I was in Class 4 when I first discovered my love for writing, and by the time I had finished Class 7, I had come to believe for sure that it did not matter. I came from a family and a neighbourhood which was upper caste, upper middle class, with gender-role based education and occupation, and a town dominated by petroleum refining industries and other corporates.
A few compliments from classmates and teachers here and there, but the larger overpowering discourse was that it was mathematics that mattered. And it was for no poetic or applied appreciation of mathematics that it was supposed to be important. “It helps you to get a job and earn money. You can always pursue writing alongside once you got that,” would sum-up what some of my friends and teachers would remark.
What I liked—to read, write, and speak, with a lot of passion, emotion, and even a sense of rebellion—was then, regarded as worthless, unproductive, and supplementary, and additionally as an aberration from the normal, both immediately as it was apparent from the attitudes and choices of the people around me, and in retrospect, realising that it was desired and imposed upon by the structures of patriarchy, caste, and class, for whom engaging in reflective and critical thought and action would amount to rebellion.
Disciplining of Academic and Occupational Interests and Desire
Much of the schooling and related social experience for me was an experience into various forms of disciplining and the normalising of a certain kind of academic and occupational desire. What subject was to be desired was clearly implied to me. It had to be in the realm of “science”, and at its intersection with supposed professional scope—engineering or medicine. Probably characteristic of the society I came from, that of upper-caste, upper middle class, mostly third-generation learners, this pressure to study and desire the particular subjects of math and science and pursue engineering or medicine originally appeared to be rooted, how I had then experienced, in the binary of the “bright” and the “dull” student. Upon further experience and in retrospect, I realised its situatedness at the intersection of gender caste and class, and related politics for change or status quo.
The binary was further supplemented by the idea of “discipline”—at the intersection of the sexual and the industrial. To choose science as a subject of study was—more than anything else—to affirm that I was bright, industrious, and had my sexual desires in check. I came to understand things in this way through a number of gestures of particularly my parents who would refer to those—particularly boys—studying arts or commerce as dull and of loose character, and teachers and friends who glorified people—again, particularly boys—in science and technology.
As we progressed in secondary school, teachers started to associate this academic desire and discipline for math and science with the performance of gender roles, and patriarchal ideas—one of my friends (he/him) was wished on a social media platform by one of our teachers as—“You may not like studying, but I am sure you like girls. Study well so that you can afford a costly honeymoon,” whereas another teacher remarked to a group of students pointing to another classmate, “Look how hard he is studying. Do not regret when you see him traveling in an expensive car with his wife tomorrow.” Having been both on various instances, I was neither helped as audience nor as the subject.
Meanwhile I studied, and studied hard. Part of academics I enjoyed—some curiosity must have survived, the rest of it was because I had started to derive meaning out of competing in the gender and caste-class context I mentioned earlier and to which I had become conditioned. When I completed my Class 10 with good grades relying upon high scores in languages and social science, theoretical part of science, and math which I had been learning and practising for all of the school before that, I opted, or rather, in retrospect I would say that the structures of patriarchy caste and class influenced me in myriad forms to choose mathematics for higher secondary. It implied forcing myself, and inflicting violence upon myself, enabled by various oppressive structures, for that was quite the only choice I was left with, lest I would become a dull, irresponsible and undeserving man.
Precarious Manhood, and the “Loss of Honour”
But as some theorists argue, manhood is precarious. A record of being a “bright and industrious” student for years was not enough, neither scoring well in Class 10 nor choosing mathematics for higher secondary school, especially if it did not amount to continuing in that field. Perhaps to please patriarchy is to mean just that—to please it and to do so continuously, and not just to choose it. I chose mathematics in higher secondary school, but I could not please it enough to the extent that it became very difficult for me to even choose it further and continue pursuing it or its related fields for undergraduate studies. Thankfully, this meant I could pursue my bachelor’s degree in Arts—humanities and social sciences, something I liked.
Socially, and psychologically, for a very long time how I perceived it, this meant loss of honour. It was after all the “dull” students’ field. It was also traditionally composed of women, and was monetarily supposed to translate into little. Being a man coming from upper-caste, upper middle class background in a precariously competitive environment, studying humanities and social sciences meant loss of honour—for the individual, as well as the family—not just by others’ understanding of academic disciplines but also by that of my own, which I had developed through years of gender-based patriarchal conditioning.
Subsequently, while I enjoyed pursuing the fields of my interests both in academics and at work, “excelling” at them, and doing well in life, I was still chained by the ideas of gender and patriarchy which I had learned all along. And so strong was the meaning derived from pleasing powerful oppressive structures that I often found myself at a loss of meaning while pursuing my own interests and desires.
Receiving Hope and Strength from Feminist Workshops
It was not until I attended workshops on gender and patriarchy as part of my work wherein we not only discussed related concepts but also let understandings emerge by applying it on one’s own experiences and sharing and actively listening to them did I realise the complex intersection of various structures such as patriarchy caste and class at which I existed and of which I was greatly a result, and all the toxic ideas about academic disciplines which I had learned by being exposed to them.
When I look at my experiences from the resultant feminist lens, I find myriad explanations about the same. I feel understood, to myself. I feel accepted, and liberated. I understand how my desire and choice to study arts was at once a rebellion against patriarchy, caste, and class. Family, friends, and teachers may have suggested me against arts out of the “bright” student concern, or the male breadwinner gender-role, or the upper middle class battling against downward mobility, or the upper caste boasting of its technological know-how, but none of those hypotheses seemed to hold in my experience.
The impression may certainly remain, but the reality is different, on the account that even as I pursue work and education of my interest and desire, the prophecies have failed. To the contrary, I believe I would have flourished even more in what I desired had the gender-based pressures not been there. What I have come to understand is that academic disciplines and curricula in general are made and preferred by the powerful to be more apolitical and uncritical, and disciplines and spaces that encourage political awareness and critical inquiries and dialogues are labelled off as practically inadequate, lest there would be threat to the status quo. It is probably both micro and macro dimensions of patriarchy, which explain my early experiences of disciplining and normalising, the reactions of others and myself upon choosing arts, and precarious manhood in general.
I have spent a huge part of the last fifteen years of my life in pleasing patriarchy and in trying to become the ideal successful man, of course, never being able to defeat its precariousness. While my experience is intense, it is limited, it is subject to my privileges, and that there exist many more who experience more varied kinds of violence and discrimination Feminism provides me with a lens to look both within and around sensitively critically and politically.
It helps me to be more accepting and loving, of others, and myself. It helps me to become a better person.
Manan Pathak (He/Him) is a development professional, and a researcher of various kinds of organizing and behaviour. He worked with collectives of women in rural Jharkhand on issues of work, gender equality, violence, and justice as part of his work at PRADAN. He likes to write listen empathetically and engage in dialogues, and believes that we are all connected by the precarity and vulnerability that surrounds us. He studied for his Master’s at TISS and is currently pursuing a PhD at IIM Indore. You can join him on Instagram or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India