Published: 25th September 2020
Men can't talk about abuse: How the Insta campaign 'Mardaangi' is changing this stereotype one post at a time
Two teenagers Siddhant and Paavani tell us how their Instagram initiative Mardaangi is creating a safe space for men to tell their stories of sexual assault
Mardaangi or masculinity — what does the word mean when we say it out loud? It has always been associated with machismo in the Indian culture. But what if it also meant sharing your feelings, your emotions? That is exactly what these two teenagers from Delhi are trying to advocate through their campaign Mardaangi. Siddhant Talwar (19) and Paavani Ojha (18) started the Mardaangi initiative on Instagram in 2018, creating a safe space for men to share their stories of abuse, sexual assault and eventually, provide them with legal and social resources to deal with their experiences.
Siddhant, a student of Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Tufts University in Massachusetts, and Paavani, who just graduated high school, were doing their fellowship with Young Leaders for Active Citizenship (YLAC) Counter Speech with Instagram in New Delhi at the time. The fellowship helps students start conversations digitally and teaches them digital advocacy based on specific social issues. "I have grown up queer and was coming out around that time. I was also having a lot of conversations around masculinity with friends. I had decided to cover stories of body positivity in men, like document their experiences, how the stereotypes related to masculinity stop a lot of them from expressing themselves and more. It was a small photo project, we were two kids taking photos of our friends talking about their perceptions of what it's like to be a man, how they would change the existing parameters, etc. Even with this seemingly clichéd content, the sort of response we got on Instagram was overwhelming — a lot of DMs and comments. That's how it started and we realised that this project might become something bigger. At the end of that year, we got a lot of survivors of male sexual assault coming to us and narrating their stories. Immediately, we realised that if we are going to do this, we have to handle this really well, carefully and sensitively. That led us into a lot of research that we both did on sexual assault, how male victims are abused in India and so on," recalls Siddhant.
Why can't men speak up about assault? | Illustration: Freya Gupta
Eventually, the teenagers began documenting the stories that came in on their Instagram page. For the anonymous submissions, the team started talking to and collaborating with illustrators to depict those stories tastefully. At the same time, the duo was also talking to lawyers for legal support and to NGOs for the social aspect, they also collaborated with organisations that do similar work. With Mardaangi, Siddhant and Paavani have been trying to de-stigmatise talking about male sexual abuse and have public conversations about it. "We are still a society that will judge men if they come out and say that they have been sexually assaulted. In our society, the sexual assault of a man is often not taken seriously. There is a lot of taboo in this area and we need to have larger conversations. I am glad we could start somewhere with Mardaangi," states Siddhant.
We then ask the youngsters, how Mardaangi got people to tell their stories in the first place? "A lot of people wanted to tell their stories but there was no such space for it, our platform just created that safe space. We also had anonymous stories, matched them with artists and they illustrated the story. We need to talk about these instances more in our country to sensitise the masses, we don't have enough conversations right now. When a male survivor of abuse speaks up, the first thing we do is question them. While speaking up about harrowing experiences you do not wish to be questioned, you don't want to prove that you were a victim. I feel these conversations should begin at the ground level, like in schools where sex education is extremely important and should be included in the mainstream curriculum," he adds.
A page from the Mardaangi booklet | Illustration: Dipti Jain
Siddhant takes us back to the 'Bois locker room' incident which happened early this year on Instagram. "That incident led to the starting of the conversation at the school level. We are a part of that generation, in that network where people were and still are directly/indirectly affected by the incident. And we really wanted to continue that conversation of how to navigate online spaces safely, what to do when you see harassment taking place and a lot of other related information out there. While there are a lot of organisations that already provide such information, we thought we would do something that makes it easier for even a 13-year-old to understand," explains the 19-year-old.
The duo came up with a booklet that was released recently called the Mardaangi Booklet for Navigating Online Spaces and Sexual Abuse, which deals with bystander intervention, consent and a whole lot more. It's interactive and made in a way that teenagers can go through and understand easily. They have plans to gradually get educational institutes on board to include this in their curriculum. "That process is still underway, we are slowly making progress on that front. The 82-page free resource has comics, exercises, activities, links to other resources, steps on how to report cybercrime in India, what portals you can use and much more. We want the booklet to serve as the first step towards learning about sexual assault, dealing with abuse, how to make your online experience safe," elaborates Siddhant.
As a country, we have a long way to go in normalising the conversations about male abuse, says the youngster. "Especially the representation in the media is flawed, Bollywood movies making fun of men getting abused, people on social media using male sexual assault as a rebuttal to women sharing their stories — all of this have to be altered. We saw that during the #MeToo movement, people were trivialising the issue and saying it is only valid when you invalidate someone else's story. A lot of it stems from misogyny, patriarchy, toxic masculinity and such structures. We need to have a larger discussion about these issues," concludes Siddhant.
Edex and The New Indian Express have been curating the 40 Under Forty list since 2017. We featured collections of impactful grassroots teachers in 2017, innovative start-ups in 2018 and environmental impact-makers in 2019. All the people selected have been chosen after a careful process of editorial selection and nomination. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org