By: Kamila Hyat
We sometimes like to think that in the upper echelons of our deeply stratified society we have managed to cross the barriers of gender. After all, the girls go to school just as prestigious as those of their brothers, many pursue careers of their choice and of course a growing number are extremely competent at what they do.
But even so the stereotyping remains in place – firmly so. Perhaps it is not as destructive as the horrific discrimination most girls and women in the country face, but it is certainly damaging, forcing persons into specific moulds on the basis of gender.
There are the obvious examples: the insistence that little girls are ‘princesses’, rather than strong individuals who will carve out their own identities in life. When they are decked out as fairies, princesses or other little pretty – and essentially helpless – beings, a stereotype is created. We see it at every dress-up party. A few of the little girls dressed up in pink will break away and escape this frame created for them. Most will not.
We see this even in grown women who obsess about their looks, and almost ceaselessly praise other women on this basis. They have been conditioned to believe looks matter beyond all else. Intellect comes later, and in fact is not always an attribute appreciated in women. While the ‘doctor’ wife has become a status symbol in certain circles, this is not linked to her capabilities but to a great many other complex social factors. Much about the ‘empowerment’ of women is a façade; in essence we would prefer them not to be empowered, which is why when women do choose to strongly voice their opinions they are condemned, or labelled in ways we are all familiar with.
The question of whether certain differences exist between the genders is one that has been debated for a very long time. The most significant of these arguments has centred on the intellectual capacity of women, and whether it was in any way inferior, or perhaps ‘different’ to that of men.
A key area of study has focused around the game of chess, and the lack of representation of women at its highest echelons. Only one woman, the remarkable Judit Polgar from Hungary, has ranked among the top 100 players in the world or held grand master status, beating players of the status of Gary Kasparov and the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen the charismatic, 23-year-old Norwegian, who holds a pop star like status.
The hypothesis goes that, had intellectual skills or brain-wiring not been dissimilar, a far larger number of women would have replicated Polgar’s achievements, given that chess does not require strength or any other physical attribute that would give them an advantage at the chess table. Currently, many opt to play in ‘women only’ tournaments, intended to promote the game among them.
Is there then a difference? Some intrinsic quality that leads men to excel at certain activities and women at others? The debate has continued for decades. In 2005 the then president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, was forced to resign after making comments that suggested women may be less competent chess players than women. Other researchers had come up with similar proposals. Spatial ability was cited as a possible factor.
But more recent research, including detailed studies emerging from top universities, suggests the reasons may be far simpler: far fewer girls play chess compared to boys. There are fewer role models for them, and the number who play, in terms of ratio, corresponds with those who rise to high levels of achievement. Social conditioning has a great deal to do with the choice of pursuits taken up when children are young.
The debate and the research continue. But certainly we see evidence of ‘conditioning’ everywhere. The phenomenon is global – we have picked up from it, and possibly added dimensions from our own traditions to it.
At a recent chess tournament for school age children in Lahore open surprise was expressed by some present over the number of girls present on the team of a co-ed school. The girls, who had no doubt they were as skilled as their male counterparts, outplayed many of them. They had never been conditioned to believe they were any less competent.
The issue goes further than that. An informal study on girls and mathematics in Lahore found that much depended on levels of confidence and expectations. The issue has again been researched in depth internationally, with some fascinating findings emerging. Girls in Singapore and China for example equal boys of the same age in mathematical ability. In the US that is less frequently the case, and the very deliberate, commercialised, commodified creation of ‘girlhood’ with its specific mode of clothing, its focus on certain activities and its pre-set expectations is evidently a reason for this.
To some degree we may be better off than the US. But the influence from that country is there, coming through with its TV shows, movies, video games and other forms of media. The result is a specific kind of discrimination which exists at the top of society. We need to see how we can steer clear of this. The astonishing lack of awareness among parents is disturbing. Perhaps it is deliberate, perhaps it is simply a matter of ignorance.
This of course also applies to the upbringing of boys, who are also socialised into specific roles and denied an opportunity to develop skills in others. Shopkeepers are frequently asked which toy to buy for which gender. This applies even to books – with suggestions that classic books like Roald Dahl’s wonderful ‘Boy’ may not be suitable reading material for girls – perhaps simply because of its title.
On the same basis, the moving, ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ is regarded as a ‘girls’ book, again simply because of its title. Quite obviously, boys and girls should have no problems reading novels or pieces of non-fiction which have the opposite gender as a central character. If this were the case, only women would read novels like Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ and men those such as Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’.
This makes no sense at all. Even the tiny percentage of people at the top layer of our society suffer from delusions which lead them to think of girls and boys in separate ways. There may be some validity in this. But social conditioning should not come into play for shaping the reality for either gender. Right now it does, and this is in many ways disturbing since it serves to dis-empower women even when they belong to a segment that wheels enormous clout on the whole.
This question is something we need to think about. Empowering women is important at all levels. It is not a problem restricted only to the poor and illiterate. In fact, it may be a bigger problem higher up the social ladder, where the luxury exists to choose how to frame the future of children and cast them in roles that fit certain models. We need to break away from this to create a more even society and give every individual a chance to excel within it.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org