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The GendV Project

Urban Transformation and Gendered Violence in India and South Africa


Futures of Masculinity

Leslee Udwin, Dr. Shannon Philip, Kushal Sohal

Transforming masculinity is one of the most pressing matters in our world today. The process of men being badly programmed into 'toxicity' is vital to the sustainability of patriarchy; a system of oppression in which a cis-gendered heterosexual masculinity characterised by power, competitiveness, and disregard for emotional vulnerability dominates other gender identities and expressions. Such masculinity manifests in violently unhealthy ways for the self and society. To transform masculinity and heal in the direction of love and care, it is vital to imagine an alternative. We can do this by building Futures Literacy. Futures Literacy is the skill that concerns exploring the innate human capacity to imagine. By developing an understanding of how the future shapes what we see and do, we enhance an awareness of the sources of our hopes and fears, develop an ability to question assumptions, and build capabilities to chart novel and creative directions for change.

On 25 May 2022, a public webinar took place. Its design was inspired by the Futures Literacy Laboratory (FLL) tool developed by UNESCO. The conversation grappled with probable, preferable and reframed futures for masculinity, asking new questions and proposing next steps for action in the present. Kushal Sohal, a Next Generation Foresight Practitioner (NGFP) with the School of International Futures (SOIF) and a Consultant with the UNESCO Futures Literacy team, facilitated a conversation with two individuals who have set out to transform masculinity, Leslee Udwin and Dr. Shannon Philip. Leslee Udwin is the award-winning documentary filmmaker of ‘India’s Daughter’ (2015) and the founder of the global education initiative ‘Think Equal’. Dr. Shannon Philip is a sociologist at the University of Cambridge exploring masculinities in India and South Africa, his book ‘Becoming Young Men in New India’ was published in June 2022 with Cambridge University Press.  

Noting the importance of preventative rather than reactive education, Leslee’s opening contribution highlighted how the foundations to healthy, emotionally intelligent mindsets that respect difference, value inclusion and champion equity have to be in place before a human reaches the age of 6. Shannon built on this necessity, noting a contradiction between male expressions of love and violence, the importance of seeing masculinity in relation to other gender identities and expressions, and the need for radical systemic change if a new script is to be written. 

Journeying into the future, the participants began with an exploration of probable futures for masculinity in 2050. For Leslee, without an educational transformation akin to what Think Equal envisages and is indeed achieving at present across 22 countries in 6 continents, we will move towards further violence amid climate collapse. She highlighted male dominating elements to oppression such as casteism, gender-based violence and classism, all of which are systemic. The probable future would not succeed in doing away with such artificial divides and discriminations unless there is an educational transformation leading to a change of mindset. Leslee maintains (and shows much evidence for this) that such an education needs to take place in children before the age of 6, while their brain architecture is still developing and their behaviours and attitudes are still optimally modifiable. Shannon elaborated further on this point, highlighting how structures of violence such as capitalism and colonialism construct inferior-superior categories. These systems are weights of the past and present phenomena that threaten to curtail a transformation of masculinity. One idea expressed was that that gender may be reproduced without the misogynistic actor themselves - so that individual cis-het men may not have bad intentions towards their wives and girlfriends, but their relationships with each other, the relationship between masculinities and femininities, may continue to remain unequal. Though there may be less sexual violence on paper in the world, Shannon argues that without deep structural change the cis-het male policing of women and their lifestyle choices through coercive control would continue - a sense of deep gendered inequality would remain. This is what various queer-feminist scholars call the ‘post-feminist myth’, where feminism seems irrelevant because ‘women have now achieved equality’ without ever deeply changing the inequalities between masculinities and femininities and patriarchal power. Hence for critical feminists, there has to be a transformation of the gender system and the way both men and women, and masculinities and femininities are created and relate to each other in everyday life. 

