Indian male psyche, society and sexuality

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‘Pepper spray wasn’t available, and my friends, all of them middle or upper-middle class like me, carried safety pins or other makeshift weapons to and from their universities and jobs. One carried a knife, and insisted I do the same. I refused; some days I was so full of anger I would have used it – or, worse, had it used on me. The steady thrum of whistles, catcalls, hisses, sexual innuendos and open threats continued. Packs of men dawdled on the street, and singing Hindi film songs, rich with double entendres, was how they communicated. To make their demands clear, they would thrust their pelvises at female passers-by. ‘This is how the writer, Sonia Faleiro, describes her growing up in Delhi

The roots of such behaviour can be traced to ancient Indian codes for women in ‘The Laws of Manu’, still seen by many as governing our cultural view. The laws focus on the fear of women’s sexual freedom and possibility of infidelity. The fear requires guarding her impending sexual temptation and other men’s taking advantage and both having a good time. As the psychologist Sudhir Kakar observes, ‘The image of the wife as the needed mother and the feared whore is even today reflected in the proverbs of all the major Indian languages.’ Such a folk view has become a dubious testament of the cultural unity of our country. No wonder, girls and women are widely blamed by traditional society, including by the police, for inviting rape by their outgoing independent manner, going out at odd hours and by their dress code.

A proverb in Punjabi: ‘A woman who shows more love for you than your mother is a slut.’ According to a Gujarati proverb, ‘A woman’s intelligence is in her heels.’ A Malayali saying warns, ‘One who adheres to women’s advice will be reduced to beggary.’ The Tamils denigrate by saying, ‘No matter how educated a woman is, her intelligence is always of the lowest order.’ As exceptions, there are some Bengalis and Assamese sayings emphasizing the maternal dimension: who could belittle women, who bear children?

Sexual attitudes, says Kakar, have changed much less than what the media portrays and are still very conservative. Even today, cousins, uncles and aunts are involved (with each other), though it is largely directed outward. The ‘involvement’ is still accompanied by guilt and shame. Sexuality is not seen as freedom and liberation of the psyche and body. It continues to be surrounded by feelings of shame, guilt and dishonour. It needs to be emphasized that the absence of a tradition of healthy mixing of sexes, of understanding each other and knowing that diverse kinds of relations between men and women are possible, restricts our ability to channel sexual, romantic and friendship energies in a positive manner.

A woman is reduced to a mother, sister, daughter or a prostitute and friendship with a male is frowned upon. Many men are awkward and have quick and often harsh sexual release with prostitutes and similarly with wives. They do not learn the subtle art of intimacy, far less take time to romance and to engage in tender emotional connection that women so long for.

The leading philosopher Daya Krishna was deeply troubled that Indian culture which celebrated 12 types of ‘rasikas’ or connoisseurs of discerning passion, beauty, elegance and the fine arts with many ‘rasas’, could so devalue women. After his death, when his daughter sent his manuscripts to the Indian Council of Philosophical Research, they refused to publish them for fear of hurting Hindu sentiments.

A recent survey carried out in six developing countries shows that Indian men are among the most sexually aggressive. Twenty-four per cent of Indian men have committed sexual violence at some point in their lives, 20% forced their partners to have sex with them, and only 17% of Indian men could be considered ‘highly equitable’, says the survey carried out by the Centre of Research on Women, US, and Instituto Promundon in Brazil. The other countries that were a part of the research and all scored better than India were Brazil, Chile, Rwanda, Croatia and Mexico. The survey revealed that the Indian men’s violence against women isn’t just sexual; sixty-five percent say they think women sometimes deserve to be beaten. Sixty-eight per cent say a woman should put up with a violent husband for the sake of the family. According to the psychologist Vijaykumar, in and around Bangalore, India’s highly educated, developed and original IT hub, most of the women who committed suicide were victims of domestic violence.

The Indian as Homo Hierarchicus is immersed in hierarchies of superior and inferior. The man dominates the women, who take it out on the daughter-in-law, who could mistreat the children, and the children grow up confused, perhaps watching the father slap the mother, sometimes expressing their anger against animals like street dogs.

According to leading cross-culture and gender specialists, this behaviour in ‘new India’ is a result of shifting social norms, a low level of interaction between opposite sexes, influence of pop culture and the differing interpretations of power dynamics between men and women. In a changing India, there is confusion over what type of behaviour is acceptable in personal as well as work environments, says Jerry Pinto, author of Surviving Women.

In the cities the old consensus on common norms, including community checks and balances regarding relationships, is breaking down and the new values of contemporary civic and modern culture have not yet been imbibed. Many times it is a free for all as long as one can get away with it. Ashis Nandy points out that the rising incidence of rape in cities is mostly violent. He adds, ‘You can almost call it anomic rape. These are typical characteristics of anonymous cities, highly individualized, personally thin cultures and it is so not only in India, but perhaps all over the world from which we have data... In anonymous societies kinship dies and community ties weaken and become superficial. It is in these circumstances that you see the kind of [brutal] rape that you are seeing today.’

