CHANGING MEN TO CHANGE GENDER:
COMBATTING HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY
THROUGH ANTIVIOLENCE ACTIVISM
IN NORTHERN INDIA
Western Washington University
COURTNEY ANN IRBY
Loyola University Chicago
Center for Health and Social Justice, New Delhi
Studies of challenges to hegemonic masculinity often struggle with the question
of how men change. Drawing on a qualitative analysis of Men’s Action to Stop
Violence Against Women (MASVAW), a men’s antiviolence movement in Uttar
Pradesh, India, we examine the context and consequences of changing gender
regimes. Centering on relationships in our analysis of gender, we supplement
nine in-depth interviews of MASVAW leaders with 18 additional interviews
with a woman (usually their wife) and a male friend or colleague, obtaining a
holistic picture of changes to men’s personal gender ideology and practices. By
examining challenges to hegemonic masculinity within a relational context,
our analysis reveals how men’s motivations, efforts and, ultimately, success to
curb violence against women is shaped by their relationships. Families, wives,
and other MASVAW members can both act as allies and challenges in any
effort to dismantle hierarchical gender regimes and reimagine hegemonic
By theoretically elevating gender from the level of roles to an institution,
scholars have illuminated the dynamic power gender has to shape social
action and the ways it unequally organizes people (Connell, 2009; Lorber,
1994; Martin, 2004; Ridgeway, 2009; Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin, 1999;
Risman, 2004). An important benefit to this transition has been the
emphasis on the relational dimension of gender. As Connell (2009:73)
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notes, “When we look at a set of gender arrangements, whether the gender
regime of an institution or the gender order of a whole society, we are
basically looking at a set of relationships – ways that people, groups and
organizations are connected and divided” (emphasis original). Since gender
operates within a dichotomous binary that presupposes differences, it is
impossible to escape gender because all of our interactions with people
are at risk of being interpreted and judged by cultural ideals of masculinity
and femininity (Lorber, 2005; Lucal, 1999; West and Zimmerman,1987).
In reconceptualizing gender as an institution, however, scholars have
continued to struggle with the notion of change. While many contend
this theoretical shift can help make gender more visible and thus
susceptible to intentional change (Lorber, 1994; Martin, 2004), how the
change will occur or what it will look like is often more vague.
Central to the social constructionist approach to gender is the
realization that “gender has changed in the past and will change in the
future” (Lorber, 1994: 6). But the question for many feminists and activists
has been how to move forwardby intentionally shaping this change in
the direction of greater equality between men and women.Recently, in
an effort to combat the deterministic tendency to view all men and
women’s actions as “doing” gender, feminists have called for scholars to
pay more attention to the processes of “undoing gender” (Deutsch, 2007;
Lorber, 2005; Risman, 2009). Deutsch (2007), in particular, argues we
distinguish between using the term “doing” gender to refer to social
interactions that reproduce gender differences and “undoing” gender to
highlight those actions that reduce gender difference.She contends that
to take seriously the social constructionist perspective would also entail
an examination of resistance and subversive actions.
In combining Deutsch’s (2007) call to examine instances where people
strive to “undo” gender with Connell’s (2009) insight into the relational
dimension of gender, we offer an analysis of the context and consequences
of changing gender regimes. Drawing on a study of men’s antiviolence
activism in Uttar Pradesh, India, we examine how the activists’ efforts to
challenge hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 2005) were both motivated
and hindered by key relationships the men were embedded within. By
supplementing the interviews of nine leaders of Men’s Action to Stop
Violence Against Women (MASVAW) with 18 additional interviews with
women and men close to the activist, we are able to obtain a more holistic
picture of changes to personal gender ideology and practices that emerge
from and shape interactions within a local setting.
HOW DOES HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY CHANGE?
The concept of hegemonic masculinity rests on the idea that there are
multiple masculinitieswhich are hierarchically positioned in society and
in relation to each other (Connell, 2005, 2009; Kimmel, 1994; Messner,
2000). According to Connell (2005: 76)
‘Hegemonic masculinity’ is not a fixed character type, always and
everywhere the same. It is, rather, the masculinity that occupies the
hegemonic position in a given pattern of gender relations, a position
Importantly, the number of men that can actually succeed at doing or
embodying this type of idealized masculinity may be quite small.
However, Connell notes that the majority of men can benefit from its
hegemonic status through complicity. While occasionally discussed as
something someone possesses, hegemonic masculinity is better understood
“as a configuration of practice” and “simultaneously positioned in a
number of structures of relationships” (Connell, 2005:73).
Connell’s concept of “hegemonic masculinity” has revolutionized
the studies of men and masculinities, but it is not without critique (Beasley,
2008; Demetriou, 2001; Duncanson, 2015). Since the first publication of
Masculinities in 1995, the application and subsequent criticisms of this
key concept have been frequent and varied. For instance, Beasley (2008)
contends that too much slippage exists within the term, as it is sometimes
unclear whether it refers to those in a position of cultural leadership that
can ensure popular consent or if it references the most dominant and
widespread version of manhood. In addition to more theoretical concerns,
some have critiqued its empirical utility by noting its more static
application (Duncanson, 2015). FollowingDuncanson (2015), however,
we believe that the concept continues to have usefulness but that scholars
must better theorize howhegemonic masculinity may change.
