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Understanding Masculinities

South Asian Masculinities, Context of Change, Sites of Continuity edited by Radhika Chopra, Caroline Osella and Filippo Osella; Kali for Women, New Delhi, 2004;

Understanding Masculinities

South Asian Masculinities, Context of Change, Sites of Continuity

edited by Radhika Chopra, Caroline Osella and Filippo Osella; Kali for Women, New Delhi, 2004; pp 417, Rs 600.


his edited volume of essays seeks to redress the imbalance in contemporary understandings of what it means to be male and masculine in south Asia “in word, flesh, deed, affect …in various arenas of social life”. The editors note the absence of the theoretical contributions “on the male and masculine” in the subcontinent, in significant contrast to the number of monographs on masculinity and sexuality on other parts of the world. To them, the focus of much of the writings on south Asia “has mainly been on the ethnographies of women’s lives and examination of issues mainly in relation with how masculine governance is practised upon and resisted by women”.

But has it? Until recently, the indigenous concept of the person in much ethnographic writing on south Asia has privileged the adult male and spoken in that voice. Modes of thinking based upon Anglo-Saxon cultural dispositions were used to explain models in Indian culture, a theoretical bias which still remains influential in field research and in constructions of knowledge on the subcontinent. Clearly, what the editors have disregarded is the powerful colonial “ethnographic” literature written by missionaries and administrators on the Indian subcontinent. To confront the conceptual and analytical inadequacies in representations of gender, it is critical to analyse how understandings of gender in the subcontinent came to be structured and explained through colonialism, as indeed how genders are experienced through religious beliefs, local cosmologies and symbolic valuations. Nowhere in the epistemology or the geography of the contributions in this volume is there an inclusion of the more egalitarian traditions of tribal peoples or indeed, recognition of the powerful indigenous cosmologies, which is an extremely serious omission, as I will discuss later.

There is also need to qualify what the term “west” or “western” means, given that there are many different “western” traditions and understandings. In Nordic societies, for example, the egalitarian culture and emphasis on symmetry in gender relations contrast greatly to Anglo-American (Anglo-Saxon) understandings, as indeed, with the different parts of Catholic and Protestant Europe. More pertinently, the methods of analysis focus on difference and inequality. Besides, much of contemporary theoretical writings from postcolonial literature from the subcontinent appear to undermine vernacular, indigenous cosmologies and ideas of personhood by seeking to privilege Euro-American paradigms. In contrast, by stressing contingency, performance, the fluid nature of identities and ambiguities of interaction, recent contributions to ethnography have provided the much needed, corrective methodological insights that acknowledge that the Euro-American model is just another folk model [Moore 1994].

What Is Gender?

The introduction would have benefited from a focused, theoretical discussion on gender, masculinities and sexualities. Disappointingly, it is not just lacking in thematic rigour, but is rather carelessly written. For instance, note the phrase, “local essentialisms which ‘secretly recognise the importance of performance’ – a question that ties up masculine anxiety” (p 12); masculine thus far not being discussed. The paragraphs do not flow into each other, thus a cursory sketchiness remains in the review of the literature of important, contemporary contributions to gender and epistemology. A few dismissive statements state that it is not good enough or it has pitfalls without explaining why. For instance, in their critique of the vast literature of colonial masculinities the editors state it is a simplified view to regard the indigenous “natives as inferior and feminine to the male coloniser”, but they do not elaborate (p 3). What is necessary to explore is how colonial discourses of gender overlooked indigenous concepts of human nature, reasoning, emotionality and morality and, how they have become empowered through social institutions and the law.

The editors also conclude that there exists two gender systems, men in opposition to women, and, the marginalisation or intolerance of the third gender or “aberrant” gender positions that support the common ideological insistence of male domination and a naturalised right to control children, that is “patriarchy”, which to them is the acceptable model for studying south Asian masculinity (p 11). Thus, “masculinity” within the south Asian context, the editors argue, is established between men in all male contexts and the key paradigm is the hierarchical relationship of father-son which encodes the hierarchy between men which, to them establishes male identity (p 31); gender to them is about men. Never

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006 mind the presence of women, let them remain “muted” voices.

