Men engage – A report

Why and how should men be engaged in the dialogue for stemming gender violence? Sayan Bhattacharya writes a report on one such dialogue.

The HeforShe campaign which claims to be a “solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other of humanity, for the entirety of humanity” has been generating a lot of online buzz, thanks to Ema Watson’s now famous speech on feminism as the UN Women Goodwill ambassador. While such initiatives often end up dealing with mere tokens and symbols at best and a benign form of patriarchy (wherby oppressive structures remain intact while giving some leeway to the oppressed) at worst, it is also imperative to understand masculinities, the multilayered histories of the making of men to combat gender oppression. The upward curve of gender violence coupled with stricter and stricter laws highlight not only the faulty implementation of laws but also the fact that it is foolhardy to imagine the precincts of law to be outside the purview of patriarchy. There have been several ethnographic studies of courtroom trials to show how rape survivors are subject to further brutalities in the courtroom in the name of interrogation. So then, while law should take its own course to combat the increasing instances of gender violence, how does one think of structures that are at the root of violence against women? What if one starts with how gender inequalities are produced, how men are conditioned to think of their gender roles and how that plays through the power dynamics between men and women? And in the process, how does violence get engendered? And in exploring these questions and understanding these structures, how can men come up to address concerns of gender justice?

These and several other issues were probed during a two day symposium titled ‘Men and Boys for Gender Justice’ recently organized in Kolkata, in preparation for the Global Men’s Symposium being organised from 10th to 13thNovember 2014 in Delhi by the Centre for Health and Social Justice and MenEngage, a global alliance of organisations and individuals working with men and boys for gender equality.  The two day symposium witnessed activists, practitioners, the youth and donor communities speak, debate, engage and brainstorm on understanding the various facets of masculinities in eastern India (participants were from West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa and Bihar) and chalking out strategies to broadbase efforts in involving men in the crying need for gender equity.

The event was jointly organized by Swayam, Kolkata Rista, Sanjog, Forum to Engage Men (Jharkhand) and Ebong Alap. While Swayam works towards ending violence against women through counseling, legal aid, publications, employment and so on, Sanjog works with children of sex workers, survivors of trafficking. Kolkata Rista works as a community based organization for the prevention of HIV-AIDS and transgender rights, Forum to Engage Men brings together various organizations, women’s rights groups on a single platform to work for gender justice by involving men. Last but not the least, Ebong Alap, which recently entered its 11th year works closely with educational institutions to make them gender sensitive spaces, tries to initiate dialogues on queer identities, sexualities and gender cutting across language, class, caste and urban-rural divides and has a series of publications in Bengali and English. The point in trying to give this rudimentary introduction to the organizers is not as much a formality as to highlight the diversity of participants who came together to dialogue on each other’s best practices, methodologies and challenges. This ensured a rich, even if often fraught, discourse on gender justice.

While the very idea of turning the spotlight on men to understand gender was much needed, the large presence of transgenders at the symposium ensured that the very categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’ were questioned to bring in the narratives of many other bodies which are often left on the margins. Yet the violence faced by these ‘other’ bodies is also rooted in the very structures that lead to violence against women. And the other important facet was addressing education which is often missed out on such platforms – addressing the hierarchies and inequalities produced by knowledge embedded in patriarchy. So there were speakers specifically talking about their experiences in the fields of education and how it can bring about gender sensitivity. Besides the series of panels and workshops, Rahul Roy’s much acclaimed film, When Four Friends Meet was also screened. The film, through a conversational mode, brings out the dreams, aspirations, ambitions and pent up frustrations of four young men in Delhi and offers a complex portrayal of the making of men. Their contradictory views on the bodily autonomy of women, their complete lack of understanding of the woman’s body, their yearning for companionship, their helplessness at not being able to make the cut in a neoliberal world offered many a thinking point for the discussion following the film.

This reporter who was a participant in one of the workshops, facilitated by Ebong Alap, titled ‘The Making of Men – Masculinities and Cultural Stereotypes’ was witness to an interesting game where participants had to respond in a couple of words what came to their mind when they heard the words ‘men’ and ‘masculinity’ and the responses were widely varied. From ‘use and misuse of power’, ‘performance’, ‘violence’ to ‘father’, ‘love’, ‘dependence’, ‘dominance’ and ‘care’… it was one whole gamut. By the end of the workshop in which everything from physical strength to misogyny in the media, from the gendering of games and diet to masculinities not being limited to biology were discussed, each participant seemed to have been armed with at least one tool and that was to keep questioning even one’s most obvious assumptions.

While this symposium for eastern India will culminate in the global one and it is yet to be seen whether this too will end up in dealing with tokens and symbols, let’s end with a little vignette from the venue. Participants lined up with polished steel plates and spoons for the lunch. A neat and tasty meal of rice, pulses, vegetables, chicken and sweets. At the end of the meal, participants once again lined up, this time near the wash basin to clean their plates. Yes, the ethos of Sevakendra, the venue is all about self reliance and perhaps the fact that there were instructions to not leave one’s used plate on the table did not leave one the usual option of leaving the cleaning work for someone else (the working class, and of course women by default) but the smiles, the laughter, the conversations during this communitarian act of cleaning presented almost an ideal world where the division of labour is not sexual. If this isn’t engagement, what is?

Featured Image credits:  Kalpan Mitra.

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