Men: Which Side Are You On?

Which Side

The last two weeks have provided an opportunity of re-narrating the sordid history of rape and rape trials in India. To me personally the only way to understand this sexual violence is that this is a war declared on women to achieve a range of effects that include masculine supremacy, communal revenge, caste subjugation, and even which territories are deemed part of India.

As feminist scholars and activists have argued, rape is not just about sex, but an assault with the intention of marking bodies with a set of messages that can speak not just through the personal trauma of what the woman will endure, but through what will be visible to others.

Rape is the memorializing of what can be achieved through the practice of our dominant forms of masculinity. The inability of the phallus to live up to all its myth-making capabilities sometimes requires the use of phallic replacements, harder metallic instruments (such as in this most recent assault and murder) that are more capable of performing feats that masculinities push men to achieve through their phallus. The use of metal rods, guns shoved inside mouths, stones inserted into the rectum, or knives used to carve the skin are all expressions that have erroneously been analyzed as emanating from a crisis of masculinity. Rather, it is in the nature of our dominant forms of masculinity, within which misogyny, or hatred of women, constitutes a critical building block.

Masculinity is a policing system that ensures the clockwork functioning of all hierarchies. It comes in khaki (the police), it comes in saffron (the Hindutva right wing), it comes in red (the political left), and it comes with the threat of violence, always and without fail. It is utilized as much by patriarchy to punish errant women as by state authorities to subjugate protesting tribal populations in Chattisgarh and Orissa. It is used to remind rebellious people in Kashmir that they are a subjugated lot and it is used by men on Delhi streets to remind women that they are transgressing the boundaries our male-dominated culture has placed around them.

The protests in Delhi and beyond became an opportunity for a collective catharsis, a moment that is allowing the quotidian violence that women face to get a voice, an ear. They are a cry for help and an angry assertion of the right to free movement, a life of dignity, and freedom from fear of rape.

But what will these protests change? The irony is that if the protests had been organized and controlled by established political groups or even sections of the women’s movement, they would never have achieved the sheer numbers and passion on display. However, their unorganized nature may also be a stumbling block, though it is difficult to predict how these protests will influence individual lives.

The young men joining the young women in protest have provided a glimmer of possibility that men can be men and defend the rights of women to be safe. They show that men can stand shoulder to shoulder with women against an indifferent administration. The protests until now have been significant because they have seen participation by young women who have taken to the streets in such large numbers for the first time—and also because hundreds of young men have joined them in support and empathy. However, many of these young men need to realize that they should learn to follow rather than assume leadership in this movement.

Protest marches, coupled with the deepest possible questioning of the dominant masculinities in homes, offices, and political groupings, could still make the current emergence of young people the most significant protest in post-independence India against gender-based violence.

Rahul Roy, a Delhi-based filmmaker, has for many years worked with men to support women’s rights and transform manhood in India and internationally. This article also appears as a guest blog on Voice Male contributing editor Michael Kaufman’s website. To read the author’s longer examination of these themes, visit