Also, the understandings of gender and masculinity that are being brought to bear appear to focus on biology – (sex) rather than gender. However, it is precisely because the interaction between biology and culture is multifaceted and fluid that we need to draw a distinction between sex and gender. Even within biological categories there exist variations such as atypical chromosomonal patterns, hermaphroditism and transsexuals. And while there is societal ambiguity on variant homosexualities, it is not correct to state that there is intolerance of the “third gender”. In various cultural and social settings, hermaphroditisms, transsexualisms, and transvestitisms are taken for granted and coexist. That ‘hijras’ are both feared and valued needs to be acknowledged, as also that new forms of sexuality and gender identities have long depended on influences from non Euro-American sources, e g, “kelticki” or “the pretty boy” culture among the Ottomans.

The fact that festivals and forms of entertainment continue to draw from Indian mythology and folklore in several narratives – non-discriminating stories about homosexuality, people with undefined gender, transsexuals, and transvestites suggests that contrary to official dictums, local practices and customs in societies are far more accepting. There are festivals in Indian subcontinent that exist and celebrate homosexuality. A well known example is the “Kuthandavar festival” at Koovagam, which is characterised by the intensity of multi-partner homosexual activity. In local understandings, such masculine expressions of sexuality and participation with hijras escape censure.

Recent contributions to ethnography acknowledge that the division of male and female is not inflexible; classification of any element in this way always depends on its relation to other elements and at times we find inversions of the normal pattern. While there is an acceptance that biological differences cannot provide a universal basis for social definitions, women and men are a product of social relations and cosmological understandings, any changes in either, transforms understandings of categories woman and man.

Gender is a category of persons, artefacts, events, and sequences which draws upon “sexual imagery” in which the distinctiveness of male and female characteristics make concrete people’s ideas about the nature of social relationships [Strathern 1988].

Gender is what it means to be a man in relation to what it means to be a woman, what it means to be male and masculine in relation to female and feminine; or what it means to be a boy in relation to what it means to be a girl. That is, gender is about inter-relationships, between men and women boys and girls and, includes intergenerational relations, relations between the same sexes. Gender needs to be understood as a process rather than a category, of “doing gender” rather than the “being” of it.

Moreover, what needs to be implicitly recognised is that the life cycle of a woman and man is acknowledged to be critical in defining gendered positions. A ‘chora’ (boy) and a ‘chori’ (girl) among the bhils are seen to be still children and without the same responsibilities that are demanded by an adult and, as children they are aware of it and the connotations it also carries about honour and respect of elders. It is important to note that images, attributes, activities and behaviour of women and men change through time and there are myriad ways in which their sense of personhood and identity are defined within the family and the community.

In the Indian subcontinent, despite the negative connotations of being born female, an upper class (not necessarily upper caste) girl or woman is better placed than a boy of lower status to negotiate the material and symbolic basis of her domination and recreate the symbolic value of what it means to be woman and as a woman, her position improves after marriage and motherhood. Also the symbolic value of a woman following menopause changes her gender – she can take on a status that of an equal, a surrogate man – for example she can undertake a pilgrimage to Sabrimala in Kerala. In other instances, she can travel unaccompanied and as a grandmother commands considerable respect and symbolic power. It also indicates how individual bodies are tied to the social bodies, managing boundaries, bodily styles and virtues. Gender identities are also transformed through the physical and conceptual positions of persons through different scales of time symbolised in the ritual processes of birth, circumcision, menarche and the onset of puberty, marriage, loss of virginity, procreation, senescence, death and immortality. This basic fact is critical to understanding the fluid nature of masculinities in relation to femininities.

