Becoming Young Men in a New India: Masculinities, Gender Relations, and Violence in the Postcolony
by Shannon Philip, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022
Reviewed by Maya Krishnan
The study of masculinity has increasingly gained attention from social scientists in India for several reasons. First, a consistent focus on gender-based violence, particularly in India’s urban settings, has necessitated deeper understandings of the social, political, and cultural milieu undergirding gender relations and persistent inequality in various forms. Second, beyond specific implications for gender-based violence, the study of masculinity in urban India reveals how recent economic and cultural shifts, such as India’s transition to neoliberalism and the effects of globalisation have changed the negotiation and performance of gender identities.
Against this background, Shannon Philip’s Becoming Young Men in a New India explores young men’s identities in New Delhi, India’s capital, using ethnographic vignettes. Philip argues that neoliberalism has produced a ‘New India’, in turn constructing a ‘New’ type of Indian man, whom he calls the ‘Urban Smart Strivers’. This new Indian man houses a multitude of gendered contradictions that are closely associated with the effects of neoliberalism, globalisation, and accompanying social and economic changes. Rather than focusing on economic changes and shifts in labour, Philips highlights the emergence of ‘a new set of equally important aspirations, consumer desires, and cultural practices’ related to new anxieties and aspirations around performing entrepreneurship, usefulness, and material success (p. 9).
The sociocultural restructuring of gender relations in turn influences how various spaces become governed by pervasive ideologies of Indian masculinities. Middle-class young men view violence towards women ‘as extraordinary acts of deviance by “evil” or “deranged” men’, while simultaneously perpetuating a ‘counter-narrative of middle-class men being “protectors” of women in the “naturally” unsafe city’ (p. 11). Further, they view their own acts of aggression towards women such as harassment in public spaces as ‘innocent fun’ and ‘not violence’ (p. 12). These ideologies fundamentally inform how scholars understand gender violence in India by centring ‘various sociological dimensions of Indian men, their masculinities and its myriad manifestations’ (p. 12). Philip therefore argues that without incorporating the sociospatial nature of masculinity, gender identity, and violence, scholars will continue to misunderstand the reality of gender-based violence in India.
Discourses of gender violence in Delhi, particularly since the 2012 Delhi gang rape also known as the Nirbhaya case,1 have highlighted both India and Delhi as dangerous for women. Central to this discourse is also increasing blame placed on the urban poor, who were framed as being largely responsible for the violence. Those in lower classes were characterised as uneducated, often backwards, and evil, and thus, the likely perpetrators of violence against women. In the aftermath of the 2012 case, the violence associated with the urban poor became directly linked to slums, their immediate built environment. The slum then became ‘firmly seen as the seedbed of gendered misogyny and the connection between a material “lack” amongst poorer men as the central cause of violence towards women in Indian cities’ (p. 141). Philips shows how, in the face of this discourse, the middle class is then seen as responsible for supporting the ‘burden’ of the lower classes, not only economically, but also by protecting India’s urban women.
Philip ultimately demonstrates that young men’s persona as protectors of the city and its women gives them an authority and claim over the city, its bodies, and ultimately the nation. This power over space, both physically and symbolically, directly links to Philip’s detailed descriptions of how these men are often the perpetrators of everyday, low-level violence such as catcalling and public sexual harassment. Enabled by their relatively high socioeconomic status, Philip’s interlocutors paradoxically feel both responsible for the discourse around gender violence in India while simultaneously perpetrating many of the kinds of incidents that contribute to the idea that Delhi is dangerous for women. It is through this particular paradox that men exercise their authority over whether women can exist safely in public and dictate which women are worthy of protection or respect in urban public spaces (p. 51).
Neoliberalism in India has increased educational and occupational opportunities for women. These changes have challenged traditional gender norms around both femininity and masculinity by creating more opportunities for women to be self-reliant and independent from men and increasing pressure for men to be financially successful and dependable. New conflicts around tradition and modernity have produced distinct ideas about which women are worth protecting and which exist for the purpose of entertainment or pleasure for men. Women who reject traditional gender norms and the protection ideology imposed by India’s urban middle-class men are often categorised by these men as immoral, too modern, or backwards and therefore vulnerable, while women who continue to embrace traditional expectations are deemed worthy of protection.
