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One area of knowledge that is often taken for granted is our knowledge about everyday life. Behaviour and actions that we undertake on a daily basis is often seen as mundane and 'normal'. Yet, what actually allows us to live our lives 'normally' is actually a complex storehouse of social knowledge and one category of this is our knowledge of ourselves and the persons that we are. Gender constructs and gender stereotypes set out rules and behaviour that allow us to fit in and belong as well as for people to recognise us.
Gender Vs Sex
While traditional perspectives have generally held that gender is predetermined and fixed by genetic structure, it is now believed that gender is separate from sex, which is the biological makeup of males or females, even though it is commonly used interchangeably nowadays. One’s gender, however, is distinct from sex, and it is thought of as either feminine or masculine. Gender is believed not to have been biologically given but rather, the result of the process of socialization that defines roles and characteristics in varying and changeable ways. The term gender had been first used to refer to the socially constructed ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman by feminists in the 1960s.
The dominant perspective on gender of the 1940s to the 1960s had been the sociological paradigm of
Structural functionalists basically work within the context that the society is an orderly and stable system in which members of the community share a set of beliefs and values, and work together cohesively to maintain these values and behavioural expectations.
In the field of gender studies, the structural functionalists begin to construct gender through the physical observations of men and women – the biological differences. Through their observations, the structural functionalists came to the conclusion that the
biological differences between men and women would lead to the psychological differences as well as their suitability for respective social roles.
For example, throughout the history of mankind, women bear and nurse babies and generally are the caretakers of children. Since their biological makeup confines them to the home for these tasks, it would be more sensible for them to take on the domestic role as well. Men, in contrast, are bigger and stronger, therefore it would be more sensible if they took on the role of the protector and the economic provider of the family, and “specialize in the alternate [occupational] direction” since they are “exempted from [the] biological functions” of womankind. Clearly, there was little distinction between the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’. The structural functionalists seemed to have assumed that the biological differences between men and women cause the psychological and behavioural differences between them, justifying the social roles of the sexes with natural phenomena, and consequently, the sexual discrimination.
Another weakness with the stand taken by the structural functionalists would be the immutability and the fixed nature of sexual differences that it assumes. By stating that psychological and behavioural differences are the result of physical and biological differences, the structural functionalists’ stand implies that men and women are supposed to have fixed roles across cultures and history. However, this is clearly not the case. What constitutes femininity and masculinity has varied across the globe and across time. To account for this, the term ‘gender’ took on the meaning of the socially constructed notion of being masculine or feminine when the feminist paradigm rose to prominence in the 1960s.
The 1960s, often termed as the ‘turbulent sixties’, were a time of change and revolution, with the protests against the Vietnam War, the Black Civil Rights Movement as well as the Women’s Liberation Movement. Sociologists of this period started to question the depiction of society as a stable and organized system by the structural functionalists, and the
paradigm was an extremely important development in the study of gender. The feminists generally hold that both culture and social processes play a part in shaping the gender of a person. However, it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the results of biology and those of social processes. This is because learning and the process of socialization begins right after the birth of the child. In contrast to the view of the structural functionalists, the
feminists work under the basic assumption that gender is not innately born or biologically determined, but rather, the result of a learning process which is intrinsically tied to the society and cultural expectations
[Note: Here's an example of a paradigm shift. Occurs in the social sciences too.]
The Construction of Gender
The sociological construction and understanding of gender had always been closely tied to most of the major aspects of human development. With science and religion being very significant aspects of the human condition, it is not surprising that they have closely impacted our culture and in turn, our knowledge of what is a man or a woman.
Sex has been defined by biology in terms of genetic structure. Each person is born with 46 chromosomes arranged in 23 pairs, one of each pair contributed by each parent. The sex of the baby is determined by the sex chromosomes. Genetically normal males have one X and one Y chromosomes while genetically normal females have two X chromosomes. In the developing male fetus, the Y chromosome would trigger a chain of events, which would synthesize a group of hormones called androgens, including testosterone, which secretes a substance dihydrotestorsterone (DHT). DHT would in turn affect the formation of the male brain, resulting in certain traits in the male such as aggressiveness. While they would suggest that the basis for gender might be biology, studies have been largely inconsistent, with some showing that female infants can be just as aggressive as their male counterparts.
To further clarify their inquiry on how genetics and hormones affect the personality and behaviors of the two sexes, scientists have often turned to studies of individuals with genetic and hormonal abnormalities. Genetically female fetuses exposed to high levels of androgens seem to have developed some characteristics typical of males, as seen from studies by Money and Ehrhardt, who had interviewed 25 fetally androgenized females about their tastes and preferences (i.e. clothes, toys) and found that they had generally showed a greater inclination towards clothes and toy typically meant for boys, at the same time also describing themselves to be more tomboyish compared to 25 developmentally normal girls were also interviewed. However, these girls were not any more aggressive than others, and also expressed a wish for romance and motherhood later on in life. Other researchers have also shown that these females begin dating later than most girls on average.
Similarly, studies were made on males who were prenatally insensitive to DHT (thus did not have fully formed male external genitalia at birth). Upon puberty, these males were exposed to high amounts of testosterone, which causes the external genitalia to change. These males were thus typically raised as females, but research findings have suggested that these males experience little difficulty in changing their sex and gender identities. While this might suggest that sex determines gender identity more so then twelve years of socialization as females, the results were often questioned, as the extent to which these males were treated as females. For example, in the Dominican Republic, babies recognized as having this condition were raised differently from normal girls, and were called machihembra (man-woman). Other studies have also shown that the change of gender identity was not as smooth as previously suggested.
Another case study of identical twins had also shed further light on the construction of gender biologically and socially. In a pair of chromosomally and physically identical twin males at birth, one of the twins had his penis almost completely destroyed at circumcision. The parents then decided to have a surgical sex reassignment done for this child, rearing him as a female, along with lifelong hormonal replacement therapy. The child grew up to be quite successfully socialized as a girl, liking feminine toys and was neat and clean, in contrast to her brother. Although initially this seemed to prove the sociological basis for gender identity, the onset of puberty seemed to suggest the opposite. As the child went through puberty, she now obtained a masculine appearance and went through many emotional problems and eventually decided to opt for a surgical construction of a penis, living as a male rather than a female. Clearly, the biological and social factors are very much connected to each other – and their interaction would define the gender identity of a person.
As belief structures, the impact of religion on the construction of gender roles has been great. Religions have often assigned specific codes of behavior and relative positions of men and women. With the majority of the world’s population involved in some form of religion, religious teachings on gender roles have helped to shape the commonsensical ideas of the role of men and women in society today.
