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Deepa Narayan On Inspiring Men To Break Away From Gender Stereotypes 

Deepa Narayan On Inspiring Men To Break Away From Gender Stereotypes 

deepa narayan

One would imagine that after speaking to hundreds of women about the ways in which our patriarchal society silences them, it would be impossible to care about men. To give room to their struggles, the ways in which they are boxed, and to deconstruct what the same system that pitches women as second class, does to men. Not for Dr. Deepa Narayan, though. 

Dr. Deepa Narayan is an international poverty, gender and development adviser who has worked at the World Bank, the United Nations and in the non-governmental sector. In 2011, Foreign Policy magazine names Dr. Narayan one of 100 most influential global thinkers. India Today need Dr. Narayan one of India’s 35 Great Thinkers. She has authored and co-authored seventeen books. 

After having written the groundbreaking book Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women, Dr Narayan has forayed into the world of men. In her brand new podcast, What’s A Man?, she speaks to men about what their gender means to them as they navigate this heteronormative world we inhabit. We caught up with Dr. Narayan, to find answers to one burning question that many women have: Why should we care about men? In the process, we learnt all about why Dr Narayan started the podcast, the challenges she faced, and what she thinks is the future of masculinity. 

PG: How did What’s A Man begin? 

DN: What struck me after working on Chup, was that we really have bypassed the men. There’s no way you can have women’s empowerment or working feminism with a one-legged approach. The world is comprised of two and more genders, and unless you look across the genders and see who needs to change and how we need to change, we’re not going see women’s empowerment or gender equality in the broader sense. So I turned to the men. I’d also promised men at that time [while working on Chup] that I’d come back and talk to them. 

My goal was to start a public conversation because we don’t talk even about the basic things – What kind of a girl do you want to be? Or a boy? So, it’s in the spirit of opening up this conversation so men have greater degrees of freedom, and women have greater degrees of freedom. And they can come together in more equal and more amicable way, meeting both their needs. 

PG: Yes, it truly is the need of the hour. For your podcast, you interviewed men from different walks of life. From Amish Tripathi to Abish Matthew, you’ve covered quite a gamut. Tell us – why these men?

DN: I wanted to show the everyday life of a regular guy. I also thought it’d be interesting to talk to men who are well known since there is such a huge celebrity culture in India, and people are interested to know about the lives of celebrities. I also thought about the issues. Since women’s empowerment and feminism is brushed off as a western concept, and it’s not. It’s a very Indian concept, but we haven’t dug into the root. So Amish Tripathi came to mind, and he agreed, so that worked well. And then, Sushant Dewakar, whom I didn’t know also became a natural and he agreed. Because it’s not just about the narrowly defined men. It’s opening up the box of masculinity and that includes trans men, gender fluidity. It includes the whole gender spectrum. 

PG: As I was listening to the podcast, I realised there is a dichotomy. So, while at thought level, many boys and men seem to understand what it means to break out of the man box, that doesn’t always translate to behaviour. What do you think that’s about?

DN: This is exactly what happened with women. I think there are two ways to answer this question. One is, we’ve changed intellectually. We’ve embraced the idea of gender equality. But it’s very superficial. The behavioural change has not happened because our training – how we raise our girls and boys – has not changed. The second thing is that even when we want to change, we don’t know how to change. Some things are easier. You want to eat idli today or dosa? You can change. Behavioural change is more complex and takes practice. For example, when we walk about diets etcetera, you know what foods are good for you, but you don’t eat it. So, it’s the same thing. There’s always a gap between what we want to be or desire, and how we actually are. That came out very strongly. The third part is we don’t talk about it.

PG: The gatekeeping of gender roles for both boys and girls, or men and women, often happens at the hands of members of the same sex. How does someone challenge something like that?

DN: Just like we’re doing now – you talk about it! What’s important is not attacking or trying to be superior, but talking about these things in a very matter-of-fact way. The moment you shame someone, the behaviour goes underground and people get defensive. So, start conversation around the consequences of behaviour instead of shaming, or the great saying – ‘Jane do, it doesn’t matter’. Well, it does matter. All these things add up to a state of non-existence of women, and a state of automatic power for men. So they feel they have to be in power or show that they know something even when they don’t know anything. Because otherwise they’re not being manly. So, the simplest thing is to talk about it, without shaming. These are structural things, systemic things. Otherwise, you wouldn’t see the same behaviour pattern across thousands of people. We’re not really doing the basics. We’re so focused on education and  success in the external world, we’ve forgotten all the other things that are so important in every day life. 

