What’s changed and yet has to change when it comes to notions of masculinity in Indian society.

If movies are an indication, the Indian man today must have a six-pack, be an accomplished dancer and project a sensitive, borderline vulnerable look. Three decades ago, he had to be tall and tough, preferably with a deep baritone and a hairy chest. He didn’t have to pump weights in a gym then but perhaps had to watch his weight if he was in the Bombay film industry. (The actors in the Tamil film industry did not have this constraint.)

I have not watched a movie in years but I hope today’s film heroes don’t stalk and harass the heroine as they used to in those pre-six pack days. Wooing meant that you press yourself— sometimes literally — on an uninterested woman, harassing her (almost always while singing a song) until she miraculously changed her mind and fell so deeply in love with you that she would stand up to her rich, dictatorial and often evil father who wielded sovereign powers over his adult daughter.

To the extent that our films now show the difference between wooing and harassment, we’ve made some progress in terms of redefining masculinity. To the extent that our films now show adult women no longer under the iron control of their fathers, families or clans, we’ve made progress in terms of redefining femininity.

My guess is that while we’ve made some progress, that progress is modest. That’s because fast economic growth makes people richer before social norms change. This allows some people to defend their old social norms with new wealth. Of course, wealth allows other people to fight old social norms and create new ones. The process is dynamic and the outcome is a net result of a long tussle between these two sets of people. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but the market surveys I have seen point that post-1992 economic growth has had limited effect on gender stereotypes. There are still large numbers of people in India — men and women, older but also many younger — who believe that it’s okay for a man to beat his wife. Of course there are regional and rural/urban variations, but these differences fade in comparison to the similarities.

In a country as large as India, norms will only change over time. They will change only when the proponents of change become economically stronger than the defenders of the status quo, and tilt the socio-political balance. What I find disappointing is that the education system — with its almost singular emphasis on competitive examinations for professional courses — is doing little to create norm revolutionaries. Yes, parents and schools in elite urban settings are creating liberal- minded young people who are not a step behind their counterparts around the world. I’m not confident that the tens of millions of children outside the bubble are inculcating similar values. Schools catering to the urban & rural middle class tend to focus on ensuring good grades and ranks in entrance exams. This is understandable, but leaves us with fewer change agents compared to the number of “educated” people.

What can public policy do to change social norms? I am coming to the view that there is one policy objective that can be truly transformational: to increase the number of women in the workforce. It can strengthen incentives for communities to change their preference for male children, to strengthen their incentives to send girls to school and for society at large to fix chronic problems like public safety, transport, sanitation and so on. The process will be uncomfortable, as one male bastion after another will be broken. I can imagine how office conversations and banter will change once the number of women goes up: explicit remarks, derogatory comments and casual misogyny will first slowly disappear from the talk, and later and even more slowly disappear from the mind. Hopefully.

Apart from public policy, marketing professionals have a crucial role to play in changing the Indian masculine ideal. They must recognise and confront the moral dilemma that they face: it is easy and profitable to play to the galleries and reinforce gender stereotypes in positioning, messaging and advertisement copies. It’s easy to sell a pressure cooker showing how much the husband who buys it loves his wife. After all, isn’t a caring husband an improvement over an uncaring one? Yes, but a conscientious marketing professional must push the envelope. The husband’s response to the shopkeeper who asks how much he loves his wife must be: “A lot. That’s why I cook the dinner.” Such  a message might be lost on some of the target customers. Therein lies the moral dilemma.

So by all means, go ahead and show how six packs and dance moves, or baritones and hairy chests define the Indian man (although dissenters will argue that pot belly and couch potato is more representative.) Just don’t conflate stalking with love, harassment with romance and patriarchy with good family values.


Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent...