…and what we need to change in the way we talk about gender, especially ‘manhood’, so that we can rewrite this man-ifesto.
The last week or so has been a watershed moment. Well, it’s been yet another watershed moment, and it has come in the form of the much-discussed, wildly polarising #boislockerroom.
As you probably know by now, a group of young kids – largely boys, as the name suggests, and a few girls – aged 15 and 16, created a group chat on Instagram with a very specific lascivious intention. This intention being to share naked images, lewd fantasies, and eventually, when the entire situation unravelled at the dizzying speed of a-share-a-minute, threats of rape.
Call-out culture (rightly) puts the blame where it lies: on the perpetrator. Yet, it’s turned us into comfortable witnesses, rather than catalysts of change.
Why are we so comfortable watching and sharing when each wave of callouts occurs, but unwilling to participate in an amputation of the cultural hand, the same hand which feeds the mouth of India’s enduring history with sexual violence?
Priyanka Sutaria is a former researcher of sexual violence. She has worked with Why Indian Men Rape, participating in primary and secondary research about how gender, class, caste and religion interact to create a culture of rape — specifically in the context of the Indian subcontinent. Currently, she is a gender studies enthusiast who writes about women, their lives, and their livelihoods in India.
What We (Need To) Talk About When We Talk About #BoisLockerRoom
The #boislockerroom situation has been autopsied from every possible angle.
Those with mob mentality want to arrest them, and leave them to our already ill-equipped-to-handle-adults ‘justice’ system. Some men want to make ill-timed IGTV videos with hot takes about masculinity, as if women haven’t been yelling it from rooftops since kingdom come. And there are those who honestly don’t know what the next step could possibly be.
But one consequence of this situation which I have been grappling with is the feeling of abject failure. We’ve failed, yet again, to nip this promise of gendered violence in the bud.
The #notallmen tag has been floating around once more, except there’s a big problem with that this time… and it is that these are not men. They are young boys, and somehow, we still don’t know how to prevent them from becoming (as the insensitive media would like to put it) ‘monsters’.
This is not the time to demonise the perpetrators. If we have to pick one takeaway from the last decade of protesting gender-based violence, it is that no amount of calling-out and name-calling will induce either guilt or prevention.
And it’s high time we started talking prevention, and go straight to the root of the issue: in India, this violence is largely the result of a nation suppressed.
Sexual Violence Is Not Committed By ‘Monsters’
Sexual violence is committed by people.
It is also not a singular act, and it does not occur within a void; it happens due to a culture of toxic gender ideas.
Orthodox patriarchal norms, caste- and class-based discrimination, and hushed up sexuality — they all add to the reeking stench of the label which follows our country…
“Isn’t India, like, the most unsafe country for women?”
Perhaps it is, if only due to the sheer magnitude of the population and the utter repression which we wear like an armour.
But I would like to propose an addendum:
India is the (perhaps) one of the most unsafe countries for all genders.
We degrade women, yes. We also deny trans people their rights. Plus, we refuse to acknowledge non-binary folk. And the men? We show them the mould they must fill out, and when they fail to do so, we cut into them with taunts sharper than knives, and demand they be hanged.
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I am not saying men are the worst off, and frankly, I am not qualified to rank which gender is least most anything. But this is India, and everybody is forced to participate and perform in the sisyphean game show of Extreme Gender Roles.
And we’re all losing.
Incredible India, Population: One Billion People And Infinite Repression
Here are three personal anecdotes of how gender plays out in my Indian context:
One: In my school, starting from the age of 11, I was constantly shamed for the length of my skirt. The school regulations were that it had to be an inch above the knee, and although I complied with it, the shaming reached its zenith when a teacher actually undid the seam of my skirt publicly. The boys I was ‘distracting’ were the audience to this.