Sexuality is a big one. When parents say they’re embarrassed to educate their kids about sexuality, where do you think the kids learn from? They learn from TV, porn, and other children. What does a fourteen year old with swaggering youth know about sexuality? 

PG: Speaking of power – of course, women and other gender groups that don’t have a seat of power in society are deeply motivated to push for change. But I always wonder if men are as motivated as the rest of us are? 

DN: Ah! Very good question! Obviously you can’t put 600 million men in the same category. My take on this is that there are three groups. One third of the men want to change, are ready to change but don’t know how because there are no models. One third have their toes in the water but are risk-averse. They’ll follow once the process starts. One third are stuck, and have no interest in changing. So, you have two-thirds of the population. So, why not start there?

PG: In some ways, it seems the boxes are much tighter for men. Especially now, with gender roles having changed so much for women but not nearly enough for men, it sometimes seems like women have it easier when it comes to breaking out of gender norms.  

DN: It’s not easier for women. It’s become a bit easier because the focus on empowering women or opening up channels, educating women has gone on now for 30 years. So the whole conversation around empowering and educating women has shifted dramatically, except for some states. But, we haven’t had this conversation for men. And, the entire patriarchal system of society is set up based on men behaving in a certain way and women supporting that. So, if men change, and say ‘I don’t want to be the patriarch,’ the whole system topples. But we haven’t had this conversation in a consistent way and in a public way. So, I think change is on the cusp. But just as the way we invested in opening up opportunities for women, we need to do the same for men, while holding them accountable. Because don’t forget – women are still being beaten up and assaulted etcetera. None of those issues have gone away. My argument is simply that unless we reach men, we won’t see a humungous amount of change in women’s lives, men’s lives and therefore children’s lives, or the next generation. 

PG: During your interviews, did you have a hard time getting men to open up? 

DN: I wondered if men would open up and be willing to have these intimate conversations. They are! I think what happens when men and women talk in general is that the anger, and the issues come in the way. It becomes an attack and we don’t really listen. But if you create an environment of safety and you don’t react and make them wrong, they pour their hearts out. Most of us don’t have a place where we can share all of ourselves. Men don’t have that space at all! They certainly don’t talk to other men about their weak spots because they feel they need to look good, and are competitive with each other. So I think we need to learn the art of listening, and remind ourselves that listening is not agreement. 

PG: Were there things that men shared that were difficult to accept, as a woman? 

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DN: Actually, no. I was surprised at how open the men were about sexuality. I think I would’ve been very uncomfortable if they had talked about abuse or physically or sexually assaulting women. That didn’t happen.

Within the normal expanse of behaviour, I think what’s happening is that the old roles of patriarchy and the old masculinity has gone away. Especially with younger men, we’re demanding a different kind of man, and they want to be a different kind of man. But, there’s no one to teach them how to  be that. 

PG: What do you think are the biggest challenges that younger men today face?

DN: How to be a gender equal man. How to actually practice gender equality. How to be true to themselves, while holding space for other women, men, and other genders.

PG: What can people around a man, or society at large can do to help men along this journey? 

DN: Having conversations. Supporting each other. Saying ‘Yes, do it!’ If someone wants to be a photographer, saying it’s okay. It’s a bit like 3 Idiots. It’s about choices – what you study, your job. So, letting go of expectations, and changing what success should look like. And it’s pervasive! Young boys are saying this, fourteen year olds are saying they just want to be the provider and nothing else. It’s always – what’s next? How can you be happy? There’s no happiness in never being enough. 

PG: What would you like to tell your parents raising boys, and a the future generation of men? 

DN: I think it starts with clothes. Let boys dress the way they want. Don’t be so rigid about about boys wearing blue and girls wearing pink. Let them paint their nails if they want. This is the time for exploration. If you feel uncomfortable, hide it. Keep it inside you. If you read to your child – most books are very sexist. So talk about the sexism in the books. Any time a member of the family, or staff, says something girl-specific or boy-specific, call it out. Talk about it. Explain to the child why it’s wrong. 

Become a gender detective. It then becomes a game, and I think it’s a very powerful way of breaking without making a big, heavy thing. Make it fun, light and make people curious about ‘Is this true?’ ‘Can only boys do this?’ ‘Why?’ Kids love asking why! So, make it a game. Make it fun! 

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