Gender Roles: Empowerment or Entrapment?

First, the commentary will start with gender roles instead of gender. From gender roles, we acknowledge what is acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for the society, in the society. Gender roles are sets of societal norms dictating the types of behaviors for people based on their actual or perceived sex or sexuality. From the definition, we are aware that it relies heavily on societal norms. To understand the notion, we must explore our society. To which society do the norms apply?

In Indonesia, among conservative societies, even liberal ones, traditional gender roles are the most common. Since prehistoric age, Paleolithic men went to hunt prey such as mammoths, as the women were left behind to gather seeds and berries and care for the young. Nevertheless, anthropologist Olga Soffer discovered that the women spent much of their time inventing the tools—foundations of future society. Predominantly influenced by culture of ethnics, societies in Indonesia are familiarized with gender roles regardless what is exhibited in the West. Nearly in every ethnic, gender roles emphasize men as community leaders, decision makers, and mediators, while women are the backbone of the home and family values. The gender roles are then recognized as sets of societal norms.

Gender roles also originate from labor divisions. In the book “Husbands and Wives: The Dynamics of Married Living”, Robert. O. Blood, Jr. and Donald M. Wolfe noted that there are two divisions of labor in the household: traditional and contemporary. Traditional labor division involves women having tasks centering on household chores such as cooking, washing, and ironing. Women are seen as child bearers; pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding determine the role of women at home as much as in the society. Contemporary labor division states both labor of men and women in the household are complementary.

Based on observation, gender roles are rooted in the socialization process. Are we raising boys and girls the same way? Are we raising boys to be superheroes? And girls to be princesses? Such socialization occurs first during childhood until we thoroughly acknowledged what gender is prescribed to us. Erving Goffman, in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”, elaborated dramaturgical analysis. It describes theatrical performances occurring in face-to-face interactions. When an individual comes in contact with another person, he or she attempts to control or guide the impression that the other person will form of him or her, by altering his or her own setting, appearance, and manner. Our society, with its socialization of gender, equip us for “theatrical performance”.

Let’s get on to gender. Gender is the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity. Gender differentiates from sex. It also differentiates from sexual orientation. While heterosexuality and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) are common in Indonesia, the gender spectrum is virtually unknown. The gender spectrum includes agender, bigender, cisgender, and transgender. There are also androgyne and genderfluid. Everything that falls outside of the societal norm is referred to as gender queer.

Agender is a term which can be translated as ‘without gender’. It can be seen either as a non-binary gender identity or as a statement of not having a gender identity. Bigender is a gender identity which can be translated as ‘two genders’ or ‘double gender’. Bigender people experience two gender identities, either simultaneously or varying between the two. Cisgender is a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth. Transgender is a term for people whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the sex that they were assigned at birth.

Gender is more socially and culturally defined rather than biologically defined. As Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, a novel writer, stated during a TED talk, “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be, rather than recognizing how we are.” Nature theorists perceive the psychological differences between men and women were caused by biological factors, while nurture theorists argue that the differences were developed through a learning process in the environment. From the notion, we can assume that genders are developed through a learning process. Even so, there is an interaction between biological factors and sociocultural factors.

Question is, what sociocultural factors determine gender roles in the society? There is a myriad of factors from the immediate environment, such as the family, to the media. The interaction with such factors can involve acceptance or opposition, compliance or refusal. However it may be, it contributes to the process of socialization and consequently, it shapes us who we are. Discovering our gender identity suggests discovering our experiences of our own gender. Such experiences are unique as they are diverse.

Progressives also believe gender roles are “outdated” and “damaging”. When is a gender role seen as outdated and damaging? As an example, in a society that forbids women from going to school and getting a job for their gender role. It can cause disadvantages to the society, especially concerning women’s rights. In result, women miss out on the education—and opportunities—of the political, economic, to health, which can better their lives and the society at large.

To conclude the commentary, we must keep in mind that, as how it is with cisgender, genders in general are shaped through socialization. Gender roles have been already prescribed to us since dawn of men. However, we’re not of the prehistoric age. We have evolved. What is acceptable, appropriate, or desirable in the society should not be established by complacency, but by critical view. The Internet age allows us to be exposed to various sociocultural influences, such that can develop unique learning process for each of us all, our children, and our children’s children. There are women feeling entrapped by household chores, but there are also women feeling empowered by them. Are gender roles an empowerment or entrapment? It solely depends on the path we choose.

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