Even among the educated youth modernity is cultivated more in terms of its superficial aspects like dress, lifestyle, fashion and consumption of global products rather than inculcating modern values like equality including between sexes, liberty and ability to make genuine choices and solidarity with common civic and secular citizenship values. The advertisements created by some of the smartest persons consistently bombard the young with beautiful and tantalizing images, seducing them to buy into a trendy and cool lifestyle along with all its commodities, even as value education is neglected.

Authentic modern and humanist values are also under threat among the youth in the West as they are being relegated to the background by the prevalence of hedonic consumerism and selfish individualism. There is a nexus of drugs and sex, including rape and crime. Advertising as hidden persuader celebrates a life full of young and perfect images of a sexy lifestyle. With the breakdown of communities and family and fewer people having faith in religion and without alternatives having become mainstream, a lack of meaning and purpose in life beyond consumerism results in anomie and destruction of the environment. The American Psychiatrists Association has classified sex addiction along with cyber addiction as a medical form of addiction.

Harassment of women is not uncommon around the world, but in India it is very crude because there is a lack of awareness about sexual and political correctness, according to Sameera Khan, a journalist who covers gender issues. In the West, many workplaces and universities have a clear policy instructing people what is acceptable behaviour. In Indian cities, she says, there is often no insight about where the line is drawn and people freely mock those with less power. For example, at the workplace, some employees share mass emails openly making fun of women and lower caste people. Legislators in state assemblies blatantly watch pornography. Behind the liberal garb of many men, are there in the deep recesses of their psyche, vestiges of the khap panchayat still lurking?

Many Indian men grow up without much contact with women outside their family. Men sit separately from women in public transport and in schools. When they meet foreign women, they fall back on the stereotypes they have acquired through Hollywood and Bollywood movies of foreign women as free and loose. Around 70% of Indian youth who use internet watch pornography. These men think foreign women are of loose character and fair game.

Bollywood films are full of scenes depicting how a man succeeds in seducing a woman by continuing to pursue her. Titillating rape scenes and sexual ‘item numbers’ are now set formula pieces which reinforce the lurid Indian male gaze. Modern Indian women who dress in western style, frequent pubs and are more independent are considered of low moral character and more available. Because the men are sexually frustrated and do not know how to approach and interact with women to forge a healthy friendship or intimacy, they assault them.

After the advent of a neo-liberal aggressive consumerist globalized culture, a huge division exists between those who are wealthy and able to access such a western lifestyle and those who are non-English medium educated, from the lower middle class and poor, envy as well as find the elites morally suspect and alien from the stand point of tradition. Such massive inequalities of wealth resulting in wide cultural divides have created many India’s, with their own mini clash of civilizations, psychological dissonance and internal colonies resulting in violent outbursts, violations and crime, including rape.

Fairness, empathy, greater equality in society and social inclusiveness and mutual social support, a sense of community and belonging leads to greater trust and solidarity as well as social capital. Also, the possibilities to build a consensus and momentum for social reform becomes much easier.

The dignity and flourishing of girls and women is not only a signifier of a civilized society but also a strategy for national development and social progress. The UN Human Development Research based on analysis of the last 40 years of data and trends concludes that if there is one key factor for economic and social development, which has a greatest multiplier effect, it is the health, education and skill development of girls and women’s awareness.

Even more so in India, as Amartya Sen points out, ‘The healthy survival and flourishing of the girl is both a huge challenge as well as the pathway to social and economic progress.’ First in East Asia and later in China and South East Asia, the healthy and skilled women power as well as more equality and cultural support for women’s dignity has significantly contributed to economic and social development.

Social reform movements in Bengal and a long tradition of education, particularly of girls in Kerala, have resulted in relatively more equal status and respect for women there. Cultural reform movements during the independence struggle have petered out. India has many progressive laws without the social-cultural reform keeping pace. In the West, the ‘good’ laws have followed decades of dissidence, continuous struggles, protests and like against slavery and racism and for democracy and human rights, women’s movements for equality, gay rights and the environment and peace movements.

Value education as suggested by Unesco needs to be made a part of the basic course beginning in schools and in the institutes of learning. The values are: develop mutual tolerance and respect in a multicultural society and world; improve the participation and inclusion of girls and women; adopt peaceful methods for conflict resolution; bring about equity and solidarity in all spheres and internationally; cultivate the ability to make informed choices; teach respect for cultural heritage and protection of the environment and encourage lifestyles for sustainable development.

Mere laws and institutional reforms are not enough. The massive emotional outpouring, protests and street marches all over India after the horrific rape in Delhi needs to be channelized and sustained in an organized and positive way for social reform in the mid-longer term, along with immediate better laws, police, judicial, electoral and internal political party reforms so that criminally chargesheeted politicians cannot fight elections. The safety, dignity and human development of girls and women is crucial in many ways. It is the hallmark of a civilized evolved humanity and true progress.

Prahlad Shekhawat