According to Philip, middle-class men’s entitlement and attempt to control urban spaces is ultimately quite fragile. He demonstrates how his interlocutors’ fidelity to commodified forms of masculinity represent both ideal types of traditional masculinity now coupled with newer trends around shopping and personal grooming and care which are important to appearing smart and entrepreneurial. The performance of this consumption-driven masculinity relies on intense homosocial bonds among these men. These bonds are encouraged and celebrated openly because they are seen as brotherly and therefore non-sexual or desexed (p. 86). However, Philip demonstrates that these brotherly bonds often transgress many of the boundaries constructed by traditional Indian masculinities by including openness with one another’s bodies and both can and do become sexual. Despite these inconsistencies of traditional masculinity among men, Philip argues that men continue to enact aggression and hostility towards more effeminate or untraditionally masculine men to sustain heteronormative and hierarchical gender relations.
The book explores these contradictions through detailed and compelling ethnographic vignettes. These reveal how Philip’s interlocutors symbolise a constantly negotiated bridge between the modern world, where men are expected to be simultaneously ‘smart and enterprising’ and connected to their family and ‘the old’ traditional values. Through different contexts such as Bollywood and media influence on masculine norms and standards, Philip centralises the concept of the ‘consumer citizen’ and how activities such as shopping have become a legitimately masculine activity as a representation of male dominance over public space. Other activities like ‘ghumne’, or roaming the city in vehicles, often while harassing women in public spaces, also facilitate the protector role men envision for themselves. These activities allow men to exercise their power and authority both symbolically and physically over public spaces and the women in them as both protectors and aggressors. This novel focus on the sociospatial aspect of urban gender identity and violence is the most compelling aspect of Philip’s analysis and the study as a whole.
Philip’s contributions in this study would benefit most from a more expansive and comparative understanding of masculinity in India, not only across different socioeconomic classes in urban spaces, but also within non-urban and rural geographies. His emphasis on power and protection of public space necessitates questions about how differently classed masculinities across different geographies view their authority over public space and their obligation to protect. The politics of gender violence in India, while often rooted in discourses around urban crime and safety, are also intricately related with urban/rural discourses and can reflect parallel, albeit different, clashes of tradition and modernity. Recent cases such as the 2020 Hathras District gang rape occurred in a rural area while it was publicised nationally and incited public mobilisation in Delhi and other urban centres.2 With the increasing reach of media, more focus is required on the effect of rural violence on urban publics and politics, differences in conflict between tradition and modernity, and ultimately different or similar obligations to protect women in rural versus urban public spaces. Non-urban and rural spaces therefore present unique differences to gender identity negotiation and performance that are integral to holistically conceptualising the relationship between power, space, and violence in India.
Philip’s analyses of urban masculinity are historically contingent upon the more recent changes brought about by the institutionalisation of neoliberalism and consumer-centric ideologies. These changes have had vast implications for social inequality, as evidenced clearly in Philip’s analysis. However, his focus on middle- to upper-class urban masculinities leaves significant gaps around how power and space are conceptualised by lower-class urban men. Philip demonstrates how these men are excluded from the new normative standards of consumer and urban citizenship and how discourse on urban gender violence has villainised poor, urban men. While Philip successfully demonstrates how these enterprising middle-class urban interlocutors are dangerous to urban women in their own ways, to more fully capture how masculinity, space, and violence interact in urban centres, representation of differently classed negotiations around masculinity, space, and urban citizenship is required.
Masculinity in India, particularly in Delhi, has been sorely understudied within the larger realm of research on gender-based violence in India. This book provides a holistic, compelling, and detailed qualitative analysis of the everyday negotiations of men in India’s capital. The analysis is largely interdisciplinary, including linguistic analysis, visual and media analysis, in addition to well-documented ethnographic encounters. Philip’s use of thick description and clearly theoretically grounded analyses places the reader as close to each interaction as possible and facilitates the successful placing of each vignette within the overall arc of Philip’s arguments about gender identity, space, and violence. The book sheds light on how large-scale economic and social changes have affected a significant population of India’s young men and the unique and contradictory implications these changes have on gender identity and performance. The analysis would be most compelling to qualitative scholars of gender-based violence and masculinities in the global South and particularly in more recently globalised settings. This research helps illuminate gendered contradictions in these settings, consisting of the interplay of power, space, and identity, integral to fully conceptualise and research gender violence, and form the best pathways to address it.
1. Philip demonstrates how the 2012 Delhi gang rape, also known as the Nirbhaya case, ‘struck a powerful chord nationally and internationally’, and played a large part in changing the social and political landscape of Delhi through changes to the Indian penal code and legislative procedures (p. 137). The case also contributed and continues to contribute to the idea that Delhi is dangerous, particularly for women. Pandey, Geeta (2020, March 20) ‘Nirbhaya case: four Indian men executed for 2012 Delhi bus rape and murder’, BBC.com. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-51969961.
2. Pandey, Geeta (2020, October 8) ‘Hathras case: a fatal assault, a cremation, and no goodbye’, BBC.com. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-54444933.
© 2023 Maya Krishnan