-peer sharing. It was also felt that such a men’s circle could eventually be initiated by all the members of IMA as the issues were common across organisations and the learning would be an important part of the IMA collective. In the Bir meeting of Mensversity, more than ten leaders associated with different education projects agreed to a virtual conference whenever there was an invitation to dialogue. 

Why did men feel the need to form such a forum exclusive to only men?  From the informal discussions it seemed that the men did not get adequate support or space and time to share their intimate issues. Such matters remained invisible or were taboo subjects. Even if it got mentioned in any informal group chat, it was often trivialized or dismissed. Members felt there was a need to come together to reach out and share deep feelings of insecurity and loneliness that were part of the experience of masculinity. We discussed that the exclusiveness was temporary as the men felt they needed time and space to explore their vulnerabilities and issues of concern. Further, we also needed time to explore patriarchy from our own lived experiences and reflections as it impacted us as well.  Groups historically holding positions of power and privilege often expect the oppressed groups suffering from it  to explain their oppression,  rather than taking efforts and to the work to understand it from their own personal experiences. Hence as men we felt we should do the labour of understanding patriarchy and the unique ways in which men were limited by it, as well as enjoyed its privileges.

Further, what did it mean to be men in the context of toxic masculinity in our society and culture? There was much anxiety about being accepted in the community, especially in behaving in what were deemed to be unacceptable ways. What were we trying to discover? Some young members wanted clarity on sex-related issues –performance, dating and same-sex issues. Some wanted to discover what lay beyond the masculine label? They wanted to feel their true selves, without the mask in a group situation. The list was huge, the need was genuine, and the idea of bonding and learning was palpable.  

However, apart from the need to be connected and to learn from each other’s experiences and wisdom, there was something else tugging at the heartstrings of each man in the room at Bir. It was not articulated clearly but something large was at the foundation, which needed  to be explored further. Perhaps, it was to explore and unveil our vulnerable, soft cores at the center of ourselves.  Would we be able to break the barrier of our so-called manliness and connect with each other, sharing our most vulnerable, most intimate, and most compassionate selves? Could we be able to access this part of us, which was present in most men but due to socio-cultural upbringing, lack of role models who could show us the other side of our masculine nature – which expands the traditional understanding of masculinity towards one that is accepting of vulnerabilities, emotional states and tenderness.  My own experience of crying in public was laced with shame. Men don’t cry is what I had heard, seen and brought up with ever since I can remember. Would my vulnerability be understood? What if I was labelled as a ‘softy’, a ‘sissy’ or such labels?  Most men go through the son-preference syndrome that is deeply rooted in the Indian culture.  Many families including mine have a patriarchal culture and son-preference is seen as normal. Perhaps, the belief that sons are essential for taking forward the family lineage is part of the larger ideology of the Indian community. Masculinity at least in India has strong roots with this culture of son-preference.

Masculinity also needed to be seen and understood from the deep-rooted context of patriarchy in India. The culture pervades all aspects of human life, and its impact both on men and women has been devastating, laying forth a form of behaviours in which controlling men and subservient women are seen as normal. This practice has generated violence in everyday life with women facing the most of the brunt. The recent Indian movie, ‘Thappad’ (Slap) raises this question in an eloquent manner. The husband in the movie slaps his wife for no fault of hers, in front of his friends at a party. He doesn’t see the gravity of his actions and fails to understand why his wife is unhappy. He doesn’t think much of his slap and considers  it as ‘normal’. The movie unpacks the problematic internalized habits and makes us realise that what is  seen as an individual, even normal, act of masculine behavior is in fact a feature of a prevalent political structure – that of patriarchy.  This version of masculinity is still so prevalent in India that it continues to reflect in the rising cases of gender-based violence. this issue needs to be addressed, and  men need to realise that they need to disinvest from ways of behaving rooted in ‘power’ and in the use of violence.

But what is this masculinity that we understand without really exploring its meaning? These were some of the under-currents that lay beneath the Mensversity, which needed honest exploration. Masculinity is about men’s belief about their manhood and their need to exert control and power on others, especially women. It was also related with their beliefs about women and their freedom. The masculinity was therefore also about the relationships between men and women. The question was whether it was forged with equality or was it influenced by traditional norms. Most men tend to control their intimate partners. Men’s past experiences, particularly how they have been raised, can have a bearing on their attitudes towards women and families. If a father is seen as the one who  is at the centre of taking most of the decisions or in control of the family situation, then its impact on the children in forming masculine behavior is huge. Most of my friends whom I spoke to agree about seeing their father in commanding roles and mother in secondary ones. Those who witnessed violence or aggression in their formative years internalized these styles of behavior. 

