Redefining masculinity and femininity for teens

Redefining masculinity and femininity for teens

Bula Devi
What is 'mardangi' (masculinity)?
Who is a 'respectable' girl?
Is a boy 'smart-looking' only if he has a gym-pumped body?
Can a girl ever dream of joining the army?

When it comes to dealing with conventional notions of masculinity or femininity, questions like these, and many more, baffle the minds of young women and men. Living in a predominantly patriarchal society leaves little or no room for independent thinking or forming unbiased opinions on this subject.

Nowhere was this more evident than at a recent workshop, organised by Jagori, a Delhi-based women's resource centre, where a motley group of youngsters, aged between 14 and 21 years, from Badarpur, a low-income area of south Delhi, came together to discuss "apna, apna nazariya" (their views) on what qualities made up an ideal girl or boy. 

For starters, the group was given three cameras and instructed to take pictures of each other. Excited at the prospect of being photographed, they happily posed for each other - some more readily than others. Then as their reactions were sought on the results, interesting observations popped up. "She looks like a 'goondi'(promiscuous); she is dressed in a 'bold' manner," commented the boys on the picture of a girl who was dressed in jeans and a shirt with a few buttons open. In contrast, compliments rained for girls who were wearing ‘salwar kameez’: "She looks like a Barbie doll; her beautiful smile has lit up the photograph; her simplicity is the best part of the picture; she looks so innocent and quiet..."

What did the girls have to say for the boys? While some reflected on the facial expressions ("He looks serious" or "Is he sad and depressed?"), others remarked on the looks ("He should have shown off his muscles" or "He looks like the villain of a South Indian film!").

Typical reactions, aren't they? The girl with the open shirt buttons had to be "unacceptable" even though her outfit was not revealing in any way. Of course, the boys felt that while "men can wear anything" girls "need to be more careful". For them, identity and respect for a girl was evident from "how politely she speaks" or "how presentable she is". In their eyes, girls with short haircuts are bound to not have a "good character"!

When Jyoti Chowdhury, 14, heard these observations she was amazed by the attitude of the boys and spoke of the hypocrisy with which they treated their own sisters vis-a-vis other girls. She said, "Why is it that boys whistle or pass lewd comments when an unknown girl rides a scooty or walks alone on the street? They don't do all this if that girl happens to be the sister of someone known to them. They are, in fact, protective of the girl then." None of the boys had any answer to this.

Though "good girls" have to be demure, the rules are completely different for boys. Declared the young men unanimously, being 'manly' meant displaying physical strength: "Mardangi unki taqat mei hoti hai (manliness reflects in their strength); 'mard woh jo kabhi rote nahi hai (real men never cry), mard bahut dard sah sakte hai (men can endure a lot of pain)." Recalled one boy, "Earlier when I used to cry sometimes, I used to be ridiculed. Sab bolte the, 'kya ladkiyon ke jaise ro raha hai' (Everyone used to say you keep crying like a girl)."

Patriarchy demands such an attitude from men. No one has given them the space to reflect on the real notions of strength and pain.

No one ever asked them to think about whether a man can endure even an iota of the pain a woman bears during child birth, or whether their sisters ever got to eat as much as them or play freely to be able to build the physical strength they are so proud to flaunt.

The reality is that girls are usually confined within the four walls of their homes, instructed to help out in household chores. So where is the opportunity to grow and flourish?
According to Sanjay Mattoo, a consultant and resource person on gender issues for Jagori, "Through the dynamics of a workshop like this, one makes boys and girls more sensitive. For instance, while the pain a woman has to bear during child birth may not be a parameter or bench mark of strength for these boys, sustained, close engagement to sensitise them can help them explore such notions."

When the youngsters were asked to share their life ambitions, it revealed another underlying bias. When a majority of the girls expressed an interest in becoming a doctor, the boys were left dumbstruck. Said one, "I always thought that the girls only wanted to either be a beautician or a housewife."

The group of girls from Badarpur, in fact, expressed their desire to take up a variety of professions "to make themselves self-reliant"- some wanted to become air hostesses, some law enforcers, and for some the army was the preferred career choice.

For instance, Jyoti wanted to become a high-ranking police official and Savita, 19, could see herself in a combat uniform or the management team of a five-star hotel. Said Jyoti, "Our local police is not able to stop crime against women so I want to become a high ranking officer to be able to make a difference. I wish to do something for my country."
Of course, any talk of ambition cannot be complete without letting the boys have their say. Pankaj, 15, for whom masculinity meant "wearing dark glasses and walking in a flip-flop manner", wanted to get a secure government job.

The eldest son of a taxi driver, he was keen to pursue his studies and take tuitions on the side to contribute to the family income.

During this interaction, Mattoo observed, "Articulation of thoughts in a group discussion lends to group learning. It's an effective way of communicating the idea of gender equality."

Ideas of change were definitely planted. "When I go back home I will tell my brother to at least get a glass of water for himself and not expect me or mother or some other female member in the family to give it to him," said one girl. Added a young man, "I will tell my father that we should all chip in to do the house work and not leave all the chores to my sisters and mother."

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