Matriarchal religions, or female-centered religions, had dominated the ancient world, with several goddesses ascribed roles and traits that were typically considered masculine, such as wisdom and courage, as seen in the worship of the Greek goddess Athena (wisdom and war) as well as the Celtic goddess Cerridwen (intelligence and knowledge), amongst many other examples. Theorists have suggested that this was due to the lack of understanding of life processes, and women were thought to be the sole givers of life, hence leading to the reverence of women as the primal ancestor. Evidence seems to point towards the high status of women in these communities as a result. These theorists also believe that it was replaced by patriarchal religions when the link between reproduction and sexual union had been established. The father was then revered as the true giver of life, holding the “seeds” of the future generation. If we should accept this theory, then an explicit link between the construction of gender roles and religion can be established.
Major religious traditions that dominate today are generally patriarchal in nature. However, it is difficult to generalize with regards to the behaviors and attitudes of religious individuals and sects, as interpretation and editing of the sacred texts can vary largely between both the individual and the various denominations and sects. While one might interpret a paragraph of the sacred text to be advocating the equality of men and women, another might believe it to affirm the superiority of men over women. These differences would hence account for the varying attitudes of the religious towards gender issues.
The role of men and women throughout history has been profoundly impacted by religious codes of behavior that fixates men and women in certain roles and positions, and through that, shape the perceptions of what is a man or a woman. In contemporary Orthodox Judaism, for example, men and women have clearly defined roles, rights and duties, and are “expected to follow different routes in the pursuit of the ideal life that God has prescribed for them”. While men are expected to perform their religious duties such as studying religious texts and worshipping, women, are exempted from these duties, as they would interfere with their primary roles as wife, mother and homemaker, obstructing them from tending to the needs of the family. Women were, as a result, banned from singing in Orthodox synagogues and prevented from praying or studying religious texts.
Similarly, in Christianity, women were assigned roles highly different from that of men’s, often regarded as subordinate to men, as evident from the teachings of St. Paul, which states that “a husband is head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the Church” as woman was created for man (referring to the Genesis creation story). These teaching were often used to justify the exclusion of women from religious leadership roles, regarding them as temptresses (referring to how Eve had led Adam to the Original Sin). The ideal woman, in Christianity, is seen in Mary the Virgin, pure of heart and body, docile, modest and long-suffering. Pope John Paul II had characterized female identity in terms of motherhood and virginity, both of which Mary embodies simultaneously. This would again help to shape the role and perception of women as the nurturer and the homemaker.
With a fifth of the world’s population following Islam, teachings of the Koran (accepted by Muslims as the word of God) on gender has changed the perceptions of males and females. Contemporary Islamic leaders, while claiming equality of men and women, stress on the gender differences which lead to the different responsibilities which lead to the differences in the rights and privileges of men and women. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam confines the woman to the home, with the duties of serving their husband, bearing children and instructing them in the ways of Islam. The Muslim woman’s existence is therefore defined by her relations to men. In Islamic fundamentalism, Muslim women are highly confined to the private home life, as seen by the
, which restricts the woman’s access to the public world, permitting them to leave the home only when accompanied with a male relative (
), furthermore, the Muslim woman is required to dress modesty, covered in loose-fitting veils and garbs from head to toe (
). These measures to ensure that the woman remains in the private sphere of the home is a powerful way of creating a distinct position for women in the society.
However, while religion does play a part in shaping gender perceptions around the world, it should be noted that religious teachings on gender are heavily influenced by societal ideas of the various time periods, of which is most evident in Christianity and Buddhism. The first teachings of Christianity by their first leader Jesus, does not seem to be sexist. In fact, evidence shows that Jesus had rejected the sexist social climate of the time, with both men and women spreading Christian teachings. Women were held to the same moral standards as men were, and both studied and interpreted scriptures, sharing leadership roles. However, this equal treatment seems to have disintegrated by the passing of time, most likely due to decisions made by male church authorities, who might very well have been influenced by sexist ideas of the time. Similarly in Buddhism, the first teachings of Buddha had emphasized on the non-importance of sex, and the need to detach oneself from identifying oneself as male or female. Akin to Jesus, Buddha taught to women as well. However, social circumstances and cultural norms of the time often proved to be unfavourable for women, thus shaping some of the perspectives of Buddha’s followers and affecting the interpretation of sacred texts. For example, Buddhist texts of the time that seem to paint women as temptresses, as the “stain of holy life”. However, they were often merely warnings against the biological urges that may affect the novice and the more impulsive monks should they be alone with the opposite sex for prolonged periods, and not intending to be sexist in nature.
Religion has indeed shaped gender construction, but religion, in turn, has been shaped by cultural norms and beliefs which affect the interpretation of religious texts. Biology and sexual relations between men and women had also been a factor in religious understanding of gender and gender roles. As such, it is seen once again that the sociological construction of gender is a result of the interaction of many factors, and like many other sociological issues, difficult to pin down the exact relationships between all of these factors.
The Construction of Gender Identity in the Individual
Our knowledge of being either a male or a female starts from childhood and carries on through all our lives. Many theories have been postulated, most significant of which includes Freud’s Identification theory (we gain knowledge of gender identity through identifying with the parent of the same sex as us), the Social Learning theory (we gain knowledge of gender identity by being awarded with gender appropriate behavior and being punished for gender inappropriate behavior), the Cognitive-developmental theory (we learn of gender through our mental efforts as a child to organize the complex social world), as well as Bem’s Enculturated Lens Theory (we learn of gender through a lens of hidden assumptions about how we should act and feel that is unnoticeable and systematically reproduced through the generations). Due to the many factors involved in sociology and psychology, it is often difficult to know exactly how gender identity is constructed.
The identification theory remains highly controversial to this date. Placed forward by Sigmund Freud, the identification theory holds that
we gain knowledge of our gender through identifying with our parent of the same sex
. Freud posited that children goes through stages in their development, and at around age 4, a critical stage, the phallic stage, occurs which causes the realization of being male or female. According to Freud, the children subconsciously model their behavior after the same sex parent, with boys and girls motivated by different things, the castration anxiety and the penis envy respectively. For the boy, he starts to view his father as a rival as his love for his mother grows to be come more sexual in nature. However, when the boy sees the female genitalia, he starts to assume that girls have been castrated for some reason, and fears that if he were to compete with his father, he would also be castrated. As a result, instead of competing, the boy starts to model himself after his father. In girls, when they first glimpse upon the male’s “far superior equipment”, they are overwhelmed with jealousy for boys and hence starts to identify herself with her mother such that she might compete with her to win the father’s affections. Freud also claims that the female never overcomes this jealousy, causing her to be more narcissistic than males, also causing the “physical vanity of women, since they are bound to value their charms more highly as a late compensation of their inferiority”.