In revisiting the concept, Connell and Messerschmidt (2005:853) note
“the conceptualization of hegemonic masculinity should explicitly
acknowledge the possibility of democratizing gender relations, of
abolishing power differentials, not just of reproducing hierarchy.” But,
as Duncanson (2015:240) asks, “how is this dismantling to come
about?”Furthermore, what will the evidence look like and how will we
recognize it? With challenges to masculinity coming from many
directions, scholars have noted the development of what they call “hybrid
masculinities” (Demetriou, 2001; Bridges and Pascoe, 2014). Calling
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attention to the relational dimension within masculinity itself, “hybrid
masculinity” describes “the selective incorporation of elements of identity
typically associated wi th various marginalized and subordinated
masculinities and – at times – femininities into privileged men’s gender
performances and identities” (Bridges and Pascoe, 2014:246). While
recognizing this as an example of gendered practices changing, scholars
have tended not to view this as evidence of the dismantling of gender
regimes themselves. Bridges and Pascoe (2014) echo earlier criticisms by
Messner (1993) and Dementriou (2001) that thesepractices represent only
a change in the style but not the substance of masculinity. Rather than
undermine hegemonic masculinity itself, these new forms of masculinity
represent a reorganization of it because men of privilege adopt new
practices as acceptable without challenging the basis of their cultural
position or power. This begs the question: What do changes to hegemonic
masculinity then look like? In what follows, we analyze the relational
context and consequences for men that challenge the view that violence
is a masculine privilege.
LOCALLY CHALLENGING HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY:
INTRODUCTION TOMEN’S ACTION TO STOP VIOLENCE
AGAINST WOMEN (MASVAW)
Men’s Action to Stop Violence Against Women, or MASVAW, is a
political movement that grew out of a 2001 campaign initiated by women’s
groups in Uttar Pradeshto raise the visibility of domestic violence in the
state(HinsaSahana Band Abhiyaan, or Stop Tolerating Violence
Campaign). In the wake of the campaign, which had over 3,500
participants, most of them women, male attendees reflected that they
needed to expand beyond mobilizing with women and reach out to men
as the primary perpetrators of abuse (Das and Singh, 2014). Initiated in
2002, the MASVAW movement has subsequently spread to over forty
districts in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal in India
(MASVAW, 2012) and continues to have a close relationship with the
international women’s movement (Shahrokh et al., 2015). Today,
MASVAW is part of the larger MenEngageGlobal Alliance of NGOs
and UN agencies that seek to engage boys and men to achieve gender
equality (Center for Health and Social Justice, 2015).
MASVAW attempts to change social norms around gender inequality
and violence against women (VAW)through a wide range of activities.
These include interventions in schools, colleges and universities, on the
streets, in tea-shops and in all places where there are men. The “Sixteen
Days of Activism Against Gender Violence”between November 25th
and December 10th has been a crucial period for launching large-scale
awareness campaigns and rallies.1 Celebrating the International Women’s
Day andcollaborating with women’s organizations across the state has
been another strategy. Employing innovative approaches with young
men and boys in educational institutions, they encourage youth to debate,
paint, discuss films and engage with other youth and men towards the
goal of building a deeper understanding of the issues of VAW and gender
inequality. They also mobilize media actors, encouraging them to help
shape public opinion by making demands for gender justice in their reports
of crimes against women. Members of MASVAWrespond to incidents
of violence against womenby verbally warning the offenders and
organizing local neighborhood watch groups. They also facilitatethe filing
of First Information Reports (FIRs) at police stations, and in collaboration
with women’s groups, participate in conducting fact finding studies of
reported incidents of VAW. In one university, MASVAW members have
been responsible for the constitution of a university-wide Sexual
Harassment Committee. MASVAW volunteers have also collaborated
with women’s organizations for ensuring relief and rehabilitation for
survivors of violence (Das et al., 2012; Mogford and Das, 2007; Roy and
An important aspect of MASVAW is the sharing among men that
helps them support each other through the process of change. MASVAW
provides men an opportunity to discuss doubts and dilemmas about
masculinity within a peer group. According to MASVAW Convener
Satish Singh, “Although initially MASVAW was started to stop VAW…
it moved towards strengthening the emotional aspect of men, sensitizing
them towards women’s feelings, making them responsible in sexual
relationships, and replacing their overbearing masculinity with an
alternate concept of ‘being man’” (MASVAW, 2012:8). As an informal
network, MASVAW is flexible and local groups determine their activities,
meeting times, and participation in broader events (MASVAW, 2012).
DATA AND METHODS
The present paper emerges from a broader qualitative study about men’s
experiences working with MASVAW (Mogford and Das, 2007).
Recognizing that challenging hegemonic masculinity through being a
“MASVAW man” is not always an easy process, the study attempted to
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understand why men make such efforts. Through a series of in-depth
interviews, the study sought to answer a number of questions: What
kind of man is interested in the MASVAW movement, and why? Has
participation in MASVAW changed them in any way? What have been
some of the consequences, both positive and negative, of their shifts in
their perspective on gender and participation in MASVAW?
Focusing on the experiences of nine highly active MASVAW men
from the early years of the movement,two of the current authors
conducted 27 in-depth interviews in 2005. In addition to interviewing
each man individually, we supplemented their accounts by interviewing
one close woman (usuallytheir wife) and one close man (a friend or
colleague) in their lives. By interviewing two people with firsthand
experience of each man’s life, our data allows us to speak more confidently
on changes resulting from participation in MASVAW and the
interactional consequences in their relationships. We intentionally
recruited our sample of nine men because,as exemplars of MASVAW
volunteers, we hoped they could provide insight into why men might
participate in collective efforts to dismantle hegemonic masculinity.
Rather than try to cross-check the narratives provided by the men, we
used the same interview instrument in the supplemental interviews to
gain an understanding of how MASVAW involvement shaped the
participating men from the perspective of othersin their lives. A local
research associate conducted the interviews in Hindi as one of the authors
guided the process by training the research associate in interview
techniques, including how to probe for rich detail (Weiss, 1994). Our
intent in probing was to understand the impacts, both internally and
relationally, for men as they began to alter their conceptions and behaviors
about masculinity. For example, if a man said that he now helps his wife
in the kitchen (in this region, men traditionally do not enter the kitchen,
as it is considered a woman’s domain), the research associate would probe
him to describe a specific and recent example to ascertain what happened,
how he felt about it, and how others reacted. We also probed to learn
how often men engaged in behaviors that sought to “undo” gender or
appeared that way to those in their lives. Probing led to rich stories of
the process of change and helped us understand the challenges and rewards
in change for the man, his wife, and others in his family and community.
Afterwards each interview was transcribed and translated into English.
To ensure a range of experiences and backgrounds, we recruited men
from three locations across central and eastern Uttar Pradesh. The
resulting sample of nine men ranged in ages of 25 to 55 with most of
them married (7 out of 9) and living in extended or joint family systems
(7 out of 9). The men’s professions varied widely from university teachers
to a director of a local NGO to a small businessman and a farmer. Most
of the women we interviewed (7 out of 9) were the men’s wives. For the
two unmarried men, we interviewed one’s mother and another’s sister.
All of the women lived with the MASVAW man, giving them direct
experience with his gendered behaviors. The supplemental interviews
with men included work colleagues and close friends of the MASVAW
men, whom we learned of from the man and subsequently recruited. We
insured they had known the MASVAW man for several years and had
regular and close contact with him, so that they could speak to any
To analyze the context and consequences of when men challenge
hegemonic masculinity and “undo” gender, we used a combination of
inductive and deductive coding. In reviewing the transcripts, the first
autho r initiall y looked for emergent themes in the causes and
consequences of men’s change as a result of their involvement in
MASVAW (Weiss, 1994). After organizing the data according to these
emergent themes and conducting extensive memos, the first and second
author deductively analyzed the data to examine it from the perspective
of challenging gender regimes. Drawing on Connell’s (2009) insight into
the relational dimension of gender, we concentrated on understanding
how changes in the men had interactional and interpersonal consequences.
Before turning to these findings, we provide contextual information about
the expectations of masculinity and use of violence in Uttar Pradesh,
MASCULINITY, VIOLENCE AND THE STATUS OF WOMEN
IN UTTAR PRADESH: SETTING OF THE STUDY
The current study occurred in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh
(UP), where MASVAW started its journey and has been most active.
Predominantly rural and poor, UP is India’s most populous state, with
199.6 million people (Census of India, 2011). Kinship patterns of patrilocal
residence contribute to women’s lower status in northern India, where
female literacy is 50 percent (Registrar General of India, 2011), and 33
percent of girls are married before the age of 18 (Palriwala and Uberoi,
2005; Sanyal, 2009). Marriages are exogamous, and women often leave
their home village to live in their spouse’s extended family household,
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which may put them at higher risk of abuse and leave them with little
recourse to seek protection if violence does occur (Palriwala and Uberoi,
With a lifetime prevalence of 41.4 percent, according to the most
recent National Family Health Survey, UP is ranked second among Indian
states (after Andhra Pradesh) for violence against women, and includes
many forms of extreme physical violence (Government of Uttar Pradesh,
2006; Kishor and Gupta, 2009; Shahrokh et al., 2015). The National Crime
Records Bureau reports that 23,254 crimes against women were registered
in 2009 in UP, including 2,232 dowry murders, 1,759 rapes, and 8,566
cases of cruelty by husband or relative. The majority of crimes against
women are committed by family members (Government of Uttar
Pradesh, 2006). Strong cultural norms, including rigid beliefs about the
subordinate place of women in relation to menand socio-economic
barriers to women’s autonomy, all contribute to maintaining a system
of hegemonic masculinity predicated on men’s right to violence.
