Thursday, 12 December 2013

Gender Constructions -Thungdeno Humtsoe, Asst. Professor Sociology

In Naga tradition, males are usually associated with headhunting, wood-carving or stone-pulling whereas females ought to know how to weave, cook and perform other household activities. Although genders are not merely confined to these activities alone, individuals adapt to comfortably fit into these norms. People veering away from societies allocated typical role are sometimes called “tom-boy” (for girls who behave like boys) and “sissy” (for men who behave like girls). Hiding behind the guise of preserving culture and tradition, the roles can actually disrupt progress and be used as a tool to subjugate the other. We take a closer look at what acting like a man and being ladylike means in different societies.

Gender Constructions

Gender stereotypes prevail in all societies. The notion of gender is taught to us from the moment we are born. Family and upbringing, culture, peers, community, media, religion and others are some of the factors that shape our understanding of identity. Gender is another. It is a socially constructed concept, closely monitored by society. How we learn and interact with gender as a young child directly influences how we view the world today. Accepted gender roles and expectations are so entrenched in our culture and society that most people cannot imagine having it any other way.

Different cultures impose different expectations upon men and women who come from that particular society. Culture generally recognizes two basic gender roles - masculine and feminine. Socio-cultural expectations reveal what men and women are supposed to be like in a particular context. It highlights such expectations: “Men should be competitive; women are supposed to be cooperative. Men can be impatient; women must have boundless patience. Men are expected to express anger; women should never be angry or they should certainly never show it. There are also some common genders stereotypes like, ‘Men are insensitive’, ‘women are bad drivers’, ‘all men love sports and sex’, ‘all women love shopping and gossiping’. How often have we heard those comments in our culture? A woman like me may feel angry when gender based comments are made, while others may agree to the comments as genuine differences between the sexes or some others may just make light of this battle between the sexes and laugh it away.

Much of our behavior as men and women is subject to cultural definition. If we are male, our society bends conduct in one way; if we are female, it bends another way. But how much of this difference is due to nature, how much due to culture? This is the question which everyone should explore. Let’s examine what acting like a man and being ladylike means in our society and notions of gender stereotypes in our Naga culture.

“It’s a boy’’, says the nurse and from then on, subtle stereotyping begins. A conscious and unconscious motive of having the family blood continue through him brings joy. Guns and cars are bought for him, preferably black or blue and never pink! While growing up, if he cries he will be told ‘Don’t cry like a girl’. He perhaps learns to suppress his emotions as he thinks it is ‘girlish’ to express them. It’s likely that he would be encouraged to act strong or to act brave. He is likely to have lesser restrictions going out and coming home late. While choosing a career, he would be encouraged to be ambitious and discouraged from choosing careers like teaching, nursing, counseling or other similar professions. as they are seen to be ‘softer’ career opinions meant for a girl. The question of balancing home and family may not arise for him, as it is assumed that his gender defines his primary role as a bread earner. Contrary to this, good manners like talking and laughing gently, being submissive to elders, not ‘fighting like boys’, being sacrificial, caring etc. is most likely to be taught to the girls. She will most likely be encouraged to develop the ‘right female interests’ like cooking, tidying up the house or gardening. It is most often assumed that her gender defines her role and function at home to be primarily a homemaker and mother.

Perhaps gender stereotypes are a result of ‘nurture’ more than ‘nature’. Behavioral differences between the sexes are not hard-wired at birth but are the result of society’s expectations. There may be several men who are soft and gentle in their temperament, and several women who are naturally extroverted, brave and tough. Exaggerated differences between men and women (most of which are individual differences) are glorified and generalized as gender differences and this needs to be challenged since there are greater similarities than differences between men and women. They both have the same desires, wants, fears and dreams.

Based on anthropological studies or cross-cultural evidence, it also shows that gender traits of masculinity and femininity have no necessary connection to biological sex. Margaret Mead’s Study (1935) relating to three New Guinea tribes is worth mentioning here. In the Arapesh tribe, Mead found that both men and women conform to a personality type that we would consider “feminine”. Men and women were believed to have identical sex drives and both were responsible for child care. Next, is the tribe of Mundugumor.  Here men and women were expected to be violent and aggressive. Both men and women act in ways which we would predominantly call “masculine”. These women dread pregnancy and dislike nursing their children. Third is the Tchambuli Tribe, where the women are domineering and energetic. They are the major economic providers of the family. They manage and perform major tasks for the family. The men, on the other hand, are artistic, gossipy, and expressive and look after the children.

This study makes it evident that gender roles are highly influenced by culture and are not necessarily universal. They can change as culture adapts to new environments and social conditions. Our intellects are not prisoners of our genders and those who believe so are conditioned by society’s tendency to stereotype genders. Every culture has different perceptions about what is appropriate for gender, and family members tend to unconsciously raise babies along the dictates of society’s gendered ways. Every parent who strives to achieve a “less gendered” parenting style unconsciously reinforces gender roles. There is so much gender variety in our society, beyond a strict, imagined born-male versus born-female dichotomy. There is always a tendency to conform to the cultural notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. Stereotyping gender creates dangerous consequences that limit a person’s full potential and well being, forcing them to ignore their genuine personality traits, temperament and unique characteristics that make them who they actually are.

“Degree of Thought is a weekly community column initiated by Tetso College in partnership with The Morung Express. Degree of Thought will delve into the social, cultural, political and educational issues around us. Tetso College is a NAAC Accredited UGC recognised Commerce and Arts College. For feedback or comments please email: admin@tetsocollege.org

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