Two: The men in my college would throw around the word ‘rape’ without care. Once when my friend and I were playing the penis game (where you say the word ‘penis’ louder and louder, taking turns until you’re yelling it), a male classmate asked why women could say that but he couldn’t use the word ‘rape’. I had to inform him that ‘penis’ was not a bad word in any context.
Three: This week, Ram Gopal Varma tweeted a photo of women standing in line at a recently reopened liquor store with the caption “…so much for protecting women against drunk men.” The statement had two suppositions; that women in line for alcohol are not shopping for themselves, and that women are responsible for preventing violence against themselves.
Look who’s in line at the wine shops ..So much for protecting women against drunk men ? pic.twitter.com/ThFLd5vpzd— Ram Gopal Varma (@RGVzoomin) May 4, 2020
Although each instance arrives at the point I am making by taking different routes, the destination (and therefore, the point) is always shame.
Shame Is The Invisible Pillar Of Our Culture
One of the many reasons I want to lay my thoughts on this issue bare is because I am very interested in how #metoo as a movement is similar to feminism, historically speaking.
What I mean is that it will keep reemerging in waves, and the concerns will be different each time. Nonetheless the culture of sexual violence will just adapt to the times if we don’t do something radical and immediate.
To paraphrase Raghu Karnad: Advocating shame only turns the “vulgar adolescent bravado” of young boys into men who are “enemies of feminism and permanently embittered by women”.
It is a national failure to depend so heavily on the projection of shame. It is even more disturbing to see it being used as a crutch to justify the fact that we haven’t thought much beyond naming-and-shaming. And no, I don’t mean that it is wrong to call out a predator. What I mean is that we (the people who witness the calling out) simply share and forget.
The survivor is always courageous, but the rest of us are cowards for not doing (as Rega Jha puts it) “…the less thrilling, more urgent, year-round work of dismantling structures that create and reward monstrous behaviour”.
Shame does not work as a deterrent to rape, not when conservatives think capital punishment is the answer and not when liberals think naming and shaming is.
The answer – as it has so jarringly slid into our DMs with #boislockeroom – is the unlearning of toxic ideas of gender, especially those of ‘manhood’, and rewriting this man-ifesto from scratch.
Callout Culture Cannot Be The End Of Our Efforts
When the first popular wave of #metoo crashed onto our shores in 2017 (BTW, Tarana Burke did it first in 2006), it was a cultural breakthrough.
I stood by it back then, and I stand by it right now. In fact, I stood by it when I first became aware of sexual violence as a culture, back in our own Indian cultural breakthrough of the Nirbhaya protests in 2012.
But let me be frank: this is going to keep happening. Survivors will find the words to share their stories, each in their own time, and we will have to patiently wait for them. That is their prerogative.
What we need to end is this culture which keeps breeding perpetrators. This is so that no more survivors have to put in inhuman amounts of effort to feed this cycle of calling out.
It is trigger-inducing, because every time someone is assaulted, that perpetrator also ends up triggering those who have been assaulted, as well as those who live in debilitating fear of it.
It is also fatigue-inducing, because it isn’t kicking off the change we really need, so as to make this stop. This is especially so for women, who often suffer from a collective fear of being raped.
We need to stop visualising justice as post-traumatic redressal. Rather, justice would be achieved when we no longer need it in the first place. Justice would be no more survivors. It would also be no more perpetrators.
This doesn’t mean no punishment! The boys in that locker room need to be punished, but it should be more along the lines of suspension, compulsory counselling, and possibly even mandatory work with organisations that work towards gender sensitisation (more succinct solutions from Raghu Karnad).
To conclude this, but not the conversation itself, what we need now is to articulate the labour we need to do to make change happen, as citizens and as people who exist within communities.
I started having this conversation with my family and friends, and over the last few years we have been able to create a (tiny, but important) positive ripple effect within our circles.
So here I stand, passing the baton on to you: start the conversation. Wonder, discuss, and share what we can do as a community; as children and parents and friends and colleagues. Let’s become catalysts for change.
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