Freud’s theory is controversial and generally unaccepted, due to several inherent problems in his ideas. Psychoanalysis is a field often very much subjected to observer bias, that is, there is no way of validating the theory as it all occurs in the subconscious mind. It is likely, therefore, that the psychoanalyst is more likely to find what he wants to find, and may not truly reflect the individual experience. Furthermore, research on this area had also proven it inconsistent and inaccurate.
The inherent sex bias in Freud’s theory also cannot be overlooked. The identification theory clearly holds that women are the inferiors of men, and acceptance of this theory would only legitimate the gender inequality and would be harmful to women.
Social Learning Theory
Derived from a school of thought called behaviorism in psychology, the social learning theory postulates that
we learn of our gender identity through a continuous process of reinforcement
, that is, a behavior that is rewarded will be more likely to occur again while a behavior that is punished for will not. As such, the Social Learning theory holds that we learn of our gender identity through a continuous process of reinforcement, where we are punished for gender inappropriate behavior and rewarded for gender appropriate ones. This reinforcement occurs not only in the punishments-and-rewards system, but also in observing others by looking at the consequences of their actions, adding an element of modeling in this theory.
Issues with this theory lie mainly in the idea of modeling. Studies have shown that children do not necessarily imitate the same sex parent more than the other. Furthermore, sex seems to be unimportant when it comes to modeling, as children would imitate the dominant parent more. The theory would therefore not have addressed the issue of gender construction. Additionally, studies have also found that children imitate the same-sex model only if they are engaged in sex appropriate behavior – this would suggest that children are not the passive recipients of information that the social learning theory makes them out to be. This issue would be addressed by the cognitive-developmental theory.
The cognitive-developmental theory had first been put forward by Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg. As a child born into the seemingly chaotic world, the first task of the developing child is to organize the world into a sensible system. Through sheer observation of the world, the child is able to seek out patterns and make sense of the complex world, and at the same time, “spontaneously construct a self” that is “consistent with [these social rules]”. The issue of sex is then addressed. For the young child, the level of mental maturity attained is only capable of understanding the world in simple divisions, and sex is one of the simplest and most natural ways of organizing.
The child picks up visual and behavioral cues particular to each of the sexes, and identifies with them, thus creating their own gender identity.
This schema is then also applied to the others, and traits are divided into two classes of masculinity and femininity. This theory would help to explain the strongly fixated ideas of femininity and masculinity and gender stereotypes in children.
However, this theory is not immune to criticism. The most serious criticism of this theory would lie in its downplaying of the role of culture in the formation of gender identity. The usage of gender as a means of organizing the world might not simply be because it is natural, but rather because of gender polarization in cultures. Other organizing categories are also available, but children use sex, not because it is natural, but rather because it is highly pronounced in society. The cognitive-developmental theory therefore does not address the impact of culture on the construction of gender identity. The forth theory, the enculturated lens theory would attempt to explain the impact of culture.
Bem’s Enculturated Lens Theory on Gender Formation
Sandra Bem, as a psychologist, had observed that the culture of any society comprises of many hidden assumptions that define the way the members of the community should behave, look and feel. The assumptions (or lenses) would then create patterns of thought and behavior that would be embedded in cultural discourses, social institutions as well as individuals. With this in mind, Bem examined the construction of gender identity in western nations and observes the presence of three assumption lenses with regards to gender – gender polarization (males and females are considered fundamentally different and this is significant in the organization of the society), androcentrism (males are superior to females) and biological essentialism (this lens justifies the other two by portraying gender differences as natural and inevitable products of genetics). These cultural lenses are transmitted to individuals through the general process of socializing, where the individual is bombarded with metamessages – implicit messages bound in social functions that transmits the values and beliefs of the society. For a child growing up in the society, they are unable to distinguish between reality and the socially constructed reality. Bem gives the analogy of a proverbial fish being unaware that their environment is wet – they have not experienced what is ‘not wet’.
Bem seems to have therefore combined the ideas behind the social learning theory and the cognitive-developmental theory, stating that gender identity is “both a product and a process”, that we learn of our gender through a process of receiving ideas of gender as well as an internalization and organization of information. Bem also notes that the information first obtain about gender is not biological, but rather social and cultural.
Bem’s theory also examines the issue of gender inequality, noting that the lens of androcentrism has been superimposed on the lens of gender polarization and young children learn not only of the differences between the sexes, but also the superiority of males. This assures that the individual becomes not just a carrier of cultural lenses, but also a “collaborator in the social reproduction of male power”.
Her has been too new to put rigorous empirical testing yet, but its thought-provoking ideas are likely to encourage thorough research in the future.
[Note: Think Immanuel Kant's tinted glasses. I personally find this very interesting - can be applied to many other areas of social knowledge.]
Mr Loh: What about 'transgendered' people or additional genders that transcend our conventional understanding? This is something that should also be considered. Refer to the websites and podcast I've put up under 'Selected Readings' for some insights.
Gender and Education
While schools may teach subjects such as mathematics and literature, the formal curriculum is often underlain with a hidden curriculum which might reflect sociological ideas of the time and is often subtle and apparently less significant. However, the influence of the hidden curriculum upon the world view and perspectives on gender is indeed significant. In the early history of schooling, education was only for the privileged males of the upper class. They were taught with the purpose of becoming the next generation of the ‘ruling class’, taking on leadership roles in the public sphere. Upper class white females were also educated, but were groomed to be demure, witty and well-bred wife of upper-class gentlemen. This carries on the tradition of women as the domesticated homemaker and the man as the leader of the family. Education system of the time was also ridden with many assumptions of the inferiority of women, that women were not as intelligent as men and were not able to take the stress of the rigor of a college education. Prestigious institutions, such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton, did not accept female undergraduates until the late 1960s. Belief in sex differences were so strong, that women and men were channeled into different courses of study, with women specializing in fields such as home economics, nursing and elementary education while men were placed in fields such as engineering, natural sciences, law and medicine. This very much varied educational experience of men and women would eventually shape the roles of the sexes in society, and from there, continually reinforce gender perceptions and roles in the individual. The individual, through schooling, hence acquires a deep impression of the traits and qualities of being feminine or masculine.
