The interview of the month is about the upsurge of men’s rights activism (MRAs) in India. Yvet Voppen wrote her bachelor’s thesis on this topic. She is from the Netherlands and studied BA International Studies at Leiden University. This study focuses on global politics, economics, history, and culture. During her study, she specialized in South and Southeast Asia and did an internship at Action India, Delhi where she learned about domestic violence. Yvet is interested in gender, feminism, and South Asia. In her spare time, she loves reading and travelling.
Yvet, you have chosen to write your thesis on this topic. Why?
Action India works with community courts to address domestic violence. This is an alternative to official courts which are often timely and expensive. Many people cannot afford it. When a case goes to court, there is a general suspicion that domestic violence laws are misused. During my internship, I came across men’s rights groups that argued the anti-dowry law and the law against domestic violence were unfair to men. I found this interesting because domestic violence and gender inequality is still a big issue in India. That’s how this topic sparked my interest.
In your thesis you use the concept of masculinity politics, can you explain what this concept means?
The concept is coined by Raewin Connel, she is a well-known scholar who writes about masculinity. Masculinity politics implies “the mobilization and struggles where the meaning of masculinity is at issue and men’s position in gender relations”. It refers to a form of politics where men stop certain developments of feminists. MRAs produce unsound research which they spread through the internet and to policymakers and legislative bodies to change pro-women laws. These laws are often about marriage, dowry, domestic violence, and alimony. The underlying motivation of MRAs is based on gender roles that women and men have in marriage. These organizations often contradict the need of alimony and believe that not all forms of domestic violence should be counted as such. They also make statements that women should not go to court for “petty” issues. They challenge the legal improvements that have been made by feminists.
Do you also know that when it is the other way around so if women beat men whether that is okay with them? What is their opinion on this?
One of the things I found out is that they often rephrase things. Instead of focusing on the issue of domestic violence, men’s rights organizations focus on the suicide rates among men and argue that marital disputes caused by wives are a huge factor to a high level of suicide. However, when looking at the data these narratives are often either skewed, biased or outright untrue. They also do this by arguing that domestic violence is gender neutral. However, figures show that around 6% of men face spousal physical violence compared to 37% of women. Besides that, in a patriarchal system the consequences of domestic violence due to the power difference can be very dissimilar.
When and why did men’s rights groups start to organize themselves?
There is extensive literature on men’s right groups but mainly in the global north namely, Europe and the United States. There is a common theme in the literature that these groups originate when feminist movements are making improvements. The growth of men’s rights groups in India came after certain laws had been implemented. In 1961, the dowry prohibition act was implemented which made dowry illegal and in 1983 a law that made cruelty of husband against wife punishable. In 2005, another domestic violence law was implemented. All laws are aimed at protecting women and reaching gender equality. Simultaneously, men’s rights groups claimed that these laws are misused meaning that women use them to harass men or to gain economically from these laws without actually facing domestic violence or dowry. They believed that injustice was done to them through these laws. I find this interesting because these laws have been largely ineffective in protecting women. So, their claim that these laws are misused by women has not been proven by independent research institutions. On the contrary, researchers found that women who seek legal redress only do this in the most extreme cases after years of abuse.
Do you think that it is only a counterreaction against the laws that you mentioned or is it because of the impact that feminist movements have on women? Women start to demand passionate and equal marriage. Traditional gender roles on who does what is changing.
It is a combination of these laws and social change. Traditional gender roles which were defined in a patriarchal society are changing. In urban areas, women have increased access to education, jobs, and the media. This empowers women legally, economically, and culturally. They now often have more influence on partner choice and there is also a growth in love marriages. However, some people still believe in traditional gender roles i.e., wife stays at home, cooks, and raises the children. Some men believe that they deserve a wife who does these traditional things and when this is not the case this might create grievances among men.
I think that it also has to do with the fact that men didn’t choose for the empowerment of women. It’s something that happens to them. If women make improvements then that automatically affects their role/position within the family as a father/husband. This might be overwhelming to them, because it affects them but they are not involved in the process. They have to redefine for themselves what it means to be a father/husband/man. If you ask a man what do you look for in a partner, they are not going to say an independent woman, who earns more than me, or who can hold her own. Because then they aren’t needed.
What were your main findings?
Marriage and gender roles are the main themes of men’s rights groups. In the upbringing, traditional roles are reproduced. However, this is changing. Another change is that a couple lives on their own now. Before, it used to be the case that a woman stays with the in-laws after marriage in one house. In a situation where domestic violence occurs and a woman lives with the in-laws, the family is more likely to support the husband. This limits the power of a woman to address these issues. Now with nuclear families this is changing. Women have a job, more knowledge on laws, and access to funds. Men are being held accountable for things they haven’t been held accountable for twenty years ago. Behaviour that was deemed acceptable is not acceptable anymore.
People claim that laws are misused but I found that it is tied to question of what constitutes a domestic violence victim. Men’s rights groups claim that there is a small group of victims. However, these victims do not report ‘petty marital grievances’ according to MRGs. Meaning that the narrative once again reinforces the ideology that women are rewarded for abiding by the traditional gender roles in which certain degrees of abuse are accepted or expected. However, I notice a similar viewpoint on victimhood in Western countries. This is especially visible when it comes down to sexual abuse cases.
