A young man travelling from Spain to Buenos Aries came across four American women. As he took turns to speak to them, one of them felt offended and said, “I insist that you talk to me as if I were a human being”. He replied, “I know only men and women”, and since you are a woman, “I behave accordingly”.-Man and People by Jose Ortega Y Gasset

Traditional societies failed to embrace individuals in accordance with the natural order of things. In particular, patriarchy contrived to dissect the human race into a binary and constructed what it meant to be a woman and a man. These illusionary gender constructs were chiselled out through serious calibration of personalities considered undesirable and bolstering what is deemed desirable. However, this refurbished entity of ‘real woman’ and ‘real man’, sculpted to serve patriarchal ends, is far removed from the essence of a human, so much so that being a woman or man in the patriarchal context often turns out to be at odds with being human and vice versa. 

Patriarchal Representation Of Woman And Man

Women and men inherently possess and display both feminine and masculine traits, qualities and characteristics. A confluence of feminine and masculine attributes within each individual is natural to their existence, making them wholesome and renders balance to their personality. 

Women and men inherently possess and display both feminine and masculine traits, qualities and characteristics. A confluence of feminine and masculine attributes within each individual is natural to their existence, making them wholesome and renders balance to their personality. 

Also read: The Inability Of Ballet To Redefine Gender Norms

Worldwide feminist movements have spoken against the socially constructed gender norms. Image source: freepik

Yet, this experience is made impotent by the hard-pressed, relentless social conditioning which infuses in people an altered sense of ‘being a woman’ or ‘being a man’. It ascribes femininity (connoted as weakness) exclusively to women and masculinity (connoted as strength) exclusively to men while stripping them of attributes considered core attributes of the opposite gender. Thus, the construct of a ‘real woman’ is a polar opposite of a ‘real man’ as per patriarchal standards. And the non-binary folks get lost in between.

Furthermore, women and men are forced to actively and repeatedly perform, reify, and conform to this culturally crafted script of femininity and masculinity. It serves to maintain the unbridgeable chasm between them and sustains gender hierarchy that validates male supremacy.

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However, women and men brought up in a more gender-neutral environment, or those who embrace their complete natural (psychologically androgynous) self and play it out are seen as deviants, outliers, as transgressing gender boundaries and warranting correction. When women exert or display masculine attributes, and men express their natural feminine attributes, they contribute to the dilution of the gender binary and abridging of the gender chasm, leaving it naked for everyone to see that women and men are not polar opposites; and instead, as human beings, have more similarities than differences between them.

Also read: Gender & The Shaping Of New Sensibilities In Malayalam Cinema

However, this (enlightened way of being) is in fierce conflict with the patriarchal charade as it threatens subversion of patriarchal gender order and, if allowed to persist, could bring an end to the gender apartheid. Therefore, they are singled out and subjected to bullying, stigma, social disapproval and exclusion from peer/social groups. 

Social control tactics, when used against women targeted for their perceived deviation from traditional norms of femininity, keep dominance “squarely in masculinity and [its] only legitimate enactment solely in the hands of men.”, writes Mimi Schippers. This explains why a woman who is naturally assertive, aggressive or acts in a manner that transcends traditional gender confines to rise up to a level of equality with men, and in doing so, is able to exert dominance, amass power/control or assert her individuality in a so-called man’s world is devalued as unfeminine and is assigned derogatory epithets like slut, bitch, shrew etc. This is to strangle her courage, suffocate her attempts to use her masculine attributes/strengths and relegate her into subdued ways of being. 

When a man displays his kindness, nurturing ability, or acts in a manner that he fails to assert his masculinity, he is considered ‘less of a man’. Power of shame is used to dent a man’s social image and trigger (gender) identity crises.

Similarly, when a man displays his kindness, nurturing ability, or acts in a manner that he fails to assert his masculinity, he is considered ‘less of a man’. Power of shame is used to dent a man’s social image and trigger (gender) identity crises.

