Feminism means the equality of all genders. It does not pit one against the other. Patriarchy on the other hand is not helpful to any. This International Men’s Day, we at VOICE spoke to Rajat Mittal, Producer and Writer of Boyish. Boyish is a monthly newsletter that sheds light on how gender stereotypes affect boys and men in India.
Rajat spoke about his upbringing in a small town in India, his fatherhood and his journey of finding himself and being at peace with himself.
VOICE : What has been the reason behind starting Boyish?
Rajat : It was mainly for three reasons, my recent parenthood being one of them. I luckily had some time off to spend with my son and I like to think that has had an impact on relooking at the idea of masculinity. Secondly, I recently took a break from my career in technology which gave me time and opportunity to rethink about how the role of a provider intersects with the identity of men. Lastly, I have been part of two projects in the last seven years that focus on girls. While working on these projects, it has always bothered me that we are not talking about gender to boys. I think over the last few years, I have developed a better understanding of the other side and am able to talk about gender and what it means for boys.
VOICE : That actually brings me to my next question which is, most of the discourse on unlearning gender roles and standing up to toxic masculinity is from a feminine perspective, why do you think it is important to talk about the same from a man's perspective?
Rajat : Sometimes the popular discourse on standing up to gender norms can be exclusive to men. The underlying emotion seems to be “you are the privileged gender and therefore you are not invited.” I believe the gender norms and expectations affect every gender albeit to differing extents. Even to make this movement more effective for women who, I continue to believe, are the marginalised gender, we need to show men how it impacts them as well. All the work on unlearning gender norms will be far more impactful if we take a more inclusive approach.
VOICE : Would you consider the work that you do through Boyish, feminist? If so, why?
Rajat : I absolutely consider Boyish a feminist project, there is no nuance in that answer even. Thanks to my work over the last few years, I have come to shed my conditioning that feminism only concerns women. It is largely a movement about equality and equanimity. I think it is extremely important for the feminist movement to also talk about men’s issues, because when we do, we say to men that this is a space for you as well. We can collectively build a better world for all of us when we understand and empathise with each other. Most often feminism immediately puts the male gender on the defensive because they feel like they are going to be blamed.
VOICE : How then should we start this process of including men and making them allies to women fighting their feminist battles?
Rajat : For men to support women on the large swath of issues they face, work has to be done by men on their own issues first. As a man, I cannot have a lived experience of a woman. The easiest and quickest way for me to build empathy is by showing me how these gender issues are affecting me too. Part of the agenda at Boyish is to show men that gender can be equally critical and harsh to them as well. Yes, men have privilege but their socialisation too is skewed by the irrational understanding of gender by society. Being a father myself, I think we can do a much better job at socialising our boys.
VOICE : You grew up in a small town in India and now live in California. How similar or different is masculinity across borders?
Rajat : It is definitely different. I have seen that masculinity softens up a bit with age in the West. I am not sure to what extent it happens in India. One thing that is definitely different is, I remember growing up in India, male friendships ran deep. It was common to find two boys holding hands or with arms on each other’s shoulders. However, in the west any such proximity immediately becomes a mark of your sexuality. One more thing that I find very weird in the west is how entangled is masculinity with a man’s ability to earn. If you are living with your parents, it is a huge blow to your masculinity. Whereas in India, the same thing would be considered virtuous of the son.
VOICE : You talk about the rigidity of masculinity and how you struggled with it while growing up. You strive to help boys free themselves from these stereotypes via Boyish, but how was that journey for you? What helped you break free from those stereotypes and find yourself?
Rajat : The journey started when I started working on my first two books which are centered around women’s issues. When I delved into how these issues affect women, I started to realise how they affect me too.I think that caused a shift in my own identity and character by allowing me to be gentler with myself. I am way more comfortable in my skin now after shedding the layers of how I need to behave because that’s how men behave.
VOICE : It must be liberating to find yourself underneath all the social conditioning of what you are supposed to be because of your gender. I think this process is similar to both men and women though the expectations themselves are not the same.
Rajat : A big reason for me to be in this place is the women in my life. Unfortunately they are at the forefront of this flamethrower. The intensity with which gender norms affect women is much more than how they affect men. Menstruation for example, I cannot begin to imagine what a person goes through when she is told that she cannot go to a place or needs to be isolated and confined in her own home. There’s so much that women go through that seeing them deal with all that and emerge stronger has been a transforming process for me.
VOICE : Through Boyish you talk about unconventional topics related to masculinity. What are some such topics that you think we need to talk more on?
Rajat : There are many, but on the top of my mind, I think paternity leave is an urgent matter that needs addressing. Men are expected to go back to work in a few days or even the next day of having a child and that is ridiculous. It only strengthens the idea that childcare is solely a woman’s responsibility and fatherhood is a distant relationship. Another one is the primary custody in case of divorce is usually the mother. This again stems from the socialisation that women have to take care of the child and that men are incapable of it.
VOICE : Yeah, taking care itself takes on different meanings for both men and women. For men it is usually about providing finances and for the mother it is the daily nitty gritties of child care like changing diapers or feeding the baby.
Rajat : By subscribing to these notions, we are robbing men of emotional depth and meaningful relationships with their own children. I think men should just wake up and let go of all this performance masculinity. It is very inauthentic because I think men do want to care for their child at the end of the day.
VOICE is a strong advocate for feminism and believes in unlearning gendered socialisation. We engage with boys when they are on the cusp on adolescence and teach them how to recognise the various forms gender manifests itself in the society. We have witnessed boys being transformed into Gender Ambassadors and supporting the girls and women in their life. However, there is still a long way to go and we need to keep having these conversations to bring about that change. On this International Men’s Day, we at VOICE are glad to have interacted with someone who is working for the common goal – a world where all genders are equal and every individual is accepted.