Despite evidence of the strength of the hierarchical and violent gender
structure, UP has been gradually progressing towards greater gender
equality (Das et al., 2012; Mogford, 2011; Mogford and Lyons, 2014).
For example, UP has a tradition of women poets and scholars, and has
seen two women chief ministers and a women governor in the post-
independence era. The state government has signed on to progressive
gender legislation, including the Women’s Policy (2006) which focuses
on increasing women’s empowerment and ensuring their political
participation. Also, many national and international nongovernmental
organizations work in the area to promote women’s rights (Kalpagam,
2000; Sen, 2000). Even with these positive institutional changes, systemic
gendered violence and inequality remain entrenched. For example, less
than three percent of women in UP own property, in spite of laws enacted
in 2008 that allow for female inheritance (Shahrokh et al., 2015). Social
norms of purdah, or seclusion, keep women marginalized, and there are
signs of anti-feminist men’s rights organizations appearing as a backlash
against increased women’s empowerment (Shahrokh et al., 2015).
Together, along with the work of MASVAW, men’s taken-for-granted
superior status and right to violence has been challenged, resulting in
both improvements and backlash. Working to bring about positive change
on a grassroots level, MASVAW educates people by offering a broader
conception of what it means to be a man, uncovering the mechanisms of
hegemony. In particular, they highlight that even men who do not
physically or verbally abuse women are complicit in maintaining this
hegemony (Connell, 2005) if they are not actively working to dismantle
the patriarchal gender system and “redefine their masculinity and their
concepts about gender relations and the use of power” (Roy and Das,
RE LATIO NAL CONTEXT AND CONS EQUENCES TO
Centering on relationships in our analysis of gender as an institution
(Connell, 2009) offers a useful theoretical lens from which to examine
issues of change and stasis. For studies of men in particular, a relational
analysis is important because “the production and reproduction of
masculinity frequently involves the need to differentiate self from other”
(Elliot, 2010: 453). Most often with studies of hegemonic masculinity,
scholars highlight how it is positioned in relation to other forms of
subordinated masculinity (Connell, 2005; Elliot 2010; Kimmel, 1994). In
our study of an antiviolence movement that seeks to challenge, dismantle
and reimagine hegemonic masculinity, men’s relationships to women
and their families significantly emerged as providing a motivation for
change. In what follows, we analyze how thecontext of men’s relationships
with women served as an impetus for joining MASVAW and engaging
in its work but also how this resulted in consequences within their kinship
networks that acted at times as a barrier to change.
Relationships as a Context for C hange: Mo tivat ions and
Given that MASVAW is a volunteer organization, a selection effect
impacts which men join their efforts to challenge men’s violence. Sincewe
sampled nine highly engaged men in the movement, it may not be
surprising that many of them had had experience with social justice and
had been exposed to critical lessons about women’s inferior social position
prior to joining MASVAW. In exploringthe accountsnarrated by men,
their colleagues, and their wives, wefound a patternamong five of the
nine men in which their relationships with women in their families –
their wives, daughters, and/or sisters – shaped their gender consciousness
prior to their involvement with MASVAW.2 Wives, in particular,
occupied an important role in this process by providing motivation for
social action andholding the men accountable to their newly proclaimed
modes of masculinity. In exploring details of the interactions between
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men and their wives, we consider how the “day-to-day social interaction
also has an influence on the development of gender consciousness”
(Sullivan, 2004: 209).
In the stories of Rahul and his wife Pinki, we see how the seeds for
larger changes to gender regimes can be sowed in the tension and
contradiction of everyday life.3 According to Pinki,
Earlier it [anger] happened only once when we had just gotten married.
We were talking about something at night while we were in bed and he
slapped me. I also got angry and so I slapped him back. I told him
‘Don’t think that I’m like other wives whose husbands keep on hitting
them and they don’t say anything. If you slap me once, I’ll hit you at
least four times.’ In the morning when I got up, I told everybody that
Rahul had hit me during the night.
Using a combination of her own threats of physical retaliationand public
shaming for Rahul’s behavior, Pinki, early in their marriage, established
a new set of interactional parameters for a husband. For his own part,
Rahul recalls a different memory from early on in their marriage during
which Pinki also stood up for herself by challenging his view about what
it meant to be a man and husband:
One time I was out of town for four or five days and when I came back
everything was changed. I was very angry and said, ‘What is this? You
shouldn’t have done this!’ She replied, ‘What’s the harm in what I’ve
done?’ And I said, ‘No, this is totally wrong. You will not touch anything
in the future.’ Then she told me, ‘If I can’t touch any of your things, then
you can live alone in your room – I won’t live here.’ Then I realized that
I had been a bit harsh. She told me ‘For you I left my parent’s house and
now I’m living with you, so if I’ve shifted something in your room, it’s
not such a big deal.’ I thought that what she was saying was right.
