Deconstructing Gender in Classroom.

Men’s Ways of Being is a book by [Cherly White, Chirstopher Mclean, Maggie Carey] that seeks to understand the dominant culture that surrounding masculinity. It deconstructs the masculine culture in a powerful way and it provides alternative narratives of how this culture can be changed. Men and women are both victims of the power structure built upon a biased gender culture. Gender messages affect everyone in our society, especially young individuals. By the time we, as individuals, reach adolescence, we already have preconceived notions about what a man or a woman is like but have no understanding of why it is that way.

Apni Shala Foundation’s Youth Project (housed at Khoj Community School) is a programme where students between (16 to 20 years)  and facilitators work together to build their social and emotional competencies, explore dreams and opportunities, our self,identity and emotions. 

Gender as an identity and as a social structure impacts our dreams, hopes and how we live our lives. For example, the dream of being a psychologist or counselor for a boy is not seen to be suitable and is mostly not appreciated in our (Indian) society because a psychologist/counselor’s work involves understanding and engaging with various emotions and human behavior. Mostly in our society, women are seen as emotional and it is their work to engage with emotions. For men in our society, power and identity are formed through very specific sources such as money, political power, physical strength, sexual performance and so on. When I was growing up, I followed the same ideology: I believed, or was told at home, that when I would be an adult, I would earn money. I have been asked to lift heavy objects as well and if I was not able to do it, people would comment, ”Are you a girl?”. Since Bollywood is the most consumed form of media in India, the male heroes are mostly shown to be physically strong by beating the s**t out of the villain, something which is taken back by male audiences from the theatre once the movie is over. Such gender messages are ingrained in our society through everyday traditions, media content, institutions and culture.Men’s Ways Of Being deconstructs this influential culture of men but also suggests new ways of being for creating better gender relationships and aiming to bring about gender justice in our society.

Some of the quotes from the book that resonated with me are:

“Men are defined as competitors rather than as allies…”

“Good language skill is a substitute for violence. If boys learn to express themselves and to talk about emotions they”ll have a different way of relating to people, we’ll see less sexual harassment and bullying…”

“If we are to facilitate real changes in people’s lives, we need to recognize that the individual can only be understood in the context of the structured power relations that operate within and between cultures.”

Education is an important institution which influences our beliefs. It is also an opportunity to work on and, consequently, break gender stereotypes. To be able to make an impact on the same, it is important to be equipped with certain skills or techniques that can be utilised, something that Youth Project helps us with. At Youth Project, we explore gender identities through personal as well as systemic lenses. While programmatically, Youth Project works to make the programme more accessible to people identifying with different genders, it also provides explicit developmental opportunities to young people to unpack their gender identities through planned conversations, exposure visits, reflections, and changed action. In the following section, I will highlight some ways in which Youth Project aims towards altering the set gender status quo and provides new life experiences to young people to make new meaning towards emerging equitable and just gender relations.

The Youth Project programme is open for all youth aged between 16 to 20 years, residing in Mumbai. We have 40% reservation for people who are living in the areas of Govandi or Mankhurd. As Youth Project is a community project run at  Khoj Community School, an interview-cum-discussion is organised for all the students to get to know them better and to gauge if the candidate will be able to complete the programme as it only runs on Sundays.This year we had 85 applicants out of which we chose 30 students. While selecting the students we maintained a balanced gender ratio Once the students are informed that they have been selected, we have a detailed conversation with their caretakers. We ensure that we have talked to all the girls’ caretakers so that they know where they are going and how the parents can support them. Some of the girls do their house work first thing in the morning and then come to Youth Project.

In the last cohort (batch 4) of Youth Project we had 14 boys and 12 girls. 4 students dropped out from the programme. To understand the gender messages we often consume, we split our class into two groups, based on their identified-sex. The purpose of making same-sex groups was that everyone feels comfortable and there is no (or little) space for blame or shame towards either sexes. As I mentioned in the beginning, men and women are both victims of various power structures of the society. Stories of both sexes should be heard with patience and empathy and healing time and space should be provided for the same.

In the Youth Project class, we asked students to write gender messages that they have received in their life. Almost all the boys said that “boys should not cry” and “don’t act like a girl” are the messages that they have received the most.. Some other examples are: ”why are you sitting at home? Boys don’t sit at home”,”don’t have long hair. Boys don’t have long hair”. I could connect with one of the book quotes that said that “no boy escapes the knowledge of the severity of manliness “. In our classes we have pairs of siblings as well. Some girls have shared their experience of discrimination in their home between them and the male siblings. 

Most of the girls said that messages such as “you should know how to do household chores and cooking otherwise you will bring shame after your marriage” or “walk properly in public” or “do not talk to boys” are the messages that they have received the most. Many girls questioned such behaviour and thoughts by asking questions, such as: “how does my brother not understand this is unfair?” or “why are only girls made to wash utensils? Can’t boys also do the same work?” or “I wonder why boys do not step up in houses and help their sisters.” This makes me wonder about something that was mentioned in the book about how men’s pain is not caused because of “abuse of power” but because of the “structural abuse of power” which requires men to be emotionally abused and desensitised. In Youth Project we have asked our boys to step up by washing with their own underwear since in most Indian homes, males don’t wash their own clothes and underwear.  We also did a roleplay of gender in which one of the female siblings in the class took a situation from her home. When she performed with her group,the male sibling’s eyes were almost numb in the class. After the roleplay as a class we discussed what could the male siblings do to step up and take work. He promised in front the class that he would help with household chores to the best of his ability.

The book helped me unpack in such a nice way that as a man, I am aware of  what privileges my gender identity holds and emotions are not my weakness. With the dream of being a psychologist I know that emotions are a sign of my strength. y internship with Youth Project helped me understand the need of discussing sex, gender, sexuality and power in a class. It has helped me understand students’ stories of gender where I could relate with their stories and understand systematic lenses for all genders. I would suggest all those who identify as boys/men to read “ Men’s way of being.”This book will be your ally in unpacking your emotion and fear about your gender identity and help you connect with your true humanity

About the writer:

Akash Gaikwad studied B.A. (Psychology) from Mumbai University and interned with Youth Project in 2018-19. Currently, he is working as Programme Fellow at Apni Shala’s School SEL Programme where he works with young people in grades 4 to 9 to help build social and emotional competencies. Akash has also co-founded Shor, a Poetry Collaborative, which invites people to explore their life and emotions through poetry.

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