What then would be a desirable future? Shannon began reflections with a focus on the idea of a genderless future. A world where bodies existed beyond binaries, where it was ‘not straight vs. gay but people who have different kinds of sexualities and relationships, not tied to marriage and heterosexist, monogamous two children living in a house system.’ The desirable may share elements with the pre-colonial past, where more nuanced ideas of gender, body and personhood existed in places like India and South Africa. Indeed, colonialism came with its ideas of marriage, monogamy, heterosexuality and homophobia. Referring to the work of sociologist Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí (1), Shannon noted that the pre-colonial past might give hope for a world without the gender binary. In this world without categories, there would be children born without a need to be labelled and pre-defined but free and able to explore their sense of self. Parenting boundaries would be fluid and the care of a child would be the responsibility of the community. This would all be in a society freed of capitalism, and the violence of nations and borders. The desirable would be a world where equality was substantive, where everybody was empowered with respect for human diversity. Building on these ideas, Leslee Udwin noted the need to give space for the uniqueness of people and the growth of collective emotional intelligence. There would be no law and policing, but instead practices of restorative justice and community accountability in a desirable future. Not only would 'toxic' expressions of masculinity not exist in this desirable future, but masculinity itself would be a redundant label. Instead, there would be expressions of love and plurality in personhood.

Behind these many images of probable and preferable visions of the future are anticipatory assumptions. Anticipatory assumptions are natural and necessary for sense-making, and yet they simultaneously limit our capacity to see and embrace novelty. It is critical we build awareness of how assumptions shape what we anticipate. To challenge assumptions, participants were presented with a new set of parameters, a reframed scenario. This alternative world mirrored a flock of birds in the sky, people were organised as if in a murmuration - fluid and emergent with no single leader. There would be no formal educational spaces in such a society. What might this mean for masculinity? 

Reflecting on these parameters, Shannon wondered about the murmuration of inequalities. Without equitable ways of murmuring, violence towards queer bodies, urban-rural divides, social media polarisation and inequalities across society would persist. Yet, in a murmuring society where structures were not absolute, a transformative capability seemed possible. Leslee noted the importance of the right values being murmured, empathy must be experienced and socio-emotional competencies developed. The nature and formality of the space in which it occurred was not the primary concern, the content is what holds most meaning. But if it cannot be prescriptive, there would be difficulty in ensuring the complex, desirable transformation was taking place. Moving into a consideration of new questions that emerged from the activities, the participants wondered… 

  • How can we make somebody want equality where it means giving up power and privilege?
  • What value does equality actually hold? Why is desiring equity desirable?
  • Outside formal educational spaces, how can we experience the socio-emotional competencies we need?

Amid hyper-capitalism and rising inequities, a new way of learning emerged as a vital focus point, but is this not a way of learning we have always needed? Could the core socio-emotional values be experienced through Netflix documentaries? Or in casual social gatherings under a tree? The challenge is to stimulate mass transformation rather than the mindset change of just one individual.

Considering the next steps that could be taken in light of the insights that emerged from the futures literacy activities, Shannon highlighted the need to address ‘backlash’ - the rise of 'toxic' masculine, rightwing, religious fundamentalism that feels ‘threatened’ by allegedly ‘fluffy values’ of equity and the prospect of societies where different communities share power. Whether it be Donald Trump or Narendra Modi, a focus needs to be on transforming the insecurity and paranoia that is so often tapped into by such politicians, and thereby reimagine love between people. For Leslee, the backlash and the problems that already exist appear to go hand in hand. Masculinity does not exist in isolation. We need systems change. Any hope of abolishing the patriarchy must also seek the end of capitalism, classism, colonialism, casteism, racism and other intersecting forms of oppression. Early years socio-emotional education and collective experiences that heal and transform the ways of the oppressor are but starting points. Leslee does not hold out much optimism about transforming the oppressors themselves, well certainly not without trillions and several years spent on therapy and who would drag them there? She is however intensely optimistic about the transformation of the next generation by freeing it (at the right age) from the programming which the oppressors would otherwise pass on cyclically and generationally to their young. To transform masculinity, therefore, it is necessary to ‘change the conditions of change’ as noted by futures literacy practitioner Riel Miller (2); this is what cultivating Futures Literacy encourages us to do. Ultimately, to transform masculinity and collectively create a hopeful world of love, free exploration, and safety in human plurality, we need to become futures literate.


By Leslee Udwin, Dr. Shannon Philip, Kushal Sohal



  1. Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, The Invention of Women: Making An African Sense of Western Gender Discourses, (University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota: 1997)
  2. Riel Miller, Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century, (UNESCO and Routledge, Paris: 2018)

Find out more:

For more on Futures Literacy at UNESCO, click here.

For more about the School of International Futures (SOIF), click here.

For more about the work of Leslee Udwin and Think Equal, click here.

For more on Dr Shannon Philip's book, 'Becoming Young Men in a New India: Masculinities, Gender Relations and Violence in the Postcolony', click here.