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We’ve All Heard ‘Gender Is A Social Construct,’ But What Does That Really Mean?

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By Avinaba Dutta for Cake:

A few weeks ago, my mom, after having a haircut, had an announcement to make – next time she would like to have a ‘boys’ cut’. My nephew had a series of questions. “Didu, what is boys’ cut?” The 8-year-old asked my mom. And once she had explained to him what ‘boys’ cut’ really is, he asked “But, didu, you are a girl and girls do not cut their hair like boys do.” His view of gender segregation didn’t really surprise me, because he’s seen my family asking me why I had pierced my ears like ‘girls’ do.

How many of us ever wondered where all these stereotypes had come from? The answer lies in ‘gender,’ or more precisely, the social construction of gender.

How Gender Is Socially Constructed:

A social construct is a concept which cannot exist independently in the natural world and everything we know or perceive as reality, is entirely, or at least partially, socially situated. For an instance, ‘money’ is a socially constructed reality. The paper bills we use in India, i.e. Indian Rupee, are only worth as much as value as the Reserve Bank of India assigns to it. Without our practices of assigning values to those paper bills, can money exist independently in nature? The answer is no. And while being part of this socially constructed reality it will be pretty foolish of us if we go to El Tizoncito in Mexico City and pay in Indian Rupee after enjoying a yummy plate of steak or pulled pork tacos. This is because being part of the same social construct (money), Indians built few norms which are different than its Mexican counterpart.

But we must understand that by reminding everyone about how socially constructed a particular concept is, we cannot diminish the power of that concept. Neither does it make the concept an imaginary one. It only demonstrates that the existence of that particular concept depends upon our practices and cultures, and changes from one time-period and culture to another.

Most of these sociological theories of social constructionism apply to gender as well. However, while understanding the implications of a social construction theory of gender, it is also indispensable to keep ‘gender’ separate from ‘gender identity’ and ‘biological sex’ of an individual.

Gender, as we know it, is predominantly defined (imposed) based on what external genitalia one is born with. The practice of looking at a baby’s genitals and assigning a gender to them at their birth is later followed by an extensive training program based on only two available scripts, i.e. ‘boy’ (man or masculinity) and ‘girl’ (woman or femininity). We slowly learn which emotions we are supposed to express, which colours we should like, what kind of hobbies we are supposed to have, what toys to play with, what songs we should listen to, whether to like sports or not, whether to learn cooking or not. We also learn how to talk to each other, what body language to use, what occupations to pursue, what kind of wages we are expected to have, whom to fall in love with, whom to be sexually attracted to, and much more. Someone born with a penis is literally bombarded with toys like G. I. Joe action figures and cricket bats; they are always reminded that, unlike girls, ‘boys do not cry’; they will also be told to get married and ‘take care’ of their wife and kids. And if someone seems to deviate from the script assigned to them, we try our best to ‘correct’ them. We keep them on track with question and statements like, “Are you a boy?” “Do not act like a girl”, “That makes you look like a girl”, or “Are you homo?”

But Do We Need Scripts At All?

Gender is a social construct where behaviours or traits of two norms, i.e. ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ differ drastically from one time-period and culture to another. For an instance, unlike traditional Indian culture, in Chinese culture girls are expected not to wear make-ups or any such ornaments. In Indian culture, drivers of a public transportation system are predominantly male, whereas in Western culture both males and females are hired for the same job. In non-Western cultures, boys, irrespective of their sexual orientation, are allowed to hold hands or hug, while in the West these acts of showing emotions are strictly prohibited until they are between homosexual males – and even that is frowned on! The varied norm based on societal imposition reinforces the idea that gender is nothing but a social construct. Think about it for a moment – had gender been some sort of essence emerging from one’s biological sex, it probably would have remained constant across space and time.

To understand the need for scripts, we need to comprehend the need for ‘gender’ in the first place. ‘Gender’ was created to build up a hierarchy solely based on power. But to give the hierarchy a more ‘natural’ or ‘scientific’ look, a few physical differences, like genitalia or secondary sexual characteristics, were adopted as the basic building block of the same. This made two distinct groups which are presumed to be essentially different. That’s why we are asked to believe that femininity is weaker than masculinity. If someone is confused about how power structure plays its role in gender, please try to answer these few questions. How many men are comfortable in marrying women who are taller or more ‘masculine’ than them? While females wear jeans and shirts, how many males are encouraged to wear skirts and sarees? Or why is society fine with masculine women but ridicules feminine men?

Pizza Rolls, Not Gender Roles!

A friend of mine from Netherlands once told me how tough it is for him to date a girl because of his ‘soft’ nature which meant people perceived him as being gay.

Clearly, these two scripts are not a great fit for many of us, but still we manage to pass. We adapt and adjust in order to make those features of ourselves that do not fit the script look less conspicuous. But many cannot even think of fitting in. For example, a cisgender homosexual woman finds it tough to fit herself in one of the two scripts which expects her to get married to a person of the opposite sex. For a gender queer person, they are not even welcome to be a part of these two scripts.

Since the two scripts do not give importance to individuals’ gender and sexual identities and the choices they want to make, they become a tool for oppression. But what happens if we start going around and deciding our own identity and our own positions in the hierarchy? The power hierarchy and the social construction of gender will fall apart. People will learn more about their gender identity, one of their core identities. We will also understand that sexual attraction is based on one’s sexual orientation which is fluid for many. The idea of having only two scripts for more than 7 billion people living in this planet is hilarious and outdated. If ‘gender’, the social construct, can adopt changes where individuals are allowed to navigate their own gender formation and locate their own spot on gender continuum, that will lead to a lot less dissonance and uncomfortable performances, not to mention the physical danger and stigma for those who don’t adhere to the script to which they assigned.

This article was originally published here on Cake.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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