Reflecting on their early marriage, Rahul and his wife Pinki offer two
different memories of interactions in which the gendered norms of
marriage conflicted. As Irby (2014:1270) notes, “The process of getting
and being married involves men and women becoming ‘husbands’ and
‘wives,’ a process that men and women regularly engage in as they strive
to enact the gendered expectations associated with marriage” (emphasis
original). In the case of Rahul and Pinki, the uncertainty involved in
getting married and learning to become a husband and wifeprovided Pinki
the interactional space to challenge Rahul’s embodiment of hegemonic
masculinity, especially the accepted use of violence. Under threat of her
leaving, Rahul’s relationship with Pinkiprefiguratively positioned him
to be open to the insights and work of MASVAW. In Rahul’s own words,
“Even if I was not associated with MASVAW I would have worked on
this front, but not with the same intensity…many myths would not have
been broken down.”
While wives consistently emerged as an important relationship that
motivated change, other women in the men’s domestic lives appear to
have played an important, if indirect, role in making them receptive to
MASVAW teachings. Of the five men with children in our sample, three
of them had solely or mostly daughters. Given the strong preference for
sons in Uttar Pradesh and the perception that daughters can be a burden
for the family due to the expectation of costly dowries(Dyson and Moore,
1983; Panda and Astone, 2007), one might expect these men would view
their daughters as a burden. However, the menoften reported treating
their daughters “as sons,” behavior that was corroborated by their wives
and colleagues. For example, when the interviewer asked one of the male
colleagues if the MASVAW man he was being interviewed about was
satisfied having four daughters, he described the MASVAW man’s respect
for his daughters:
He hasn’t ever expressed any sadness. Whenever I see him, he considers
his daughters his sons, to the extent that his mother-in-law gets irritated
that he is always with his daughters…He gives them the same love and
affection that other people give their sons.
Finally, in one of our interviews, Prem, an unmarried man, directly
attributes his pre-MASVAW gender sensitivity to the influence of his
sisters. As he explains, growing up surrounded by sisters made him more
empathetic to the needs of women.
I was always more sensitive than other boys towards women because I
grew up surrounded by girls, in a joint family…If I found that something
was wrong, then I denounced it, like passing comments or discussing
girls, or teasing, etc. I did not do these things.
Our data suggest that, as was the case with wives, the contextual presence
of daughters and sisters predisposed MASVAW men to see the impact of
hegemonic masculinity on women. Already inclined to question the ways
in which women were traditionally subordinated to men,themen were
joining MASVAW in part to continue their journey in treating women
While their personal histories and relationships with women in their
lives prepared men for the work of MASVAW, it was the relationships
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with other men in the movement that led to the greatest transformation
in ho w they und erstood and performed masculinity. Through
participation in MASVAW, the men were exposed to activities designed
to create awareness of gender inequities, reduce incidents of violence
against women, work for institutional and personal change in gender
relations, and ultimately redefine masculinity (Das et al., 2012; Das and
Singh, 2014; MASVAW, 2012; Mogford and Das, 2007). Importantly,
the men in our study reported gaining new definitions of violence that
recognized their own culpability and understood that to successfully enact
social change first requires a personal transformation. Our interviews
were replete with examples of men’s recognition of their participation in
the maintenance of hegemonic masculinity through simple daily actions,
such as the following:
I wasn’t doing anything before joining MASVAW. When I woke up,
she would fold the bedsheets. When I brushed my teeth, she would
bring water. I thought, “This is my right. Without money I got a servant.
My father purchased this servant for me.” I ordered “Do this, do that,”
but after joining MASVAW, I realized actually I’m doing a very wrong
In particular, the men recalled looking to the other members of the
movement as examples for how to live, as well as talk about issues of
gendered violence. As Deepuexplained,
A group is helping me to change. If so many people are changing, so
why should I stay behind? So many people are with me. These people
are different from the normal league. I have the examples of these people.
If something comes across, we can put examples of these people and
say that there, there, there, there. You always need examples and we
have several of them.
Through the examples of other men performingmasculinity in a different
way, the men felt empowered to and capable of making similar changes
in their own lives.Our respondents told us that MASVAW gave them a
platform to discuss their personal and social issues. Many men emphasized
how invaluable it was that they found a community of like-minded people
with whom they could share their problems.
For example, if I’m bothered by something – people are expecting
something from me or laughing at me – then I can share this with other
members of MASVAW…They hear me and aren’t surprised…They pat
me on the back and say “Don’t worry, all of this happens.”
Reminded that the men are not alone in questioning hegemonic
masculinity, MASVAW provided men a peer group that held them to a
revised and reconceptualized understanding of masculinity. They also
gained energy to fight against negative reactions from the knowledge
that other members have experienced similar hardships and to carry on.
MASVAW relationships provided the men with inspiration and
motivation. In reflecting on what MASVAW had done to men around
him, another interviewee noted, “Earlier it was as if we were like sticks,
but now we have started bending.”
In MASVAW we see evidence for Duncanson’s (2015) observation
that the successful dismantling of gender regimes requires changing how
one relationally understands themselves positioned to other people.
