In this blog entry, I attempt to present my experience of gender from two different points of view in my life: one through social and behavioral norms while growing up as a girl in my family and society, and another through academic and professional perspectives while learning complex intellectual issues about gender in the university. At the end of the post, I ask readers to share their thoughts about gender and gender role in the context of their profession.
My mother still recalls the discouraging reaction of my family when she gave the birth to me, a daughter, as her first child, at Patan Hospital in Lalitpur one chilly morning in February 1988. She felt bad because everyone including her had expected a son. A few years later, she was, however, compensated by the arrival of my brother in the family. But that did not change the dynamics of how a daughter and son were viewed and treated in the family and society at large. Two different boxes, one for a daughter and another for a son, were created at the time our birth. My being was regarded as a daughter and my brother as a son, and everything in life and society seemed to be determined within these boxes.
The first time I realised myself as feminine was when I received the toys different from my brother’s. My brother was given cars and guns while I received teapot set. I played with it pouring hot tea and serving to him; that was my favorite game. I never knew the game I used to play during my childhood would turn out to be my stereotypical gender role today.
My mother always used to say “Chori manche bhaneko mato ko bhada ho ra chora manche bhaneko tama ko bhada” (Girls are clay pots and boys are copper pots). The binary comparison of daughters as ‘fragile’ ceramic products and sons as ‘strong’ metal ones governed my life and sensitized me about morality. As a girl, it was of utmost importance that I become a good woman without any stains in my character. So, from childhood, I internalized gender primarily in terms of how important character and morality was for a person of a particular gender.
However, when I entered academia and pursued gender studies, my viewpoint for gender which I learned through social and behavioural norms since my childhood got a radical change. When I stumbled into feminism for the first time, I turned into a rebel. I think I acted like a radical feminist until I came across the study of masculinity, which changed my stance again.
My mother’s quotation about ceramic pots and girls still deeply influences how I conceptualize and experience my own gender and gender roles in general. But beyond the personal experience, when thinking about gender in the world of the academia, my intellectual comprehension about the specific gender roles, ideas and ideologies of gender all become very complex and dynamic. The definition of Gender, the understanding of it and reaction to it have undergone a constant change. I have started rethinking what shapes one’s understanding of gender in terms of personal experience and as well as when one is academically sound, how difficult it is for one to comprehend the issue of gender after having different outlook for it breaking away the stereotypical boundary.
Reading the academic discourse makes me look for a middle ground between the rather discriminatory treatment of girls/women in traditional societies and the more complex academic discourse of gender. Indeed, even in the definition of gender by the World Health Organization, “The word gender is used to describe the characteristics, roles and responsibilities of women and men, boys and girls that are socially constructed.” The definition is elaborated as “Gender is related to how we are perceived and expected to think and act as women and men because of the way society is organized, not because of our biological differences.” Of course, the binary opposition that has been the part of society for ages has its roots very deep and this middle-ground understanding of gender and gender roles in the world. However, it seems necessary to also look at more complex dynamics of gender even in our own society.
If I ask question of gender to a hardcore science student like my brother, he has nothing to answer. But on the other hand, the liberality that is given by social science and the enrichment of my capacity has made me able to think in other, very different ways as well. So, I realize that thinking about gender through academic and theoretical lenses can help us develop a balanced and complex view of gender.
Academic studies of Feminism made me think about the role of women in and beyond my community. In the first stage, Feminism made me think of how marginalize my female community was or how marginalized I was. My birth was firstly gendered as it made many people sad. Secondly the teapot given to me as a toy was my marginalization of my own qualities. Peter Berry in his book “Beginning Theory” defines Feminist Criticism as “the movement was in important ways, literary from the start, in the sense that it realized the significance of the images of women promulgated by literature, and saw it as vital to combat them and question their authority and their coherence” (116). The question the then female feminist critics started with was in academic or in the literary sense; it later went to the personal domains.
The introduction of the book, Feminisms says, “Feminist theory is also traditionally characterized by its interdisciplinary –its transgression of the usual subject divides (e.g. literary, historical, philosophical, psychological, anthropological and sociological). A lot of countries including Nepal took the way of transgression. But transgression without an in-depth understanding of the state of female or even feminism is worthless. There were movements and happenings in Nepal and I can interpret those events I could interpret through feminism, for instance, through the issue or property or the issue of citizenship. However, the recent “Occupy Baluwatar” movement that was led by some group of people gave me epiphany again. Those who don’t even know about the rights of female, those who have not understand the sociological, psychological burden of being a female in a country like Nepal were demanding rights for women. That made me think how Feminism could also be turned into a political football for anyone to play their own game. It certainly raised many issues, including the issues of hypocrisy and publicity campaign.
The second stage, when I started learning about the limitations and complexities in Feminist theories, was even more fascinating. I now started asking: Does Feminism speak about both genders? Is the discourse of Masculinity necessary? After I started exploring questions like this, I did not completely agree with many feminist scholars, as feminism seems to have its own limits as well. In particular, many feminists blamed the social structure and the opposite sex only and rigorously fought for the representation. But the blame-game never became fruitful. The emergence of Masculinity ideology was also purported by the Feminist ideology. As females went on to vie for their rights, males also felt it necessary to maintain their own space.
And thus a space for masculinity emerged out of crisis, as Debby Phillips quotes Kimmel, who said that
These crises usually involve radical questioning of the meaning of masculinity, and they occur during periods of significant ideological, economic, and social tensions. It is during periods of upheaval and changes in social values that “old definitions [of masculinity] no longer work, and new definitions are yet to be firmly established” (405).
Certainly, masculinity needs a redefinition, as scholars of gender suggest. In fact, both Feminism and Masculinity need to undergo timely redefinitions. If academia is to shape one’s perception towards gender, these two domains need to move side by side and the redefinitions must be accepted.
These academic and/or public discourses certainly help us to understand more about gender, but what about personal life, socio-cultural life that first shapes one’s mind? Doesn’t academia and personal life come in contrast while one discourses about the gender keeping knowledge and experience side by side? I think that both academia and personal life shapes one’s comprehension of gender.
The concept of gender depends upon many things, including one’s upbringing, one’s culture, society, and one’s academic study and professional experience. As scholars, we should allow the broader and more complex perspectives and issues about gender to shape our understanding of gender. We should allow different perspectives, as well as our personal and professional experiences, to take us into various levels of thoughts, to inquire and seek the best understanding for ourselves. Through this blog entry, I wanted to share my thought that there is much to be gained if we try to understand gender by viewing our personal space through academic lenses.
As a practitioner of English Language Teaching, what are the issues of gender that you find worth discussing? What are the obstacles for female colleagues in our society and our time? Are there limitations for men as well? How can we address the challenges while cultivating realistic and complex views about gender and gender roles in our professions? I would love to hear the views of Choutari readers.
Barry, P. (2010) Beginning Theory. New Delhi. Viva Books Pvt. Ltd.
Phillips, D.A. (2006) Masculinity, Male Development, Gender and Identity: Modern and Postmodern meanings. USA: Seattle University.
Sweta Baniya works as a Communication Associate at UN Habitat and is a student of MPHIL, Baniya’s interest lies in writing and expressing herself in words when something touches her deeply or hurts her so much. She also runs her personal blog – www.swetabaniya.wordpress.com