With the rising awareness of the feminist paradigm and increasing support for social reform, especially in the 1960s, educational opportunities for women have increased significantly, from 15% bachelor’s degree recipients being female in 1870, to 53.2% in 1990. However, while the educational gap between the sexes have been closed significantly, studies of elementary schools nowadays show that there is still an inherent difference in how boys and girls are treated in school. Studies of elementary schools have also shown that boys and girls are treated differently in school, in spite of teacher's claims of equality. The construction of gender identity in school seems to be largely based on the interaction and different treatment of teachers towards students. Studies have noted, for example, that teachers tend to pay more attention to male students, tending to solicit participation from boys more so than girls. Similarly, teachers also tend to offer more correction of errors in school work for boys than girls. However, many of these factors might have been affected by early childhood socialization, where boys were encouraged to be more active and aggressive, while girls were often rewarded for being passive and quiet. Textbooks also contain gender stereotypes which might subconsciously affect the student’s perceptions of gender roles, often heavily laden with gender biasness. These different expectations of boys and girls from young ages would have a profound impact on their future development, and constantly mould their ideas of what traits and qualities girls and boys should have.
The high school experiences of both adolescent boys and girls in the US are similarly varied, perhaps to an even larger extent. In teenagers, self-worth and confidence is often dependent on popularity. In studies of high schools in the US, it is shown that the most important source of prestige for boys lie in athletic achievement. The athletic are then looked up by peers, teachers and parents as leaders and traits associated with the sports field are typically deemed to be masculine (teamwork, leadership, aggressiveness etc.). In the same study, girls are found to be most concerned with having boyfriends, and seemed to require the affirmation of having a boyfriend to validate her positive attributes. By adolescence, girls are also thought to have a subconscious fear of success, as suggested by Matina Horner, that they are afraid to do well and are not comfortable with success, as it would be seen as unfeminine (though this theory is no yet proved to be consistent). It is seen, then, by adolescence, social interaction at school has already built in student a strong idea of what defines masculinity and femininity in a person, and encouraging them to act accordingly in their social context. These perceptions constantly reinforce itself in the many aspects of our lives and as a result, cement in us the knowledge of what it means to be a man or a woman.
Knowledge Construction and Gender
The influence of feminist thinkers on the construction of knowledge has been influential and varied. Feminist ideas on gender construction, as explained above, had undoubtedly given rise to serious implications in knowledge construction and practices of inquiry and justification. Feminist critique often involves the identification of gender biasness in the conception of knowledge – the knower and the methodologies are often not as objective as they seem. The idea of the situated knower is a key issue brought up by feminists in epistemology, that knowledge often reflects the perspective and the situation of the knower. These claims to know are questioned by feminists, with particular focus on the issue of gender as a social situation that affects the knower in the construction of knowledge. Knowledge constructed is then gendered, meaning that it is coloured by the roles, norms, traits and identity of the knower.
The different styles of constructing knowledge in men and women also becomes an issue in the feminist critique. Being raised in different manners since childhood, as outlined above, men and women would tend to have different styles of constructing knowledge as a result of their varied experiences.
[Note: Maybe we can think of it as different lenses for males and females – masculine ways of viewing the world and feminine ways, as a result of being inculcated with ideas of gender distinction and our gender identity. Gendered cognitive styles (atomistic, deductive and analytical as masculine, intuitive, holistic and contextual as feminine), while being debatable, might also influence how knowledge is constructed between males and females.]
However, due to the highly disproportionate number of men and women in epistemic authority in the various fields, gender inequality often results in the case that gender differences serve as a obstruction to obtaining greater validity in knowledge rather than a means to provide us with a more a objective perspective of the world. Women in many social contexts are often prevented from speaking out, or having their opinions and ideas disregarded as a result of the social norms of the society. As a result, feminists also interest themselves with how social relations affect the construction of knowledge in the various fields.
This does not, however, mean that feminists believe that there is a special form of women’s thinking or that feminists completely reject the knowledge constructed by man. The following passage is an extract from Robin May Schott’s Discovering Feminist Philosophy, chap. 2: Feminist Epistemologies:
“But before I discuss how feminist philosophy has contributed to discussions about knowledge and objectivity, let me clarify some common misconceptions about the field. First, feminist theorists do not argue that there is a special women’s logic or that women biologically have access to ways of thinking that are foreclosed to men... experiential differences between men and women, developing from psychological and social factors, shape different cognitive interests. This phrase underlies the view that knowledge is contextual and constructed, and that the dominant paradigms of learning are biased in favour of men’s experiences. Hence feminist epistemologists do not argue that cognitive differences are rooted in biological differences between the sexes. Nor do they argue that sex differences provide a kind of transcendental foundation – beyond any given context – for grounding differences in cognitive styles that exist within specific contexts. But they do argue that the playing field in which humans know and reflect is not an open one. It is a playing field that is figured by sexual differences and by gendered and racial hierarchies. Hence, epistemology requires a self-reflexive critical practice that interrogates the function and effects of these differences and operations of power.
Second, feminist work with theories of knowledge and methodologies in the natural and social sciences do not signal a collapse of these fields, nor a rejection of terms like truth, objectivity or rationality. On the contrary... feminists critically engage with these concepts to reconstruct them, not destroy them. And the reconstruction of terms like truth and objectivity takes account of the context of knowledge practices and norms, and the situatedness of the knower, without adopting a relativistic position.”
However, while feminists question the validity of our knowledge, only certain forms of knowledge are questioned, with some facing greater problems than others. Simple propositions such as “trees have leaves” and mathematics tend to be free of gender biasness, as they are often equally accessible to men and women with some degree of cognitive ability. However, fields of knowledge more subject to the human element, such as the aesthetics and the social sciences, which often deals with human emotions and thoughts, tend to be most subject to the accusations of feminist theorists. Some of the problems identified by feminists in a few of these fields of knowledge are outlined below.
The impact of gender studies on the construction of historical knowledge is largely that of a critical re-examination of the premises and standards of previously done scholarly work on history. Feminist historians believe that “the writing of women into history necessarily involves the redefining and enlarging traditional notions of historical significance, to encompass personal, subjective experiences as well as public and political activities. It's not too much to suggest that however hesitant the actual beginnings, such a methodology implies not only a new history of women, but a new history.” Gender would then be developed as a category of historical analysis, together with issues such as class and race.
The rise of gender as a category of historical analysis (or, a means through which historical knowledge could be constructed and verified) had came as a result of the need for a theoretical formula in understanding history. While feminist historians have been trained in such a manner that they are more comfortable with a narrative approach to history, the descriptive approach is unable to address fundamental issues in history in a transformative manner. The mere proving of the involvement of women in history is not enough, as seen by how it is not often well-received by non-feminist historians who often try to separate history from women’s history or, dismiss their claims on the basis of how understanding women’s involvement in major historical events would not change their understanding of them. As such, gender was developed as analytic category to answer some fundamental questions such as how gender affects organizations and give meaning to perceptions of historical knowledge.
[Note: I'm unable to find clear examples of how gender affect the construction of historical knowledge yet. Will try and find ASAP.]
