Every society is an accumulation of certain norms and belief systems which define and establish the standard operating procedures by which it functions. However, the basic difference lies in the nature of the society: traditional cultures have relatively rigid, conservative and holistic approaches towards social institutions and liberal cultures are more open, liberal and individualistic in nature. Therefore, gender roles are more fluid and less conventional in liberal cultures unlike traditional cultures that have more stringent gender role divisions with fixed gender types pertaining to what it means to be masculine or feminine.
Recently I was going through various perspectives explaining gender roles and gender culture and I realized that every culture has mostly the same expectations and prototypes of males and females. For example, traditionally, in every culture, women are supposed to be emotional, altruistic, interested in sewing and cooking, dependent and suitable for housework; whereas men are supposed to be aggressive, confident, interested in sports, independent and suitable for workplace environment. Although, with the passage of time, the degree of these gender roles has evolved, the effects of traditional gender division are still very strong.
To better explain this process, I would like to look at a gender-role socialization approach, which not only provides a sound rationale for the development of gender prototypes but is also helpful in suggesting ways to curb the traditional male/female gender role dichotomy. Gender role socialization explains how different agents (people and objects) in an individual’s environment provide models and rewards that shape his/her behavior to fit gender role norms. Agents can be parents, relatives, peers, literature or media – elements that serve as the basis for the development of gender prototypes and roles.
During my childhood, which wasn’t different from any average Pakistani childhood, I remember my parents determining different sets of rules and regulations for me and my younger sister. I was always made to wear blue whereas she was made to wear pink. As a child I learnt that colors do have a gender as well, but how or why is still a mystery to me.
Similarly, I still remember that after on of our routine sibling fights, when my sister was taking the mickey out of me, my mother would discipline me (in more technical terms physically abuse me) in relatively more harsher terms than my sister, saying “Tumhain sharam nae aati behan say lartay ho. Pata nae larkiaan nazuk hoti hain?” (It’s so shameful of you to fight with your sister. Don’t you know that girls are very delicate?) I think that if my mother had ever been kicked or punched by my sister, I would have got some sympathy.
Teddy bears, dolls, pink clothes, the gentle emotional tone of my parents encapsulated with lots of hugs and kisses – these were only for my sister because she was a girl and girls were supposed to be brought up like that where as guns, building blocks, trucks, blue clothes, harsh disciplinary actions, occasional hugs and once in a lifetime kiss were what I was brought up on. I was a boy and I needed to be made rough and though. That was the way my parents and their parents had been brought up, with similar kind of societal norms categorizing genders in to mutually exclusive blocks. Thus parents are the primary actors in this gender role acquisition and socialization that moderate our behaviors in certain ways to classify us in what our culture thinks a male or female should be.
Apart from it, the books we used to read or rather were forced to read (and we still are reading) model and encourage gender appropriate behavior. Everyone learned alike from Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Miraat ul Aroos and other local digest oriented stories. “What is beautiful is good” and is clearly rewarded. Specifically, men fall in love with beautiful women; good women are obedient, gullible, vulnerable and – if beautiful – will be rescued by men; other women (stepsisters and stepmothers) are evil, competitors for men; and a woman’s ultimate dream is to marry a rich, handsome prince.
Similarly, the media is also responsible for strengthening these stereotypical images of males and females. Almost every cooking oil ad claims that by using XYZ cooking oil any woman can become a great Maa, Bahu or Biwi or by using such and such whitening cream any woman can get a handsome and rich husband. Likewise, men are depicted as the great saviors and stuntmen while chanting “Darr kay agaye jeet hai.” Such stereotypical depictions are merely directing our behaviors towards a specific gender culture and making us gender static individuals.
Thus, it is clear that through various socialization agents, individuals tend to acquire specific gender roles but if we start re-establishing these gender roles since the beginning, we can have gender aschematic, dynamic society which will be more diverse and accepting and free from sexism and gender discrimination.