The Gender with a Gentler Soul

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As the poet Eileen Myles says: “If we don’t define who we are, we are everything. Once we define ourselves, we are nothing.” Such are the claims of some gender deconstruction advocates maintaining that not really identifying with any current social role allows for a new liberation uninhibited by the standards of others. Kate Bornestein* argues, “Women couldn’t be oppressed if there was no such thing as ‘women’ . . . doing away with gender is key to the doing away with patriarchy . . . Gender fluidity is the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders, for any length of time.”

Several obstacles, however, stand in the way of materializing this type of gender deconstruction, as pointed out by Dr. Charles Harb, social psychologist and professor at the American University of Beirut. He considers gender deconstruction as a non-practical idealistic approach that has no place in today’s world. At the end of the day, he explains, there are certain functions that are restricted to women and which are inaccessible to men, like child bearing for example. Even in today’s world where artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization have become a reality, we are very far from adopting such means as primary routes to conception. As such, in order to adopt a more realistic approach, one needs to take these biological functions into consideration in addition to their consequences (such as pregnancy, lactation periods, nursing…) which create needs particular to females for example. However, this differentiation of gender does not automatically dictate the dynamics of inter-gender relationships. Harb illustrates various structures in different cultures: some societies have a more egalitarian approach to the genders, some more hierarchical, some segregated…

Over time, however, social norms, rules and regulations may exacerbate certain traits particular to sexes and thus widen the gap between genders. Legal issues particular to each society play a role. Parenting also is a very major element in reinforcing gender roles; it is continuous training. Harb illustrates by an example of a child standing on a chair or going down the stairs. If that child were a female, parents might reprimand her and advise her to be careful so that she won’t hurt herself; whereby, if the child were male, parents might be more condoning, already expecting the boy to be more daring and tough enough to learn from his mistakes.

Despite gender being categorical, Harb explains, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be flexible, especially across time. Gender boundaries shift depending on the current needs of society which necessitate such a shift. For example, it has become acceptable for men today to engage in household chores as it became necessary for women to join the labor force outside the household. Gender roles can change as long as that fluidity is not perceived as a threat to one’s masculinity or femininity, claims Harb, knowing that these too are flexible concepts which evolve and are negotiated over time. Consequently, the relationship between genders also becomes dynamic as the perception of a male or female role changes, although differentiation in itself remains.

To move towards a more egalitarian structure of inter-gender relations, Harb highlights the importance of combating sexism. Sexism, he explains, is an attitude that may come in two forms: hostile and/or benevolent. Hostile sexism is the more traditional obvious type of attitude whereby rigid roles are ascribed to each gender; women are responsible for child-bearing, cooking, and household chores while men go to work and earn money. Benevolent sexism on the other hand, is the apparently more benign form which in reality promotes just as much segregation and discrimination as hostile sexism. In benevolent sexism, women are perceived and treated if they are a “more gentle soul”; it’s a chivalrous attitude; not aggressive toward the female apparently but deep down just as problematic as hostile sexism. As soon as females are treated in a different way because of a certain perceived characteristic, this will have implications in other domains like the job market for example.  If an employer perceives women as delicate creatures who need special attention, the implications within the context of work may be that she won’t be able to work for long hours; she is too sensitive…, even if in reality she is equally qualified as other male applicants. This would confer an advantage to the male, making the job market in general more favorable to him.

According to Harb, sexism can be addressed by raising awareness and by training people (particularly females who are entering the job market) to identify this type of discriminatory attitude in order to avoid making a self-fulfilling prophecy out of the situation. So, for example, if the interviewer thinks females are sensitive, s/he treats them according to this perception and hence they start acting in a sensitive way, thus, reinforcing the already present perception. If they’re aware, however, as soon as they know that there is a possibility for that kind of bias, they can counter it accordingly. Females need to understand that benevolent sexism comes as a whole package. They cannot accept and encourage chivalry and then reject discrimination that comes along. As soon as females endorse the idea that women need special attention, they automatically establish the perception and attitude with which they’ll be treated in the future; not as individual human beings per se but as individuals who need special attention which will not be applicable to males. Of course males on the other hand have a different set of perceptions about them as well, which are just as problematic. Again, to address sexism, one cannot be eclectic in accepting certain attitudes and rejecting others; one needs to address the whole package.

* Kate Bornestein, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us, Rutledge, New York, 1994, 115

- Contributed by Emcee

Emcee has always been on a journey of self-exploration, self-discovery, and wonder. Continuously keen on seeing the same landscapes with new eyes, she has repeatedly lost herself in arguments and counterarguments before finally finding contentment in relativity. Emcee has always been a not-so-little miss goodie-two-shoes, but has finally gone astray, joined Meem, and made a pact with Bekhsoos. The floodgates are now open…

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