For the unraveling of hegemonic masculinity, men must be encouraged
not so much to change their ways as to change the way in which they
negotiate their identities in relation to others. Rather than forge their
identities through relations of opposition or domination, men and
subjects in general need to construct their identities through recognition
of similarity, respect, interdependence, empathy, and equality with
others (233, emphasis original).
Evidence for this process of “bending” which helped men to forge new
relational identities can be seen in the changes men reported with the
women in their lives. Participation in MASVAW helped men become
more focused on interconnection and similarities with women. In
particular, men’s interactions with their wives revealed myriad instances
of how, in striving to change dominant approaches to masculinity, men’s
personal relationships became more rewarding for both partners, shifting
from hierarchies and power to friendship and greater equality.
In one MASVAW training activity, men are asked to close their eyes
and visualize an average day in a woman’s life, starting at five a.m. when
she gets up to make chai, and continuing throughout the day as she
conducts her various house-bound duties. Several of our respondents
referenced this exercise as a catalyst to questioning traditional gender
boundaries and viewing their wives as another person. This and other
MASVAW experiences led to increased empathy and changed attitudes
and behaviors in the men, as evidenced in the following quote:
And in terms of helping my wife, I try to be sensitive and I’ve improved
my behavior towards her. I like to sleep late, but I understand that if I
like it, my wife likes it too. So I don’t want to disturb her, because I get
up earlier than her. Every day the electricity goes off at 9:00 a.m. so I
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have to do some things. If there’s dishes left from dinner for washing, I
wash them and I make the meal for my child and I make tea for myself.
I think my sensitivity increased so I’m helping my wife. Otherwise
earlier, I never helped.
The respondent makes the mental leap from envisioning his own pleasure
to envisioning his wife’s- if heenjoys sleeping in then she must enjoy it as
well. Thus, he is able to put himself in her place, not only when she is
doing something difficult (such as labor) but also when she is doing
something enjoyable (such as sleeping late).
Another change we observed within relationships was men’s
willingness to take on domestic work. Examples provided by the
MASVAW men, their male colleagues, and their wives suggested a
transformation in attitudes and behaviors towards men’s role in household
labor and childcare. In one case, a male colleague recounted that the
MASVAW man had begun doing so much child care that “it looks as if
[he] gave birth to his daughters.” The same man’s wife also described his
Earlier I used to teach at a formal educational center, and even if I
reached home at eight in the night I’d have to cook, look after the
animals, etc. … But now if I am cooking, say I’m making rice, he will
cut up the vegetables. He will also help in washing the clothes, like the
clothes of the children. … He used to do no work once he was home.
His only concern was getting chai on time and receiving the food on
time. If he didn’t get it on time, then he would make noise about it.
Another wife specifically mentioned that her husband’s increased
participation emanated from a new gender ideology he embodied. She
reported that in the past her husband would occasionally assist in
household labor as a favor to her, but it was done from the ideological
standpoint that “women are made for working at home.” She went on to
say that he no longer divided tasks into “men’s” and “women’s” work.
As evidence of the ideological shift, she emphasized that he is no longer
embarrassed to help her in front of visitors, whereas before he had to
hide his occasional instances of assistance.
MASVAW men’s identity renegotiation also involved how genders
differentially occupy physical space– where men and women co-exist
and where women are and are not permitted to go. By increasingly sharing
space with their wives, men changed how they relationally embodied
physical spaces, reframing the location of gender, such as by being together
in the kitchen or eating together, both of which deviate from traditional
gender scripts (Desai, 2010). In one poignant example, a respondent
described how he had begun to share meals with his wife:
Earlier my wife stayed at a distance from me, according to tradition.
Now we talk to each other about anything. We eat off the same plate…
she could never do that earlier; first she used to serve me and then go
eat, but now we eat together off the same plate.
The changes in gendered spaces extended beyond their own interactions
and included allowing women greater autonomy by impacting where
women travel and whom they interact with in public. Many women in
Uttar Pradesh area practice purdah, or seclusion, and are only permitted
to leave the home in specific circumstances (Mogford, 2011; Papanek,
1973). In the following example, a MASVAW man who lived in a rural
village where purdah is practiced described an evolution in his attitude:
Earlier I had this feeling that if [my wife] went out of the house, I
would lose face in the community. Now I know that her going out
gives me prestige.
In her interview, his wife also described an increased freedom of mobility:
For example, today he has left me alone to sit and talk with you [a male
interviewer]. This was not there earlier. I have the freedom go wherever
I want to go. I can freely talk to anybody.
When we asked men what they learned from MASVAW, they
unanimously responded that they had come to the realization that violence
against women refers to much more than physical abuse. According to
I used to think that things like beating up your wife or rape constitute
violence but now I think that doing something without a wife’s
permission or consent is [also] a kind of violence. If a woman wants to
say something and a man stops her from expressing herself, even that
will count as violence.
This realization facilitated relational changes between men and their wives.
