men, masculinities and gender politics

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Feminist. Man. Feminist man.

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First things first. I am a feminist man. In many ways, that’s my declaration of independence, and shapes my identity, my choices and my work.
 
I, the feminist:
 
I never liked –isms… still don’t like them. I feel they pigeon-hole people into a single blinkered stream of thought and clouded lens of vision. They restrict free thought, and demand loyalty which is oppressive to human mind and as a consequence, human development (no, I’m not referring to industrial development here). I am too “tilted” as a person to be straight jacketed into –isms.
 
So when I came across “feminism” not merely as a term but as an ideology, my first reaction was “I believe in it, but I’m not a feminist. I am not an –ist. Period.”
 
But as my understanding of the subject grew, I realized feminism was not like other –isms. In fact it was unlike any other –ism. It was not about blinkered vision, but it opened my vision up. It did not demand loyalty, but simply helped me to view the “personal as political”, and therefore make sense of my own lived experience. It did not monopolize my mind, but helped me understand it better. It provided a validation for my own thoughts and beliefs. I had never lived inside a box… and had gone through my own share of ecstasy and horror for making that choice. Feminism didn’t put me inside a box. Instead, it told me it was okay to not be in one. That was therapeutic.
 
I, the man:
 
When I referred to myself as a feminist man a few paragraphs ago, I made a political choice. I could have called myself a “male feminist” instead of defining myself as a “feminist man”.
 
So what’s the difference between male and man? Sex refers to the biologically defined attributes of a person… male, female etc. Gender refers to the social construction… in terms of what sexes do… boy, girl… man, woman etc.
 
So when I refer to myself as a man, do I accept the social constructs of gender? After all, isn’t “being a man” a loaded concept coming with its own set of contents and discontents instead of being a mere statement of fact? Should I be embarrassed to call myself a man, especially when I claim to support feminism and oppose the centuries old oppression that “men” seem to have perpetrated? I have asked myself these questions often. Of course I refuse to accept the social construction of the term “man”. Of course I feel terrible… almost apologetic… for what people of my sex have done to women and to themselves all these years. And that’s precisely why I feel I need to define myself as a man. But no, I don’t feel embarrassed at calling myself a man, because in doing so, I believe I am taking power away from the social construction of the term “man”. And I certainly don’t intend to present myself as the harbinger of gender justice. I am just another person who’s trying to understand, analyze and detoxify myself of the patriarchal socialization I have been, and still am, a part of. And I’m a man too. And when I proclaim myself as a man too, I believe I’m helping pluralize the term “man”. I believe I’m doing my bit in shifting the terminology from “man” to “men”… “masculinity” to “masculinities”… and communicate there are many ways to be… some more liberating than the others. Its time we drew clear boundaries between being a man, and “being a man”.
 
I, the feminist man:
 
It is often debated if men can be feminists. No, it is not a cynical question (by some “male-basher bra-burning radical women who can’t get married and are jealous of those who have happily married lives”), but a valid one. And this question gets debated even within feminist groups, among women, and among men who support feminism. One point of view (among many others) is that men cannot claim to be feminists as feminism arises out of a personal and shared history of gender-based oppression, which can be experienced only by women. Proponents of this thought, however, do not say that men cannot be supporters and believers of feminism. So the term they sometimes use for such men is pro-feminist men. And so, the question for me is, am I a feminist or a pro-feminist? And I choose to call myself a feminist.
 
There are no absolutes to victimization and oppression. We all exchange roles in being victims and oppressors. So we essentially lie somewhere on the continuum of being a victim and oppressor, and therefore end up being a victim-oppressor or oppressor-victim. A victim-oppressor is in the primary role of being a victim, but is also an oppressor in some ways, such as in terms of perpetuating and tolerating oppression. In terms of gender oppression, I believe women would generally fall in this category, since they are the primary targets of gender oppression, but can be oppressors in their secondary role as perpetuators of patriarchy. For example, a woman who demands dowry for the marriage of her son, or abets harassment of daughter-in-law for bringing less dowry, or prays for a male child when she gets pregnant. One can argue that she does so because of the socialization she has been through, but there is no excuse for violence or injustice. But primarily she is the victim of patriarchy for being a woman and therefore has lesser status within the structures of the State and the society. Therefore she is the victim-oppressor. Then there are oppressor-victims. They are oppressors in their primary roles and victims in secondary roles. In terms of gender oppression, men would essentially be in this category, for reasons of creating, developing and perpetuating institutions within patriarchy that put them on higher rung than woman in the society, and for enjoying the benefits of such privileged position. However, they are victims too of the same patriarchal system, as it is as stifling for men as it is for women, just in different ways. For example, a man who beats up his wife because he thinks it is important to establish his status as the “man in the family” and the “head of the household”, and in effect robs himself of the emotional security and happiness a mutually supportive intimate relationship with his partner could possibly bring.
 
This makes both men and women victims, in one way or the other, of this system of gender relations called patriarchy, while certainly according more privileges to men as compared to women. Therefore, if woman can be oppressors and men can be victims, then does patriarchy remain exclusive domain on any one gender group? Should the focus then not shift from actors who do gender, to factors that are at the root of it? And what is feminism? Working against gender oppression… working for gender justice. And when I call myself a feminist, I am not working for women… I’m working for myself… because I don’t want to be either a victim or an oppressor… because I have a discomfort with people being victims and oppressors. And therefore I am a feminist.
 
Also, its time men talked of their personal histories and lived experiences of gender victimization and oppression and realized that personal, after all, is political. And for such a movement to be seen as an extension or dimension of the larger feminist movement (since it emerges from and is premised upon the feminist thought) will not only be a fitting tribute to what all feminism has stood for and endured, but will also do feminism proud, without compromising its integrity or essence.
 
And that’s why I choose to call myself a feminist, instead of pro-feminist.
 
Endnote:
 
I often wonder how I get perceived by others when I speak of myself as a feminist man, or through my work, action, expression. Perceptions of how people see me as a feminist man. Perceptions of how I see people seeing me as a feminist man. Perceptions of how I see myself as a feminist man. Perceptions are numerous.
 
Am I a sissy? Not “man enough”? Don’t I have better (read “manly”) things to do than this? I must be a sissy. Am I brave? Bold and courageous enough to challenge gender constructs and walk the road less traveled? I must be brave. Am I the good man? “Straight”, yet sensitive? I must be the good man. Am I a hypocrite? Spitting venom against patriarchy, and yet enjoying the privileges it allows? I must be a hypocrite. Am I an armchair philosopher? Talks too much and does little? I must be an armchair philosopher.
 
Perceptions hurt. Perceptions heal. Perceptions vary.
 
No, I am not a perception. I am not a captive of my eyes… or of others’. I am a feminist. I am a man. I am I, me, myself and much more.
 
I am.