For me personally, I too grew up in a typical male-dominated family with very little space for my mother to question anything. A rigid discipline was imposed on all of us, especially on me and my brother. There was hardly any scope for dialogue.  I had many questions about my mother’s role. I had come to appreciate her adjusting nature, the ways in which she provided care and unconditional support. I saw my father in control and the privileges he enjoyed. Some of which I, too, internalized as normal.  However, when I started my family, I had much to unlearn.  I had to let go of my internalized gender norms – to be in control, appear strong, taking decisions, etc. My educational background in social work and the varied experiences I had engaged with helped me in understanding gender equality. My sensitivity had evolved, I think, from seeing my mother handle some of her own life situations with grace. I slowly started understanding my own core, which was hidden beneath the so-called normal behavior ascribed to men. I started understanding my own self better. If there was aggression there was also a soft, caring side. The struggle was always in showing it, especially in public. I knew I was emotional, and tears would come easily, but the issue was being comfortable with it. Accepting it as part of my own self. However, the journey to accept this took many years.  It is easy to conform as a large majority owns that space. 

Walking on a different path takes courage. It is related to the core question of asking who we are and what is the path that we want to create for ourselves, one which is truly ours. I too struggled with such core issues of my identity. Who was the real me? The one who fit in with the standard or someone with my own distinct and unique expressions? Could my leadership be authentic, steeped in compassion and empathy towards others and the universe, even in this different version of my masculinity? Could my energies be balanced with giving and receiving?  Could nurture, tenderness, and care be part of the action? How can men reclaim such qualities that reside in equal measure but do not become part of their consciousness and leadership? The opportunity to deeply explore these questions came  when the men’s group that was formed on that journey of exploration and discovery decided to host a first virtual meeting of Mensversity, which took place in June 2019. The two questions that were put before the group were: 1) What makes me proud of being a man? And 2) what do I regret about being a man? 

Some of the prominent elements which were shared were the notion of patriarchy and what it creates in an individual in terms of privilege, power, jealousy, paranoia, objectifying women in a certain way, not accepting our limitations and how we have been shaped deeply by traditional norms. Most in the group agreed, shying to accept their timid nature and how difficult it was to show their vulnerable self, growing up believing that men were not only stronger but also more intelligent! A few members shared their challenges in accepting their women partners as equal, and easily accepting traditional roles and divisions of labour when starting a family.  A young member had trouble accepting his body and was uncomfortable with it. For some members, it was easy to fit into the traditional role of a bread-earner who took the decisions and the pressure associated with it. Most members accepted the ease with which they objectified women and enjoyed the female body. It was also interesting to see when a member shared his discomfort in seeing ‘revealing’ dresses worn by women and how easy it was to judge them! One member revealed his discomfort in accepting his feminine side which surfaced sometimes in his life. The regret was about not breaking the ‘mold’ in which they operated, and in breaking the stereotypes associated with being men. 

The first round of conversations documented here cannot do justice to the sense of relief all of us felt after sharing intimate details and realizing that our ‘personal’ problems were in fact political ones, shaped by structures of power that operated upon all of us. This enabled the group to bond and seeds of friendship were sown in the first meeting. All felt a deep gratitude that such conversation had started which enabled them to listen to others with a feeling of a sacred togetherness and the opportunity to reflect about themselves, which they had never done before. The first conversation had set the tone; however, it was still early to expect sharing of deeper truths about inner pain and conflicts. The struggle to lay bare what goes inside us was understandable. I too felt it when sharing about myself and what it meant to be a man. The difference in the group regarding age, cultural backgrounds, experience, marital status among a few others might have been the reason to break the ice of intimacy. Most of the members were young and, in their twenties, only a few were married like me and life experiences varied too. 