One of the most personal and powerfulattempts to challenge hegemonic
masculinity by “undoing” gender was in men’s recognition of the practice
of non-consensual sex. Prior to their membership in the MASVAW
movement, they had not considered forced sex within marriage to be a
violent act, but their perspectives reversed through participation in
MASVAW. Out of all the married men we interviewed, over half of
them openly disclosed that they had changed their behavior related to
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forced intercourse (our interview guideline makes no reference to sex;
the men brought it up on their own):
You have said that earlier unconsciously you have done violence, can
you give me an example of that?
Earlier I sometimes used to have intercourse with force. Now I’m very
conscious to have it only with her consent….The most significant thing
[I’ve learned from MASVAW] was that coercive sex is a form of violence.
Another MASVAW respondent explained:
Earlier I did what I wanted. But now I do according to her wishes too,
and I do this in my physical relationship also. Now I take her permission
and if she says yes then I do. Earlier I never thought about it. If I
needed, then I did and I never thought about whether she needed. But
now I realize that we can do whenever both want.
The wife of this man corroborated this by noting “If there’s any decision
usually I take it, regarding sex also. Earlier it was not like this.”
Despite often being prefiguratively sensitive to issues of gender
inequality, participation in MASVAW enabled men to see existing gender
regimes as unequal and to recognize their own complicity in the violence
of hegemonic masculinity. Subsequently, men learned new ways to “do”
gender that worked to “undo” culturally dominant understandings of
hegemonic masculinity. The most significant of these changes occurred
within their marriages:providing women greater physical autonomy;
increasing participation in domestic activities traditionally associated with
women and changing how they performed their status as husband,
including a cessation of nonconsensual sex. All of the men and their
wives reported having more satisfying marriages as a consequence of the
changes the men had made.
Consequences of Change for Other Relationships: Barriers to
Any change, however, does not occur in isolation but has broader impacts
on the relationships one is embedded within. Seven out of the nine
MASVAW respondents in our study lived in cross-generational, extended
family homes with their parents, their married brothers and their brothers’
wives and families. In the context of an extended family household,
patriarchy is the normative framework for multiple couples and their
children under the same roof, wherein the paternal father holds power
as the head patriarch. When a MASVAW man living in an extended
family challenges hegemonic masculinity, he is by necessity confronting
the lifestyles that his co-family members consciously or unconsciously
adhere to. Among the men we interviewed, this sometimes created tension
and hostility in family relationships. Connell and Messerschmidt (2005:
852) suggest this is to be anticipated:
Hegemonic masculinities are likely to involve specific patterns of internal
division and emotional conflict, precisely because of their association
with gendered power. Relationships with fathers are one likely focus
of tension… Ambivalence toward projects of change on the part of
women are likely to be another, leading to oscillating acceptance and
rejection of gender equality by the same men.
In our data, we found evidence of both tensions and ambivalence in how
sons chose to construct relationships in a manner that challenged the
traditional basis and legacy of gendered power.
Samer, for example, recounted his father’s angry and dismayed
reaction at how he and his wife chose to live. After his father observed
him washing their child’s kathli(quilted sheet), his father became angry
and verbally abusive. Sameralso recounted how his mother would become
upset at how he let his wife come and go without permission. From the
perspective of Samer’s parents, he had become his wife’s slave. While
Samer may have changed his own understanding of violence and its place
in the home, he did not have full control over the household and his
father could still enact verbal abuse and threaten physical abuse.
The story of Abdeshand his wife Sangeeta provides several examples
of tensions that can result from challenging hegemonic masculinity. While
Abdesh and his wife hadexcellent communication and a remarkably
equitable relationship, they lived in a joint family with Abdesh’s parents
and brother’s family. Earlier his parents objected to Sangeeta because she
refused to adhere to certain traditions: she didnot wear a sari or bindi
(physical signifiers that she is married) and she didnot change her name
upon getting married. When Abdesh began to actively support her in
these choices his family, and particularly his father,became upset with
him as well. In Abdesh’s words: “So many times there was debate in my
family but my father was very angry…He thinks that my wife and I are
problematic.” Abdesh described trying to bring open communication
into the family, but without success:
We [Abdesh and Sangeeta] have a lot of understanding between us but
other members of the family are not able to understand this. They
have a very oppressive behavior with respect to my wife. Initially, I
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created an environment for discussion on all of these issues but I have
stopped all of that because my father becomes very violent during those
discussions, so the possibility of discussions has also stopped.
The tensions went so far as to impact his five year old son: “My parents
are very soft and caring towards my brother’s child but not towards
mine.” Like Samer and Abdesh, many of the MASVAW men found
themselves caught between the responsibility of being a husband and
that of being a son. Traditionally it is common that if there is a conflict
between a man’s wife and his parents the man will take his parents’ side,
requiring his wife to adapt (Purkayastha et al., 2003). But for MASVAW
men the opposite often occurred. Men supported their wi ves,
consequently leaving their parents shocked and hurt.
Given the relational and interactional dynamics of gender, an internal
contradiction to masculinity not only impacts men but also women. While
the wives generally perceived the changes in their husband through a
positive lens because it meant greater autonomy and intimacy within
their marriages, they often faced significant pressure from their in-laws
or extended families with whom they lived. In some cases, the other
household members blamed the wives for the changes in the man. One
MASVAW man explained that he only helped his wife wash clothing
when the extended family was not there. “My wife thinks that they will
say that she forces her husband to do everything…whenever there are
people around, she doesn’t allow me to do anything.”
