Dilemmas Under Patriarchy: Stifling Men & The Struggles Of Living A Feminist Life

Posted by Khushboo Upreti

It is important to ruminate upon the effects of patriarchy on men. In the final session of the Social Action Project called ‘Consciousness Raising Sessions on ‘The Role of a Female in the Indian Household’, what ensued was a discussion which raised though-provoking questions and sought to break stereotypes. 

Demystifying the ‘MAN’ 

Demystifying the idea of a ‘mard’ (a cis het man, in this context) participants were asked who was a man in their opinion. Responses ranged from society-centric takes which associated men with traits of being emotionless, rigid and protective to more individualised ones which stressed on the freedom to identify with the gender of one’s choice and the acceptance of individuality for all. Intertwined with the socially approved definition of being a man is the idea of toxic masculinity which, through traits of anger, possessiveness, domination, lack of emotions and empathy seeks to box men in one category. Toxic masculinity prescribes that there’s only one way to be a man. When asked about their experiences with toxic masculinity, two of the participants narrated tales of second-hand experience of violence with the notion of ‘entitlement’ common to both. Meanwhile, men who do not fit the category of the conventionally masculine, are often derided, as recounted by one of the participants of how one of her male school classmates was teased for being conventionally effeminate

Not only is toxic masculinity menacing towards those who identify as women, gender non-conforming and non-binary folks, it also proves to be stifling for cis het men. This becomes epitomised in the cliché ‘men don’t cry’ and the consequent bottling up of emotions. Thus they believe that in not expressing their emotions lies their strength. One of the participants further noted how an upwelling of emotions is meant to be a rarity, saved for occasions like death. Consequently, not only do men refuse to ask for a space to express their feelings, the society too doesn’t offer it to them. 

Not only is toxic masculinity menacing towards those who identify as women, gender non-conforming and non-binary folks, it also proves to be stifling for cis het men. This becomes epitomised in the cliché ‘men don’t cry’ and the consequent bottling up of emotions.

Also read: Women’s Bodies As Pure Or Impure: Glorifying Motherhood & Stigmatising Menstruation

K3G Shahrukh & Hrithik bench scene *HQ* 720p - YouTube
Still from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham

Moreover, just as motherhood is considered to be the duty of women, so is being a breadwinner expected of men. Participants noted the absolute lack of choice in this regard with a male providing for his family being a virtually universally accepted norm. Meanwhile, for women, as remarked by someone, marriage is always seen as a fallback option. The pressure on men to ‘step up and head out for work’ only gets exacerbated with time. Within the sphere of home, men may be placed in either of the binaries of ‘ma,ma’s boy’ or ‘jhoru ka gulaam’ (a colloquial used to describe a man who always listens to his wife). Not only does this assume that the relation between a woman and her mother-in-law will be adversarial, it is also ready to label the son the moment he sides with her mother or wife on one occasion or another. 

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Having touched upon some of the most salient inhibitors men face, the key takeaway was to provide an opportunity to reach out and extend help regardless of the gender the other person belongs to. As remarked by a co-fellow, given how effectual any cursory observation on our part can be for someone who is at the receiving end, it is crucial that we consciously work to imbue these interactions with an element of sensitivity. Patriarchy’s control is pervasive in terms of its dictates for everyone and the subsequent encumbering of individual choice and self-expression. In that light, in lieu of a problem, men need to be viewed as allies who will support us in addressing structural inequalities patriarchy gives rise to. 

Walking the Talk: Practising Feminism and Facilitating Change 

This was followed by a discussion which tried to explore the idea of ‘practising feminism’. Usually, an acknowledgement of one’s belief in gender equality is the initial step. The uphill battle begins henceforth as one has to grapple with internalised biases and engage with people whom one may not see eye to eye with. A lot of times, it’s our family which has opinions diametrically opposed to our own.

When asked what ‘feminism in everyday life’ meant to them, one response highlighted an equal say for men and women in all affairs. It is the little things like a more equitable division of labour which amount to a feminist life, they said. Meanwhile, another participant pointed out how speaking up may invite trouble. The response may range for disregarding one’s opinion or blaming it on an external entity, epitomised in the phrase ‘college ki hawa lagna’ (becoming more outspoken after one joins college). Causal sexist conversations during family gatherings, on dinner tables often raise the dilemma, “Do I speak up and ‘ruin the mood’ or do I compromise on my principle by maintaining silence?” 

Nonetheless, change only comes when we engage and question problematic assumptions. Given the paradoxical nature of family wherein it is a source of nurture and warmth but also a perpetrator of inequalities, conversations with them are bound to be difficult. Patience is key, with the acknowledgement that they belong to a different generation and a change in the mindset takes time. As was aptly stated by a participant, ‘As a feminist, you need to be grounded when you speak and act.’ She also introduced us to the idea of nonviolent communication, to be deployed in times of disagreement. Here, both the parties calm down and reflect on their opinions and underlying assumptions. 

When asked about instances from the participants’ life where they managed to have such conversations with their parents, the responses were varied. While one participant mentioned how she avoided such conversations since they often took an ugly turn, another mentioned about the open relationship she shared with her mother, with her often taking recourse to social media as a window to show just how the world was changing. Another attempted to make her mother aware of the hypocrisy she might be guilty of vis-a-vis her own daughter and other women. She also relied on cinema as a catalyst for a candid dialogue. Meanwhile, another cautioned against the tropes and stereotypes which pop culture itself may be guilty of perpetuating. One of the co-fellows shared the need to speak out every now and then. Patient conversations can help bring about small yet durable change over the course of time. To ignore how one thinks and feels ultimately means isolating oneself from people one is supposed to be the closest to and not being true to oneself. 

Also read: Marriage For Women: Inevitable And Problematic All At The Same Time?

Feminism and Inclusivity 

When these young women were asked about inclusivity in feminist movement and whether space may be created for not-so-feminist women who may have made peace with patriarchy, they were unequivocal in their support for a broader audience. The facilitator also highlighted how the movement was something bigger than the individual. In that sense, it is incumbent to weigh how our decisions impact others. Thus, when protesting against the gendered division of labour, one could ask, whom does my refusal to cook affect the most? Are gender roles for me alone to subvert? Or am I to find a solution which advocates equal household work sharing arrangements and thus takes off part of the burden off my mother’s shoulders? 

At the end of the day, the oppression we face today is a watered-down version of what our mothers and grandmothers experienced. Having sharpened our perspective with education, the onus lies on us to take them forward with us, slowly yet steadily.

Others mentioned the potency of dialogue in bringing about an attitudinal shift in people around us. At the end of the day, the oppression we face today is a watered-down version of what our mothers and grandmothers experienced. Having sharpened our perspective with education, the onus lies on us to take them forward with us, slowly yet steadily.

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth article in a series based on a Social Action Project called ‘Consciousness Raising Sessions on ‘The Role of a Female in the Indian Household’. This was formulated by fellows with Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA)’s Youth-N-Democracy program. The Social Action Project aimed to connect with women in the age group of 19-26 years of age in order to introduce them to the idea of how unseemingly common everyday activities turn out to be deeply discriminatory.


Khushboo is a Master’s Graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Having specialised in Political Science, she’s interested in issues of social justice and multiculturalism. She enjoys literature, early mornings and good conversations. 

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