Gender: A social construct

Arya Kharel


For many decades, biology has been the anchor reason for most gender-linked differences. For example, in the nomadic phase women were given the role of gatherers while men were hunters. Hunting involves activities that are hard to carry out with a baby strapped to your back. But later as the community advanced and there was a significant increase in ownership of property by the males women started being viewed as the second sex.

The division of labour between men and women is not in itself an unequal or oppressive arrangement. It seems inevitable due to the difference in biology. Nevertheless, there is a need to question at what point and why this division became a social construct built on a foundation of a relationship of dominance and subjugation.

Discrimination against women has been painfully universal for a very long time and it can clearly be seen in rights and equality, employment, marriage, sex and reproduction, clothing, status, religion and public workspace. Social, economic and political factors contributed greatly to the emergence of women’s unequal status. Unequal power relations between women and men promote a long-term harmful gender norms.

Culture is one of the main factors or agents in discrimination against women. Culture is human-made but it has been so deeply instilled in us that we tend of view it as genetic. It has been absorbed by the human mind to such extent that even our instincts use cultures to achieve their goals. Culture makes expected behaviour feel right and hence shape our emotions and behaviours at very basic levels. But this loyalty can be a huge asset or an almost insurmountable barrier. It has helped form our mirage of expectations but at the same time has unknowingly pushed us into the abyss of disappointment. Culture can be progressive only when it is open to change in accordance with the changing time, needs and context. If not, we are simply creating women with hollow insides and hearts harboured with insecurities and hopelessness.

Genesis, of the Torah and the Bible, states that the creation of the earth and its plant and animal inhabitants occurs over a period of six days, and on the seventh day humans were created with god’s image and likeness. The religious texts of Judaism describe women and women’s roles as different but equal from men and men’s roles.  The Torah views women as beings constructed or built, rather than formed as were men and endowed with a greater degree of “binah” intelligence.

In Hindu religion women are worshipped in the forms of different goddesses like Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) or Saraswati (goddess of knowledge). On the one hand, religion has promoted gender equality by stating the fact that men and women are equal and will receive equal blessings on the fulfilment of their role. But on the other hand we can observe traditions like deuki pratha, an ancient custom practiced in the far western regions of Nepal in which a young girl is offered to the local Hindu temple to gain religious merit. Chhaupadi pratha in which women are expected to live separately in cowsheds during menstruation because they are considered impure also thrives. According to religious folklore, Indra, the King of Heaven was accused of killing a Brahmin and as expiation from his sins women were said to be punished through menstruation.

Everything has its good and bad sides and so does religion. The norms formulated by people during their time was seen to be appropriate and contextual. But as intellectual beings bestowed with the ability to think we must be able to modify the norms in accordance with the changing time and seek logic and reasoning.


Image credit: The Daily Times

Our cultures and religions even today have obvious echoes of those earlier cultures and religions for many of our gender-related behavioural expectations. To sum up, the origins and bases of patriarchy do not lie solely (as commonly believed) or even primarily in biological factors. It is about time women realized that there is one thing women should stop wearing: the weight of other people’s expectations and judgements.

And this is where the concept of equality came into emergence, providing women with equal opportunities in both personal and professional sphere ranging from job opportunities to involvement in mainstream development. But this concept did not seem to achieve the target as expected. This led to the emphasis on maintaining an equilibrium and providing opportunities to those who need a push rather than providing equal opportunities to two or more groups who are not at the same level of competence not because they do not have the ability but because of the history of oppression, rigidity and dominance they went through. Change takes time and so does growth therefore we are now focused on achieving equality through the means of equity.

The writer is the producer and host of “Inspiring Women”, a talk show broadcast on Youth TV Show and aired on national channel NTV Plus.  

Published on 28 August 2019