Reclaiming “Manliness”: Reflections on growing up in Delhi
By Soheb Niazi
One winter afternoon, the year I began class 6, I was asked to run 1500mts for the sports week. I was scrawny and tiny and had round Gandhi ji like glasses stuck on my nose. To pretty much everyone’s surprise, I did exceedingly well and emerged as the fastest runner among my peers that day. Since then, every morning I ran tens of rounds of our sports ground. A lot of football and basketball players who despised running would ask me, how and why I would keep running and not want to ‘play’ a sport like them? For me running was not coerced. I absolutely enjoyed running alone, for it allowed me to be a dreamer and be lost in my thoughts. Soon I developed the conscience of a lonely runner and gradually this enabled me to distinguish myself from my other male schoolmates, without feeling inferior of their muscles and tall heights. I needed no measured biceps and abs; endurance was the unquantifiable caliber I prized!
The first roots of any distinct gender norms that I can recall (and I use the term ‘gender’ rudimentarily here to denote the distinction based on the division of sexes) were markedly exposed in the field of sports. So while already the muscular basketballers presumed certain coolness, the sports field was marked by an absence of girls. A few extremely talented girl athletes (who greatly impressed my teenage Olympics dreaming self) turned up for the sports week, but the rest, we boys imagined, were not interested in sports. Wouldn’t they rather giggle and gossip about the sliding footballers from the side line? Of course, we did have girl’s teams for various sports, but the engagement of boys in sports as a mass level full time activity was contrary to the various other purposes that girls would make use of the games period.
These peculiarities were not specific to the elite school I went to in Delhi, but may help us reflect on how gender norms operationalize in our everyday life, the micro details of which we often forget in debating large normative discourses. Through some reflections on how I grew up with my peers, I seek to push you towards conceiving gender as a performance. For me, to say that gender is performative is to say that gender distinctions or norms operate within relationships acting between people and not merely as acting on individual selves. Individuals, as psychology informs us, can have multiple selves, and a specific individual can identify with both masculine and feminine feelings (if ever at all feelings and emotions can be distinguished through such distinctions). It is by acting out through relationships between people that a relational sense of gender norms compete, struggle, and develop into definitions of an ideal way of being “manly” or “womanly”.
For me such a binary distinction between being a gossipy and a sporty person seemed peculiar and troubling. While I had my share of talkative male friends who would also gossip endlessly, I was always much more at ease conversing with my female friends. Gradually, I realized that it was not that girls were gossipy and boys not, but that the conversations I had with them differed drastically. With my female friends, I could discuss my feelings, things that made me emotional or the difficulties with our personal relationships, both at school and home. My male friends were stoic when it came to such matters and would need to be cajoled to get something out. When it came to discussions about sex and bro-codes, boys could go on to discuss such details as explicitly as they could. I never found myself to be the most enthusiastic one during the course of such discussions, and I was more convinced about this each time I missed the ‘hot girl’ that just passed a group of boys.
During school days, I used to feel slightly guilty and was puzzled by this. I wondered if something was wrong with me because I felt more comfortable talking to girls. But over the years, I learnt that there was nothing weird about this. It simply meant that we shared a level of understanding which allowed us to be comfortable with each other. Not considering each other as sex objects, we could talk about our vulnerabilities and try to make sense of the kind of socialization that we grew up in.
Later in life during my time at the University, I also had the privilege of being close to several male friends, who challenged my early perceptions of boys being emotionless. With these men I would stand in the middle of a bustling chowk and be unaware of the rush, pausing for hours to talk of everything under the sun. We felt vulnerable together, doubting our own capacities to love and be loved. Unsure of our bodies and desires, we were not willing to accept the prevailing norms of socialization. Though possessing a language to articulate our vulnerabilities, our voices were mostly muffled beyond private conversations.
While an elite school in Delhi could not always foster a dynamic subversion of gender norms, my middle class Muslim upbringing had its own nuanced set of engagements with them. At home, I was always my mother’s boy, nurtured with love and adoration into being an obedient and sensitive boy. My mother perfected the art of being a homemaker, as the task of ghar chalana, like for so many mothers, was her prerogative. Her homemaking was not restricted to the confines of the house, as she had her own professional duties as a school teacher. However, it was her relationship with our father that defined these boundaries as porous and mouldable. A husband who grew up among several nurturing sisters was ill equipped to contribute to housework, but unlike men who would enforce mediocrity at the expense of a suffering household, he calmly accepted the equation he had with his wife. My mother was the architect when it came to overseeing constructions in the house, a manager when dealing with labourers and help, and on occasions the financial advisor. During the absence of male members in the house, she would herself go to the butcher’s shop to buy meat, an act that was scorned by even females around her.