Returning to the case of Abdesh and Sangeeta, we see how Sangeeta
relayed that her sister-in-law, a housewife, constantly put her down for
being educated and having a full-time job. Her sister-in-law attempted to
show her superiority by making efforts to be the “ideal” traditional wife
and daughter-in-law. Competition ensued between Sangeeta’s and her
sister-in-law’s children over “who’s mommy cares more?” According to
There is no good relationship between my wife and my brother’s wife.
They don’t talk much. There are always these types of problems, because
my wife works, my brother’s wife has an inferiority complex. So she
acts competitively with my wife and it’s not good. My wife is caring,
respecting. My brother’s wife is always trying to win my parent’s favor
by doing traditional things - wearing a sari, touching their feet, trying
to get power.
This atmosphere of hostility was difficult for both Sangeeta and Abdesh.
Each of them described how fortunate they felt to have each other, but
they saw familial conflict as one of the costs of their choice to fight for
equality. They couldnot escape patriarchy simply by changing their own
behavior. As a result of this tension, Abdesh said that he had given up
trying to “develop” his family. He had to balance his satisfaction in doing
work he believed in with the difficulties he faced at home.
As seen in the earlier example, some of the wives interviewed described
how they limited the amount of domestic assistance they would allow
their husbands to perform due to feeling discomfort in letting them engage
in household chores. In one case, a wife’s mother-in-law was temporarily
living with the couple (who otherwise lived in a nuclear family household).
When the interviewer asked about her husband helping prepare meals,
the wife responded:” My mother-in-law is here nowadays so he doesn’t
prepare – I don’t feel like asking him to do that.”After asking if the
mother-in-law ever says something, the woman responded” No, I myself
feel this, that she will feel odd if her son works. That’s why I do it myself.”
Wives’ explanations for why they did not want their husbands to do
domestic work varied widely. Some wives themselvesheld a traditional
gender ideology. As a result of this, more than one MASVAW man
emphasized that women should attend MASVAW trainings as well so
that they might gain greater gender consciousness. Alternatively, those
wives who whole-heartedly supported their husband’s changes sometimes
still felt uncomfortable due to the family pressure and blame they faced.As
a result, we found that wives’ reactions to their husband’s changes were
at times ambivalent. On the one hand, they were pleased with their more
communicative, equitable relationship; but on the other hand, they had
to manage the negative reactions to their husband’s new role from other
family members. Gender as a social system consists of and is maintained
by a series of relationships (Connell, 2009) which means that changes in
one arena have subsequent impacts on the lives of others. Any widespread
efforts to “undo” gender (Deutsch 2007) must consider and recognize the
context and consequences of change within these relationships.
As Messner (2000:2) notes, the question is not “can men change”but “how
are they changing?” By contextualizing changes to men and masculinity
within a relational context, our analysis reveals how men’s motivations,
efforts and, ultimately, success in challenging hegemonic masculinity is
shaped by the other men and women in their lives. Towards this end,
our research helps to address a limitation in studies of hegemonic
CHANGING MEN TO CHANGE GENDER 9190 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY OF THE FAMILY
masculinity by focusing on relationships, particularly with women, as
called for by Connell and Messerschmidt, who note (2005: 848) “research
on hegemonic masculinity now needs to give much closer attention to
the practices of women.” Importantly, men and women can both act as
allies and challenges in any effort to dismantle hierarchical gender regimes
and reimagine hegemonic masculinity. While the wives and fellow
members of MASVAW encouraged, educated, provided support and held
men accountable to revised visions of manhood, often the men and
women within their extended families inhibited these efforts.
Change in gendered behavior, however, as scholars of hybrid
masculinities have pointed out, may not always result in a revolutionary
dismantling of gender regimes (Bridges and Pascoe, 2014). Demetriou
(2001), for instance, argues that part of the reason that hegemonic
masculinity remains powerful is because it can adapt by pragmatically
appropriating what is useful to maintain its power. While we certainly
found evidence that the changes to gender consciousness and behaviors
remain a work in progress, we follow Sullivan’s (2004) more optimistic
perspective that the possibility of true change will likely be slow and
incremental but still effect a radical transformation. A “slow drip of
change” (Sullivan, 2004: 209), may first begin with men “starting to bend”
as one MASVAW respondent explained.
1. “16 days of Activism Against Gender Violence” is an annual campaign that
originated from the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute and began
in 1995. Taking place from Nov 25th to December 10th, it focuses on
galvanizing action to end violence against women and girls.
2. The absence of accounts regarding women’s influence on the remaining
four men does not mean that the influence did not exist, rather that our
interviews did not reveal evidence of it. Although this pattern emerged in
the majority of our cases, our interview guideline did not directly ask about
3. All of the interviewees’ names have been changed to maintain anonymity.
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