Mr Loh: Allow me to direct you to works by Joan Wallach Scott (
Gender and the Politics of History
) and Bonnie G. Smith (
The Gender of History: Men, Women and Historical Practice
). Perhaps for obvious reasons, male historians have not written extensively on the issue. Even so, you could also consider more general works by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault as well as references.
[Note: For now, please take a look at this link:
Give me some time to condense what I've read, approaches to feminist science is often varied and much debated amongst the feminists.]
Mr Loh: A summary of the key themes / issues will suffice. We can always refer to the link you've included above for the details if necessary.
According to feminists, the role of gender in shaping knowledge of the aesthetics lie largely in how it shapes power relations in our society. These power relations are often imbued in artwork, as well as our judgement of what is good art or what is bad art. While one might like to claim to be a disinterested observer of art, feminists claim that this is impossible. Art is also seen as a “powerful [framer] of self-image, social identity and public values”, with “insidious”, “nearly invisible” and “apparently trivial” assumptions about gender that reveals itself upon scrutiny. Like with history, gender is seen as a category of analysis through which the aesthetics are reconstructed to remove gender bias. Common forms of gender bias in the aesthetics involve:
1. Underrepresentation of women in artistic community: societal assumption that women suffer from limitations in the creative arena and are thus incapable of important artistic creativity
2. ‘The Male Gaze’: taste and beauty are judged from the male perspective, hence male power is exerted over what is considered beautiful and what is not
3. The creator of art is a masculine ideal: the model of the artist conjures a male image in our minds, possessing the masculine trait of ‘genius’
‘The male gaze’ is often regarded as a sort of power relation that we find in artworks; it is assumed that the ability to look at others indicates sexual and social power over something (the nude girl in the painting, perhaps). Feminist critic Laura Mulvey notes that women are often the subject of the being-looked-act, and men assume the role of the one who looks. An interesting example of ‘the male gaze’, or gender bias in aesthetic perception, might be found in the artistic renderings of a story from the Old Testament, that tells of a beautiful woman, Susanna, who was watched by two powerful male elders of the community while she was bathing. They demanded sexual favours from her, and threatened to tell her husband that she was an adulteress if she did not comply with them. Susanna, however, refused and was eventually rescued by David.
This myth had been one of the favourite subjects of baroque and renaissance paintings. The interesting thing about this is really how artists often choose to depict her being spied upon while bathing rather than David’s heroic rescue. Susanna’s body is gazed upon not only by the two Elders, but also the spectator viewing the painting.
[Note: just go google ‘susanna and the elders’, you’ll see all these paintings of the scene.]
So from here, we might see the relationship between men and women as subject and object respectively reflected in art – that male artists prefer to choose scenes where women are shown as the passive object.
Greater awareness of gender issues would undoubtedly affect knowledge construction in sociology, being study of the human society. Upon the rise of the feminist paradigm as the new sociological context to work in, many problems with previous sociological research had been highlighted upon closer inspection.
The feminists had taken many issues with previous sociological research that subscribed to the Structural Functionalist model, criticizing it based on the inherent sex bias within the data. Three main issues include:
1. Conducting of research on males, but results are generalized across both males and females
2. Neglect of gender research on areas deemed unimportant (i.e. the workplace, law), focusing only on areas such as family and marriage
3. Feminine behaviour and attitudes analyzed according to male standards of normalcy and rightness when females were studied
These problems were largely the result of male domination in research and academic institutes, as well as the cultural discrimination of women at the point of time. As an example for [3.], a feminist sociologist, Dale Spender, had shown that in previous studies of the relation between sex and language, the language patterns of women were deigned to be deficient as they were different from that of men’s, which were considered the standard of correctness. Clearly, the influence of gender on culture as well as the issues that arise due to gender differences, such as gender discrimination, has caused inaccuracies and biasness in knowledge construction of the social sciences.
Aristotle’s thinking and philosophical writings had been the interest of many feminists, being highly sexist in nature. It has been suggested that Aristotle’s writings were the roots of sexism in science and philosophy. Famously, Aristotle had proclaimed that a woman is a mutilated male. With his ideas so deeply incorporated in the philosophical and scientific tradition, the sexist inclinations of Aristotle’s work in philosophy might have laid the foundation for the sexist thoughts of many future philosophers. As such, many feminists are attempting to reconstruct his work in spite of the blatant sexism in it. Like many philosophers before the rise of feminism, Aristotle took on the structural functionalist view, believing that all aspects of nature has a specific function in the world, contributing by fulfilling this predetermined function. For Aristotle, the amount of the ‘heat’ element in a person determines the relative inferiority or superiority of the being, and since women were ‘colder’, they are inferior, providing a passive and subordinate contribution to society. Aristotle also believed that the soul is the form of the body, and thus the physical inferiority is an indication of the inferiority of their souls, claiming, for example, that women are less honest and more emotional than men. In his
, Aristotle had written about the role and status of women in society, assuming that the unequal status of men-women relations in his society are natural as each sex are performing their specific functions. Furthermore, women were also portrayed by Aristotle as lacking in rationality and unable to provide reliable judgment. Hence men, who are more rational, should rule women as the intellect rules the appetites. Feminists often see Aristotle as the originator of the idea that ‘maleness’ is the norm and the mark of superiority. Other aspects of Aristotle’s thinking would seem to exclude women from attaining the good life, as the good life of men seems to be dependent on the subordination of women in their respective social roles. Aristotle’s moral philosophy in the
may require that women are kept in their inferiority.
While Descartes had not explicitly written on the issue of gender, much of his thinking had been scrutinized by feminists. Descartes, as one of the central rationalists, had maintained the philosophical tradition of the superiority of the mind over the body, further going on to claim that the body actually prevents us from obtaining true knowledge as the senses are unreliable and subjective. Descartes explains that we need to transcend our bodies in order to attain true knowledge. The Cartesian soul, stated explicitly by Descartes, is sexless and purely rational, with emotion arising only from the body, seeming to implicitly reject the claims that women are inferior because of their biology. While it may not seem to clash with feminist interests at first, the cultural perceptions of women of the time would have ensured the exclusion of women from the philosophical and gender the ideals of rationality and objectivity. The firmly dualist thinking in Descartes’s work, (mind/body, man/woman, reason/emotion) have the power to reinforce the social stereotypes of women at the time – inferior, problematic, unreliable.
