Resurgence: Harini Calamur begins a column on everyday gender perceptions & beyond
A headline caught my eye today, and made me grimace. “Chennai man killed by speeding Audi, police to determine if woman driver was drunk.” It made me ask the same question I seek to answer, every time I write. Is a descriptor needed? Does the line still read right, if I bump off the word ‘woman’. Does it really make a difference whether the drunk is a man or a woman? But, there are things that we don’t expect women to do. And, it is not just headline writers. A few days ago, a professional acquaintance was telling me about a case of corruption in a private company, and someone getting sacked. “She was caught red handed” they said. I responded “a woman taking a bribe?” part incredulous, part shocked. Frankly, after all these years of working, some of it in news, things like this should not surprise or shock me, but they do. There are things we expect of men and women, and there are things we don’t expect them to do.
All of us, to a greater or lesser extent refer to the world, through gender lenses. There are things we expect ourselves to do, and expect to be done for us. And, it applies to men, women, and society at large. The number of female friends who do not pay attention to personal finance (I used to be one of them), and leave it to the men in their family; the number of men who have no cooking skills, and leave it all to the women in their family (how many men do you know who tell you they can just make tea, and boil an egg). These are at a very basic level. And, the roles determined by culture and society, which we broadly call gender roles, impact both sexes.
If I bump off the word ‘woman’. Does it really make a difference whether the drunk is a man or a woman?
At my age, my father was the main provider for a family of 7. A spouse, 3 children, and two from the older generation. He never went on holiday. Or got himself new clothes. We lived on a honest Government servant’s salary, that was supplemented by a honest teacher’s salary. I asked him, much later in life didn’t he crave for the nicer things in life – a new pair of shoes, a watch, a new tie, maybe even a holiday. He laughed and said, ‘I had the pleasure of seeing you all grow, I didn’t really need anything more.” My father was the provider. My mother was the nurturer. He loved photography and travel. She loved reading and studying. Both put their dreams away for us. A former colleague of mine, who wanted to start up, put his dreams aside. He wanted to be the good provider. Another colleague, stayed at home to look after her family, because she believed it was her role. One is not judging any of the decisions here, one is simply saying that our decision making is often, even sub consciously, based on gender programming.
While sex is biological, gender is societal programming. And, while we often talk about how gender roles impact women, the fact is, it impacts both. A woman is expected to be responsible for the upbringing of the children and taking care of the household, never mind if she has other dreams. A man is expected to go out and provide for his family, dreams be damned.
The question of gender has come back into the public sphere in a big way, for the first time since the 1970s.
The question of gender has come back into the public sphere in a big way, for the first time since the 1970s. And, it has to do with discrimination. And, that discrimination is neither governmental, nor organizational. Both encourage diversity. That discrimination is innate. Within individuals. And, most of us don’t even recognize it, because so much of it is linked to society, culture and traditions.
So the starting point in ending discrimination is to recognize that there is something called gender that is a product of society and culture
So the starting point in ending discrimination is to recognize that there is something called gender that is a product of society and culture, and that it is very distinct from sex that is determined at the point of conception. It has to do with roles that we perform. If we accept that roles have little to do with biology, then we can make a beginning to end gender.
As women, we cannot achieve equality, until we recognize that men are as weighed down by gender roles as women are. The average man –father, brother, partner, colleague, friend – is not patriarchy. He is an individual, just like the average woman. Maybe a set of conversations will help change things at the individual level. A conversation on dreams, and wishes, and how they can be achieved, may really help redress the balance in our own immediate universe. And, many adjoining universes, may end up shifting the balance towards a more gender free, or gender neutral world. It is the world we owe future generations.