The gendered position

Advaita Marathe

This article briefly discusses what it means to be a girl/woman, how society influences the making of a woman and a man and what we understand by gender and gender bias. Teachers are an important factor in the socialization of children and shaping their value and belief systems. It is important that they recognize their gendered positions, help children, both boys and girls understand this, and suggests ways of working around it.

In a primary school in rural Madhya Pradesh, the teacher summons a girl studying in 5th class to quickly sweep the classroom since visitors had arrived. In another school, in a five-day camp with 7th class students on life skills, the resource person pointed to the dirty classroom and a boy offered to sweep. Immediately a few girls came running, taking the broom away from him saying, “We will do this. Boys don’t sweep”.

These are real situations that I witnessed. As a culture we model and teach our children certain behaviours which they internalize and reflect in their daily lives. We need to take another look at ourselves, understand where we are erring and take measures to effect a positive change towards equality between the sexes, where such discriminatory and prejudiced attitudes and conduct are eliminated.

Discrimination against girls/women prevails across the continuum of the female life cycle and reflects in the way society and its institutions interact with girls/ women from the moment they are conceived to the time they die. Sex selective abortions, female infanticide, discrimination in access to education, health services, freedom and mobility, work participation, violence (physical, emotional, sexual), discrimination in old age, etc., are scattered across the life of a girl/woman. Women across the globe have struggled to bring a normative shift in the way they are perceived and to secure their rights in equality with men.

The Indian Constitution guarantees the right to equality and freedom to both sexes. All Indian women and men, girls and boys are equal in all aspects of life without any discrimination. To promote equity between sexes, it provides for positive discrimination directing the government to make special provisions for the development of girls/women. Following this, special laws like the Maternity Benefits Act, Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act have been passed; several schemes and programs (Janani Suraksha Yojana, Swadhar Scheme, SABLA, etc.) to empower women in various areas like education, health, livelihood have been implemented; several policy pronouncements like National Policy for Empowerment of Women have been made.

These measures have definitely brought some improvement in the lives of girls/women. There are significant achievements in all areas of women’s lives – increased opportunities for higher education, lowering of maternal mortality and morbidity due to improved health and medical services, increased work participation in diverse sectors, increased mobility and freedom, political participation, etc.

Yet, women lag behind in most development and equity indicators. Census 2011 shows a sex ratio of 940 women to a 1000 men. The female literacy rate in India according to Census 2011 is only 65.46 per cent, much below the national average of 74.04 per cent. Approximately 30 per cent of married women face domestic violence. About 53 per cent of women are anaemic. Crime data shows an increase in incidence of crimes and brutality against women.

Understanding gender
As you read this, imagine a woman. What image or thought comes instinctively to your mind? Emotional? Weak? Helpless? Maternal? Attractive? Struggle? Fashion? Now imagine a man. Decision maker ? Dominant? Aggressive? Provider?
Strength? Power? Take a moment to review this – if we replace the man and woman, will these attributes be equally applicable? Can a woman be dominant, aggressive, strong, powerful and a man be loving, emotional, weak, maternal, attractive? We realize these are equally applicable to either sexes. What then is the difference between men and women? The only difference is biological. They have different sexual organs and secondary sexual characteristics (such as the moustache and beard for men, menstruation in women) owing to the difference in the reproductive system.

This difference of reproductive functions has historically given rise to different expectations, roles and responsibilities of men and women in society. Women reproduce and breastfeed the young ones, as they are biologically built to do so. However, the entire responsibility of care work including household tasks like cooking, washing, cleaning has become associated with this reproductive function, giving rise to a gendered perception of women’s role and responsibility in the society.

Gender is thus a social construct which ascribes different attributes, roles and responsibilities for men and women on the basis of sex. It is determined by expectations of what it means to be masculine or feminine in a particular cultural, economic and political setting. These gendered expectations vary across societies/cultures and time, and can change. Sex is biologically determined and is constant across cultures and time. Irrespective of race, caste, region/location, religion, colour, a boy/man or a girl/woman will have similar sexual organs – a man will have a penis, will grow beard, a woman will become pregnant, will menstruate. However, the gendered interpretation of this biological difference will vary. For instance, menstruating women in the West have no taboos while several Indian communities consider them as impure and place restrictions on them. Education of girls was not given any importance/consideration two centuries ago, but educating girls is now commonly accepted, including creating institutions of higher learning exclusively for them.