Despite challenging conventional norms and delineating unconventional roles for herself, my mother could not always prevent her children from growing up playing conventional gender roles. My sister was taught to take care of herself, mend her clothes, learn to cook while her younger brother could be caressed and cajoled, spoon fed, and even dressed up! Of course, age played a role here. Being four years younger to my sister, I had some claims to being spoon fed, but only as far as being the youngest member of the family could take me.
These typical norms of nurturing children were not unique to our family, with worse variants found elsewhere. In one such “cooking for girls, cars for boys” formula, the daughter grows to become more equipped to deal with the struggles of daily life, while the son is brought up to be always dependent on a future help (read wife). Ironically, this more equipped daughter then is restricted within the confines of the house, while the lacking son is pushed out to practice some awaaragardi.
My sister was surely not confined within the house, and in matters of education, gender norms took a backseat, perhaps because of the value that my parents attached to education. But the freedom was not without a leash. Field trips, dressing up, going to parties, coming back late night, for all of these and more there were two different sets of rules for both of us. Being quite close to my sister made me distinctly conscious of the biases of gender norms from a young age. A heavy guilt plagued my heart, for I was brought up by the same mother for whom no task was unachievable, and found this unfair treatment always a point to combat.
Not that these two aspects are related, but growing up in the last few years of school, I developed my own forms of rebellion. Much to my mother’s horror, I wanted to grow long hair, and would often make the argument that if women could keep boy-cut hair why not boys keep ponytails. When my mother would insist that it was not about gender norms, but that long hair also made me look ugly, I would obstinately argue that it was precisely ugliness that was needed to break gender norms, making it obligatory for some boys to flaunt long hair in the process.
I myself though struggled to keep up with some of the masculine definitions of good looks. I desired a luxuriant long beard, for my own romance with philosophers and revolutionaries and their flowing beards. Unfortunately, my hormones were not in sync with my romances, and it took me a lot of time to reconcile with the reality that my beard would just never be as bushy and flowing as that of Karl Marx. With long hair and no beard I definitely did end up looking less masculine for the people around me, as I gathered from the taunts I received in DTC buses or while buying groceries in the neighbourhood. The lowest point puncturing my self-confidence was when a group of children called me aunty. But at home with my mother, I would insist on keeping long hair for as long as I wanted.
Can this naïve insistence on keeping long hair be perceived as a performance of gender? It is not so important, except for our academic selves, that we ‘define’ and ‘fix’ all instances of subverting gender norms, than it is to observe and learn from how they play out in our everyday lives. At the University, our naivety kept us consumed in doing precisely the former: defining the edifices of our theoretical bubbles. As young Marxists and feminists, we romanticised ideal relationships of famous intellectuals. Having read a few exchanges between de Beauvoir and Sartre convinced us that we knew how to scale the epitome of the finest feminist relationship, whatever that meant.
We opposed violence and rape vociferously. Hit the roads, broke police barricades, and got detained, only to be released soon after. Still nothing around us was changing. We heard more stories of harassment and the flouting of our cherished principles of feminism, now not from some forest or tribal land, but from deep within us, from our own campuses and by our own comrades. Was nothing really changing, even at the surface, despite us skimming through all our pages of Irigiray, Butler, and Rosa Luxembourg? There was no scope to be shocked for too long, because did we ourselves not see it coming for long? Several high profile cases of supposedly liberal and progressive men accused of sexual harassment in recent years continue to reflect to us the deeply entrenched sexism and misogyny found at all levels of our institutions.
The time, however, is to take a few steps back from social media debates and reflect on the possibilities of realizing the grand visions in our books, bring them into real relationships and attend back home, the battlefield of our everyday life. What was our experience of established gender norms at our homes? What did we learn from them and what must we unlearn? Perhaps through reflection we can acknowledge the roots of our own deep seated biases that we faithfully drudge everywhere along with us.
I also learnt a lot about relationships from friends a few years older and more mature than me. Some are activists or feminists while others simply leading their lives, crafting their own visions of ideal relationships. Whether living together or married, same sex partners or inter-caste/religious lovers, by raising biological or adopted children, these friends taught me that relationships are complex and cannot be easily worked out through facile formulas. Often at the core of such ideal relationships is the creation of a home, through the khoon paseena of lovers, who not only share housework, but understand each other’s moods, virtues, and weaknesses. Though difficult to master, relationships (within and beyond the confines of a conjugal family, beyond lovers) need understanding, both mutual and mature, that has the potential to render gender norms more fluid.
Soheb Niazi is a Doctoral Fellow at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies in Germany.
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