There is a political mythology that governs all bodily experiences and understandings of masculinity and femininity derive from such experiences of embodiment. Thus, given the lapse in the theoretical epistemology on gender and masculinity, it is not surprising that their critiques of recent ethnographic contributions on gender appear to have been seriously misinterpreted.

Problem with ‘Patriarchy’

For Gabriel, Vijayan, Vasudevan and Srivastava, the use of the term patriarchy is critical to their analysis. Patriarchy has been defined as the institutions and persons who represent male domination, often simply concretised as men [Strathern 1988: 288]. But as Strathern (1988) and Weiner (1978) warn, there is a need to guard against seeing social conventions as being imbued with the values appropriate to and created by one gender rather than the other and so avoid a double arbitrariness that society is a convention and it is a convention that men are prominent in it. By doing so there is the implicit assumption that there is only one cultural system and that men and men’s activities define it. Thus one will fail to see any separate spheres of life, which are defined and controlled by women. What is also necessary to analyse is not just whether women had any formal power but that whatever domain women do control is often a structural feature in defining the male domain and does not always affirm or empower men.

Thus insisting on patriarchy as critical to hegemonic masculinity or “ascendant masculinity” as Vijayan proposes is problematic. It is thus far more useful to evaluate how individuals are situated in terms of networks concerning relational ties with kin, family community and the features that affect their worlds and positions within material and symbolic hierarchies.

It is crucial as they have an impact on the forms of expression and affect their ability to negotiate statuses with one another. In India as Madhu Kishwar has rightly noted, individual rights are vested and recognised within a family and community, a notion that Vijayan has wrongly dismissed “as being dangerously close to that propounded by the Hindu Right” (p 369). It is important to acknowledge a person is distributed or dispersed across a spectrum of relationships belonging to diverse groupings. Bob Simpson’s useful paper of the contrasting readings on fatherhood of a gay couple in the context of Sri Lanka re-affirms how attributes of

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006

personhood are tied to meanings of relatedness and kin ties, in this context it is children who produce the network of relationships into which they are born, emphasis of the man being on fatherhood. This is common not just in south Asia but also in many Arab cultures where a man who is also a father is frequently identified and called by the name of his daughter such as “Abu Raina” or “Abu Fatima”. When claims or rights are activated the singular person is seen to have many social origins combining in him or herself many particular concrete histories and situations

Personhood and Identity

Gender is central to the acquisition and formation of personhood. Thus far, phallocentric arguments overlook local views of the person for indigenous concepts of the self vary. Such arguments overlook entirely the richness of subjectivities of indigenous cultures, sociolinguistic readings and cosmologies that define the gendered worlds where men and women can make claims on each other.

After all, every person remains in permanent relationship with other persons and with aspects of the natural world they live in, in a way in which human and nonhuman elements are constitutive of the person. All psychological and developmental processes are clearly relational and the nature of the relationship is bound in a matrix of social relationships and symbolic systems [Moore 1994].

As the articles by Walle and Mookherjee highlight, virginity, chastity and marriage are fundamental to defining womanhood, to affirm the dignity and honour of manhood and the community at large. These values, however, are not unique to religious and philosophical traditions in the subcontinent, but also have deep roots in Catholicism.

Walle’s otherwise interesting account of young Pakistani men living in an affluent neighbourhood in Lahore, however looks exclusively at male attitudes and focuses on the importance of virginity and chastity and its significance in determining what kind of woman is a “Madonna” (to marry) or a “whore” (to discard). Most boys grow up believing that they are the superior sex, their identities as men being defined through sexual ability and accomplishment. Walle is implying that sexual potency is seen to be inseparable from social potency when imposed through a certain definition of maleness and by derivation, femaleness. Thus, the virginity and purity of girls is not just about being decent but also about being desirable – a belief that is quite sacred to social practice in the subcontinent where male honour is encoded by female chastity.

