Gaze at Masculinity


In today’s world public spaces are primarily dominated by men. There was a time when men were protectors and still continue to be protectors of themselves and their near ones. In a public space, men are expected to be protectors in any age group. In India patriarchy rests the role of a protector to a man from a very young age. Sometimes we find adult women going around the public space with their younger brothers even though they are much younger to them. Such gendered expectations from men create an image of interesting masculinity which is sometimes problematic. Public spaces are mostly occupied by men in odd hours of the day and nights. In some societies it is more masculine for men to be outside their homes rather than being inside. Sometimes occupational duties bind men to work during the night and claim their space during the night.

In a gendered social context, suddenly it has become a norm for men to be claiming public space exclusively for themselves. In the last few years public spaces in both rural and urban settings have become platforms for public lynching, mob violence and moral policing spaces for any kind of discontent or distortion. In cases of thefts and vandalism of any public space, onlookers, bystanders and fence-sitters take a proactive role and take law into their hands to give instant justice to the grieving parties. In Michel Focault’s words the panoptic gaze of public is constantly on those who deviate from the norms. But such a gaze is violent, abusive and intense most of the time on the spur of the moment. During a mob violence and a riot people look for symbols and commonalities which has to be eliminated at the instigation of a few. Public uproar and subdued hate somehow take a volatile shape during such momentary instances where the most vulnerable and powerless people are targeted. It becomes a show of might when people are under the spell of a herd mentality. No amount of rationality, education and persuading works in such situations. Sometimes the pronounced masculinity which becomes prominent is induced by a fear of loss of identity in public space. People find sadistic pleasure in proving their masculinity in public space when they do not find that freedom to express in their private sphere.

In schools the most common problem is that of bullying where some students bullies the weaker and quieter students. In most situations the bullies in their schools are victims of extreme bullying and suppression in their homes. Hence, they find their outlets of expressing their frustrations in their schools. Such socialisation practices are very common amongst young boys and youths. Sometimes the parents and siblings also encourage their wards to be a strong child and take pride in flaunting about their child’s bullying habits. Children especially boys find support for their distorted masculinity in this context. Bullying can be concern across genders not just amongst boys but in most situation youths are boys.

Masculinity imagery is also influenced by media, movies and market trends. Public spaces are also the display arenas for such masculinity. In some traditional communities, cultural festivals, seasonal customary practices also endorse male masculinity to be displayed in public spaces through sports, dances and martial arts. Kerala’s Kalaripayattu, Manipur’s Thang Ta (Huyen Langlon), Tamil Nadu’s Silambam, North India’s Kushti wrestling, Assam’s buffalo fights, Punjab’s Gatka, Maharashtra’s Mardani Khel, Nagaland’s Naga style Wrestling and Meghalaya’s arrow shooting are some significant forms of masculine display of might in public space. But these expressions are not meant to take lives of people during their performance. Sometimes such images remain frozen within the psyche of youths. In a period of last one year there were more than 5 incidents of extreme human rights violation through public lynching based on distorted information and sometimes even for sheer pleasure of doing something unusual.

In Kerala a mentally unstable person was killed for stealing some food. In Assam two youths were killed by a mob for alleged child lifting and also for being unusual in their appearance. In Meghalaya too, people were targeted for being outsiders in the state. In Maharashtra as well, some people were publicly lynched for being accused of child lifting. In Nagaland one man was publicly lynched for an alleged rape of a local Naga woman. Sometimes public justice comes to those offenders whose crimes are extremely heinous and people cannot tolerate their actions. Instances of rape, murder, robbery, molestation and sexual harassment does instigate public outcry and the crowd turns into a mob. Once a mob begins to react then nobody seems to be able to stop such actions unless there is any natural disaster or bullet attack of the police.

In most incidents people want to take up violent means to teach the offenders a lesson. They do not realise that they themselves become offenders while getting justice. In public space voices are nameless and faces are unrecognizable so provocation and instigation is instant. Nobody cares to stop the fights rather they enjoy a live fight. Some people are busy taking pictures, shooting videos and posting in social media while the violence survivors bleed to death. Even the emergency services of state authorities do not reach on time and sometimes they are not very equipped to deal with such emergencies.

In Northeast India public lynching instances are more as they are an expression of people’s apathy and frustrations. There is a history of protest and expression of public angst through violence, vandalism and direct action in the North East which glorified the heroic masculinity of the youths through their student’s unions and gave them political mileage. But in the realm of progress, sustainable development goals, developing cultures of peace, well-being and cooperation has become a priority.

In this regard, intolerant masculinities do not hold much ground. Probably there is a need to engage with other creative expression which is not limited to social media and public events. Strategists, collectives, cultural icons, leaders in diverse organisations and cultural associations need to address these concerns through a continued effort in their own positions as well. Public spaces are meant for peace, co-existence, socialisation, respect and diversity as well. They cannot be always used as gallows and firing ranges to show off masculine might in any form. Somehow, we have many untold emotions, conversations and confusions based on assumptions which erupt in different ways in the public space with the slightest of provocation.

Masculinity and its distortions cannot be contained only by men but they need to be addressed equally by all gender identities through their respective contexts. If our youths are being bullied or they are bullying then we need to reflect on the causes and effects of such bullying which shapes the distorted masculinity for men and boys in particular. Whoever is the perpetrator in a public space irrespective of caste, gender, class, tribe, religion, ability or sexuality, their acts of violence cannot be acceptable and needs to be stopped instantly. Peace can also be a ‘un-gendered’ proposition which need not be a prerogative of women alone.

Samhita Barooah

Samhita Barooah

Dr. Samhita Barooah
 is Educator and QueerUp Founder