Gender Constructs In India

Team Culture (2020-21) : Amy Alexander, Anoushka Dominic, Aryan Kathuria, Prashasti Sarraf, Reva Chhabra, Sahil Kumar and Ujjwal Kumar

Our deep dive into India’s gender constructs requires a comprehensive understanding of the significance of the word ‘gender’. Gender, against contemporary belief, is beyond chromosomes, customs, or checkboxes. In itself, gender is a social construct and is a product of societal views, to put it simply, it is what society determines to be your identity through its preconceived notions of femininity, masculinity or anything in between. This is why gender is something that we as a society create and enforce. Often used interchangeably with the word ‘sex’ that points to a more biological definition, gender is not independent of social and cultural context. Gender refers to the personal and social characteristics but not the biological traits that we associate with different sexes. Human behaviour tends to create a system that keeps society structured and functioning by organising society into distinct roles that complement each other. Indeed gender influences how we organize all of society and how we distribute power, ergo our society is largely stratified by gender.

PatriArchives: How Yesterday’s Wrongs became Today’s Incorrigible

Human civilizations have been experiencing major transformations since the Early Ages. The Homo sapien is often seen as a social animal adapted to live in communities from the very beginning. These societies have defined certain laws and customs meant to be practised by all. Most scholars attribute the long-standing disparities between the two genders to the lack of education and awareness in ancient times, although that does not entirely explain why we continue to exist in an unequal patriarchal society​, which is defined as a male-centric community where men are considered superior and more influential than women; moreover, women are not accorded equal stature as of men​. This system has been known to operate at the core of every sphere of many nations like India since ancient times.

It is important to understand the role of power dynamics in forming and maintaining gender constructs which thrive in a patriarchal society that manufactures collectively shared norms about women’s subordinate role in society in order to perpetuate the power imbalance through both positive and negative reinforcements. The prevalence of harmful cultural practices like sex selection, child marriage, dowry-deaths, and honour killings remains high in several developing countries, reflecting the rigidity of perverse beliefs and norms. The continuation of these practices is often times supported by both women and men due to the internalisation of this power imbalance, making violence acceptable for the victim, who may be afraid of challenging shared norms out of the fear of backlash.

In modern society, these gender-based differences stand out in the form of discrepancies in the income tax laws​, inequitable dispense of remuneration​, fewer job opportunities for women​ and certain​ binding marital laws​ together with ​unjustified​ ​divorce protocols​. These societal prejudices and stereotypes have such a strong and deep-rooted foundation that they continue to influence mankind by allowing male members to assert their upper hand in family decisions, whereas females are expected to subdue their thoughts and opinions, and affirm with the male decision. The working women of the upper-middle-class society are often denied permission to continue their jobs after marriage. In the rural areas, a girl-child is still considered taboo; girls are denied education and are married away at an early age. Moreover, the dowry system has been able to maintain its prominence even now, both in urban and rural societies.

“Boys will be boys”- this is the phrase used to justify the pushing, shoving and aggressive behaviour of certain men. This kind of behaviour is accepted from boys and men because this is the symbol of masculinity. Boys are taught instrumental qualities such as being competitive, physically strong and confident to prepare them for the labour force whereas girls are taught expressive qualities such as empathy and sensitivity which prepare them to care for children in society. Society has specific constructs in their minds which characterise certain attributes with one gender, and then expect men and women to behave according to their respective gender roles. In India, people generally associate masculinity with dominance, strength and aggression, while femininity is often associated with nurturing, emotions and passivity. These roles are encoded within the minds of children straight from birth. We have colour coded gender labels that suggest dressing male infants in blue and female infants in pink. Be it dolls for girls or trucks and car toys for boys, gender labels could be found in every aspect of parenting.

Generally, fathers are more engaged with their sons in “gender-appropriate” activities like sports, while girls are encouraged to get involved in household work. Boys are given more independence, fewer restrictions on clothing or curfew. They are often free from performing household tasks like laundry, cleaning or cooking which are supposed to be feminine. Girls on the other hand are taught to be nurturing, considerate and obedient. These characterizations continue later in life. Men tend to outnumber women in professions such as law, military and politics. This is while women tend to outnumber men in care-related occupations such as healthcare, childcare and social work. The question is, “Is this all justified?” Should certain roles be linked to biological sex and power structures?

Is it Structural or Conscious? Answer: Yes

Gender conflict theory is a social science perspective that holds that stratification is dysfunctional and harmful in society, with inequality perpetuated because it benefits men over women, transgenders, and other gender-non-conforming people. Gender conflict theory argues that gender is best understood as men attempting to maintain power and privilege to the detriment of women. Therefore, men can be seen as the dominant group and women as the subordinate group. While certain gender roles may have been appropriate in a hunter-gatherer society, the only reason these roles persist is that the dominant group naturally works to maintain their power and status. According to conflict theory, social problems are created when dominant groups exploit or oppress subordinate groups. Therefore, their approach is normative in that it prescribes changes to the power structure, advocating a balance of power between genders.