As another thinker that subscribed to functionalist thinking, Rousseau believed that women had roles in the society and duties to the family that they were to fulfil, explained in Emile, a work on education. The sex complementarian views of Rousseau were seen in the text, where the boy Emile had developed according to his nature, free of the influences of society. His female counterpart, Sophy, was to be his perfect complementary, with the two being different and yet forming a whole through marriage. While Rousseau had shown Emile to be free of the influences of society, the image of Sophy is much shaped by the cultural perception of women as naturally docile and pleasing to men. His belief in a sexual division of labour, whether due to ‘nature’ or due to the perceived needs of the society, seems to lead to the requirement that women remain subordinated to men, and the women cannot break out of their domestic roles in the private sphere. Rousseau argues that the differences between the sexes are so radical, it is pointless to ask if one is superior to another, and even if the roles of women are restrictive, it is necessary for women to maintain in her foundational role in society. However, Rousseau seems to be well aware of the problems faced by womankind, depicting Sophy to be suffering for embodying his ideals of the good woman.
John Stuart Mill
Mill’s significant feminist work,
The Subjection of Women
, had been the only major piece of feminist work written by a male in the western cannon. In his work, Mill expresses the opinion that there is no natural inequality between the sexes, and that “the legal inequality of women has no basis in the overall happiness of the society”, but rather “a vestige of historical relations between man and woman that were based solely on men’s physical power over women”. Mill also notes that we cannot know the true nature of the sexes, and whatever behaviour we observe of women are a result of repressive socialization. The role of gender socialization remains central to modern feminist philosophy.
Simone de Beauvior
In her most influential work,
The Second Sex
, Beauvior critiques the traditional and contemporary views of women and explains how femininity is a social construct, with women being constructed as the Other. In her work, Beauvior traces the origins of sexual hierarchy, coming to the conclusion that it had started with the primitive societies, where men, as active subjects working as warriors and inventors to support the community were able to differentiate themselves from animals as they had ends to preserve that were more valuable than their lives (the well-being of the community). However, Beauvior argues, because women are weighed down by their natural demands of reproduction, they were unable to do the same and were hence identified more closely with animals. As man moved on from these nomadic tribes to agriculture, women started to be more and more closely identified with nature, as it was believed that women’s natural reproductive properties are closely connected with the success of the harvest. Both were also required for the social and economic success of man. However, a general reluctance to be dependent on them had developed, and man started to assert himself as the independent subject – the Self, and women, along with nature, as the Other. This dualist thinking is central to human thought, and “no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself”.
Man was then set up as the positive norm and the neutral, “as is indicated by the common use of ‘man’ to designate human beings in general”, while women were defined as the negative, “defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity”. Beauvior quotes examples of this from the words of Aristotle and Aquinas, with Aristotle claiming that a “female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities” and that “we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness”.
“Thus humanity is male and man defined woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. Michelet writes: “Woman, the relative being...” And Benda is most supportive in his Rapport d’Uriel: “The body of man makes sense in itself quite apart from that of woman, whereas the latter seems wanting in significance by itself... Man can think of himself without a woman. She cannot think of herself without man.” And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called “the sex”, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other. “
- Simone de Beauvior, The Second Sex
Beauvior further explains her theory with examples of the image of the ideal woman and how it maintains the status quo. She believes that the image of the ideal woman is seen to be one who sacrifices her own self for the self of the man. The lack of resistance of women to this crippling ideal lies in how they have internalized their role as the Other, as contrasted to the resisting attitudes of other oppressed groups. She explains this in the following extract:
“...there have always been women. They are women in virtue of their anatomy and physiology. Throughout history they have always been subordinated to man, and hence their dependency is not a result of a historical event or a social change
[Note: In contrast to the Jews and the proletariats]
– it was not something that occurred. The reason why otherness in this case seems to be an absolute is that it lacks the contingent or incidental nature of historical facts... it might seem that a natural condition is beyond the possibility of change.
In truth, however, the nature of things is no more immutably given, once for all, than is historical reality. If woman seems to be the inessential which never becomes the essential, it is because she herself fails to bring about this change. Proletarians say ‘We’; Negroes also. Regarding themselves as subjects, they transform the bourgeois, the whites, into ‘others’. But women do not say ‘We’, except at some congress of feminists or similar formal demonstration; men say ‘women’, and women use the same word in referring to themselves. They do not authentically assume a subjective attitude. The proletarians have accomplished the revolution in Russia, the Negroes in Haiti, the Indo-Chinese are battling for it in Indo-China; but the women’s effort has never been anything more than a symbolic agitation. They have gained only what men have been willing to grant; they have taken nothing, they have only received.
The reason for this is that women lack concrete means for organizing themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own; and they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat. They are not even promiscuously herded together in the way that creates community feeling among the American Negroes, the ghetto Jews, the workers of Saint-Denis, or the factory hands of Renault. They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men – fathers or husbands – more firmly than they are to other women. If they belong to the bourgeoisie, they feel solidarity with men of that class, not with proletarian women; if they are white, their allegiance is to white men, not to Negro women. The proletariat can propose to massacre the ruling class, and a sufficiently fanatical Jew or Negro might dream of getting sole possession of the atomic bomb and making humanity wholly Jewish or black; but woman cannot even dream of exterminating the males. The bond that unites her to her oppressors is not comparable to any other. The division of the sexes is a biological fact, not an event in human history. Male and female stand opposed within a primordial Mitsein, and woman has not broken it. The couple is a fundamental unity with its two halves riveted together, and the cleavage of society along the line of sex is impossible. Here is to be found the basic trait of woman: she is the Other in a totality of which the two components are necessary to one another. “
- Simone de Beauvior, The Second Sex
Beauvior famously proclaims that “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes, a woman”. To support this view, she had given a detailed analysis of the life of women and the process in which femininity is internalized. Beauvior believes that for the girl to pass into adulthood, she must accept and internalize her role as the inferior. This concept of being inferior is further reinforced through other institutions such as marriage and motherhood. While marriage would make women economically dependent on man, motherhood, similarly, would mean an element of self-sacrifice, that is, the woman eventually becomes an object to fulfil the needs of the child. Her ideas had been key to the development of modern feminist thought, helping to make the distinction between gender and sex, which feminist arguments often centre about.
Mr Loh: Overall, this is the most well-researched and thoughtful page on knowledge and society thus far. Kudos for an excellent job!
I would like to start my reflection by commenting on Yuan Qiu’s point regarding Aristotle and his sexist thinking found under the section “Significant thinkers”.
The concept of males having more “heat” than females with females being “colder” is an interesting one in which a person determines the relative inferiority or superiority of the being through the degree of “heat”. Perhaps one way of thinking about this would be the feasibility of having a society filled with just “heat” all the way. That is to say ignoring the issue of reproduction, whether a society consisting of only men would be able to survive. Aristotle was perhaps a little extreme in his classification of male and female since in my opinion, they can be seen as one and not as two. The male and female in my opinion exists as a single unit and not as 2 separate units and they depend on each other for survival. Using Aristotle example of “heat”, too much “heat” would ultimately destroy the place and the “colder” females serve to provide a balance to allow the life to be sustained.
