Opinionista Rumana Akoob 18 May 2018

Toxic masculinity in the South African Indian community

Rajesh Gopi’s racism speaks to the more generally high levels of racism, sexism and ableism that exist in South African Indian communities today.

Rajesh Gopi, an actor from Durban, recently posted the following on Facebook: “Yah, and the Baboons like soccer too much so they want to play with human heads.”

Gopi was commenting on the assault of a security guard and R2.6-million in damages to the stadium that were caused by Kaizer Chiefs fans after a 2-0 defeat to Free State Stars in the Nedbank Cup semi-finals.

Gopi’s racism speaks to the more generally high levels prejudice – racism, sexism and ableism – that exist in South African Indian communities today. It needs to be addressed.

If you, like me, are a woman from one of the Durban Indian townships or belong to the broader Indian community of South Africa, you’ll be able to relate to the experience of being badgered and harassed by Indian men.

Log on to Facebook and you will find your inbox flooded with insistent, repeated messages from someone you knew in high school or a family friend sharing a “very funny” sexist meme and/or unsolicited, unwanted flirtation. Not replying often only encourages further increasingly creepy messages.

Explicit rejection is out of the question and will turn you into a “slut”, “whore” or “cock teaser”. Post photos on Instagram and some sleazebag who is probably in a relationship will profess his love to you despite your thousands of clear rejections of his advances over a period of years.

Still more worrying is that it’s not only a culture of private prejudice that pervades and persists. It is also not just stalkerish lowlifes with 137 Facebook friends and multiple fake accounts who are doing this. It is also moderately successful, minor celebrities with huge followings on social media publicly performing their prejudice all over our time lines. When they do so (it always seems like just a matter of time), they are met with minimal opposition and heaped with fawning and praise. The reaction to would-be detractors is, as a rule, aggressive, vitriolic and malicious.

Gopi’s racism is just the latest in a string of examples which illustrate this form of naked prejudice from fairly well-known, moderately successful young up-and-coming Indian men. Many of the men displaying this bigotry are occupying public platforms as minor social media celebrities.

In this ego-driven industry of self-aggrandisement, where your own publicly branded personality is your main product, prejudice, which may otherwise lurk in the background and express itself in whispers, is launched with reckless abandon. There are too many examples to count.

Recently, Zameer Shaik posted a video on his Facebook page, The Socialpreneur, titled “Im tired of women trashing men”(sic). In the video, his first defence is a classic “#NotAllMen” which then morphs into open misogyny: “maybe your trashy ass p***y is attracting these trashy ass men?”.

In another video he calls women “bitches” after raving about us being timid at work but “screaming and swearing their families” at home. The list goes on. His uncontested bigotry for over a year continues to bring money in for him off the adverts on his videos.

And it is not just women who are targeted by their toxic masculinity. Gay men and people with disabilities are also favoured targets. Humour, as we will see, is often the convenient excuse given for these indiscretion. Note: the joke teller is always a heterosexual Indian man, the butt of the joke is always black, gay or a woman, if not all three. Coincidentally, we are to believe.

In 2017, an advertising company called iTen published a skit titled Coming Out Of The Closet, which plays on the devastating reality that many if not most queer people in the Indian community are not “out” to their parents and have to try to “come out”.

In the video, an Indian father explains that he did everything to make sure that his son would turn out gay (the not so subtle suggestion is that this is something which can be manufactured, not a lived reality), suggesting that he thought ballet and musicals (because being gay is about performance of homophobic stereotypes of homosexuality) were a guaranteed winner. The video ends with the father, Durban comedian Masood Boomgaard, saying his son cannot be straight because he likes the European soccer team, Liverpool, which apparently is a gay team to support (because gay is, of course, a generally usable pejorative for anything we don’t like). Though I can’t say much more about it here, I am currently personally being sued in a defamation suit for over a million rand by iTen because I had the nerve to call this behaviour out for what it is: flagrant homophobia.

Even more recently, Simmi Areff, a comedian from Johannesburg, tweeted a joke about the time when he actually pretended to have a disability to get free tickets to the 2010 Soccer World Cup in a section of Soccer City reserved for people with disabilities. Despite being called out publicly and privately by persons with disabilities and disability activists for months to acknowledge his wrongdoing and attempt to bully anyone who contested his views. If you want a prime example of a display of hyper-masculine aggression typical of the men used in these examples, listen to his filthy tantrum on his podcast in discussion with a seemingly bemused Lazola Gola. He even suggested at some stage that my public disagreement with him was at the request of a man: because, you know, women can’t have opinions without men’s help.

To Areff’s credit, however, after several months and being called out for further ableism, Areff did eventually apologise in a public statement in which he rightly apologised “unreservedly for my ableist bullshit”. This sets him apart from Masood, Zameer and Rajesh and displays a rare and welcome willingness to reflect that is an uncommon display of sensitivity from men in his position.

As Indian people committed to real equality for everyone, we need to question the role being played by the shining stars in our community in perpetuating prejudice. Our silence is our tacit agreement and affirmation of these shady men. It allows them to continue unabated and those who call the men out to be subjected to further patriarchal violence through isolation, public shaming and even spurious litigation.

But before we can call out this kind of prejudice we have to understand and acknowledge that it is born and bred in our very own communities. Take sexism for example. By and large, Indian men in South Africa – across religious divides – are raised and socialised to be the protector and carer of their sisters, mothers, aunts and daughters. It is not uncommon to hear that a daughter has a curfew, if she is even allowed out of the house, and her brother can return home whenever he chooses to. Sons’ lives are also more valued over a woman’s because “your son is gonna look after you when you grow old”.

It is precisely this cultural paternalism which allows men to make decisions for the women around them and gives them a sense of entitlement to these women.

Cultural and religious practices play a major role in this toxicity. Islam is often given as the reason why women are not supposed to be alone out of their homes without their fathers, brothers or uncles. The caste system, which has a firm home in Hinduism, something which South African Indians seldom discuss, filters into our families and communities from our grandparents, many of whom were born in India. For example, people with darker skin tones are presumed to be from a lower caste and unworthy of marriage to lighter skinned people. Even the word “beautiful” in Hindi, goree, is the same word commonly used to describe white women generally.

What prejudice we may avoid from our families and our religions creeps in through our idols. South African Indians continue to hold Gandhi in a god-like regard despite his overt casteism, sexism and racism and this cannot be raised in our families and communities for fear of reprisal.

Sadly, Gandhi’s own severe prejudice remains his truest legacy in South Africa. It lives in almost every Indian man today. At best, people will admit he was “a complicated man” but still a great man. There is nothing complicated about his romanticisation of caste, sexual assault of young women and comparison of black people to cows. We have enough Indian role models to look up to – Rahima Moosa, Fatima Meer, Laloo Chiba – without needing to valorise Gandhi whose apologetic approach to colonialism has made him so popular with white people all over the world.

The issues in our communities are layered, nuanced and complex. The emasculation and feeling of disenfranchisement of Indian men leads to a lot of anger. Colonialism, apartheid, white supremacy and continued white racism towards Indian people play a role in this emasculation. All too often, Indian men take out their frustrations on Indian women. They become bullies and abusers to the nearest available target: the women in their homes, schools and communities; disabled people, queer people and black people.

The only way to address this is to have real and serious consequences for these Indian men. We should be especially critical of those Indian men who trade on their own bigotry to build their public brands. They should face serious social consequences including boycotts and dressings-down from their families and religious communities for their shocking behaviour. And, perhaps most of all, we need to raise our sons differently, because hate is learned. DM

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