When we think about stereotypes that exist in our society we can conclude that most of them have a historic context. For example- Dalits in India were stereotyped as unhygienic on a pretext that they had to do menial jobs. Even if legally our society no longer enforces any work on a particular individual owing to his caste, creed, gender, or ethnicity, these stereotypes are mere generalizations that we are carrying with ourselves. Women face stereotypes on the grounds of being physically weak, people assume that they cannot protect themselves from societal elements that again think that they should stick to a patriarchal framework while choosing how to dress, where to work, and how to talk. Let's first think about why men have evolved to be physically strong. We have all learned in our history lessons that as cavemen females had a lot of offspring they would stay in an impregnated state for most of their lives and therefore men had to go out and hunt this requirement of being physically strong is what has led to evolution like that.

Initially, women in society were considered legally subordinate to men. Men were given the right to education and were considered the head of the family. They used to be their sole- earners, raising their families single-handedly. At the same time, ‘inheritance of property and fortune’ used to be the right of the eldest son in the family. On the contrary, women were ill-treated, were denied education, and were deprived of any share in the property; which made them lose their individuality. Their role in society was constrained to taking care of the household and looking after children. Most of the time, they were exploited and subjected to domestic violence, which ultimately led to their subordination in society. ​Child marriage, sati, polygamy, dowry and purdah systems​ were other manifestations of this evident disparity. Girl-child was seen as a liability because of the prevalent dowry system.

And hence, as the ages pass, this gender stratification ossifies itself in the skeleton of our society. Gender stratification refers to the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and privilege across genders. Economic and political power structures that reinforce traditional gender roles often cause more dysfunction than function. Like denying girls the right to quality education in India or keeping them from working outside has been one way that our society has kept power in the hands of men in terms of living a better life, seeking different opportunities and being financially independent.

Contemporary education in India is a relic of this gender stratification. According to the Census of India in 2011, the disparity in education due to gender inequality in India is easily visible through India's child literacy rates which is 65% for girls and which is far less than the literacy rate of 82% among boys. The reason for it can be comprehended from the fact that a lot of stereotypes and prejudices exist in Indian society against different genders. The benefits of a girl's education are generally seen as going to the family she marries into, thus providing little incentive to people to invest scarce resources, both human and monetary, into the education of their daughters. Also, given the relatively low educational attainment among people, especially in rural areas, the marriageability of an educated girl presents its problems. These factors combine to cement the attitude of inherently opposing education to females. However, if somehow some of them get a chance to attend the school in their foundational years, they often fail to continue their studies to the progressive years as the gender gap widens with progressive levels of education owing to greater barriers in education that girls face due to deeply ingrained social norms and gender stereotypes correlated with biological factors. Although India has witnessed substantial improvements in female literacy and enrollment rate since the 1990s, the quality of education for females remains to be heavily compromised and there is still a long way to go in ensuring that girls have the same access to quality education as boys. Due to the comparatively low literacy rate of females (59.3%) in our society, they have to be financially dependent on their male counterparts and this dependency is again exploited by them.

Quite forlornly, gender stratification also manifests itself in the form of gender-based violence. Gender-based violence is a form of discrimination that seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedom on basis of equality with men. It includes all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse. Gender-based violence finds its roots in the dominant male psychology of a patriarchal society. In the social structure of a country like ours, if one is born male, he is bestowed upon with special rights which women do not have. A male child has fewer restrictions than a female one and that’s where the seeds of superiority are sown into him. That child, when he grows up to be an adult, looks down upon girls and considers them to be mentally and physically inferior. Historically, gender-based violence against women is also prevalent because of the widespread socio-economic dependency on women and fear of banishment.

Why it’s not just Zeroes and Ones

It is believed that well-functioning families need people to have complementary skill sets and gender gives us a way of pairing off these skills. Society in turn encourages gender conformity by making people feel that they have to fit these moulds if they want to be accepted and desirable. And by also teaching people to reject those who do not conform to these gender norms. Boys and girls are socialised to take on traits that are complementary to help maintain stable productive families. But there are faults in this idea. As not all families today are nuclear units with one man, one woman and a gaggle of children. We need to expand the definition of family to include same-sex couples, single parents, multi-generational families, or childless adults. So, it's less obvious to assume that a man works outside the house and a woman works inside the house. Secondly, the idea of complementary gender rests on there being two distinct and opposite genders. This idea of gender as a binary isn’t universal and it ignores all those whose identities don’t conform to a two-gender system.

Any discourse on a topic like gender constructs would be incomplete without a reference to intersectionality and its role in identifying the deeper often hidden layer behind many of these constructs. People experience discrimination differently depending on their overlapping identities. To look at any two parts of one’s identity in isolation would take away the ability to fully understand their experiences in society. A Dalit women’s experience of the world will differ from that of a woman of privilege. In the same way, a trans woman’s experience of the world will differ from that of others. Intersectionality allows us to understand the complexities of an individuals experiences of discrimination and prejudice by taking into account the different social categories an individual falls into. That is to say, intersectionality is a way of understanding the different types of overlapping discrimination that an individual may face depending on their race, gender, age, ethnicity, class or any other characteristic that places them in a minority class.

Understanding this intersectionality in the fight against gender inequality means not only fighting gender constructs but identifying other forms of oppression and taking an equal stand against all instances of unequal power dynamics and cerebral opportunities.

Featured image credits : Rhea Rose Kappan