The way of thinking as mentioned above is not new perhaps to most. Traditional Chinese Medicine seems to also adopt a way of thinking similar to that above by stating that they are 2 forces in the world “Yin” and “Yang” and that by nature the male was predominantly “Yang” and that the female was “Yin”. A balanced had to be attainted in order to achieve good health.
“Yin” is often defined as the colder element whole “Yang” was the hotter element. As such “Yin” is often symbolized by water and earth, while “Yang” is symbolized by fire and air.
Adapted from Wikipedia, Yin and Yang:
The image of the yin-yang is a circle with two parts: the white part represents yang and black part represents yin.
Two parts pass through each other on a line because yin and yang are never separated, such as if people do not know what bad is, they do not know
what good is.
There is a small black round in white part and so is in black part; that presents the philosophy: "
" (for example: though water is fluid-yin, water is also hydraulic-yang) which implies that everything has two aspects.
Neither white part nor black part is a semicircle because there is never absolute balance between yin and yang. There is always having a stronger aspect and a weaker aspect; that presents the philosophy: "Whenever yin is stronger, yang is weaker and so". If the circle is divided into two by any diameter, black or white color never cover all of the area of a segment because the universe is never in all yin or all yang.
Regarding the symbol, the two parts are put together in a circle which represents unity. On the other hand, on the opinion of motion, two parts are contradicting aspects, they fight and interchange each other; whenever the trend of yin increases, the trend of yang decreases and so. At the specific time when yin is extreme, yin starts to grow into yang and so (for example: day after night, night after day). The unity maintains universe and the contradiction is the stimulation of the universe's development.
The above adaptation perhaps serves to give us some basic idea on the idea of Yin and Yang, which does not only appear in Chinese medicine and philosophy but also has a place in Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese thinking.
The Yin and Yang model, I feel fits perfectly into this discussion of gender and its distinction.
From the logo, we can see that the black and white are never separated which can be seen to imply that males and females cannot be separated from one another and depend on each other for survival. If this is so, why is there the need for the distinction of roles in society between genders?
There is a small white/black part in each large area of black/white which can be interpreted to mean that even in a male there are female qualities and vice versa. Such an interpretation is useful as it can help us in understanding why there are “sissies” and “tomboys” around us, since the male is never entirely male and vice versa.
In the adaptation above, there was a short discussion regarding the opinion of motion. For the purpose of gender, this can be interpreted as males are perhaps born more inclined in certain areas and females in other areas and these areas are complete opposites of each other as “whenever the trend of yin increases, the trend of yang decreases and so on”. This can perhaps help to explain the huge difference in the roles that males and females play in society with males bringing in the bread and bacon while the females nurture the family.
Perhaps there is a certain Eastern philosophy which discusses gender using the yin yang model? I must state again, that the yin yang model in my opinion is an excellent way of illustrating the differences between both sexes and yet allowing us to reconcile them both.
Moving on from the yin yang model, I would like to touch on the issue in which Yuan Qiu talked about under Science, in the section “The Construction of Gender”.
Here, she talks about the 2 twin males, one of which had his genitals destroyed and was raised as a female. The case discussed by Yuan Qiu allowed me to dig out this case in France that I read a few years back. Apparently, they had discovered in the Forests of France or Germany (I cant recall) a boy who they postulated had grown up in the forests, with no human contact at all. This boy could not speak any known language to human-kind and his behavior was similar to that of a wolf, earning him the name “Wolf-boy”. An interesting thing to think about is whether this boy had a gender. If it can be proven that this boy did not have any conception of the idea of gender, then it can be said that much of gender construction is indeed dependent on social forces at least more so than the anatomical differences that exist between both sexes.
Lastly, the aesthetic part of Yuan Qiu’s discussion was really new to me, as I never viewed art as being sexist. The idea of art made for males to view and females to be viewed is really intriguing. But then again, I do not exactly subscribe to this view totally as these females paintings were made by males and it is possible that the subject chosen to be painted (females) was chosen so as to appreciate the beauty of the female whether for sexual purposes or not. The idea of females being depicted as passive objects can then be validated by saying that the male artist was painting a female portrait for the world to enjoy and is derived for a pure feeling of appreciation rather than the assertion of power.
: Regarding your last comment: I feel that by "painting a female portrait for the world to enjoy" is an assertion of power in some sense, especially when this is done extensively over the ages. The female is typically portrayed as passive and often helpless, and when this image is continuously depicted in works of art, it really serves to objectify women, going on to consolidate the role of women as nothing more than objects of beauty that are to be viewed by the appreciator of beauty - men.]
I disagree with you saying that women are "
nothing more than objects of beauty that are to be viewed by the appreciator of beauty - men".
I do not see how the appreciator of beauty is only restricted to men only. I feel that beauty is a universal value and is not gender-specific and in this sense, it can be appreciated by members of either sex. While it is true that such female paintings may seem to be more appreciated by males rather than females (maybe because these paintings were painted by men, for men in the first place), females can also seek to appreciate these paintings. It would be interesting to understand how a female interprets beauty in such paintings, in my opinion.
What makes me wonder at this point in time would be why there isn't a reversal of roles, with the female being the artist and the male being the subject painted. One idea i have would be the idea of male pride as opposed to female subservience.
: I said certain forms of art serves to keep women in the position of the one being viewed upon, rather than the one viewing. That should not lead to the conclusion that women cannot appreciate beauty in art, as you seem to suggest. I am not looking at just sexism in art which you seem to be focusing on, but rather the effects that the aesthetics have on society, and how art serves as a means to maintain the perceptions of society. You raised an interesting issue on aesthetics - you said that beauty is a universal value and is not gender specific - but how true is that? We can never divorce the personal interests of the viewer (or the artist) from his perspective of what is beautiful and what is not, so even if there were a universal standard of beauty we'd probably never find out what it is because we cannot be objective.
Comments – SHIV
Throughout your write-up I have observed a trend–a tendency towards the formation of and postulating of theories and ideas with a major consideration of
, and the need of the hour.
Considering that structural functionalists only look at the sensibility of roles concerned with the usual structure and biological make up of the male and the female, why then must it be called “discrimination”? Isn’t it more appropriately – job allocation according to ability and convenience?
: The structural functionalist's arguments entails that women SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED to do certain jobs based on their biology. A women who wants to do law, for example, was not allowed to do so simply because of her gender which confines her to the home. Their argument also entails that women are not capable of doing many tasks - but now we're seeing that its not quite true. By not allowing someone to do what they wanted based purely on their gender and supposed inability is discrimination.
