Collidoscope: Of Colonial Desire, Punjabi Male Cinema and ‘Good’ Masculinity

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Credit: Trina Shankar

Credit: Trina Shankar

Collidoscope is The Wire’s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society from across the world. You can subscribe to the Collidoscope newsletter here. If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.


Decolonising desire



What does it mean to be lovable?

That traditional, heteronormative, monogamous relationships are built on a gendered distribution of emotional labour has been argued several times. But does that mean that it is easier for those outside this problematic structure of love?

In an article on the Verso books blog, Dalia Gebrial gives an account of what it’s like to be excluded even from these frameworks. Rather than being liberating, she writes, this exclusion “denotes an entirely different set of racialised oppressions”.

What is often missing from accounts of the racial dynamics of ‘love’ and being ‘loved’ is an understanding of where these codes – of who can be loved, who cannot be loved and whose love matters – come from. Why do we have such a robust and universally understood racial grammar of desire, to the point where porn is literally categorised according to racist tropes?

An example of this, she says, are colonial artistic and literary representations of the Hottentot (for African women) and harem (for women from “the Orient”) that was an insight into how these women were perceived. Their desirability was based on the ability to ‘possess’ them or on a complete objectification of their racial bodies. They were ‘exotic’, therefore erotic. Their bodies are then tools for the colonial man’s self-discovery.

This desire for the ‘exotic’ though, is accompanied by a xenophobic revulsion and stereotyped sexuality, Gebrial writes. “The Hottentot – a hallmark image of 19th Century eugenics – was continually associated in both art and medical literature with unbridled, pathologised sexuality. Diagrams of African women’s vulvas were preoccupied with what was perceived to be an ‘overdevelopment’ of the clitoris and labia. This was portrayed as a signifier of a biologically determined sexual excess ‘proving’ their pathological and animalistic nature.”

This vocabulary and thought process was then easily transferred into the racist ideology and material needs of slavery, according to Gebrial’s analysis. African women, with their “over sexuality”, were seen as constant providers of children – or more slaves – to the slave owners. The rape of black women was not recognised by law in the period. “The construction of black womanhood as animalistic, hypersexualised commodities made them situated them outside any discourse of consent or sexual agency, and excused the lack of legal and social support provided for African American assault survivors.”

African women weren’t the only ones in the US whose sexuality was constructed as ‘abnormal’, ‘unchaste’, ‘undomestic’ (all in opposition to the construction of a Victorian woman), writes Gebrial. Representation of other sexually marginalised sections, such as sex workers or queer women, was similar.

But where does all of this leave us today? In the context of the US, Gebrial thinks “the legacies of these colonial scripts have adapted magnificently to contemporary culture – and television, film and music videos allow for their wider dissemination, particularly in the West”. Popular culture still often throws in racial fetishes as stereotypes as a legitimate form of desire – she uses the example of David Bowie’s ‘China Girl’ (“I could escape this feeling with my China Girl/ I feel a wreck without my little China Girl”).

Gebrial’s article, of course, is set in the specific context of the US. But the  wider argument she makes can easily be transported to other parts of the world  – closest to home would be the racial stereotypes many in India associate with women from the Northeast, who are often represented as “over sexualised”. The same has been said of Dalit women – sexual violence against them is higher, some have argued, because the Brahmanical notion of purity isn’t attached to their bodies.

But where does that leave us? She isn’t arguing that you stop believing in the possibility of love or the goodness of it; she is asking that you question it. It’s not about individual relationships but larger structural discrimination, a societal code that regulates who we desire, who we love and who we see as worthy. In Gebrial’s words, “to believe – as Fanon says – in the possibility of love, we must comprehend the fact that we do not obliviously fall into it, but are coded in and out of it, and that this has implications beyond our individualised experiences.”


Masculinities in Pakistani Punjabi cinema

A still from <em>Maula Jatt</em>. Credit: Youtube

The actor Sultan Rahi in a still from Maula Jatt. Credit: Youtube

What makes for a “real” man?

While Gebrial talks about how women of colour are perceived in a hierarchical society, Iqbal Sevea’s article in BioScope is the construction of an “ideal” man in Punjabi movies in Pakistan. His argument is based on the character of Maula Jatt, who emerged in the 1970s and has been the protagonist of several films that depict a strong, macho, violent hero out to save the honour of his community or family using force.

This kind of cinema, according to Sevea emerged in opposition to how filmi heroes were portrayed before that – soft-spoken, educated, urban, dressed in Western clothes and preoccupied with thoughts of nation-building in a young Pakistan. Maula Jatt and others like him were put forth almost in opposition to this idea of an ideal man; they were from rural areas, dressed in traditional kurtas, spoke rural Punjabi, used violence as a primary mode of communication and were preoccupied with thoughts of ‘honour’ and revenge. This expression of masculinity, he writes, is associated with the term kharaak. “While an etymological analysis of the term kharaak is beyond the scope of this article, it is useful to note that it literally describes a loud sound that can startle or scare. This could include the sound of lightning, a door slamming, or a canon being fired. In colloquial Punjabi, however, its meaning has evolved to one that both describes an act (i.e., doing or engaging in kharaak) and an ability/quality. In the latter sense, the term comes to describe the ability of someone to engage in kharaak and is often used to describe the power of someone to overwhelm others.”