Yes, so comments will be made like if a woman wears revealing clothes, she was asking for it. In what way does the white feminist movement differs from the brown feminist movement?
White feminism failed a large section of women because they branded themselves as a movement for all women. However, their agenda did not consider the issues that brown and black women were experiencing. Brown and black women face different issues compared to white women. For example, they do not have the dowry system in Western countries. The white feminist movement was mainly about getting access to employment, but e.g., black women were already working in the United States. Women from different ethnic backgrounds have their own battles to fight.
Back in those days, there was also an anti-colonial sentiment in India. So, the white feminist telling Indian women what to do and how to do it was not well received. The Indian feminist movement has been strong in India and has developed great literature that was also focused on the cultural specificity of Indian women.
What does feminism mean to you?
Feminism is a movement fighting against gender inequality. It is not about men against women or women against men. It is for everyone who believes in gender equality.
The anti-feminist attitude is not just something that you will find in India. Sometimes I also come across anti-feminist attitudes on LinkedIn by men from all cultures. Especially, when the topics are about menstrual leave or female leadership. Do you think that the reasons behind such attitudes are also applicable to those men?
I see it mainly in the light of entitlement versus privilege. When you grow up and learn how the world works and you believe that you are entitled to something and when it is taken away from you, you believe that someone is taking your rights away. However, people don’t realize that those “rights” are not rights but privileges. Men hold certain positions because the system allowed them to have it more than anyone else. When we try to rectify this, men see this as snatching their “rights”. Even though it is a process of equalizing things between men and women. Men are seen as the provider that is why it was normal for them to work fulltime. Now that we say women should also be able to do that if they want to. People see this and think when women are gaining, we are losing. That is when you start to see a pushback, because they feel like they deserve to be the provider and that role/right belongs to them.
When it comes to menstrual leave, some people immediately regard it as women whining about menstruation but wanting equality between men and women. I think that people don’t realize that women entered the labour market at a later stage. The workplace was built for men by men. But being a woman comes with menstruation and possibly pregnancy. Menstruation is not just 4-7 days in a month. A woman menstruates on average 3,500 days in her life. Those days are filled with pain, unease, and emotional fluctuations. Not all women experience it in the same way, and I am happy for them if that’s the case, but most women find it unpleasant. People don’t realize that women who enter the workplace have to make their needs clear and we all need to create a work environment that is friendly for both women and men. It should not be the case that the workplace is created by men for men and when women enter that they are the only ones who have to adapt to the existing situation.
It reminds me Gunjan Saxena on Netflix, a movie about the first female fighter pilot who joins the Indian Air force. There is a scene where she has to change her clothes, but there is only a locker room for men. So, she has to change somewhere else but then she always comes late for training. We still have to fight for our rights in the workplace and make sure that there is space for both men and women.
On the front page of your thesis, there is a photo of a men’s rights group protest. I also see two women protesting along with them. Why do you think that there is resistance against feminist-attitudes by women themselves?
Both men and women can be feminist and both men and women can be anti-feminist. It is not related to gender. If your upbringing has always stressed traditional gender roles so a woman cooks, cleans, looks after the children and a man provides. Then that can create resistance among both men and women. There are some women who don’t want things to change. The second reason is that feminism has failed some women in India. Feminists have to make sure that they include everyone and that is not just a movement for the urban class. We should do a better job at including everyone.
Is there a possibility of women’s rights movements and men’s rights movements meeting each other in the middle?
Some quotes that I got from a men’s rights movements website are “feminists are extremely ungrateful people who never get satisfied with any improvement in conditions of women” “most feminists are intellectually challenged individuals with very less academic grounding”. When you compose your identity as something opposed to feminism you can’t get along. They regard this as a zero-sum game. Men could have a crucial part in feminism, but not through the strategy that men’s rights groups are using now, namely the strategy of men being a victim of feminism.
What’s the way forward? What is going to be important in the next 10-15 years?
The civil society is strong in India which is amazing. It is inspiring for the next 10-15 years to know that that is going on. What I also notice now is that international organisations have started to include men in this movement, which is good. For example, if we explain sexual reproductive rights to women and we talk about the pill but her husband objects to the birth control we provide, what have we gained? We can give women all the tools and knowledge we want but we are not changing anything. It is important to include men and young boys to change gender roles. Moreover, international organizations should focus on local voices and organisations. I worked with an organization that worked with community courts, a project that is culturally embedded into the community court structure of Indian society. This is not a concept that Western organizations came up with, because they don’t understand how the culture works. Indian people are the experts on this, and we should provide resources and funds to support them. Not impose things from a western viewpoint. I see so many organisations working on these issues. That’s hopeful for the future!
 Dowry is payment made in cash to a bride’s in-laws at the time of her marriage. The amount depends on many factors, including region, religion, caste and subcaste, groom’s education, bride’s skin tone, and the negotiation skills of both the families involved (Sukumar, 2017, Vox).