Sexual Violence

The theme of rape and sexual violence in Mookherjee’s important study describes the hounding and mockery that husbands of the raped women experience from other men in Bangladesh where there is no retribution forthcoming for their raped wives. They are also in some cases abandoned by their husbands and their pregnancy following the rape makes matters difficult. In addition to the violence and the stigma of rape these traumatised women have to assert continually that it was not consensual sex so as to appease their husbands who in some cases cease to cohabit with them. Such is the power of chastity in defining male honour and self-worth, themes that surface in Taslima Nasreen’s novel Lajja, something that Mookherjee could have alluded to. Femininity and female sexuality represent an active and threatening power to male identity and masculinity. Honour is also deeply rooted in a man’s ability to control the women in his family. As a husband failed to prevent his wife being rape and has accepted her as his wife, he is “demasculinised”, an unfortunate choice of metaphor, perhaps castration or emasculation may more aptly describe the mockery he experiences.

At the same time, male aggressiveness and violent sexual behaviour even rape – are interpreted in the vernacular as male strategies to control, social value and selfesteem, and laws remain lenient, as in Bangladesh. Mookherjee’s paper focuses on married women’s narratives, she has not looked at narratives of unmarried girls during the “Liberation” war, and it is a critical lapse. The rape of boys is not regarded as important in discourses of sexual exploitation in the subcontinent. This needs to be highlighted.

In this context, it is important to locate masculinities and its embodiment within Bengali culture – it differs from Tamil, Punjabi and Sindhi cultures. The body in many cultures makes its own intervention in the world yet it is also a body that is moulded through other kinds of material cultural practices. In every culture, the consequent interpretations of religious practices and laws derive from pre-existing cultural and social structures and, the practices of non-Muslim neighbours which together combine to produce the rich diversity of Muslim communities and practices in south Asia.

Both Mookherjee and Walle’s accounts could have benefited from their own readings of Punjabi and Bengali cultural norms, what it means to be male as Chopra’s fieldwork among the jat Sikhs is seeking to illustrate. Sikhism and its code of ‘kar seva’ is not just seen to mean physical work, as she notes, but combines in it a spiritualism reflected by the spirit to serve. She describes boys’ pubertal experiences and entry into manhood through the use of metaphors tied to the land and work. However, contextualising what is meant by male sexuality, sexual activity and sexual identity necessitates a parallel reading to being born female. It is, thus de rigueur to bring in the experiences not just of boys but also girls growing up this particular jat Sikh culture. Both boys and girls in a sense, grow up in the same world, but occupy different position in the scheme of things. Chopra could have included some ethnography on what girls and women do and discussed cultural understandings, which underlie their actions.

Further, the relationships between brothers/men in the household, their interaction with women and girls is omitted into her discussion. Do hierarchical paradigms exist as Chopra illustrates? Hierarchy between men, between the father and son is also bound up with respect for elders, a cultural given. What is disappointing in her account is that she appears as an outsider, not as an ethnographer immersed in her field and this has a bearing on her reading of space and social interactions therein. Certainly, it is very difficult to do fieldwork alone as a woman and it is useful to adopt a brother/bodyguard. In nearly all instances, families offer an ethnographer or a visitor a home and incorporate him or her as a member of the family, an integral tradition in ancient cultures of acceptance such as those of the subcontinent; such overtures facilitate “immersement”, an indispensable condition of fieldwork.

Regional cultures vary as attested by De Neeve’s fieldwork among the vanniyars and by the Osellas in Kerala. By studying film actors as heroes and role models, the Osellas ingeniously discuss idioms of masculinity in conversations with members of fan clubs of popular actors. It is interesting to see how globalisation of desires and sexual practices have made for new ways of belonging. From their heroes,

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006 young men learn how to use their bodies and articulate their masculinities. There are insufficient cultural paradigms drawn within Malayali culture given the rich diversity of its coastal heritage and communities therein. However, not including young women voices in this discussion is another serious omission.