Socially constructed gender roles burden the women with household labour, men are equally should be held responsible for domestic work. Image source: The Guardian

This forces him to amputate his softer side or storm out anything that is even remotely feminine and could make him appear weak and unmanly. He engages in the exaggerated performance of masculinity or over the assertion of male power (which often manifests as acts of violence, hostility and/or hatred towards others, especially against women) as a way to affirm his manliness and resurrect his gender identity in his own as well in others’ eyes. Not a crime of passion or power, “rape and other forms of sexual assault are sexual acts of gender identity reification.”, writes John Stoltenberg.                                                    

The Gender-Humanity Conflict 

This brings me to my point. Whilst, display of attributes like kindness, empathy and compassion is incongruent with the cultural script of masculinity, their exercise or expression by women is also highly restrained, bound by an extensive repertoire of subtle social prohibitions. 

Consider these examples:

A woman works at a grocery store. She holds a naturally kind disposition and makes it a point to check on customers to ensure their shopping experience is seamless. However, some regular customers, particularly men, misperceive this and gradually get comfortable with her. They start asking if she has a boyfriend, ask for her phone number, propose a friendship, or ask her out. 

Also read: Is Women’s Empowerment Possible Without Gender Equality?

Although women are stereotypically expected to be kind and warm, an act of compassion or kindness towards a man outside of her family is likely to invoke objection by some and misinterpretation by others. A woman seen as stepping out of the boundary of normative gender behaviour is responded to condescendingly by (some) men as they believe that they are entitled to trespass into “such women’s” personal zone and take liberties. Subtle incidents in everyday environments like these force many women to shut down their kinder side and appear tight-lipped to avoid being seen as ‘available’ or being misperceived as a slut, shrew or a tease.

Or another example of a man is driving home, a heavily drunk friend after a party. A woman is stupefied, has been throwing herself upon him, and looks like she’s on the verge of passing out. However, he chooses not to have sex with her that night.

For him, sex is not about scoring, and he has severe qualms about sexually engaging with a nearly unconscious woman. However, he is very likely to face a tough row to hoe. He will be bullied, teased, name-called, and humiliated by peers for letting go of an ‘opportunity’ to assert his “masculinity” and not acting like a man (but like a human) in that situation. As a result, he will either disembark from his human values and hinge on social ideals of masculinity by adopting attitudes of objectification towards women as do his peers, or face social rejection himself.  

Similarly, a woman who defies her family to follow her passion for being a soldier; a nurturing father who revels in cooking gourmet meals for his family and is passionate about gardening are sure to have aspersions cast against them. For, the social construct of a woman dictates that woman is a putative mother. So, either she cannot kill, or she is not a woman. The man who nurtures, cooks and revels in gardening is a loser and not capable of anything manly.

Gender overdrive has instilled in us strong sexist perceptions, corrupting ideals of human interaction. Such perceptions have turned women into an object intended either for the male gaze (as in Ortega’s encounter) or male consumption (as in the example above) – both being a blatant affront to women’s dignity and human existence.

A preoccupation with gender identity also discounts the diversity of human life. It doesn’t see an individual beyond their gender construct and eclipses the many relationships that each individual espouses within them. Conforming to the gender identity façade, especially when in discord with one’s natural self, inevitably bars people from offering their best to their relationships.

This superimposed gender identity is also narrow and self-limiting. It shrinks horizons by sabotaging possibilities for the development of full human potential. It coerces individuals to suppress their cross-gender qualities because boys “don’t” write poetry and girls “don’t” repair computers, which could very well be their natural gifts, enhanced abilities or biggest strengths-areas where they excel effortlessly.

Also read: How Do Language And Gender Impact Each Other?

Further, patriarchal gender construction is inhumane, for it virtually effaces the existence of people who do not fit the gender binary. In reality, it alienates them into incessant misery by subjecting them to discrimination, hostility, contempt and social exclusion.

Patriarchal culture assigns value to individuals only so long as they conform to their gender script, even if it means failing your relationships, sacrificing your human values, forgoing possibilities of self-realization and treating fellow-humans with contempt. Patriarchy may make someone a ‘real woman’ or a ‘real man’; it indeed renders them a lesser human. 

Embrace your natural self entirely and unabashedly, because as humans, we are much more than just a woman or a man.

Featured Image Source: Freepik

About the author(s)

Gugush Chopra holds a Master’s degree in Human Rights Law (with specialism in women’s rights) from the University of Nottingham and has formerly worked in the violence against women sector in the UK. She is passionate about the rights of women, children and transgender people to live a life free of sexual violence and exploitation.

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