Gender-A social construction

Shonima Malhotra
As Rousseau very aptly said, ‘Man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains.’ This statement is very truly applicable to human beings. When an individual is born, he or she is solely a biological being. This difference is solely on biological basis but the moment one becomes the member of the society one encounters and becomes a victim of many other differences on the basis of age, race, religion etc. One of the major difference, a very prominent one, is the difference on the basis of gender which is not natural but socially created and constructed. This social construction proves Rousseau’s statement quoted above because the socially generated distinctions enslave the individuals within the boundaries of males and females as framed by the society and they are supposed to behave as per the social directions and restrictions.
From where does the concepts of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ emerge?Of course, from the society. The studies by Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead completely support the idea and viewpoint that individuals tend to develop masculine and feminine personality traits depending on the way they are socialised and this socialisation is gender based. The varied institutions of the society play a very dominant role in moulding the personality of the child as male and female and in developing his or her perspective about these two genders. Though the society has developed and progressed to a considerable extent and has reached a stage where the concept of gender equality is often heard and talked of but unfortunately this is something which exists only in theory as its practical applicability is very minimal.
Family, being the first social institution, a child comes into contact with aftercoming in this world, exerts a formative influence in moulding and shaping the personality of the child. This shaping of personality includes the gender contexed development of a child as a boy and a girl.The pathetic fact is that the female members are a potent source of nurturing and propagating gender inequality. Elder females always bless the expectant mother to be blessed with a male child. Never is the expectant lady blessed to have a female child. Is this not a way of constructing gender bias? It definitely is. The members have a strong mindset that if the first child happens to be a male it relieves their tension regarding the second issue. This does not end here but there are ample instances to support the fact that within the same family the boy and girl child are brought up and treated differently. It is saddening to write this but even the parents who have the closest relation with their child do not hesitate to treat their male child and female child differently. I don’t say that this difference exists in all the families. There are examples where both the genders are treated on equal basis. I very proudly quote the example of my own family. We are two sisters but my parents have never made us realise that they don’t have a male child. In fact, me being the second daughter has been accepted with same love and affection as my elder sister.I owe a lot to my family for this. Honestly, having achieved this position would not have been possible without my parent’s support. But unfortunately, there are families, not only the uneducated ones, but even well-educated, having a gender biased perspective.In such families, since their childhood the males and females are socialised on different patterns which go a long way in developing their conception about themselves and their gender-based roles.
Another institution which plays a determining role in promoting this gender construction is education. Though in the present scenario, the right to education is being provided irrespective of gender, yet there is a long way ahead in changing the mindsets of the people.The differences in the literacy rates, in the choice of subjects, in the drop – out rates (being higher for girls) and the material in the text books portraying the different gender perceptions and roles of boys and girls are a testimony to the fact that despite shifting attitudes, the institution of education has a substantial potential in perpetuating gender role stereotypes. The American author David Sadker has very correctly quoted, “Sitting in the same classroom, reading the same textbook, listening to the same teacher, boys and girls receive very different educations.” Truer words could not have been spoken. Education is the centrepiece for the socio-cultural, political and economic empowerment of the individuals. But unfortunately, directly or indirectly, our education system is acting as a major contributor in making the individuals internalise the gender bias and stereotypes that exist within our society. In our personal experiences, how often have we seen images of a man associated with depicting householdwork or a policewoman on duty or a male nurse in a hospital in our textbooks? It is probably safe to say never.
Media has no an equally important and pivotal role in strongly embedding the rigid gender stereotypes in the society.It plays a vital role in shaping the perceptions of the people as people ought to believe what they see, and with time they accept it as their way of life. In media, there is a specific way that each gender is represented supporting the stereotypical based expectations of each gender regarding their behaviour and roles. The media depicts the women as the weaker ones unlike the male gender who are represented as strong and fearless. In employment sector too, most employees in the media such as radio and TV are male with the females occupying a lesser percentage. The content is another area which is supportive of this fact. Most serials or films for example, have men as the dominant characters and females only as supporting cast with minor roles. To take another example, in an advertisement for a household item, there is likelihood of having a female because she is expected to be a homemaker or know how to take care of the home. On the other hand, when advertising a distinguished career or occupation of a high office, it is likely to have a man. Such bias in packaging media information and presenting the female gender less capable than the males does contribute strongly in maintaining the institution of gender in society. I agree that currently the role that media plays is undergoing a change with time and women-oriented shows, movies and serials are being telecast but yet the bridge is too long to be crossed. I will quote the example from a serial ‘Anupama’ which is being telecast Zee TV now-a-days. This serial is playing its part in sensitizing people about many gender related issues and gender biasness in a beautiful and realistic way. The dialogues are so thoughtfully written carrying a sensitive meaning. I was watching an episode of this serial the other day in which it was being discussed that how a girl’s parents are always worried about managing the expenses of her marriage but the male’s family is free from such worries, how a daughter becomes a daughter in law from the day of marriage itself but a son in law never or rarely becomes a son, the parents of a daughter always feel themselves to be low in status than the son in law and his family. These are just few examples and are not they so true and real. Many more realistic examples have been portrayed beautifully in this serial shedding light on the huge huge gap between the two genders.
Not only these but there are other social institutions as marriage, religion, economic, political etc. that are playing a major role in encouraging the gender biasedness.
Actually, the need of the hour is that the socialinstitutions must alter their respective roles and try to contract rather than expand gender differences. It is 21st Century and its high time we change and broaden our perspective related to gender. We need to narrate stories of both Sita and Rani Jhansi Bhai to our daughters and encourage them to imbibe the qualities of both these characters. Infact the story of Sita needs to be narrated to boys also so that they also develop the qualities of perseverance, dedication etc. Stop expecting these qualities from females only. We need to accept that like girls , boys too are emotional beings and can cry to vent out their emotions. Crying is not the copyright of females. Rather at times they can prove emotionally stronger than boys. We need to acknowledge that boys can be good cooks and girls can be good pilots. In nutshell, this gap and difference in personality traits, socialisation, education, employment, marriage and in all other fields need to be curbed and reduced. The individual should be judged on achievement rather than on ascription basis of gender.
To conclude,simply saying that males and females are like two wheels of a vehicle is not enough. Both the genders need to put it into practice and to work in alignment with each other rather than in a dominant and in a subservient role. Then only their lives will run on the right track smoothly. In fact, man is a part of Wo-‘man’. So, one is incomplete without the other.
(The author is Assistant Professor in Sociology GDC Sidhra)