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The construction of gender

Talk of empowering women, raising their social status and granting them their rights is heard in many places today, at both government and non-government forums.

Yet, it is significant that while such discussions continue, gender is being constructed in society along extremely narrow lines. In most cases, this is done almost unconsciously by schools, by retailers by parents and by other individuals with influence in society. In the longer run this subtle process visible everywhere is akin too the ancient Chinese practice of binding the feet of female infants so they remain small, and restrict women to the feeble, tottering steps that effectively limited activity but were seen at the time as being attractive.

Debate about the extent to which gender is constructed and how many of the characteristics traditionally associated with men or women are inborn, has continued for decades. But while many varied opinions have emerged, what is beyond dispute is that social environments play a considerable role in creating patterns and setting up gender stereotypes.

Let us see how this process takes place. Textbooks and media programmes, which generally depict women only in passive roles, are one part of the problem. Over the past decade or so, as the world has reached Pakistan amid a new culture of globalisation — the problem has become more deeply entrenched and more pervasive. At shops, even at wholesales outlets like the sprawling alleys of Shah Alam Market in Lahore, toys, clothes, even books have been categorized into those intended for boys and those for girls.

Unsurprisingly, girls tend to be allotted frilly, skirted cloths, pretty dolls, make-up kits and books that seem to contain only tales of fairies, princesses, mermaids or maidens who have to be rescued by brave young men.

It is also interesting how popular ‘female hero’ characters are marketed only to girls, rather than across gender, as is the case with many male characters.

The onslaught of western companies, aggressively pushing their products, has only aggravated the situation and created a culture where even in small stores, shopkeepers express surprise — and sometime tacit disapproval — if a little girl opts for a ‘super hero’ action figure, or even a truck or fire engine.

These may seem like frivolous, insignificant matters, but they do have a very real impact on the choices made by women and the choices in life they see as being desirable or open to them.

The evidence of this is perhaps most visible among young women from backgrounds where they have only limited access to role models of women in proactive roles within their own environment. Ask almost any group of girls at the matriculation or intermediate stage of their education what they hope to do in life, and a sizeable number, quite often the majority in any single class, will state an ambition to work at a beauty salon, a fashion house or adopt a similar career. Whereas there is of course nothing wrong with such choices, and indeed they each demand a great deal of talent, dedication and initiative, it is unfortunate that other options, including those with possibly greater relevance in Pakistan’s current social context are often seen in a far less favourable light.

The media’s promotion of the fashion and beauty industry, and Pakistan’s own considerable attainments in this sphere are also key factors in promoting these lines of work as a profession. Indeed, in what seems to be a somewhat ironical comment on society today, TV channels seem to be dominated either by righteous clerics or by models strutting down catwalks.

In all fairness, there are many exceptions to this rule. The number of Pakistani women opting for careers in the military, as pilots or as engineers is expanding by the day — as new opportunities open up to them, in these traditionally male dominated arenas. The young woman who won the military’s prestigious sword of honour, defeating all her male peers for the award, will also inspire many others — as will the women making their mark in business, the media or other spheres.

Obviously, every woman is not influenced by prevailing trends — and a great many rise above them. But the point to be made is that across society, girls are being pushed towards certain stereotypes by teachers, by marketing firms — and by parents who unknowingly contribute to limiting the horizons of their daughters. This is of course a broader, global trend. The issue of clothes designed for small girls has been the subject of a growing storm.

But these new trends appearing in Pakistani society in many ways present new pitfalls that need to be guarded against, especially in an age of growing commercialism, and the tendency locally to mimic the West.

There is also brave resistance to this trend. The Karachi based ‘The Book Group’, which has in recent years contributed greatly to the production of meaningful literature in Urdu for young children is clearly conscious of avoiding gender bias and indeed is consciously promoting the notion of girls as scientists, explorers or creators.

The growing availability of books designed for children along similar lines from India are an added bonus — as is the reading material produced by some local NGOs.

But, in the situation the country faces today — there is a need to counter the growth of a culture under which even balloon sellers immediately extend pink, heart-shaped globes towards girls and reserve the more robust colours for boys. Notions extensively explored by writers on gender, such as the social pressures that push girls to be good and non-aggressive, while setting different standards for boys exist everywhere. Indeed, these seem to have taken stronger root rather than receded over recent years.

The need is to promote a greater awareness about these realities. Teachers, parents, writers, illustrators, those running shops and everyone concerned with the upbringing of children, need to be more conscious of what they are doing and why. Only in this way can it be ensured that every child is able to reach out towards his or her true potential — rather than being led down tightly fenced lanes, constructed for them on the basis of gender.

By Kamila Hyat

Source: The News