As a teenager, I had a recurring nightmare. It involved my feet turning to concrete, making me incapable of walking fast enough past building compound walls, adorned with the teenage boys, like roof-gutter gargoyles, idiocies pouring out of their mouths. However (it may have been a peculiarity of just my neighbourhood), the comments were very rarely threatening. Those boys would startle you into looking at them, “Girlie! Girlie! Your bicycle wheels are turning!” or try to get you to interact, “Ball please! Thank you!” though they knew you knew the ball had been thrown into the road on purpose.

I once saw a bunch of boys at a distance have a quick conversation as I approached. My walk rendered robotic with dread, as I passed, they went, ‘Yuucccckkkk’ in unison. I tried my best but it cracked me up. Watching me laugh, they fell about laughing themselves, grinning at me. This was not what we now call street sexual harassment. For one thing, they were familiar faces. More importantly, they were sometimes with young girls of our acquaintance. At a time when general interaction between the genders was often judged harshly, this was our version of the Facebook friend request.

Of course, it wasn’t always friendly or kind. Sometimes, a boy would not get it. He would come across as threatening. He would turn up despite being told the girl involved had no interest in him. But it rarely got out of hand. It was kept “under control”. Perhaps unique to that time or my neighbourhood, those boys (now middle-aged men, my contemporaries) will tell you how they’d confront anyone breaking “the code” – “Don’t mess with her, she lives in my building”, “Leave her alone, or I’ll get my mum to talk to your mum”. In the worst of cases, there would be social ostracism, quiet threats or at worst, a “correctional” beating.

These boys policed each other. I don’t see any of that anymore.

Growing misogyny?

It is forgivable to lapse into pre-emptive aggression when you see one of those increasingly ubiquitous groups of young men in urban India, walking shoulder to shoulder or standing in a huddle, bristling with the potential for violence (their motorcycle or train roof stunts, their catcalling, their “accidental” bumping into you), egging each other on.

There are almost never any girls in these groups. Is rising cultural conservatism keeping them indoors? Or that vicious circle of men usurping public spaces, translating into more women choosing to remain (or be kept) inside, where it is “safe”. There is also the horrifying possibility that we are now seeing a public manifestation of our gender deficit, what this New York Times blog called India’s Man Problem, where “men in groups” develop “the distinctive outcast subculture that binds them together and their lack of ‘stake’ in the existing social order” predisposes them “to organised social banditry”.

Anecdotally, it seems like there is a rise in the number, audacity and intensity of misogynistic incidents of street harassment. While, like all women, I audit (location, wardrobe, time of day, whether it’s a public holiday or not) the environment for risk, I consider myself, at 42, up to most situations especially in familiar territory. Still, a member of a biker gang wheeled up too close as I jogged on a road (as I have for years, in my hitherto safe neighbourhood) and I felt an unfamiliar sense of fear. I would normally have lectured the boy, but his all male herd standing behind him, jeering, made me suspect this would end badly. Worse, as a regular on that stretch, I didn’t want to be targeted in the future. The bitterness of the loss of a once incontestably safe space made me physically sick.

I took to Twitter, asking if some big Indian movie star with fervent, culturally-diverse mass appeal, might change the average Indian male’s attitude to women.

In a conversation that followed my tweet, Danish Hussain disagreed with me. Hussain’s deep, multi-faceted involvement in theatre and film (as director, actor, poet, etc) means he interacts with young men, actors, from around the country, every day. The culture within the industry itself was rife with stories of toxic masculinity and he often found, he said, “that men are oblivious or ignorant of the attitude or opinion of the woman they’re attracted to and think she will come around irrespective of her feelings. I think it is a Hindi cinema hangover where every young man sees himself in the mould of a universally accepted hero.”

Boys into men

If it seems like sexist, popular cinema is all Indians have on some days in lieu of an evolved, cultural education, these behaviours are also exacerbated by societal and parental ignorance or neglect. For example, all over the world, teachers and educators perceive boys as being harder to educate and discipline in school.

In this Psychology Today piece about the burdens of carrying the Y-chromosome, you are reminded that boys experience violence and physical bullying from an early age. Boys and young men struggle with impulse control and are more likely to take risks with safety or money to raise their status with peers or impress women. And boys, told they “will be boys”, are not taught how to create a supportive social network, but plied instead with maxims like “be a man”, “don’t cry like a girl”.

As we fight to make things better for women, we must not forget how hard it is to be a boy or a young man.

An edited version of a viral video doing the rounds recently, features a martial arts instructor gently counselling a young boy about his emotions, especially about it being okay to cry. Not many people have watched the latter half of the video which features the boy’s father and an example of the work the instructor Jason Wilson’s organisation in Detroit does to help men break negative cycles and build “character”. There is a religious angle to Wilson’s foundation, but in India, a similar initiative was created around our main religion: Cricket.

Parivartan, a program launched by International Centre for Research on Women in association with Futures Without Violence that uses sport to teach boys to be men, was launched in 2012 with no less than Sachin Tendulkar as ambassador. I admit I did not have much luck gauging the success of the initiative but the program materials featuring a detailed handbook and curriculum cards are available to anyone. The material covers everything from defining manhood and exploring the expectations of being a man to socially imperative ideas like personal accountability and how young men represent the personality and values of their communities with their every public action.

Respect for women runs through the course, with important guidelines about how to deal with crushing peer pressure. Ways to counter “organised social banditry” are important when, as Hussain says, the fallout of refusing to go to a brothel with college friends, to dance bars with office colleagues or avoiding “locker room talk” featuring sexual conquests can result in “being ignored, derided and socially ostracised”. Like many men I know, he now confronts sexism when he sees it. “The unlearning depends from person to person,” he says. “I guess it helps if we are taught early to be self-critical, to handle feedback, to question things.”

This research on role models and occupational ambitions of male teens in school was undertaken in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, but the results may be applicable to a large majority of young Indian men. Film stars featured high in the list of role models, followed by teachers, parents and sportsmen.

For my part, I’ve decided to call the college those boys are from and speak to them seriously about implementing the Parivartan program. Maybe it is a man’s job to provide these boys accessible, inspiring, intuitive male role models. And a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. Now someone, please go tell a film star.