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What Shapes A Man Into A Feminist?

02/06/2016 8:23 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Recently, actress Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones fame made a very cogent point, "We should stop calling feminists 'feminists' and just start calling people who aren't feminist 'sexist'... You are either a normal person or a sexist."

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Her views are paralleled by Bengaluru Pinkathon ambassador Aakash Nambier. While he does not call himself a feminist, his views definitely are. "I call myself a male, and you are a female. We're all equal here."

Unfortunately, as a result of social and cultural conditioning there exist far too many sexists in the world. In a society that constantly affirms outdated and unjust gender roles, what makes a man believe in the inherent equality of the sexes? Insights from seven successful Indian men reveal several patterns.

Strong mother figures


Naturally, strong matriarchs in a family create men who respect and value women. Nambier, originally from Kerala, explained the foundation for his views. "Kerala is a state where the power in the family goes to women. I grew up seeing my mother and grandmother making decisions, and those decisions were the right ones."

When young men grow up seeing women as decision-makers, it is easy for them to accept women in roles of power.

When young men grow up seeing women as decision-makers, it is easy for them to accept women in roles of power. Nambier continues, "Women, of course, understand their problems better than men. If we give women more importance -- meaning equal importance -- they will do a better job of solving the issues they themselves face." He says he wants to see more women in government positions and thinks that more reservations are a necessary step in that direction.

Writer, comedian and stay-at-home dad Suman Kumar also grew up under the influence of strong mother figures. "I have been fortunate to have been surrounded by some great women in my life including my mother and my maternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother bore 11 children. When her husband passed away, the family was in utter poverty. This lady singlehandedly raised seven sons and four daughters."

Suman is equally in awe of the younger women in his life. "Right now, I would say my daughter is a super-girl and my wife a super-woman. She's an MBBS, MD and DM. She has a doctorate in endocrinology. And every morning before she goes to work, she makes coffee and leaves it for me --she doesn't have to do this. The thing is, when men are nice to you they go out of the way to let you know that they're being nice to you. But women, you won't even realize that they're being super-nice to you, until one day it hits you."

Being raised by strong women certainly creates a non-stereotypical understanding of them. Yet, one doesn't have to be raised by strong women to respect them.

Milind Soman, Pinkathon ambassador and celebrity, too looks up to his mother, an accomplished women qualified in the sciences. He explains how his life was profoundly changed by the decisions and support of his strong-willed mother. "I started swimming at the age of 10, and I was swimming competitively at the national level in India. When I got into my teens, my family started telling me that 'swimming is not going to do anything for you, there's no future in it, you can't get a career out of it, you won't make any money. Now it's time to pay more attention to your studies.' So on and so forth."

Soman's mother, a biochemistry professor, stood up to the rest of the family. "She said 'I'm sure he can manage a balance; swimming is good for him, he enjoys it, let him do it.' And so I was able to swim competitively. That really shaped my life." Soman's swimming gave him the discipline and principles that he's applied to all of his endeavours including acting, modelling and Ironman.

Though he does not call himself a feminist, Soman has repeatedly identified women as the catalyst for change in society. "I would say that I'm not working, or my ideas are not working, to do things for women, but to do things for society." He respects the power and influence women can have as change makers, the effects of which can be seen in his own life.

Workplace diversity

Being raised by strong women certainly creates a non-stereotypical understanding of them. Yet, one doesn't have to be raised by strong women to respect them.

Neither Rai nor Bansal were raised as feminists, but working with a diversity of women in the course of their careers shaped their views

Pankaj Rai, director of global analytics at Dell, grew into his feminist beliefs. "I grew up in a small town. We weren't exposed to a lot of modern women who were doing different jobs. We were a more traditional society, where most women weren't working at all. Growing up that way, I didn't have an opinion on women. It was simply not formed. But I had those traditional models in my head. After moving to Delhi, I was exposed to different ways of living. These ideas and models gradually started to form and change my views, especially as I started working with women."

Rai jokes his feminism also changed with his family dynamics, "Growing up we were two boys, my dad and my mom. We only had 25% gender diversity. Then I got married and the gender ratio suddenly became 50%. Now I have two daughters, and my family is 75% women. In that way I'm a feminist as well."

Mukesh Bansal, founder of Myntra, also became a feminist later in life. The foundation was laid at home, but working with women helped crystallize his beliefs. "My mother isn't very well educated but she had the foresight to make sure that I and my two younger sisters got top-level educations. She put our family's resources towards our education, and wouldn't compromise there. She has an inner strength and wisdom that guided us. However, I really became a feminist as I began to manage a lot of people at different levels. I hadn't thought about feminism too much before, but once I started managing women, it really brought the issue to the forefront of my mind."

Neither Rai nor Bansal were raised as feminists, but working with a diversity of women in the course of their careers shaped their views, as did personal relationships.

New places, people and ideas

Pritham Raja and Paras Batra, both in the social enterprise sector, found feminism over time, through their life experiences and with greater exposure to knowledge.

The men we interviewed are now advocates for women and see them as more than someone's mother, sister, daughter or wife.

Raja, co-founder of Threads of Freedom, found feminism once he left for college. "I grew into feminism. In college I started realizing how much more difficult it is for the average girl than it is for the average guy to succeed -- whether it's at school, work, or at home with the family." He has a bit of advice for everyone: "Get out of your bubble and understand people whose lives haven't been as easy as your own."

Similarly Batra, cofounder of Leaf Wearables, became a feminist as his world expanded. "I come from a small town background, and gender education wasn't a part of the curriculum, or taught to us at all. So, I was never really aware of things. I was 16 when I moved to Delhi, and that's when I started getting exposed to a host of new ideas and concepts. I gained access to the Internet. Slowly, I began reading about all kinds of revolutionary ideas and watching documentaries; eventually my mind opened up. It was then I decided, 'Yes, I am a feminist.'" Batra's world view changed when he gained access to the world.

"My family doesn't have a lot of strong feminists. But now that I'm older I can advocate for the women in my family. If they want to pursue something other than home-making, I can -- I will -- take a stand for them. "

When men learn of women's hopes, ambitions and struggles on the micro level, they care about the hopes, ambitions and struggles of women on the macro level.

The understanding of universal equality is the basis of humanity. These successful Indian men believe in equality for the sexes and they are our allies. To conclude, what shaped them were a multitude of factors. While some had strong female role models to look up to, others developed their views as they became more invested in women and their access to equal opportunity. When men learn of women's hopes, ambitions and struggles on the micro level, they care about the hopes, ambitions and struggles of women on the macro level. The men we interviewed are now advocates for women and see them as more than someone's mother, sister, daughter or wife. They see that we are nuanced, different, and real people. We deserve respect and opportunity. As we share our experiences and form relationships, we may find our friendship and understanding can change hearts and perspectives to increase our networks of allies.

This article is the second installment of a four-part series which was originally written for and published on Shenomics.com by Bithika Misha Rahman. Read part 1 here.

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