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Hegemonic masculinity – the first time I heard that word was also the first time I experienced it. Being a 25-year-old woman without a prospect of your own to get ‘settled‘ with, is a problem; especially in our country. Even bigger than I anticipated it to be. I hadn’t given this marriage thing much thought because I conjectured my parents to be liberal that way, pfft!
Right from its conception, marriage is an inherently unfeminist institution. It is easy to ridicule or laugh at a phenomenon when it is alien to you. My dichotomy with it? Funny, not so much. What was supposed to be a casual dilly-dally ended up with shots being fired.
Honestly, when my parents started looking for prospects, I wasn’t essentially alarmed by it because all the while the assumption was that there would be freedom and agency from getting to know the other person to parentally approved dates. It seemed worth a try. But the age-old practice has oppressive roots. If I knew what was gonna hit me, I would have Simran-ed away.
Anyway, like an excited girlfriend trying to fix up her friends, my dad started the ordeal of describing details about the family early in the morning, which went on and on and on. The interesting thing being that after hours of extolling their virtues, the most basic detail- the guy’s name had not come up (it never did). Later in the evening, I was summoned to a video call (Covid times) with the family. I spoke to the guy, and he seemed nice, but you know I didn’t quite feel the chemistry.
We said our goodbyes, ended the call, and I told my parents everything with complete honesty. In retrospect – the wrong move. What started off as describing my concerns, ended up in a question on what my life is supposed to be if I’m opposed to getting married into such a nice family. Arrogant, ungrateful, besharam – were some of the adjectives used that day.
I first heard of hegemonic masculinity in my gender studies class. It is defined as a practice that legitimises men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of women and other marginalised genders. It is often closely associated with virility, dominance, male honor, and toughness. The socially acceptable norm for a father or the role one should play in their daughter’s or rather every women’s life is deeply rooted in our society’s DNA. It is worth noting that rarely is such a cultural norm questioned by anyone within our families.
It is a matter of fact to be adjusted to. This dominant pressure unconsciously becomes an externality to mould their own child’s future into what’s conventionally acceptable. I suppose, it is easier to defend what you have been seeing/brought up to believe for years than to shed the whole belief system and start afresh.
It’s been a learning but it is worth mentioning, that every argument I made stemmed from the belief that I am an individual who has the right to choose. And as long as we have a feminist daughter in every patriarchal home, we’re good. The situation here was no different.
For instance, portrayals of men as one-dimensional characters who unquestionably follow hegemonic norms do not represent men as active agents in defining their own behaviour, nor are these men seen as proactive agents of social change. At the other end of the spectrum, the position of greatest agency is that in which alternative norms of masculinity are modelled and celebrated. This not only invites men to question existing social norms, but also provides additional, non hegemonic male role models that invite them to be active agents in constructing their gendered selves.
Even the mainstream media needs to take cognizance to portray both genders as having agency in their decisions, including how they build their gender identities. The existence of this agency is a prerequisite for the realisation of human rights. However, as the remark shows, deciding how to build such a balanced media message and collective conscience is a negotiated process for the producer, just as developing an agentic gender identity is for the viewer.
So, as sociologist and feminist scholar Pratiksha Baxi (2011) puts it, it is really very simple. In India, for women to reclaim their rights whatever their class, caste or community, amounts to attracting the allegation of being without shame. Surely, we all have been besharam for a good part of our lifetimes, and one would hope that we will continue to be – as long as being autonomous continues to mean besharam in our culture.
George, A. 2006. Reinventing honourable masculinity: discourses from a working-class Indian community. Men and Masculinities 9: 35–51.
Sneha K. Shaji is a lawyer, as well as a Masters Candidate in Public Policy from St. Xavier’s College Mumbai
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