Swati Parashar | 29 June 2023
We are living through dystopic times. If we just think politics everywhere is depressing and social apathy and communal faultlines are unprecedented and stark, we are missing out a vital link in all this – the culture of toxic masculinity. As I scan through news in the Indian media, it is difficult to avoid those reports about men killing their wives, partners, women relatives. A minor girl was stabbed and bludgeoned to death in full public view with apathetic onlookers just walking past in Delhi’s Shahbad Dairy, in May 2023. In some cases, women have been murdered and chopped to pieces as in the widely reported case of Shraddha Walker, or others reported from Budgam in Kashmir, Madhurawada in Vizag, Sahebganj in Jharkhand and most recently from Mira Road in Mumbai. A woman in Mumbai is still recovering from a vicious attack by her male partner who tried to strangle her and bludgeon her, for refusing intimacy in a public place. Add to these the numerous cases of murder, rape and domestic violence that do not even make it to news reports in national or regional circulation.
Some of the reasons for these acts of violence are familiar to us—relationships gone awry, well-planned acts of murder, or spur of the moment crimes of passion, revenge or anger. Nothing new here, but the normalization of these acts and the rehabilitation of offenders and accused have reached disturbing proportions. The exceptionality is marked only when other identities like caste, religion and class, channelize community anger and public outrage by vested interests.
The 11 men convicted of raping Bilkis Bano during the 2002 Gujarat riots were granted fast-track release in 2022, and then greeted and garlanded by their families as well as right-wing groups. This wasn’t the first time that brutal rapists returned to society and were hailed as heroes, or deserving of mild punishment only—after all boys will be boys. We have plenty of examples from history. In the 1996 Priyadarshini Mattoo rape and murder case, the Delhi police did everything within their powers to get an acquittal for the offender, Santosh Singh, including fudging evidence and concealing facts from the court. The trial court acquitted him and he was conveniently rehabilitated, before the Supreme Court convicted him, sentencing him to life. He was out on parole several times, getting married and even practicing law. Sohanlal Valmiki was caught and convicted in the Aruna Shanbaug rape case in 1973 and served a meagre sentence only for assault and robbery. Afterwards, he went to Delhi, found work, moved his family and rehabilitated himself. There were no social consequences for the brutal rapist who left a woman in a comatose state for 41 years. Aruna died in May 2015.
How do rape and murder convicts get so easily rehabilitated by society? What does it say about us as bystanders when we walk past men harassing, attacking, and bludgeoning women to death in full public view? How do we not get outraged by men like Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, accused of sexual harassment of women wrestlers in his capacity as the chief of the Wrestling Federation of India, bellowing in full public view and heckling, mocking the women and girls who have demonstrated exceptional courage to tell their painful stories? There is no humility, no reflective moment, no shame nor introspection, in his relentless and smug media statements and public performances, even as he stands accused with several cases registered against him. The latest update is that the wrestlers have suspended their protests and are fighting through the courts now, while the accused continues to make brazen comments against the women who brought laurels to the country.
We see this brazenness after all the gender activism and awareness in the aftermath of the 16 December 2012 Delhi gang rape which mobilized the country, and the #MeToo campaigns which saw so many powerful men exposed by women who decided that enough was enough. Clearly, we have reverted to the old status quo, reviving the culture of impunity against men, where they are allowed their patriarchal entitlements, violence, and arrogance as mere transgressions that can be either ignored or only mildly reprimanded.
While traditional masculinity advocates for conventional gender roles and hierarchies (problematic enough), toxic masculinity thrives on gaslighting, bullying, aggression, misogyny, and homophobia. It normalizes the use of violence for control and dominance, including rape and domestic violence, as well as verbal aggression and brazen public posturing. We have said enough about the rape culture, victim blaming, and our social responsibility but we have not reflected on the culture of toxic masculinity that gets a new lease of life with every violent crime against a woman perpetrated in full public view, or which results in the acquittal, celebration, rehabilitation of, and the repugnant public performances by the accused.
The full display of toxic masculinity, and watching angry and vindictive men in public, or in our interpersonal relationships is an assault on the senses, on the human values we uphold, on the hope and reason to work for a better society, towards a gender-just and equal world. We have a deepening crisis of masculinity globally, including in India, and we have stopped paying attention to its violent manifestations that are gnawing at our social fabric, undoing and undermining all our achievements on gender equality so far. This toxic masculinity is not just victimizing women and girls, it is making men into monstrous caricatures of themselves. There are reasons why this kind of masculinity has many takers, and a serious conversation needs to begin at all levels of society, so that healing and recovery is possible—for women, but most importantly for men.
Lives and human dignity are at stake, and toxic masculinity is one of the biggest challenges we are grappling with.
Swati Parashar is Professor of Peace and Development at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She tweets @swatipash