Book Review

Mangesh Kulkarni (Ed.), Global Masculinities: Interrogations and Reconstructions. Routledge, 2019
Reviewed by Akshay Chaudhari, Research Fellow, Department of Political Science, Savitribai Phule Pune University.

It is generally believed that masculinity is monolithic, but in reality, there are multiple masculinities. There is no single way of being a man because men’s lives are shaped by numerous factors such as class, caste, race, ethnicity, religion, institutional and political location, geographical and historical contingencies, as well as patterns of consumption. Hence, the scholarly literature on masculinities includes conceptions like hegemonic masculinity, transmasculinity, ecological masculinity and colonial masculinity. The book under discussion, Global Masculinities: Interrogations and Reconstructions, seeks to capture and reflect on this lived plurality by engaging with a wide range of relevant ideas and experiences. 

This volume comprising an editorial introduction and more than a dozen papers is an outcome of the second MenEngage Global Symposium on ‘Men and Boys for Gender Justice’, held in New Delhi, India. It opens with a foreword contributed by Raewyn Connell, who is one of the founders of Critical Masculinity Studies. The papers cover an impressive range of topics, drawing on empirical and theoretical research concerning masculinities spanning several continents: sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-East Asia, South America, and southern and northern Europe. The contributors straddle different disciplines, including Philosophy, Political Science, Gender Studies, Development Studies, Social Work, Health Science, Anthropology and Neurobiology.  

The book tracks the trajectory of Critical Masculinity Studies (CMS), inspired by the second-wave feminists’ struggle for gender equality, which enabled many men to understand that patriarchy was not only unjust to women but also trapped men in a vicious cycle of socially constructed gender roles. The efforts of pro-feminist men participating in anti-patriarchal activism laid the foundation of CMS, which is firmly opposed to the exclusive advocacy of men’s rights. It tries to involve men and boys in the struggle for gender justice and emphasises their vital role in eliminating violence against women.

The volume can be broadly divided into two sections – the first, comprising eight articles, explores the predicament of patriarchal masculinities. They explain how patriarchy not only oppresses girls and women but also locks boys and men into a circle of coercion. The section draws on empirical evidence to investigate the reasons for men’s tendency to display aggression and dominance. It also discusses the role played by traditional as well as modern norms, institutions and processes of socialisation in maintaining patriarchal masculinities.  The second section includes five articles and focuses on caring masculinities which reject domination and integrate values of care, love and interdependence. It proposes that men can adopt characteristics traditionally viewed as feminine, for example, active participation in childcare and housework, which ensures the well-being of families. 

Nolwazi Mkhwanazi presents an ethnographic study of the Xhosa-speaking people of South Africa. She argues that young men’s initiation rites are a critical vehicle for maintaining the gendered gerontocracy that forms the basis of Xhosa social life. She emphasises the role of tradition in making men and maintaining patriarchy. However, even modern institutions are not insulated from patriarchal gender norms and practices. Sanjeev Uprety’s paper analyses the imbrication of social norms, social structure and law with violence against women in Nepal. He argues that modern legal and socio-cultural institutions are forged in the crucible patriarchy. Moreover, the sheer numerical strength of men in public institutions, including parliament, reinforces the gendered norms which support the existing social structure. He argues that the attempt to create a gender-just society necessitates a simultaneous attack on these pillars of conservatism. 

Shashish Shami Kamal explains the reasons for the violent behaviour of Bangladeshi male students in tertiary education. His interviews show that culturally embedded practices give unilateral power to young men to judge women and girls. Men categorise women into binaries like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ according to their clothes and body language. Stalking is considered a part of the courtship process. The enactment of such practices determines a young man’s social position in the gender order. Thus gender-based violence is embedded in the quotidian practices of young men.  The Australian scholar Michael Flood has contributed a paper which critically examines initiatives that engage men in ending violence against women (VAW) in different parts of the world. He argues that the efficacy of such interventions is often dubious, especially as they are based on the false assumption that men can be unproblematically persuaded to believe they will benefit from progress towards gender equality. Efforts to involve men in preventing VAW would be more realistic if they were to emphasise the need to forego patriarchal privileges. The notion that working with men is the best way to change them is also wrong, as empowering women is an important prerequisite for altering unequal gender relations. 

Men often act as barriers to women’s reproductive rights and freedoms. Sana Contractor and her co-authors examine the masculine norms that shape men’s resistance to contraception. They share their experiences from a community intervention with men in central India, which was carried out with the help of two NGOs. The researchers point out that the fear of being ‘not man enough’ and losing sex drive are crucial reasons for men’s resistance to vasectomy. They suggest that men should be approached and involved as partners and carers, not only as targets of vasectomy. This calls for community-specific, multi-pronged interventions to correct the imbalance of responsibility in reproduction and family planning. 

Midwifery is almost universally seen as a female vocation. The notion that a man could never truly understand childbirth is widespread. However, the existence of male midwives goes a long way in breaking down such gender barriers. Sneha Makkad and Mira Sadgopal inquire into the role of men serving as indigenous midwives in a tribal district of Western India. The study delves deep into the interrelationship of the traditional huarku (male) and haurki (female) midwives. The findings of the robust survey and first-hand narratives presented by the authors reveal the commitment, knowledge, methods and ethics of conduct displayed by both male and female midwives. The case study breaks the masculinist stereotype and shows that midwifery has little to do with the sex or gender of the caregiver. 

Srđjan Dušanić systematically explores men’s understandings of paternal responsibility by analysing collected household survey data. The research conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina shows suboptimal participation of men in childbirth and childcare. It concludes that such participation is shaped by early childhood experiences, the influence of wives, and a man’s feelings towards the household. The author suggests that the transition of Bosnia and Herzegovina to a capitalist order in the last thirty years has made men’s engagement in household activities and childcare more socially acceptable. 

The foregoing discussion of some representative papers clearly indicates that the book provides nuanced insights into the making and remaking of masculinities around the world. The plain writing style of most contributors makes the collection accessible to a broad readership. This is not to say that the book is without drawbacks. It does not cover research on masculinities in regions such as the Middle East, North Africa, East Asia, and the former Soviet Union. Most papers focus on micro issues rather than larger forces like the State and the Market, which shape masculinities. The juxtaposition of academic and activist perspectives sometimes seems discordant. The book also suffers from an unintended but jarring gender binarism. The book has covered the core themes in CMS; however, it has not explored the linkages between masculinity and some significant socio-political phenomena like fundamentalism, nationalism, race and caste.

 To summarise, Global Masculinities: Interrogations and Reconstructions offers a comprehensive, transdisciplinary account of current scholarship and activist initiatives on men and masculinities. It is the first book of its kind to have emerged from the global South and has an explicitly stated emancipatory intent. As Professor Mangesh Kulkarni has rightly observed in his editorial introduction, “the arduous task of dismantling patriarchy requires a two-pronged feminist intervention involving a sustained critique of hegemonic masculinities and direct mobilisation of men and boys for bringing about gender justice”.  The volume demonstrates how this can be achieved through theory and practice.