What makes the medium of film particularly gripping is that due to its form it affects a viewer in a more complex way than a literary work, bringing to the surface emotions normally concealed. Gabriel’s observations that the idiom of masculinity and nationhood are synonymous are problematic. He fails to note, for instance the commonly used metaphor ‘Bharatmata’, or ‘matrubhoomi’, and possibly an analysis of the films made during the 1940s and 1950s such as Mother India might have been useful.

Gabriel’s study of masculinity, misogyny, violence and subjectivity against the discourse on nationhood thus need to be reworked. For instance, his reading of Muslims as being incorporated by the feminine argues that categories of “gender” (by which he means women) and religion are homogenised in the films he discusses may not be what the filmmakers intended.

In the Indian subcontinent, it is not so much religion as is understood in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but rather the open-ended nature of the experience of the sacred that is central to the way human experience is both conceived and understood. Thus, the sacred does not necessarily just imply belief in god, gods, pirs, fakirs or demons but also is influenced by the lunar calendar times of the day, musical forms, cuisine, different seasons, and indeed, is regarded as essential to the collective life of a people, a planet or a cosmic system.

Thus, sexual and reproductive beliefs are enacted in social contexts and where ascribed, gender roles, norms and values are enacted. Most importantly, these are different for men and women, meaning that certain roles and behaviours are expected and acknowledged. These traditional values continue to inform and in the era of globalisation have become conflicting and contradictory in urban settings. Srivastava’s account of middle class men dilemmas in era of globalisation is not new. Sex clinics have always existed as has footpath literature and pornography. Traditionally, men’s experience of their own sexual organs as vulnerable is central to male bodily perception. From an early age, boys are allowed to be made very aware of their sexual potentiality. However, to homogenise Hindu masculinities or the Muslim “Other” is not only incongruous but also makes us aware of the not so silent axioms of positivist, colonial logic. Srivastava’s article on emerging male sexualities and a shared ‘Hinduness’ does not discuss what exactly is meant by ‘Hinduness’. Certainly, the phenomenal diversity of expressions of what it means to be born a Hindu or a Muslim cannot be properly understood by such parochial readings.

Issues about the natural and social, body and gender are central areas of concern. In studying any aspect of the human condition and human societies, we need to question boundaries that separate domains [Carstens 2000]. Recognising that science, biology, politics, economics and religion are cultural constructions offers the possibility of redefining how culturally specific domains have been dialectically constituted and transformed in relation to other cultural domains – how meanings migrate and how specific actions are multiply constituted. It may provide valuable points of inquiry that privilege local knowledge, to quote from Fabian (2001), “Sich dem Andersen geweissermasses wieder zur Kenntnis zu bringen” – to get it as it were, experienced by the Other.

Rather than the term secular, we need to explore the term syncretic. For millennia, the Indo-Islamic cultures in the subcontinent have been immersed in one another and produced a rich syncretic fusion: they cannot be separated. In studying masculinity and what it means to be male, lexical and philosophical meanings that derive from indigenous cosmologies and linguistic representations need to be acknowledged given the powerful, immanent traditions of the subcontinent.


Email: K.Gopal@lse.ac.uk


Carstens, J (ed) (2000): Cultures of Relatedness,

New Approaches to the Study of Kinship,

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Fabian, J (2001): Anthropology with an Attitude,Critical Essays, Stanford, California.

Moore, H (1994): ‘Gendered Persons: Dialogues

between Anthropology and Psychoanalysis’ in

S Heald and A Deluz (eds), Anthropology and

Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London, pp 131-44. Strathern, M (1988): ‘Gender in the Gift: Problems

with Women and Problems with Society’,

Berkeley, California. Weiner, Annette (1978): Trobriand Kinship from

Another View: The Reproductive Power of

Men and Women, Man, 14, p 334.

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006

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