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South Asian (Men)tal Health

Liberation Work Isn't Just Women's Burden

To consider men as oppressed and needing liberation can be seen as curious. Liberate men from what and to do what? No doubt, not all men are oppressed. But some men do need liberation because they can never simply be men, because some men may be socially dominant over women but they may experience oppression as sexual minorities or part of the racialized underclass. Some men need liberation from coloniality, racism, hetero-patriarchy, and vampiristic capitalism. Many men need liberation from the structures that induce them to support the very ideologies that injure them, impoverish them, marginalize them, and treat them as not fully human. - Professor Kopano Ratele

In my role as the Vice President of MannMukti, a mental health resource website for South Asians, I’ve realized that this conversation of the place and role of men in the mental health movement (and progressive, stigma-breaking work at large) is necessary for two reasons.


First, because college is the earliest point of engagement for many Desi/South Asian folks with questions about identity and belonging that goes beyond shared experiences with traditional clothing, food, and Bollywood. The second is because it’s the site of formative experiences with leadership, engaging people who are looking for a group of friends (or who aren’t sure what they’re looking for yet), and a lot of unprecedented challenges that challenge one’s integrity along the way.

The gender skew both in who have been founding chapters at their campuses and the demographics of our chapters’ programming attendees lean heavily towards women, and this is not too different from the statistics reflecting how 73% of all nonprofit employees are women. So how are we ever going to claim to be organizing in the name of advocating for liberation from the multiple interfacing oppressive forces that shape our realities if our men are largely disengaged from the work of reflection, action, and movement building?


 In evaluating why this is the case, I’ve had to examine my own value systems and get a sense of how women, who I’ve met over the past few years through various spaces and organizations, feel as well. There were several disparate answers, and more surprising has been how these women noted that I have been the first person to ask them how they feel about this skew. We’ve become so desensitized and resigned to the idea that the labor of transforming cultural norms has been immutably assigned to us, that the idea of another reality seems incredible. 

In spaces outside of MannMukti where I have worked or organized alongside South Asian men, the results varied. Sometimes, they’d been empathetic and committed to work without any expectation of recognition or accolades - the way that work of this nature should always be. But we lacked the tools to navigate what to do when they violated our trust, used the patriarchy to intimidate and threaten, and most dangerously when they demanded without justification that they were entitled to a position of leadership or authority, even if it wasn’t reflected in the quality or quantity of their contributions or was evident in their treatment of their perceived inferiors that they weren’t deserving.

A pandora’s box awaited me when I informally interviewed my family, friends, and sisters in struggle. Some described how the structure of Desi families necessitated a capitalist and individualist orientation for our male peers; that that was why men consequently situated their direct experiences with racism to personal moments rather than associating them with structural and institutional inequities; and that that was then why they more prone to apathy when it came to critical analysis of the state and colonialism; and that living in this American society as a whole almost inevitably required that they buy into dominant white male notions of desirability politics and assimilation. When combined with class privileges, they arguably have the option to perform their culture when they’d like (if at all) and fight for proximity to the ruling class at the expense of notions of community whenever they’d like.

There were three primary sentiments: one that believed that if it was women’s responsibility, that we were still entitled to demonstrate a grudging acceptance of it; another that firmly believed that this labor should be done by the small number of male allies already involved in a given space; and the third believed in compromise of those two, in which where younger men and boys in addition to our future sons would be the area of focus, but that peers and uncles were already beyond our reach and would just individually choose to care to invest in their own change.

I align the most with the first belief, but it’s hard to sustain. Frankly, it’s also a recent shift for me because I went through the second and third ones. So in trying to piece together a personal philosophy that’s made up of useful paradigms, I’ve found the concepts of radical love and the ethics of care.

Professor Ralph Rodriguez wrote in the Brown Daily Herald that, “Radical love is a love that gives the benefit of the doubt, that affirms and questions, that holds its skepticism at bay to allow a raw thought to develop, that understands accountability not as a zero sum game, that doesn’t draw lines in the sand, that doesn’t believe in (to borrow a phrase from Edward Said) solidarity without criticism, that understands that rifts can heal and that we need not divide ourselves from one another during that healing. It also understands that there may be moments when toxicity reaches such a level that, out of self-care and self-love, one has to pull back and find new alliances. A radical love can foster and enrich community.” I love this summary because it’s poetic, encompassing, and within reach for me because it accepts that radical love doesn’t mean committing to burning out in the name of the greater good.


It understands that people can’t pour from empty cups.

The ethics of care is a moral theory first introduced by Carol Gillian that embodies “an ethic of resistance to the injustices inherent in patriarchy (the association of care and caring with women rather than with humans, the feminization of care work, the rendering of care as subsidiary to justice—a matter of special obligations or interpersonal relationships). A feminist ethic of care guides the historic struggle to free democracy from patriarchy; it is the ethic of a democratic society, it transcends the gender binaries and hierarchies that structure patriarchal institutions and cultures. An ethics of care is key to human survival and also to the realization of a global society.” 

It’s hard to return to these modes of thinking because it feels easier to fall into their counterpoints of self-preservation, anger, and the sharp edges of cancel culture. Honestly, I do get angry because too often things have made me feel that community work is futile, that these modes of thinking are naive, and that perhaps only uniquely spiritually enlightened people have the wherewithal to hold their mental health and peace in the face of being repeatedly disappointed by reality.


So to preserve my mental health, I’ve made conscious decisions around choosing my battles; engaging in only the conversations where I see openings for receptivity; and remembering that I always benefit from the work of people before me and who are committed alongside me. That I am not the first and I am not alone. I take comfort in knowing that there is no pressing timeline and that revolutions must start with sparks. 


It’s already begun of course. MannMukti’s male leadership inherently demonstrates that mental health, mental illness, and trauma are subjects that we all need to unpack. But what we will need more of as we move forward is vulnerability that is not read as weakness. Writing this piece has been both cathartic and intimidating because I’m idealistic, likely to a fault. But idealism can be healthy, in small doses. It keeps the door open for seeing the best in people, to prioritize forgiveness before rejection, and for restorative justice instead of retributive justice.

As my division in MannMukti grows and I stay connected to the young people who are committed to wanting a better world for Desi people, I will keep thinking about how, as Professor Ratele said, “men need liberation from the structures that induce them to support the very ideologies that injure them, impoverish them, marginalize them, and treat them as not fully human.” Because it’s a facet of our collective mann mukti, mental liberation that is holding us all back from a freer and happier state of being.


Main artwork has been produced by South Asian Today's designer, Sahana Arun aka @thegigglypufff

About the author

Shivani is a Cornell alumna and budding South Asian American racial and immigrant rights advocate. She is a member of the New York City Chapter of National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum and serves on the executive committee of MannMukti, a South Asian mental health nonprofit, as the Vice President of University Chapters.

Instagram:  @abrowngirlrising / Tweets: @browngirlrising




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