India’s culture of toxic masculinity

Three images of social violence have haunted me recently. The first was that of a minor girl in her teens, beaten mercilessly by a village elder. Her crime? She dared elope with her young lover. Second, after the acquittal of all six men accused of lynching Pehlu Khan, TV channels replayed the visuals in which a crowd of men participated gleefully in the atrocity. The third was of three Dalits being thrashed over allegations of theft. The barbarity of this violence can hardly escape anyone, but equally striking is the absence of any woman among the perpetrators. This theatre of cruelty has an all-male cast.

Of course, women perpetrate violence too: they can be aggressive and brutal, particularly to other women. But undoubtedly, the culture that stokes such violence smacks of machismo. Though not solely responsible for such violence, this culture plays a central role in its recurrence, justification, and glorification.

Scholars have drawn attention to the fact that ideas of masculinity are tied less to the body and more to socio-cultural ideologies and practices. Manhood is not naturally given but is a goal to be achieved. To be born a boy is a privilege but one that can be lost if one is not properly initiated into masculine practices. Besides, male adults must maintain this privilege by regular performance. They must demonstrate that they are real men, manly, rather than womanly men. And what better way of doing so than by good, solid walloping? If one ceases to perform these masculine acts or gives up beliefs that constitute them, one slips out of manhood and becomes effeminate.

Model of manhood

What are the core features of this model of manhood? First, aggression is natural and desirable in men. A ‘real’ man is eager to pick up a fight. If he does not, he is told to wear bangles on his wrist. Even the slightest intrusion in his physical, mental or social space is unacceptable. Second, men must be tough — muscular and unemotional; they must not be easily perturbed, must not grieve and cry. I am reminded of a Latin American friend who told me that he loved the drama and action in Hindi films but, confronted with the hero’s androgynous features, was perplexed: “Why do they cry so easily?” Relatedly, it is uncharacteristic of men to adopt the point of view of others, show empathy and understanding, gentleness and compassion. Part of what it means to be tough is to suppress empathy towards others, to be embarrassed by fear or any other vulnerability.

Third, men must be ambitious and ruthless. Once they set a goal, it must be achieved regardless of consequences to others. Since winning is all-important, other men striving to achieve the same goal are rivals to be eliminated. Extreme competitiveness, on this model, is a classical male characteristic. Fourth, it does not behove men to consult others, negotiate with the weak, or settle for anything less than what they want. They take independent decisions that brook no questioning. As famously put by Amitabh Bachchan in one of his films, ‘ Bas... keh diya na (Enough, I have said so).’ Once a man speaks, it is final; an order to be obeyed blindly. Men are sovereign, free and autonomous, in control of the world they inhabit, the women they rule over and the children they beget. In short, part of their freedom lies in having dominion over others, particularly women and ‘servants’.

All these must be contrasted to features that inhere in women: being irrational, bereft of self-restraint, crying easily, emotional, empathetic but lacking judgment and impartiality. Women are physically and mentally weak, and therefore must be dependent on and protected by their male superiors. It follows that when men display such traits, they become weak, soft, wimpish. Acting like a woman is a betrayal of manhood. Cold-blooded violence shows the opposite: that manliness is fully alive and kicking!

Masculinity against freedom

Another key feature exhibited through images of social violence, and integral to a culture of masculinity, is the belief that ‘real men’ are directly responsible for sustaining a moral order. Its guardians, they must restore that order when it is disturbed. Since the girl had violated the honour of the community, she deserved the severe punishment meted out publicly and directly by an older, wiser man of the same community. How else can her subjection within the social order be conserved? Likewise, Dalits and cultural aliens (Muslims) must know their designated place in society. Any attempt to become equal must be put down. How dare a Dalit sport a moustache or dream of riding a horse? He must be shown his place. To men with such ideas of masculinity, the argument that they must not take law in their own hands falls on deaf ears. This is unsurprising, because from their own perspective, the law must be broken if it breaches the more fundamental moral order.

It is hard for me to assess the extent to which Indians are outraged by masculine violence. Are we unable to prevent this violence? Can’t be bothered to stop it? Or do we secretly endorse it? The very best in traditional and modern India, in their own distinctive ways, avoided the pernicious binary at the heart of this male-centric world. For the Buddha, compassion was not a feminine virtue but a key moral value for all humans. Mahavira tried to inculcate the ethical significance of ahimsa not merely towards all humans but every living species. Asoka realised the futility of social and political violence and advocated harmonious coexistence among different religio-philosophical groups. The early Dharmasutras proposed that knowledge is not the exclusive preserve of professionally learned men (Brahmins); much can be learnt from women and those falling low in status-hierarchy. In our times, Gandhi showed how peaceful resistance against the oppressor can be more effective than violent confrontation. But in the world of violent masculinities, these are unmanly attributes fit only for women and the weak.

Real freedom for all is the heartbeat of the order envisaged by those who sought independence from colonial rule. But the central feature in the culture of toxic masculinity is domination, which is deeply incompatible with a freedom-sensitive, egalitarian ethic. Why then does an archaic, conservative, masculine moral order, sustained largely by aggressive and violent men, persist and continue to find support among aspiring sections of our society?

It is perplexing too that social violence is continually reproduced in a democracy. Democracies are meant to encourage the not-so-masculine values of consultation, negotiation, discussion, compromise; to accept that we might not get all that we want, that it is one thing to show strength, firmness, courage and quite another to be self-obsessed and obstinate, to posture belligerently, to bully the vulnerable. In peaceful, functional democracies, people have the quiet confidence that they will defend themselves against aggression, but they know equally well that there is nothing particularly heroic about violence. The greatest Indians have defied male stereotypes, refused to be trapped by the male/female binary. Will today’s Indians follow them, reduce violence, and secure freedom for all?

Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi