Education, Development, and Change
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Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Gender Divide

Dr Shahid Siddiqui 
Published in Dawn, 17 January, 2011

GENDER is a social construct that is fluid and varies with relation to time and space. Like any other social learning that humans acquire, the notion of gender is a part of cultural knowledge. The major culture-constituent forces include the social institutions that construct, validate and perpetuate social knowledge.

The first social institution that newborns are exposed to is their family. It is the family that instils in the child’s mind the essential attributes that are associated with men and women. Categorisation on the basis of gender starts at birth, when girls and boys are labelled and associated with the colours pink and blue.
At a very early stage, girls and boys are subjected to differential treatment in the family. In South Asian countries, where a large number of people live their lives below the poverty line, for economic reasons boys are generally valued more. Similarly, because of the unfortunate custom of having to have a dowry, girls are considered a burden, particularly in families with fewer resources. Children, when they start growing, observe the environment of their family. They keenly observe the relationship between their mother and father and study social roles very closely, such as who goes out to earn money and who takes care of the home. These early observations become an important source of social knowledge and children start internalising the roles of males and females at a very young age. In families where domestic violence is common, children develop aggressive attitudes which, in some cases, remain with them for a long time.
Besides observing the relationship of their parents, children acquire social norms from their siblings. Differential treatment within the family strengthens gender stereotypes in their minds.
Parental attitudes can impact the process of gender development as the initial formation of self-image takes place in the family. It is the parents that determine roles on the basis of gender through their own example and through their treatment of their children. Similarly it’s the parents who associate different sets of expectations with their sons and daughters. In South Asian countries, most parents don’t like their daughters to talk loudly or laugh before strangers. However, such expectations in terms of behaviour are not applied to boys.
Parents are also instrumental in providing different sets of opportunities to their children. For example, in mainstream families in a South Asian country a boy faces no problems in going abroad for higher studies but parents are usually reluctant to allow their daughters the same flexibility. Parental expectations regarding attitude, dress, job, responsibility and marriage generally differ on the basis of gender.
The early lessons of gender-dictated roles are taught in families when domestic chores are divided amongst children on this basis. To pick a very common example, boys are made responsible for acting in the public domain and girls are expected to manage the home. The roles that are assigned and practiced in the family are internalised by girls and boys at a very young age. These initial constructions of the self remain with them even when they have grown up. As a result of early internalisation, a number of women choose not to change their lives by challenging the hegemony of male members of the society.
A symbolic divide on the basis of gender lies in the choice of games and toys. Masculine-typed toys and games foster ‘male’ attributes such as aggression, violence and control. Feminine-typed games and toys cultivate the characteristics of organisation, caring, sharing or cooking. The choice of these games is approved by the parents and if girls try to move into the category of boys’ toys, they tend to be discouraged. Boys usually like to play games in which they emerge as warriors, saviours and heroes. The toys commonly given to them include guns, toy planes or racing cars racing. On the other hand, girls are taught to play make-believe as a teacher or cook or baker in a toy kitchen, or apply make-up to their dolls.
Thus, the divide on the basis of gender is strengthened through social categorisation. This social categorisation leads to segregated social norms in lifestyles. For example, a disorganised boy is generally tolerated by society but a girl has to be organised and tidy otherwise she is dubbed ill-mannered and socially unacceptable.
Boys and girls are encouraged to grow in separate environments with different roles and expectations. The initial division at the familial level is strengthened further by the social institutions of schools, and the print and electronic media. All such institutions not only propose that girls and boys grow up in different cultures, they also enforce this ‘rule’. That is why there is potential for misunderstandings when they converse with one another. These potential misunderstandings owe to the ‘cultural differences’ with which they are brought up.
Keeping in view the significant role played by the family as a social institution, it is crucial that the differential treatment of boys and girls be discouraged at as early a stage as possible. Girls should be given confidence and the opportunity to explore and express their potential. The early realisation for the need of mutual respect and recognition plays an important part in peaceful coexistence in society.

The writer is a professor and director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics, and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.


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