Thus far, we have had three more meetings. The themes varied, giving chances to members to open up, share their joys as well as struggles. The questions discussed were on handling separation, intimate relationships with a partner, and love. The one on love and separation became personal for a member who was going through an emotional journey of facing divorce and losing someone he loved. The discussion was intimate and allowed the person to share his feelings of loss, loneliness, and confusion with honesty. The group offered a space for sharing something which was wanting to come out. The group listened with care and love, and offered a response which suggested acceptance and empathy. The person who shared felt relief and supported. He was carrying a heavy burden all by himself and felt there was a community who could be trusted and could make space for the details of a marriage falling apart. The long sharing enabled him to accept the reality of his situation and gave him the energy to grieve and move on. The process helped him to accept the challenges of living alone and that he could handle his life in a mature way. The best part was the realization that his love was authentic and even if there was no reciprocation and ‘living together’, he could continue to love his wife. The energy of his love would be enough to sustain him for the journey ahead. The learning from the marriage and his own realization about love, living together, intimacy, joys of sharing, and mistakes were good foundations to move on. For most of us, especially men, accepting our failure is deeply connected to the feeling of being infallible. This fallacy haunts most of us through our life. Accepting our failures is part of the DNA of being human! 

The other discussions were also revealing, particularly those related to sexual relationships. The theme was very ‘personal’ and since it was too early in the group stage, members were a little hesitant to share. It was understandable. A few members did share their experiences and what they enjoyed but clearly more time was needed to have a full and open dialogue. Another challenge for  the group is likely to face is when some generalized notions or problematic statements are addressedWould that be the fulcrum for transformation that will take the group forward on the road to self-discovery? A deeper trust needs to be formed which we hope will evolve as deeper matters come to surface. We hope members will see that as an opportunity to dialogue and dig into their blind spots to uncover their truths. There is concern as well – these conversations should not just remain rhetorical, but instead evolve into actions and practices in our lives. It is a long process, and an uneasy one. Maturity of the group will be tested when differences surface, for now we have set the stage for the need for such conversations and to cast off the skin of ‘standardised’ (and actually toxic) masculinity and discover our core .. The initial meetings and the conversations have created an environment which can hold deeper conversations related to gendered division of labour, men as caregivers, unlearning violent behaviours, co-creating compassionate families, among others. There is a strong need for face-to-face dialogue. Meeting in virtual space offers anonymity to speak freely but it is also limiting and having many constraints of organizing it on a regular basis.  Having long conversations on the phone is taxing and becomes heavy. The challenge of organizing with regularity has been the most tiring. Issues of members’ time, last minute work pressures, and travel have come in the way of organizing regular meetings. We are now facing a long break as members feel there is a need to meet in real time and bond over themes they would like to explore, and traveling and meeting in person has to be postponed due to the current pandemia. However, we look at the future with hope. An important beginning has been initiated. 

The call for a new story of masculinity that is rooted in values of equality, warmth, love, care, connection and experiencing vulnerability and even powerlessness is something exciting. The time to rebirth a new man is awaiting our group. One member is excited to work on a module of masculinity that could be offered to young school-going children or youth groups. Another is ready to start something like this in his own organisation where he feels his colleague could benefit. uch a men’s group could be part of future IMA gatherings or other assemblies built around peer-to-peer learning process, based in experiential and affective learning. For the network alliance, the process has the potential to show a different learning approach based on mutuality, sharing, and deep listening. It has the potential to engender change in social relationships, leadership, prevalent gender-roles and expectation such as care-taking responsibilities. As a group, we are also thinking about how to connect our work to that of the women’s movement in India, which is active in various forms – NGOs, women’s advocacy groups, university study centres, etc. and has been successful in campaigning to implement several women-oriented laws and policies in recent decades. It would be a mutual learning process when we start conversations with members of women’s groups to understand their perspective and struggle to change forms of relationship, power structures, and alternate ways of living.

Everyone in the group felt that the conversations could offer hope to many young men about to start a partnership or a family, or to young men to re-think of their role and behaviour. Could we be the mentors to our community of men? There is also the question of whether membership will remain exclusive to only men. Right now, it is early days but as we gain confidence in ourselves, including members of other genders will add value and broaden the dynamics. The future looks exciting and a way forward for forging meaningful connections and relationships. 

Nitin Paranjape

Nitin Paranjape has more than 30 years of experience in the development sector. He is the co-founder of several social organisations including Abhivyakti Media for Development where he is currently its Director, and ‘Swaraj University’, an educational programme that deepens self-directed learning. He lives in NAshik, India with his wife, Anita Borkar and daughter, Sakhi. 

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