Editor’s Note: This month, that is September 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Boys, Men and Masculinities, where we invite various articles to highlight the different experiences of masculinity that manifest themselves in our everyday lives and have either challenged, subverted or even perpetuated traditional forms of ‘manliness’. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I must have been five when a younger cousin, visiting us over the summer, and started referring to my brother by my given name. As a routine practice in my family, siblings are often given phonetically similar names to represent a sense of natal bond, to reinforce an existing relationship. For my cousin, the phonetic similarity of my brother’s name to my own seemed to overpower a sense of gendered difference that his young tongue, tied to a young mind, found quite difficult to articulate. So, he would call both of us Avali.
At ten, on one of our visits to our hometown in the heart of developing Madhya Pradesh, our maternal grandmother gifted my brother and I a set of similar polo shirts. She had just moved to a new neighbourhood, and the nearby shops had not yet started selling frocks—the polo shirts were all they had. I still remember its shape and the orange stripes, the massive collar with buttons. By any standard of conventional aesthetics, and my grandmother’s good opinion, it was an ugly shirt. But I loved it!
At twenty, after years of deliberation, and ample discouragement, I finally found the courage to make an attempt to cut the shame of being a gender non-conforming person from the contour of my body. I cut my hair.
At twenty-three, I began working on masculinities in an NGO based in Delhi.
A Look At The CSOs And Gender Sensitisation Programmes
Historically, most programmatic work on masculinities by civil society organisations (CSOs) in India, under the wider rubric of programming on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) issues, has focussed on gender-based violence (GBV), early and child marriages, safe sex and contraception use. This is precisely so, because programmatic work on masculinities, much like most other work on other thematics in the development sector, is driven by a certain set of assumptions and predetermined goals and objectives.
From the objective of prevention of violence against women, to enabling women’s access to SRHR, to the most recent shift of engaging with patriarchy as a system that perpetuates a certain set of roles, norms and expectations rooted in gender and sex based difference, even for cisgender men—the perception of cisgender men in these programmes has also shifted in the past three decades or so, from viewing them within the narrow binary of perpetrators and protectors—in simpler words, seeing them solely as men who commit GBV and men who oppose GBV—as well as seeing them as partners in the fight for gender equality and justice, to the most recent shift in the understanding of cisgender men themselves as subjects of intervention and potential benefactors of gender-based programming.
Consequently, the implementation of these programmes, and the activities of intervention and action subsumed within it, targets cisgender men. This potentially has two significant results—on the one hand, the spaces of implementation, in terms of workshops or exhibitions, tend to get dominated by the presence of cisgender men, wherein entry is predicated on shared experiences of masculinities which are predominantly cisgender. On the other hand, the anchors hired to lead these programmes, and carry forth implementation work, are predominantly cisgender men, which is both a consequence of and a contributing factor to masculinities programming remaining dedicated to cisgender masculinities.
It is perhaps not surprising then, that the most glaring omission in public literature that exists on this work—in terms of programmatic reports, concept notes to forums, conclaves and events on masculinities and funding proposals—is of the word ‘cisgender’. Even while these programmes ostensibly only speak to and about cisgender men.
Personal-Political and More
I was fifteen when the possibility of playing cricket in the open playground in my neighbourhood became foreclosed for me. I started to get bullied by the other boys, who just a few years earlier, had been my closest friends. As a consequence, I decided to join a local stadium nearby, where my presence was not predicated on maleness, but a receipt of two fifty rupees a month. It also worked in my favour that the coach was sympathetic to my experience – though he would often slot me to play in a younger age bracket, with boys five years younger to me. At the time, the joy of having the opportunity to play overpowered my sense of dismay at being infantilised like this. In retrospect, I recognise it as an affront to my being.
At twenty-four, getting a decent haircut that affirms my sense of self is akin to navigating a battlefield. More often than not, I have to assert and reassert my preference for longer sideburns, for that nick at the back of my neck that gives my hair the impression of natural restraint, for the fade that is so common and popular amongst young men at this moment.
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As a transmasculine person, who also has the privilege of being upper-caste, Hindu and able-bodied in modern India, I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to work in a masculinities programme. It has become a source of gender euphoria, much like the shirt with the orange stripes of my childhood.
The Way Forward
CSOs working on masculinities in India, by including trans* masculine persons in the conversation, can affirm as well as provide a space, which is so rarely available to us, for the articulation of our experiences of masculinities. Through practices of inclusion, affirmative action, and a real commitment to gender equity, masculinities programming can challenge the invisibilisation of trans* masculine persons in gender justice discourses and become avenues through which we can forge our own networks.
The active presence and engagement of trans* masculine persons has the potential to upend the assumptions and objectives that underlie current programmatic work, which often only ends up reinforcing binary and essential understandings of gender. While work on masculinities is slowly becoming cognisant of intersections of multiple vectors of caste, class, religion, age, and ability which dictate different experiences of masculinities, it is also imperative to explore experiences of trans* masculinities interacting with these vectors to challenge the naturalised link between masculinity and maleness, and the compartmentalisation of different experiences of gender.
These days I often dream about changing my given name, or meeting a trans* masculine person in a chance encounter, who has the same name as I do. I dream about euphoria.
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- Men and SRHR: Complementing Women’s Struggles.
- Mardon Wali Baatein : A Research Project on Men, Masculinities and SRHR
- The Gender Lab Boys Program 2018-2019 Report.
Avali (they/them) is a queer youth who currently works as a programme coordinator at TYPF. Avali’s work focuses on imparting comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in schools and community settings, and engaging with young men in urban spaces to create dialogues and action that question norms of masculinities. Avali has a master’s degree in Gender Studies from AUD, and a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from DU. You can find them on Instagram.
Featured Image Source: Everyday Feminism