What I found interesting about Sevea’s article was his reference to the two ways masculinity is projected in this films: both in terms of gender and caste. The women in the Maula Jatt series are the holders of honour; the job of the real man is to protect them. While this isn’t surprising, Sevea also makes it a point to highlight the part women play in supporting these male characters. According to him, many times they challenge the men, waiting for masculinities to come out in even sharper forms before giving in. While describing the plot of one the films, Sevea writes:

“Maula is subsequently mocked by other members of his family for having accepted a woman from his enemy’s family as his sister. Interestingly, Maula is particularly shaken by the taunts that he receives from his sister-in-law, Dhani. Dhani challenges Maula by stating that he would have displayed his kharaak if “he had given her such a stain that her brother’s would have hung themselves to their deaths in their mansion” instead of “turning into a protective brother of an enemy.” Here, Dhani represents the sole female character type (either a mother or a sister-in-law) who plays a key role in both controlling and unleashing masculinities. There is a direct parallel here between the character of Dhani in the film and Maula’s mother in Qasmi’s “Gandhasa.” In the short story, Maula’s mother is depicted as someone who demands that he stays firmly on the path of seeking violent revenge despite his own misgivings at times. In fact, there is a very telling line where Maula laments to his mother that she does not even allow him to cry (Qasmi, 2007). Essentially, both Dhani and the mother represent characters that force Maula to live by—and enact—a code of masculinity. In fact, Dhani’s rhetoric on rape, honor, and shame reifies and normalizes patriarchal gender norms and codes. The role of mothers or mother-like figures in forcing men to behave in masculine ways should not come as a surprise as mothers have played an important role in imparting notions of manliness to their wards and socializing them.”

Masculinity in Punjabi cinema is used not only to portray men as fundamentally different from women in terms of their strength and ideals, but create a hierarchy among men depending on who is seen as more hyper-masculine. Men from other castes, though often depicted as friends who have other qualities, are portrayed as hoping to achieve the kind of strength and power that Maula Jatt possesses, looking up to him as a superior because of his ability to physically defeat others.

I have to admit, I have not seen the Maula Jatt films and still do not feel any inclination to do so. It does, though, remind one of several other films. But Sevea’s article is interesting because it hints at how social realities depict themselves in popular culture, and how this culture changes according to changing social and political times. This is clearly reflected in what he says about how Punjabi cinema changed depending on the political regime:

“…it is important to note that Zia’s period, much more so than that of Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, asserted the importance of having one strong male leader who would be able to use coercion and force to administer justice. Zia’s reign also had significant gender implications as his attempts at developing an Islamic state largely rested on defining the proper space of women in the state and society—that is, placing them under the guardianship of men. This in turn resulted in a greater emphasis on the moral regulation of women by their families and, more specifically, by men.”


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‘Real men don’t hit women’

Credit: Twitter/UN HeForShe campaign

Credit: Twitter/UN HeForShe campaign

That’s something you often see in campaigns to prevent gender violence, especially ones run by governments and political parties. It’s a public service announcement telling you that if you think violence against women is a way of expressing your masculinity, you’re wrong. You’re not a ‘real man’. But the idea that there is something out there that is a ‘real man’ isn’t questioned – even encouraging the idea that protecting women (as the weaker sex) is part of this ‘real man’s’ duties.

In an article in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, Michael Salter talks about why exactly this idea of a ‘real man’ is a problem. The version of the ‘real man’ may look very different from the one Sevea is talking about at first glance, but look closer and there are clear similarities: both are preoccupied with ideas of honour and protection. He starts off with a quote from actor and UNDP goodwill ambassador Antonio Banderas, who said in a 2014 video, “As a male and as an artist I believe that women are a source of life – and poetry. Not even with a rose petal should women be offended or abused … Hitting or abusing a woman is an act of cowardice. Real men don’t hit women.”

Campaigns like the one with Banderas, Salter argues, still rely on the “regressive” idea that there is such a thing as ‘real masculinity’. Looking at two campaigns in Australia, he argues that certain campaigns against violence against women forget the feminist tenet that gender norms are constructed:

“While international human rights and public health documents have emphasised (if they haven’t examined in detail) the relationship between gender norms and gender inequality, prominent VAW primary prevention frameworks in Australia have struggled to maintain this balance. Instead, they have tended to marginalise structural forms of inequality by conflating them with, or subsuming them to, gender norms.”

What these campaigns do, Salter argues, is focus solely on gender norms (thus making a distinction between ‘good’ norms and ‘bad’ norms) rather than focussing on gender inequality. By using only norms, organisations end up using harmful stereotypes whenever they suit them (such as men being protectors). “By failing to situate gender norms within the structural inequalities in which they take shape, VAW prevention activities are at risk of circulating representations of masculinity that naturalise and legitimise the social contexts of VAW,” he writes.

So what are these qualities of the ‘real man’? In most cases, Salter writes, these campaigns valorise male protection and strength. In a way they’re also a threat: if you do hit women, not only are you not a real man, but these real men will come after you. Salter takes the instance of campaign poster that uses a myriad of blue-collar male workers, standing with their arms crossed.

“In this campaign approach, ‘real masculinity’ is embodied by men in working-class, male-dominated jobs. The message is clear: ‘Real men’ have ‘real jobs’ and don’t hit women. These representations of ‘real men’ accord with taken-for-granted social logics about respectable working-class masculinities; however, this is a problematic approach for campaigns that claim prevent VAW for multiple reasons. These campaigns function to celebrate the ‘real masculinity’ of men in workforces from which women have been historically excluded. It is precisely the marginalisation of women from sections of the workforce that increases the likelihood of sexual harassment and promotes workplace cultures supportive of VAW. Sexist divisions of labour contribute to women’s financial insecurity, their economic dependence upon a partner and hence their vulnerability to VAW.”

While I agree with Salter’s analysis of why using the idea of a ‘real man’ only reinforces gender inequalities rather than diminishing them, his paper’s focus is rather narrow (on campaigns against gender violence). Work has also been done on how these ideas of what a ‘real man’ is affect men who may not conform to the heterosexual strong male stereotype, and a mention of that would also have been useful.

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