Rethinking gender traitsA souped-up notion of masculinity does more harm than good
Gender construction is a repetitive, systematic, and recurring behaviour. It perpetuates within the social structure by defining gender roles. Normally, “masculine” is the opposite of “feminine”. Boys adopt masculine behaviour as contrary to feminine behaviour than girls learning non-masculine behaviour. For instance, boys are told to ‘not cry like girls’. This type of thinking creates strict gender identities and consequently broadens the gender gap. This has resulted in the struggle to achieve gender equality which is currently perceived as the sole responsibility of women. To some extent, these biases reflect the identification of gender equality through accepting feminism but rejecting masculism. But this represents an incomplete scenario.
The binary between masculine and feminine characteristics are constructed within everyday activities that often go unnoticed. Socially constructed expectations regarding ‘appropriate’ behaviour from both men and women establish a strong control system. This creates clear but unexpressed boundaries within which people judge behaviour to be either feminine or masculine. And even though people are aware of this process, the fixed practice is very difficult to change. This is because our emotions function within the controlled system that stabilises gender identities within society.
In South Asian countries, gender identities are not just limited to expectations, but also extent to opportunities and life chances. According to the report ‘The Global Gender Gap Report 2018’ by World Economic Forum Nepal, India, Bhutan, and Pakistan fall below the global average on the gender gap score in terms of education, economic, health, and political empowerment. The scores highlight that gender inequality is culturally dependent and understood within the social and historical contexts rooted in societal briefs and values.
The global discourse for gender equality is focused mostly on the injustice faced by women. Less attention is given to the traditional male stereotypes perpetuating gender inequality. In this context, male stereotypes do not function in isolation and are a part of the larger structure. Gender stereotypes are considered political and used to manipulate power relations between women and men. This process becomes self-fuling where certain expected behaviour is repeated consciously.
Masculine stereotypes include heterosexuality, strength, leadership, dominance etc. The exhibition of these characteristic disempowers young girls and women by creating opposite qualities to function within. However, as much as females are affected by traditional masculine roles, men are equally troubled. Society, in general, overlooks the demands and pressures on men who have to maintain their defined position. Many men find it difficult to sustain the traditional view of masculinity, also strongly portrayed by media and cinemas. Usually, masculinity rejects the expression of emotions and provides minimal space for men to discuss their feelings openly without any judgments. Traditional masculinity limits responses to situations that are a threat to the supposed integrity of men. This could explain the minimal participation of men in the increasing ‘Me Too’ movements that are witnessing sweeping responses from women but not as much from men.
Gender equality not a utopia
Gender equality is considered a struggle for equal treatment, but it is not. So if gender equality does not mean females and males must be identical then what does it really mean? To achieve inclusive equality
there is also a need for gender equitable treatment. Equity is the recognition of fairness in different situations that treats people according to their abilities to achieve the same result. If the goal is to achieve gender equality, then both males and females are in the same position to contribute equally. In other words, gender equality is an integration of both masculism and feminism.
The perception that women are at the forefront of gender equality can be traced to the process of boys not taking responsibility and participating in ‘female’s issue’. Therefore, men’s involvement in achieving gender equality seems unusual and needs advocacy. To begin with, altering traditional masculinity should be widely accepted as a crucial step for gender equality. It is essential to strengthen self-awareness in children so that they do not limit themselves to their assigned traditional gender roles. Likewise, there must be acknowledgement for men’s contributions, consideration of their issues, as well as encouraging an environment to participate in the movement for gender equality. In Nepal, the prevalence of women coming forward to talk about their real-life issues have gradually increased, but that is not the case for men. What seems missing is the network of support and compassion between males and females.
Another misconception about gender equality is that it holds enormous benefits only for women. However, less emphasis is given to the benefits for men. It is essential that both males and females have awareness of advantages received from gender equality, such as personal and societal wellbeing, economic advancement, healthy relationships and equal power distribution. The awareness and subsequent responses will help to change the perception of men as problem-solvers rather than “problem makers”
Pant is a postgraduate in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.