What is Gender? It is equally ‘male’ contrary to popular understanding

By: Dr. Saraswati Raju
Expert Column

The word ” gender ” is in currency these days! Let us understand what we mean by it. We often hear boys being admonished for crying or girls being chided for climbing a tree or flying a kite because ‘boys do not cry’ or ‘girls do not climb trees or fly kites’.  Interesting these boys and girls had already done what they are not supposed to do – before being told that it is wrong!

When the queen of Jhansi fought the British, she becomes mardani – masculine (khub ladi mardani woh to Jhansi wali rani thi). We also often come across statements about Indira Gandhi that she was the only ‘man’ in her cabinet.  In the same way men who may be performing household duties or helping women in discharging their chores may be labelled as ‘baila‘ or ‘hen-pecked’.

Why these titles? It is because these men and women did not fit in with the stereotypical images of what men and women are socially meant to be! Who decides what boys and men and girls and women can do or cannot do if they behave differently?

It is the collective wisdom in a given society which encrypts the feminine and masculine roles that are associated with girls/women and boys/men. This is gender – a social construct.

For example, the ability to bear a child is, fundamentally, a function of biology, while expectations about the imperative to bear children, the nature of parenting, or the status associated with being a mother are more closely linked to roles and expectations associated with women.

The term has a long history and the root of the word can be traced to Latin, ‘la: genus’ meaning ‘type’, ‘kind’ or ‘sort’. It is also connected to the Greek root ‘gen’, meaning ‘to produce’. In some languages, gender signifies grammatical usage—a type of noun-class system, which may be classified as masculine or feminine. Yet, another set of languages may apply the term ‘gender’ in a neuter-grammatical sense without attaching any masculine or feminine connection to the meaning of the word.

The word ‘linga’, part of the vernacular Hindi, which originated in the classic Sanskrit language, is one such term which requires a qualifying prefix ‘male’ or ‘female’- pung-linga and stree-linga, respectively, if it is to be used to mean biological sex. Interestingly, these two languages also do not have equivalent term to denote ‘gender’. In the absence of such a nomenclature, ‘linga’ is used in an expanded way, that is, prãkritik linga (natural/biological sex) and saamajik linga (social sex or gender).

Since gendered roles are socially created, they are subject to change not only over time but also across space at the same time with the result that while countries in European Union and USA, to name a few, have been drafting their women in the army for quite some time now, in India the induction of women in the army has been relatively recent phenomenon. Likewise, gender roles can change over life stages. Despite having an overall influence on gender roles, there may be differences within the country. It is documented that the parts of northern India has relatively more restricted gendered domain for women as compared to the South. For example, as per the 2009-2010 National Sample Survey data, about one-third of women in Rajasthan do not participate in the formal labour market because of social and religious strictures; this percentage is less than three in north-eastern states.

It is important to note, however, that earlier ‘biological sex’ and ‘gender’ were seen as mutually independent of each other. Now, however, it has been argued that as biological bodies, male and female internalize certain values and behavioural norms as social beings. For example, growing girls may be asked to behave in certain manners, cover themselves etc. and may become aware of their bodies much earlier than the boys. Thus the gendered experiences interlock with biological identities.

Given this overlap, people who feel that their gender identities are not in confirmation with their biological bodies would identify themselves as ‘inter-gender/transgender’. Incidentally, the Indian census 2011 had recognised this category.

Gender is a relational concept – it is about social construction which sets behavioral norms that are equally applicable to men, a point which is generally overlooked in popular understanding. Very often gender is used conterminously with women which is wrong. The role of men as bread-earners may constrain their participation in household chores even if there is willingness at their part, for example.

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