The process of construction, articulation and transmission of gender roles starts right from the birth of a child and continues to be part of the socialization of the child into adulthood. The child starts understanding gender roles at a young age when members of the family and community reinforce its identity as a boy or a girl. As the child grows up, he/she identifies himself/herself with the parents of the same sex. The boy starts internalizing the characteristics of his father and the girl those of her mother. Throughout their childhood they receive messages about the behaviour expected from them. Social, political and economic institutions like family, religion, state, media, laws, etc., reinforce and perpetuate these gendered beliefs. Norms, traditions and customs have evolved over a period of time institutionalizing these beliefs. To illustrate, in some communities jalebis are distributed when a girl is born, while pedas/laddoos are distributed when a boy is born. Girls are given pink coloured clothes, articles or gifts like dolls, kitchen sets, make-up sets as gifts as they grow. Boys are usually given blue coloured clothes and gifts like cars, guns, balls, cricket sets, etc. Often, girls are sent to government schools and boys are educated in private English medium schools. The belief is that investment on girls is wasted since they will be married and will contribute to the matrimonial home. Many women suffer domestic violence in the matrimonial home since they have no enabling support even from their natal family. Due to such gendered attitudes boys and girls grow up socialized into believing that men are superior, providers, heads of the family and hence have to be revered, their comforts prioritized and women are supposed to look after the domestic household chores which are of little value (since these don’t earn money), and have a ‘moral’ obligation to serve upon men.

The above simplistically and briefly sums up how gender attitudes get constructed and manifested in the daily lives of people. By people, I mean all of us. It thus becomes critical to understand such attitudes and biases, including within ourselves as we are rooted in this culture and are socialized similarly. These beliefs and values are reflected in our inter personal interactions with people and institutions and in our conduct/ behaviours.

Gender equality and gender equity
Proactive efforts have to be made for gender equality between men and women in society. It doesn’t imply that men and women will be ‘same’, but that women’s and men’s rights, responsibilities and opportunities should not depend on whether they are born male or female. It refers to situations wherein men and women are given the same opportunities and one is not privileged over the other. However, to ensure gender equity we may need positive discrimination in favour of girls/women which ensures fairness of treatment to women and men according to their respective needs. This may include equal treatment or treatment that is different, but which is considered equivalent in terms of rights, benefits, obligations, and opportunities leading to equivalence in life outcomes. This is achieved through strategies that recognize different needs and interests and the need to redistribute power and resources. Thus there are reservations for women, special laws for protection of women, programmes that promote their empowerment. For instance, many girls drop out from schools during the transition from middle to higher school, often due to restricted mobility, a scheme that provides bicycles to girls to encourage their schooling brings in equity between boys and girls. There are cash transfer programs for girls, contingent upon their achieving educational milestones so that it ensures their education and helps counter child marriages, etc.

Recognizing that gender is socially constructed and that gender-based behaviour is learned helps us understand that this behaviour can be changed. It is contingent upon us as parents, teachers and society to create alternative role models where boys and girls are treated equally, so that we can bring in paradigmatic shift in the social norms. For instance, the counter to the belief that women’s primary role is to cook and take care of the home and children is to encourage and support girls/women if they choose to work and encouraging men to take up the role of cooking and cleaning in the family.

Role of teachers: Counter gender stereotypes
There are subtle unconscious ways in which the education/schooling system develops gendered attitudes amongst boys and girls. Curriculum, learning environment, teaching methodology and approach contribute in perpetuating gender insensitivity and stereotypes. Teachers play a critical role in combating this gender inequality. In doing so the teacher must recognize and accept herself/himself as a gendered being, and reflect behaviours and actions that are gender neutral and gender sensitive. Teachers inspire and empower; they influence and command respect, their statements and actions are the ‘final truth’ for children. Being the primary role model for children, teachers must always be conscious and consider the impact of their conduct, spoken words, actions, including unintentional, on the children.

