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E9 | Schools Cement Boy Stereotypes

Gender Empowerment | Laayak | May 26, 2021

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Dr. Deepa Narayan on her podcast, What’s A Man? Masculinity in India. They are joined by Akshat Singhal co-founder of Gender Lab, an organisation that runs gender awareness programs for boys, and three boys who participated in this program.


Over my years in the philanthropy sector and the kind of work I was engaged in, we were talking to women and understanding their situation and desire to create a more level playing field. But I also kept encountering young males who I would get into conversations with and whose stories kept piling up. You could see the pain in their eyes, and some of those stories stayed with me. Once I met a little boy on the roadside, and he was crying loudly. A girl was with him who turned out to be his sister. I stopped the car to speak with him and I found out that he was crying because he had done sterlingly well in his 10th standard exams and wanted to go to college, but his father had refused him. Instead he got him a public sector job in the road transport division. Those tears broke something in me as well. 

We have seen how so many SAGs have changed the lives of 16 million women in India – they are a support system and a safe space. But I would ask my teams, “Why don’t we have self-help groups for men?” They told me, “Men can’t gather in groups like that. They don’t trust. They don’t share. So you can’t do that for men.” I wondered why not, because men need a safe space too. How do we create a safe group for men, where they can share without being ashamed? I knew of many people who were working with women, but who was working with young men and boys? One or two names came up and so it became a portfolio. Four years ago we had one organisation, and now we have 15.

I think in India, this last century has been a difficult one, especially for the situation of women. So our first priority was to look at what’s happening to girls and women. Seemingly every norm needed to be changed. But once you begin doing this work, you realise that even when you empower women, if they’re going back into disempowered situations with the men and women around them, then they face two terrible choices. One is to rebel with all the risk attached to rebellion or the second is to acquiesce, so all that empowerment has to be left behind. Those choices are not good. So once you start looking at this situation in context, you realise that we simply cannot ignore men. 

Many issues need to change for them. First of all, just having conversations and being allowed to say things, without being judged for not fitting certain stereotypes of masculinity. If you judge them for that, you cannot have the next conversation. We need to open a conversation where we can look at our own gaze as well. Where are we not looking and what are we afraid of by looking there? Can we even emulate success as masculinity? Sometimes, I find myself being so aggressive because we have decided that success is about being powerful, aggressive, and dominant. So we always need to be aware of those assumptions in ourselves and around us. 

However, there’s also a kind of backlash to women’s empowerment, where men become intimidated or nervous about women’s power. We need to also look at complementary public policy and public finance going towards making young males also feel that they can move forward. This is not to say that they don’t already have lots of power and privilege, I’m not challenging that. But they are watching their sisters being able to make interesting career choices while they’re trapped having to do a certain kind of job. So we need to be wary of that backlash as well. 

Rather than the binary of black and white, we must now start thinking about how we can learn to occupy the grey areas in between, whether it’s in terms of gender, politics, or anything else. There are so many rich shades of grey and such a broad spectrum that we should not be afraid to occupy those spaces between the polarities, because all the richness and nuance is there. When you accept freedom, you also accept responsibility for other people’s freedoms. When it comes to gender, that means that if you want freedom in your gender, then other genders want it too.

Schools mold boys, says Dr. Deepa Narayan, during the most impressionable ages they spend five days a week at these places of learning, which are also powerful cultural spaces, occupied by educators who may bring their own values, prejudices, and stereotypes about how boys should behave. So for Akshat Singhal, it was important to start this work in schools. The Gender Lab Boys Program works with eighth standard boys, and is structured around a service learning format, which allows boys to go through a classroom learning experience and take it to their own communities and solve community problems based in the program context. Their goal is to create a safe space for boys to be themselves and to talk to them about how they are also victims of patriarchy, while having privileges through that system.

Over the 20 hour program, they discuss what sex and gender is, and then move towards understanding masculinity, the idea of mardaangi, and what it means to be a boy. By touching on different issues, they hope to build critical thinking so that the boys begin to question the messaging that they receive from different spaces themselves. Akshat mentions that there are four sources that shape the notions of masculinity – school, family, society, and media. School systems are especially designed on a control and discipline-based system where boys and girls are treated differently. Along with the boys program, they have a teachers’ program as well where they understand what their issues are and the new possibilities that can emerge. But there’s also a kind of resentment to boys questioning their teachers and principles, because these are uncomfortable issues that are being tackled. 

As Deepa points out, in speaking with the boys who have attended this course, they were able to identify core dimensions of toxic masculinity that they said have changed in themselves. They gave everyday examples like not acting entitled at home and helping out, reducing fighting, managing anger, expressing emotions, having more conversations at home, and becoming positive agents of change in their own communities. Schools can and must liberate boys from narrowly defined behaviours that perpetuate a cycle of unhappy gender inequality, anger, and missed potential. We can uncover our own gender stereotypes and change our schools to become more gentle, expansive spaces for boys and girls, says Deepa. 

Episode 9

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