It is surprising how much we human beings are conditioned by images. The cigarette advertisements that I grew up watching during my teenage showed a man dressed as a cow boy with a cigarette on his lips. I am sure women from my generation would remember swooning over Suresh Oberoi and Jackie Shroff who symbolized this “ideal man”! But the question that I would like to ask is whether this is what being a man is all about?
During the course of the last week I was attending an international seminar where we were discussing issues relating to women’s empowerment and one of the key experiences that many of the participants brought to the table was the fact that –Women’s empowerment would not be possible without men’s engagement . We spent a lot of time discussing the challenge of engaging men. One of the key barriers that seem to come about in the concept of engaging men was the entire social image construct of men – this thing called “machismo”. Machismo is a Spanish word which describes an attitude ranging from a personal sense of virility to a more extreme male chauvinism. Characteristics include domineering, fierceness, bravado etc. Most men are victims of this “image trap” which forces them to behave in ways that keeps this concept of chauvinism alive.
Having said that I would like to now examine how women perceive this machismo thing. I mean, do we women not find Suresh Oberoi and Jackie Shroff very appealing in those cigarette advertisements? I remember once asking some women in a village with whom we were having workshops about what was their concept of an ideal man and lo .. we heard it again “Strong, brave, responsible “! So you see friends this machismo thing is not something that men keep alive to be the dominant sex but something that we women find attractive – or should I say learnt to find attractive.. so when there is a demand for machismo and there is obviously enough of this going around!
Let us now look at the gentler side to men- what the Raymond ads are trying to promote ( upto a point I guess)- Men who care for their mother enough to get a visa for her when they get a job abroad, or coming down from the stage to touch the feet of an old teacher during their wedding reception. Yeah, certainly positive images! But how much of this is real? To some extent among the urban educated middle classes we do have men who are caring enough to help out at home but when I go to the villages I still see this machismo thing very much alive! I see men who twirl their moustaches and spend time with other men discussing I don’t know what and come back home drunk and beat up their wives! Can nothing be done about this?
I don’t know because we have not really done anything to talk to men about this but some of our colleagues in Africa have an interesting project where they began work with a few men and tried to get them to change. And the few who changed were used as role models within the villages where this campaign was on to change other men.
This is an interesting idea that appealed a lot to me. If an image is trapping men into being something that is so negative then it is important to work on the image and not the prisoner! I remember some people make snide remarks about my father who used to be a very tough boss “ this man is like this here in office. Go home and you will know who is the boss “! This was because at work my father was trying to subscribe to his machismo image – the tough boss etc but at home he was being himself- a kind father and a caring husband! In his generation, I guess it was important to keep the public image of machismo alive!
But the question that we need to reflect upon is whether men are willing prisoners of this image? My late mother-in –law used to be very annoyed whenever I asked my husband to carry our daughter when we used to go out. “Why don’t you bring the maid along so she can carry the child”? used to be her question. For women of her generation I guess it used to be extremely embarrassing to see a son having to carry his own child in public!!! It took me over ten years of marriage to break this thing down and get him to do a lot “non macho” things which I find now he enjoys a lot – e.g washing clothes ( he has a fetish for cleanliness, you will be amazed to see the array of cleaning fluids he invests in), making coffee ( again a passion.. he makes better coffee than even my own mother!) , baking..!!! Both of us now feel very liberated! He because he does what he can to help me out particularly in activities that he loves and me because I get someone to share in my burden of housework!
It is amazing the extent to which we human beings can go to keep society happy ! I know it takes a lot of courage to break out of stereotypes but once someone does, it is important we acknowledge the person and their courage to do it. We also need to understand and appreciate what they gained out of this liberation. If bravery is a masculine attribute then breaking a stereotype is also an act of bravery! Respect is not a trait that is reserved for elders alone. We need to respect peers, partners and life partners! Violence gets us nowhere…! If someone only took an account of the cost of violence in economic terms we would find that it is a sizeable amount of our GDP! So a man who is not being violent is actually contributing to the GDP- being a responsible citizen!!
True masculinity lies in the heart and the head of the man. It is exhibited in terms of caring and sharing in life with one’s partner, parents and the community. It manifests itself in terms of questioning injustice and doing the right thing. It calls for gentleness and patience.
People like to call Shri Ram as “Maryada Purushottam” or the ideal man but I would like to reserve my comments. The ideal man is still evolving!