Creating gender sensitive individuals is an inherently transformatory process and needs active participation and cooperation of the critical stakeholder – the child-student. This also upholds the right to participation, a critical right of the child. Moreover, such an initiative may face opposition from many quarters and thus every individual involved in the process – the teacher and the student – should be able to clarify their understanding and position on why they seek this change.

Moulding gender neutral behaviours and gender sensitive approach amongst children involves cognitive and experiential learning. A beginning must be made by explaining the context of how socialization creates gender stereotypes. This can be done in simple ways. Present two images of children (line drawings without any identity marker for sex like long hair for girl.) Ask children to identify a boy and a girl in those, they could modify the sketch by adding features like a dress, jewellery, hair, breasts, moustache, etc. Have an open discussion with children, how did they learn what is a boy or a girl. Second, ask the girls and boys to separately list the tasks they do from the time they wake up in the morning to the time they sleep at night. Discuss the division of responsibilities between girls/women and boys/men and explore if and how this can be changed. Third, list some professions like pilot, army, engineer, teacher, nurse, doctor, beautician, etc. Discuss with students on who can take up these professions – men or women. Most of these exercises will support reflection on our inherent prejudices about the roles and responsibilities of men and women.

To reduce gender bias, teachers must pay attention to the manifestations of gender inequality in the school setting. Ensure a fair atmosphere in the entire school premises, including the classroom. The learning environment should ensure that all children feel they have a fair chance at every activity in the school/classroom. It is common to find segregation between boys and girls in seating arrangements, separate lines/queues for prayers, in hallways, separate games and sports for girls and boys, etc. These practices need to be challenged and changed, despite the hesitation that children may feel initially or the opposition that parents/community presents.

Change the seating arrangements, ensure a healthy intermixing of boys and girls, ensure all children access the teacher equally, ensure all children participate in all sports and games. Organize the classroom in ways that all students feel equal. For example, seating boys and girls together instead of separate sections, seating boys and girls together on benches, revolving sitting arrangement so that those sitting behind also get an opportunity to be close to teacher/are visible to teacher, etc. Address students gender neutrally – use ‘students’ or ‘children’ instead of boys and girls. Create opportunities for all students to participate equally in class, answer teachers’ questions, etc. Avoid making things easier for either boys or girls by giving them easier questions in class, or trying to solve things for some students. Discipline both boys and girls equally for the same actions. Often, girls are excused or are dealt minor or symbolic punishments, reinforcing that girls are weak, girls are different. Intervene immediately when boys insult girls or make gender coloured remarks “he cries like a girl”, “girls can’t play football”, “boys can’t sweep”. This will send a clear message to students of either gender that they are equal and will be treated as such.

Girls, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, accessing schools face gender bias in all settings beginning with their homes. More often than not, girls have disproportionate burden of household chores that may affect their scholastic performance. Adolescent girls also undergo bodily changes and face discomfort with menarche. There will be situations where the teacher will have to display sensitivity and act accordingly. For example, a girl in menstrual discomfort may need to be either excused from an outdoor activity or convert the activity into an indoor one, or allow her to rest in the
infirmary, etc.

Clearly the project of gender equality is not easy and places demands on the teachers. How do we ‘do gender’? Gender norms do not change overnight. It is a way of being, a way of life, a manner of conduct. For every word we use, for every action we take, for every policy or decision we make – evaluate it for its impact in the lives of girls and boys. Will it in any way demean one sex over the other? Will it lead to any inequitable impact adversely affecting one sex over the other? Or will it take the society one step further towards equality? This is the talisman.

The author is a citizen who feels it’s her social responsibility to give ‘back’ to the society in whatever ways she can. She attempts to contribute on issues of women and children from a rights approach. She can be reached at [email protected].

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