“Gender is something that is almost intuitive that we never really imagine it could be constructed.” The word gender continues to perplex me. I remember doing gender exercises during my school primary years, as part of our grammar course. However, it was only 11 years later, in my first class in Women’s Studies that I realised that this word, which today is synonymous to ‘Sex’, is actually a social construct, in a way that all the characteristics that one attributes to this word, are the result of what the society has assigned to it.
After a year, a certificate course in Women’s studies and countless instances to reiterate what was said in the earlier paragraph, I still, at times, fail to notice the difference. That pink is not feminine, acts of bravado are not masculine and that it is ok, if you are a man and you cry. The answer of the question lies in the fact that despite the sharing of “intellectual information”, on this topic, I still fall prey to the trap that this word weaves around one and all.
I, a self acclaimed feminist, laughed at a friend when he bought pink shoes. Why? Because he isn’t ‘supposed’ to wear them; they are girlish. I talk about women’s liberation, yet I scolded my cousin for staying out late at night. Why? Because she is supposed to come back early. Come to think of it, if I do it myself, do I have a right to question others, when they commit the same mistakes?
While I do not have an excuse for my own mistakes, I have begun to slowly understand why everybody, male or female, considers gender to be intuitive. Take a look at any form of expression; cinema, literature or media. A lot of it may not be done consciously, yet the impact is strong; in the sense that while it may break one form of bias, it may go on to reiterate the other. Classic examples of this were the media reports that were discussed in the class, particularly the reports “Artisanal weavers struggling to survive” and “Death of a carpenter”. The first report was about a woman, an activist for the rights of the artisans. The first paragraph described the way she was dressed; as if to establish the fact that this report is a testimony to the works of a “woman”, and not the activist. Similarly, the next report, by one of the most accomplished reporters of the country, talks of the death of a carpenter, not only in the physical terms, but in societal terms, owing to his inability to be the breadwinner of the family, and that his wife was working as a labourer outside the village. Both these reports show that event with noble intentions (both the reports talked about issues that hardly receiving attention in the popular media) you run the risk of reiterating what is “female” and differentiating it with the “male”; the other, and in most of the cases, the stronger.
Cinema, however, deserves the maximum credit for firmly establishing gender in the way it exists today. Dialogues like “Mard ko Dard nai Hota” tell you that you cannot be a man, if you succumb to the pain. And why only blame these testosterone-high males of the industry? Dialogues like “Bhagvaan ke liye mujhe chodh do”, “Bachao”, “Mujh jaisi abla aurat ka kaun sahara banega” tell you that by default, a hapless woman has to seek out help form the society (the males?). At the same time, popular songs like “Aap ki Nazaron ne samjha pyaar ke kabil mujhe”, “Na jaao saiyaan chuda ke Baiyaan” show the respect that a woman seeks in the eyes of the beloved. Popular Indian cinema seeks to stick within the demarcated walls of the society, breaking free only under conditions unforeseen, only to return to the same society, when conditions improve. Take the example of the movie “Baawarchi”, directed by Mr. Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Meeta, a character in the movie, is a ‘modern girl, who often goes to parties, late at night, dressing in western outfits. She is jealous of Krishna, a homely girl. Later in the movie, Meeta understands her mistake, stops going to parties, and the first thing that she learns is to cook and work in the kitchen. What does that indicate? Is the primary adobe of a good, honourable, well cultured girl, at home, helping her mother in the kitchen? With such wide reach, movies go on a long way to establish the gender notions in the country.
On a similar front, even one of the most influential poems in Hindi literature, “Jhansi Ki Rani”, by Sumitranandan Pant, can be accused of being a gendered poem. The fourth line of the second stanza, “khub ladi mardaani vo to Jhansi wali rani thi”, tells us that the poet seems to be venerating Rani Lakshmi Bai, precisely because she fought like a man, despite being a woman. Is that the only reason why she is considered to be one of the greatest martyrs of the war of 1857?
When gender seems to be reiterated at you from all sides, and more so, from the rational sources, can I blame people who fall for it? I might be able to consciously avoid it at times, but in the course of a daily life, I myself will often adhere to what is an established system. Seeing this, I don’t find it difficult to believe that gender is so intuitive that it is hard to believe that it is a societal construct.