I recently conducted a small workshop on gender awareness at Ramanujan College, Delhi University. The workshop was organized by the college’s Equal Opportunity Cell, along with gender awareness there were talks on personality development. The lecture was attended by about 60-70 undergraduate students of the college from all streams. The workshop went very well due to the students who were very attentive and responsive. These were students from socially and financially marginalized background, yet they were more articulate than the ones I have sometimes met in some of the top colleges I have spoken at. The boys were receptive and understanding of gender discourse. The best moment was when I said,”Gender stereotypes hurt men as much as they hurt women, it is wrong to stereotype boys and men as unemotional, why won’t boys have emotions, don’t they have a heart, don’t they have feelings?” The whole lecture hall burst in an overwhelming roar of clapping.
I saw hope there. It is clear that if you just make a little effort to sensitize men and boys about gender equality they would easily understand. We just have to start early.
I am sharing my presentation with brief notes on each slides. Hope this helps in creating more workshops, also speak to your children about gender in these lines.
Gender roles are ingrained in our imagination. We cannot even imagine certain scenes with a reversed gender. Certain images we have not even seen in movies, literature or paintings. Have we ever seen or imagined a fishing boat on the high sea being rowed by fishing women?
Sometimes the scene which is so normal for boys seems impossible for girls. Can we imagine a bunch of girls sitting idly like this? What are these boys doing here? Maybe they are just waiting for the shops to open, maybe they are relaxing, maybe enjoying their free time, whatever it is, they are free to do. On the other hand, a bunch of girls in a similar situation would have invited trouble for them. Public would either point a finger at their character, or assume they are easy, can approached for casual friendship, or some men might even use force to harass the girls and blame it on their loitering.
This is a small town house where mother in law and daughter in law are cooking. Can we imagine this scene with men? We know in the big cities many men help in kitchen. I also know the country’s top chefs and all the top hoteliers are men. But can we imagine a father and son in this household kitchen? doesn’t the traditional kitchen still remain women’s domain?
Sex is the biological signs a child is born with, gender is the social value we impose upon that sign. A child’s entire life story is decided the day the child is born depending upon the biological sign it is born with. Gender value added to the penis or vagina determines children’s fate, choices, lifestyle, career, education, health, political role, financial status, sets their roles and responsibility, and expectations. But in reality, if two children of different biological sign are given the exact same upbringing, education, opportunities and so on they would either give results or sometimes women shine better than men.
In reality, boys and girls have the exact same brain, they are not wired differently as the myth goes. Our personality traits, strong-weak, brave-coward, dominant-submissive, emotional-unemotional, talkative-quiet etc are partly by birth, partly evolved from the surroundings but it is never based upon our biological sign. Any child have any of these traits. Girls can be aggressive, men can be tender, we see it around us all the time, yet we continue to believe in gender stereotypes.
Let’s ask then why gender values are created in such a way that women are given inferior status? Why the desirable traits, things of which we are proud of are masculine, and all the weak undesirable traits are feminine. Why we tell our girls, “be brave and strong like a man.” But we never tell our boys, “Be soft and tender like a girl.” Why we feel proud when a girl becomes the bread winner of the family and say, “Look at her, she’s bravely taken the place of their son” but we never say, “Look at that boy, he has bravely taken the place of their daughter.”
Because gender roles are about power. Society have assigned different gender roles to boys and girls to make sure that the power remains in the hands of the male. This is called patriarchy – the rule of the father. In the family, which is a microcosm of the society, power is centered in the senior most male, the head of the family.
In the picture, in a Ladakh village home kitchen, the male head of the family is sitting away from the women, and closer to the guests. The women of the house cooked and served the food, after that they went towards the back of the kitchen, and the men continued to talk to the guests. If the women’s rightful place is kitchen then why is she not the queen of this kitchen? Why when it comes to talking to guests the male head comes forward?
When we talk about gender, we must always remember that gender is not just man-woman binary, the third gender which includes transgender, transexual, and any other person who want to define themselves as any other non-heteronormative gender is now a legally approved entity. The Supreme Court of India has recognized the right of every person to decide their own gender. It is a person’s individual choice what gender they want to chose.
Leading feminists whose work can be referred to in order to understand sex and gender better. Simone De Beuvoir said that one is not born a woman, but becomes one, because gender is about performance. Gayle Rubin said that if we already accept that men are by nature violent and aggressive there would be little scope of change. One of the most important insight given Gloria Steinem is that even though times have changed and we are now giving more freedom to our daughters, we hear parents saying I raised my daugher like a son, few have the courage to raise their sons as their daughters.
Patriarchy is defined as a social system where power lies in male head of family. A family and society based upon gender, age and caste hierarchy is patriarchy. As human civilizations evolved there emerged a particular need to control women. Earliest human societies were engaged in hunting and gathering for their survival, life was simple and societies were more or less equal. But with the emergence of private property emerged the need to acquire and control property. With advent of agriculture there was a need for more children to work in the field. All this led to the control of women’s reproductive potential.
To keep things in the family and to have more labour for the farms it was important to identify ‘who is family’ ‘which are my children’ ‘who can work in the field’ ‘who may reap the benefits’. Only a woman can give the answer to these question. A woman alone can tell whose children she’s bearing. A man can never know whether the child in the womb of a woman is a product of his semen or not. This lack of ability in men to identify their own progeny make them insecure. This insecurity led to the physical control of women’s reproduction. If women were free to be with any male partner of their choice it would have become impossible for men to keep things in control. Thus the need to create rules like women have to be married to bear children, they have to move to man’s home after marriage, they have to carry a sign of being married, and children in their womb would bear the name of their father. Otherwise it seems rather odd that a child coming out of a woman’s body bears the name of the father. Marriage therefore is a way of acquiring and controlling a woman’s womb.
In India societies were based upon caste with the Brahmins being at the top of the caste hierarchy. For the caste hierarchy to survive it was important to control the intermingling of different castes. Therefore the reproductive potential and sexuality of upper caste women had to be strictly controlled so that they don’t bear children of lower caste men. This is known as the Brahminical Patriarchy.
With industrialization private space and public space got strictly defined. Before that agricultural work or trading etc were more or less home based but with factories, there came two definite spaces, home and outside. Women remained at home and men went outside for work. Spaces got divided as male and female spaces. This gender segregation of spaces and sexual division of labour also happened so that women’s movement and socialization could be controlled lest they have sex with somebody and bear children of men other than the husband.
Gender seggreation of spaces happen at all levels, no matter how much you narrow down the space. In the picture, space is narrowed from the city, the river ghats, river, boat on the river and even within that little space there is a strict segregation. Gender segregation of space controls women’s movement adversely affecting their right to health, education, political participation, financial independence and enjoyment of the open air and blue sky.
In the end, we have to remember that the only way we can bring change is by pushing the boundaries, challenging the age old gender stereotypes, taking risks, reclaiming our rights, and our space. This brave girl is the only girl among hundreds of boatmen in the ghats of Varanasi. The gender rules are meant to be broken and its every girl’s duty and right to break them. The struggle for gender equality is the same as the nation’s freedom movement. Remember how our freedom fighters gave the call, “Do or Die”, women’s struggle also needs a similar call, “come out of the comfort zone, challenge and fight.”