In Islam too – due to the warring tribes and the problem of sparse Arabic population at the time when prophet Mohammad came around, might have influenced the inclusion of teachings like polygamy, and women-to-serve-men doctrine: helps to reproduce more. Also, because resources were scarce, and riches and wealth were concentrated in few hands, it only made sense to let the rich men who were able to support more than one woman, and more than one family, to do so.
: The Muslim women are generally content with this sort of life. I feel that they should be allowed to do if they want to stay like that. This is also a troublesome area because it's related to religion. But I think some women are unhappy with this (I know this is the case with the Jews, not too certain about the Muslims) - are we to sacrifice individual happiness for the needs of the society? Furthermore, there are cases of men who are not wealthy that try to take many wives - what of these women?
Whenever there has been the
for something, the phenomenon has existed. This is true for the ancient Greek goddesses as well as for the modern cosmopolitan woman. Wherever the opportunity, coupled with the need, has arisen, women(and men, I daresay) have been ushered into specific societal roles. After this, the coming generation simply fall in line with these roles.
: Yup, so now we're questioning if men and women MUST stay in these roles and if people who want to deviate from these roles should be allowed to do so without discrimination.
One other thing is also on my mind- how far is this androcentrism true for modern day society?
clad women are entering the bureaucracy in places as conservative as Saudi Arabia, India recently got its first woman president, Pakistan’s only strong candidate challenging Musharraf was a woman, the Mossad's greatest anti-terrorist campaign post Munich was authorized by a woman president (Golda Meir) with "aggressive tendencies", and America looks set to give Mrs. Clinton a thumbs-up. Where does that leave us? Are we still living in a society that is patriarchal at all? Or was that merely a response to the prevalent conditions at the time when androcentrism thrived? To me, such tendencies are withering away with time. As comforts and luxuries permeate the society, the roles of men and women are fast overlapping and interchanging, hence leading to a more balanced society where men and women may assume any role. This is probably a direct outcome of development and the interaction of various cultures due to globalization. My question therefore is- is all this as relevant NOW, as it was perhaps a few decades ago? Or does the conception of male-superiority still pervade our subconscious and tint our perception? Personally, I think the relevance is fast diminishing, and we are moving towards either an equal society, or a slightly matriarchal one. This may not be true for
, but as a general trend, I think it’s quite possible.
: Yes, I agree, the feminists have been very effective. Anyway my topic isn't about feminism and liberating women... just the gender issues that have been raised over the ages. You can go liberate the men from their nasty masculine roles or something soon. :D
Simone de Beauvior,
The Second Sex
Catherine V. Gardner,
Historical Dictionary of Feminist Philosophy
Gender and Aesthetics: An Introduction
Do Women have a Distinct Nature?
Evelyn Fox Keller,
Feminism and Science
Gender and the Politics of History
Objective Reality, Male Reality and Social Construction
(more to come)
Discussion on third genders
YH: Hijras descended from islam and Hinduism, believed to be higher beings created by god.
Sidd: Considered themselves to be the defender of the Prophet’s cave. Ascribed themselves closer connections with the divine.
ML: Hijras can be hermaphrodites or biological male with a female gender.
Sid: they believe that they transcend the gender roles and all social norms and are hence closer to god.
YH: Proud of their political heritage, close to the aristocracy – worked as court advisors and entertainers. Quite respected by the hindu community, but when the British colonial rulers came, they were labels as homosexuals and sodomites, transforming the position and roles of the Hijras.
YH: They play spiritual roles, eg. when a baby is born, they go to the homes to bless births.
Sidd: But they are also feared for their ability to curse.
YH: Work as prostitutes and end up become beggers due to the legacy of British colonial rule.
YF: However, some of them still work as politicians, have an impressive number of voters. Their historical political legacy allows them to continue becoming very active in politics, with many of them at the grassroots levels.
ML: One even went on to become a minister.
Shiv: They feel that they have been unfairly treated and marginalized.
LT: I never thought anyone would want to become part of the hijras community. Is there a reason for them wanting to be part of this? They end up reduced to a state of poverty and prostitution anyway.
ML: Have you have any experience with Hijras?
Shiv: When my sister was born, a group of hijras came, turning up unannounced and asked for money. The Hijras feel very different from the normal society, they believe themselves to be higher beings.
ML: I’d like to see if there are any similarities between the Hijras and Berdache
JE: While Hijras mostly refers to males who play female roles, the Berdaches can refer to both male playing females roles and females playing male roles or a mix of both. They are from North American tribes.
ML: They are seen as male prostitutes by the Westerners.
JE: Their roles are very spiritual, I suppose they are similar in that way. Their clothes are a mix of male and female articles. Assume a multi-gender roles. They also have spiritual powers and special connectiosn with the divine, but its not so much about blessing babies but rather conducting rituals. Their roles are extensive.
healers or medicine persons
gravediggers, undertakers, handling and burying of the deceased
conduct mourning and sexual rites
conveyers of oral traditions and songs
nurses during war expeditions
foretold the future
conferred lucky names on children or adults
wove, made pottery, made beadwork and quillwork
made feather regalia for dances
special skills in games of chance
fulfilled special functions in connection with the setting up of the central post for the
In some tribes female-bodied two-spirits typically took on roles such as:
hunter, trapper, fisher
vision quests, prophets
ML: Look at western filsm, they always feature the white male rescuing the female who is helpless…
JE: The fourth gender is the biologically female one that plays a male role.
ML: So how are they viewed by others?
JE: They were accepted by society, but I think its interesting that they still assign specific roles to males and females.
LT: Some anthropologists say that the males take on these roles because they cannot successfully rise up in society performing traditionally male roles.
ML: I hope you are able to draw the parallels, Key similarities include spiritual sanction which keep them accepted by society. Mythology and folklore playing a key aspect in North Indian society. Now I’d like to introduce a new concept called “deconstruction”.We view the world in binary opposites, i.e., mind-body, black-white, good-bad, big-small, male-female etc etc.
According to deconstructionist theory, we view male and female so rigidly because we see things in opposites.
ML: Rigid gender roles makes transgender surgery the only option.
ML: Rigid gender roles created by European males as a means of social organization and control. So how do you feel people who did not fit into this structure?
Shiv: They were viewed as abnormal and a deviant.
ML:Society is slowly opening up, but there are still a lot of historical baggage and western philosophy has constructed very rigid roles for males and females. Third genders are significant to our discussion because they can help to illustrate the concept of multi-gender roles, and that gender is socially constructed. They can also help to demonstrate that there are many qualities that may be gender neutral. The west has also projected their hetreosexual ideals upon the world.
Sidd: Geography of thought
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