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Violence against women > Why does Violence occur > Gender

Understanding Gender

Are Sex and Gender one and the same term? And if not, then what are the differences between the two?

  * Sex is the biologically determined difference between men and women.  It describes differences in their bodies and reproductive systems. The two identities male and female are made to seem natural.

  * Gender is the socially, culturally created difference between men and women. It recognizes sexual differences but points out that others like eunuchs and transvestites are left out. It emphasizes the construction of masculinity and femininity by society. Women are supposed to be passive, docile, weak, emotional, less intelligent, fearful and men by nature are active, assertive, strong, brave, and rational. One is not to trespass the others domain. Men who are gentle or emotional are ridiculed as feminine. Women who are confident and assertive are unladylike.

Sex is a commonly used term to mark the distinction between male and female based on biological and genital differences. The prevalent societal ideology gives men and women, based on their sexual characteristics, certain personalities, skills and physical characteristics. It is so routine and accepted that people do not even question it. When specifically asked, people see nothing wrong with biological differences and often use Nature and God to justify the distinction. Are not men stronger and more muscular than women? Even amongst animals, the male hunts and is the leader of the pack and the female tends the young. Surely God must have seen them as different? The more scientifically inclined state that hormones or the size and functioning of the brain make men and women have different likes, dislikes and temperaments. Are boys not better at maths than girls? Another argument often used is  both men and women play different but complimentary roles, which makes societies work. Do chakke bina gaadi nahin chalti [a cart cannot move without its two wheels].

Undoubtedly there are biological differences between men and women. Feminists do not dispute it. What they are concerned about is why should these sexual differences lead to a subordination of women, their inequality and discrimination? We, therefore, need to go into all the arguments put forward by the common and prevalent ideology as well as use categories, which will help our analysis of the inequality in society.

The Nature argument says that not only are men biologically and physically different but also temperamentally different. They are muscular as well as active, competitive, aggressive and so on. Physical strength gives men the means/power of being superior and dominating. Examples from the animal world are often used.  Yes, it is true that in the animal kingdom, the male of the species is physically stronger than the female. They are aggressive and fight to become leaders of the pack. However, this logic cannot be extended to the human world. If we use this argument then we equate animals with humans. We ignore the fact that humans are inherently different from animals because only they have the capacity for rational and logical thinking.

The other argument refers to pre historical society wherein men, as the stronger, hunted for food and women, because of their reproductive functions, tended the young. Feminist anthropologists have shown that whilst it is true that men hunted, it is also true that young and strong women went with them. The older women and men, pregnant and nursing mothers and the sick stayed behind to produce the main bulk of food for the tribe, through gathering and primitive agriculture. The question we need to ask ourselves is why do we give such a value to physical strength and does womens physically weakness make them less capable of rational thought, intelligent behavior and of learning skills?

The God-has-made-us-like-this argument bases itself on religious texts though we have no way of knowing what God actually intended! We can go as far as saying that He or She made human beings as male and female as well as eunuchs and those who feel they identify with the other sex . However, it is not God but different religious leaders, who have produced texts and created characters like Adam, the rational male who got tricked by Eve. Hindu texts like Manusmriti give an almost slave status to women. Islam sees them as sexual distractions and polluted beings. It is more common nowadays to hear the Science argument. Men and women have different sex hormones, which give them different characteristics and behaviour patterns. Boys are more aggressive. They are better at maths and girls are more suited to arts and literature. We do see more aggression in boys but scientific studies have not been able to prove the link between hormones and aggression or isolate the hormones or discover the quantity of hormones required for aggression.

The Roles Theory says that men and women perform different roles in society, which are the foundation of a working and effective society. Male and female roles are based on biology. So men as the more active public players, earn a livelihood and support the family. Women because of their reproductive capacity bear children and look after the family and home. If they do have to work it is because the men are absent, unable or have shirked their responsibilities. After all what can be more natural? Surely you dont expect men to breast feed babies!

The Roles Theory is in reality another version of the Nature argument raised to the level of a theory by some sociologists. The male and female roles are so much a part of our gender socialisation since childhood that they have an enormous grip on our thoughts and actions. So advertisements will show women cleaning and cooking and men driving cars and making decisions. School textbooks will show boys climbing trees and girls playing with dolls. Family and society will frown upon and even reject those who do not conform to these roles. Stories and jokes have been built around role reversals, the difficulties in doing the other's work and emphasising that both are important.

The Roles Theory is popular but not academically sound. It does not offer any answer to why men have to perform the particular role given to them. Nor does it have any explanations on why womens tasks are undervalued if they happen to be so necessary and important for society. It does not even touch on the possibilities that men and women may not have the attributes, which have been given to them by social norms and expectations. Women are expected to be mothers, loving and patient with their children. Yet there are many women who would rather not have children and have little patience with them. Men are expected to be outgoing, tough and rational. Some are introverts or are unhappy in the corporate world of competition.

Rather men and womens roles seem to be ascribed to them on the basis of their sex and then enforced through social sanction. All challenges to male/female roles are nipped in the bud or ridiculed and enforced if necessary by force. Boys are not allowed by their mothers to do any housework  it is seen as womens work. Girls are frowned upon if they want to play cricket or football  they are called tomboys  and are asked to behave like girls. Through the years, women are socialised into believing that they are weaker sex and need protection. If some men and women do persist in deviating from their roles they are seen as misfits, made to feel guilty and pushed into accepting their roles as duties. Social norms have a powerful hold on us, not because everyone fits into specific roles, but because they are made out to be natural and universal.

If we are to probe further, we can find that all the institutions of society and the prevalent notions promote the roles theory. A gradual process [usually called gender socialisation] starting from birth within the family, through school, the workplace, politics and culture builds masculine and feminine identities. So much so that every area of our lives, from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, choice of education and work, the expectations and dreams we harbour are coloured by them. Consider the notion of beauty. There are two different notions of beauty for men and women. Men are supposed to be muscular, tall, with facial and bodily hair being part of their sex appeal. Women, on the other hand, have to be the opposite. Beauty contests and the cosmetic industry promote the notion of beauty for women and we as consumers aspire to it. The home or private domain is for women and the streets or workplace or the public domain is meant for men. So women have less opportunities to enter politics, employment etc.

When we use the term sex, we are isolating one social group based on their biology for analysis or enquiry in society. In order to understand womens subordinate position in society, it is important that the object of analysis is not only women but also men. Rather we need to concentrate on the relations between men and women. One stream of feminists began using the term  gender and social relations of gender. The use of the term implies that the differences between men and women are not only determined by biology. Simone de Beauvoir was the first to say, One is not born a woman but becomes one i.e. that women are made or the category of women [and likewise men] is socially constructed.  Ann Oakley [1972] was amongst the first to distinguish between the sex, the anatomical and physiological characteristics, we are born with and gender. Gender is not the direct outcome of biological sex. Gender is socially constructed masculinity and femininity, which differs in different time periods and societies.

Through the 1970s and 1980s there was a rigorous debate on sex and gender. By and large gender relations is accepted as an analytical step forward. As is the case in most academic debates, there were scholars who opposed the dualistic opposition of nature and culture. Some held that gender as a concept was insufficient to capture the links between womens experience of the body and cultural devaluation as the other.  On the other hand, there were scholars who felt that the concept needed to be deepened because it did not challenge biologism [or use of arguments based on male and female biology] strongly enough. If gender is a social construction then feminist scholars should also see how it shapes our ideas about biological sex or why the world is divided into the two categories of menand women Lastly, the notion of two genders itself has been challenged. The Sexuality Rights Movements have shown that there are a variety of genders, men, women, eunuchs, cross dressers, those who identify with the another sex and so on.


Through understanding gender and gender theories that explain how the inequalities between men and women are socially created and encouraged - we are able to better understand the origins of violence against women. Let's look at another contributing factor, 'Patriarchy'.


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