On masculinity, sexuality, and inequality in India

The problem Indian society has with women is complex and firmly embedded within cultural norms. In working towards change we need to untangle what it means to be masculine in India, writes Rupinder Dhaliwal

India has suffered from a long history of gender inequality but sadly this remains very much an issue today. Female infanticide, domestic and sexual violence are all commonplace – a painstaking reminder of the value of women in Indian society. These atrocities are proof to those that claim they are not issues; those compliant in sweeping harsh realities under the carpet.

There is a dire need for a response to this as it is systematically threatening the wellbeing of women and girls. As an Indian female, my own identity is a lens through which these issues intersect and can be analysed.

Gender is increasingly being used as a means of understanding both the function of masculinity in India and the way it shapes women’s lives.

This masculinity is insidious in its nature.

Its evolution lies in the patriarchal cracks of a broken society; a force which grows and strengthens through repetition of behaviour and action. Its resilience mounts each time an iteration of toxic masculinity goes unchallenged. What we need to uncover is how masculinity as a force in society fosters gender inequality and gender-based violence. It cannot be said that Indian males represent a homogenous group in society, nor are all experiences of masculinity similar. But Indian men most probably either identify or engage with this masculinity on some level.

Although masculinity has the ability to transgress social and cultural boundaries, particular manifestations and expressions of it become specific to places due to factors such as socio-economic standing, levels of education, and the nature of a political landscape. A high population of poverty, polarising levels of education and illiteracy alongside a Hindu Nationalist government are among some indicators of the context which colours the dynamics of Indian society.

Masculine tropes, as we are all aware, generally rely on ideas of the man as breadwinner, decision-maker, and how this does well to enforce a kind of masculinity that is conducive to control and power. Conversely, innocence, passivity, and obedience have an immense part to play in the construction of the traditional Indian woman, with a heavy reliance on the male partner to provide for their needs. This dichotomy allows for masculinity to flourish as it becomes an acceptable part of a seemingly well-functioning society.

In exploring the trajectory of masculinity, it is important to understand the continuum of violence women are subject to. Female infanticide and sex-selective abortions form just the beginning of what is the systematic erasure and discrimination of women in society. Boys and girls are soon separated and assigned different roles and ways of being in society once they become adolescent. Gender roles strengthen during this time where boys thrive on their privilege regarding autonomy and mobility. Females are confronted with sets of restrictions and confined to the domestic sphere1. Young men are then brought up in a society already dominated by men with little contact with women. This does well to assimilate male and female youth to the way sexuality and gender roles are prescribed generationally. These differences in advantage possess very real and detrimental social impacts upon future health and wellbeing of both men and women, as well as effects on reproductive behaviour.

Under the guise of a patriarchal masculinity, characterised by male sexual dominance and unequal gender roles, and coupled with a lack of sexual experience and knowledge, some men seek to affirm their manhood through sexual prowess1. This has a real detrimental impact upon women in society as the manner they choose to engage with their sexuality arises through channels of coercive sexual behaviour and sexual control. What is interesting to explore is that these actions seem to seek to display masculinity to other men above all else. Anxieties regarding sexual health, ideas about female sexuality, and attitudes towards male-to-male sex also work to link masculinity and sexuality together1.

There has also been discussion centred around the rapid globalisation of India, the propagation of sexual imagery, and the impact this has on sexuality2. The sheer speed of this has left little time for society to catch up with technology, the internet, and our globalised world. Sexuality has also shifted in the sense that it is gradually disassociating itself from the boundaries of marriage and is now being seen as a form of pleasure in discourse2. The fluidity of these ideas furthers the notion of sexuality as a dynamic and ever-changing phenomenon.

The masculinity I have discussed encourages and legitimates violence through conceptions that aggression and strong will are natural aspects of what it is to be male. How this interacts with the way male sexuality is formed and expressed becomes telling when one looks at the prevalence of sexual violence.

In order to tackle gender inequality, toxic masculinity needs to be challenged in all segments of society. Starting with the family all the way into wider society; as a collective force striving for a better world for women.


1. Verma, R. and Sharma Mahendra, V. (2004). Construction of Masculinity in India: A Gender and Sexual Health Perspective. The Journal of family welfare, 50(Special issue).

2. Rew, M. (2015). Masculinity and sexual violence in India. [online] iddbirmingham. Available at: https://iddbirmingham.wordpress.com/2015/09/10/masculinity-and-sexual-violence-in-india/ [Accessed 12 Dec. 2016].


Rupinder is an MA graduate whose interests lie in feminism, animal rights, and art. She is passionate about writing as a cultural tool and believes it has the power to create meaningful social change.