Genderism in society, schools and colleges
I have chosen to use the term ‘genderism’ instead of ‘sexism’, commonly used in gender studies literature, mainly because I am aware that the later term might make some of my readers pant, perspire and panic, as any word with ‘sex’ as a component is tabooed and the speaker or the writer of the word is frowned at by others. Both these terms mean that one of the sexes –female or male -is oppressed in favor of the other.
Like racism and classism, sexism is against the interest of the students, if practiced in schools and colleges, consciously or unconsciously. Many people have raised their voices against racism and classism, oppression and inequality in terms of color, wealth, politics, ethnicity and nationality in social and educational institutions and laws against them have been instituted in many countries, but very few voices have been raised against sexism and rarely had any laws been instituted against sexist practices in schools and colleges.
Even in countries where such laws are in vogue, they remain in law books: curriculums continue to be gender-biased; classroom practices are in favor of one sex; teaching materials are skewed against one sex.
Unfortunately, the oppressed sex happens to be the females, irrespective of whether it is a developed or developing country. With the onset of movements such as women’s liberation movements in countries like the USA and the practice of equal opportunities policies, girls have gained an edge over the boys, for example in their continuous performance in GCSE, and there are voices calling for reconsideration and, if necessary, reversal of the policies so that positive action is now directed at boys’ learning problems.
The main reason for this inequality against females is not difficult to understand. Our society is traditionally a patriarchal one, grounded on three assumptions: that the separate spheres of men and women are natural divisions based on biology-as-destiny ideology; that women are defined in relation to men and children rather than as individual beings; and that women are inferior to men.
In India, female children are often unwanted and the government’s attempts to educate people against this inhuman practice through mass media drain the exchequer; the results are rather encouraging.
In most other countries, including the developed ones, female children are brought up in such a way that they grow weak, meek, submissive and domesticated, based on the belief that biology is destiny. This belief is instilled in girls through socialization practices such as male chauvinism and institutional sexism in male-dominated institutions such as schools, colleges and work places.
Male chauvinism, exhibited at the level of personal relationships, refers to attitudes and activities through which males display their sense of superiority over females.
For example, the slang terms such as chick, fox, and bitch to refer to women place them metaphorically on the level of animals; other terms such as broad and party for women refer to things rather than human beings.
In some societies like mine, the pronoun used for women is ‘adhu / idhu’, the Tamil equivalent of ‘it’, denigrating them to the status of things.
In some other societies in India, the husband addresses his wife not by her name but as the mother of X or Y (son or daughter), as if she doesn’t possess any name at all.
Within the home, male chauvinism is expressed in other ways too. Many men refuse to share the household tasks such as cooking, cleaning and baby caring, as such activities are women’s work. Some men feel proud saying that they have never entered the kitchen even for making a cup of tea in their life!
‘In our culture’, say Hochschild and Machung in their book “The second shift: inside the Two-job marriage”, ‘a man’s home is his castle and since few households have paid servants, the little woman must often suffice’.
Women who work outside the home are not spared from housekeeping and they are expected to do it cheerfully. In addition, working women may have to tolerate the ‘male mischief’, which is common in sophisticated societies, in the office functions and parties. Women who challenge such practices are dubbed as frustrated females and frigid.
Another annoying factor against women, which is gaining grounds in recent days, is institutional sexism – the subordination of women built into societal institutions.
While male chauvinism operates at the interpersonal level, institutional sexism is more on the level of ongoing, organizational routine. In the economy, politics and education, women are systematically treated in a manner that institutionalizes and increases their disadvantage compared to men.
MacEwen Scott, in her study in the 1980s and 1990s of women’s role in the economies of the countries concludes that despite the profound economic and social changes of recent years men and women still remain highly segregated at work, and this segregation is strongly related to inequalities in pay, career prospects and employment protection.
For example, women are paid less than men for the same sort of unskilled jobs such as building work, women are not allowed to do certain jobs called ‘men’s jobs’; women are denied certain facilities which men enjoy in the workplaces.
Even where equality in pay exists, the time a woman spends for her household work is not taken into consideration. Employers in general never consider the fact that it is because women take care of the household, men are able to do their work efficiently; in fact, the pay a man gets for his job includes what his wife does at home in order to make him available for his work; thus women contribute unpaid labour to the economy and it is a boon to the employers; in its absence husbands would be forced to demand for higher wages than they presently receive in order to pay for house keeping and child care services.
Unfortunately, institutional sexism is often less amenable to confrontation and attack than male chauvinism.
Both these factors are based on the belief that biology is destiny. According to this belief, basic biological and psychological differences exist between men and women, and women are endowed with qualities that are suited to perform domestic duties within the protective environment of the home.
Nature has decreed that women play caretaker roles such mother, wife and housekeeper. Those who venture outside home for work should occupy jobs such as nurses, teachers, caretakers and social workers, that are in line with these qualities.
These roles are nothing but an extension of their domestic role as a support to men and their work. On the other hand, men with their competing qualities should go out and work; they are providers and protectors and women are dependents.
Further, business and industry increase their profit through commercial advertisements appealing mostly at women.
Sales appeals to women take place on two levels: subtle attacks on their sense of personal adequacy and messages to suggest ways of relieving them of the burdens of housework. These appeals are generally written down by men and they play upon the roles allocated to women by the biology-as-destiny ideology.
These advertisements force women to worry about their skin, lips, hair, weight, shape: purchase more beauty products to make yourselves sexually attractive. Or they suggest the ways of making their housework easier: buy home appliances.
These are again subtle ways keeping them in their domestic roles, subordinate to men.
This ideology is perpetuated mostly by the social practices in the male-dominated societies. At birth, children are dressed differently, where gender differentiation begins. In our society, it is not a matter of shame if a male child is seen naked but a female child should never be seen naked.
The toys parents and relatives choose for the children are gender-related; boys get toy cars, planes, cricket bats and toy pistols whereas girls receive dolls, cooking sets, cosmetic kits and hand bags in order to make them believe their roles are caretakers and sex objects.
Girls are encouraged to be soft spoken, gentle, coy and cute and not aggressive, competitive, which are boy’s qualities. In many traditional homes, girls are not allowed to laugh aloud. Proverbs such as ‘a girl loses her modesty if she laughs aloud as tobacco loses its flavor if it is opened’ help perpetuate the submissive role of women throughout their life.
They are dependent on their fathers when they are children and on their husbands when they are married and on their sons, if and when they become widows – dependence from birth to death.
Boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to be assertive, aggressive and competitive and the worst insult to a small boy is to say that he is ‘girlish’.
‘Why do you cry like a girl?’ is a common remark about boys who cry. Most of the children who grow up in these circumstances, find it easier to live up to the expectations of the parents, fitting themselves into the roles they are expected to.
Such gender-segregation continues in schools and colleges in many countries.
Curriculum favor boys
Girls are often sent to single-sex schools, where their feminine consciousness is further nurtured. In mixed schools, their roles are clearly defined by the system: their seats are separate, their toilets are separate, their cafeterias are separate, and their games are separate; girls play soft ball and hand ball but boys cricket and football.
The curriculum especially the teaching materials favor boys playing up the male sex: it is not common to see pictures in schools textbooks where Fatima and Jane are in kitchen and market, Peter and Samir in the football ground and computer center; Sue and Mona would like to become nurses and teachers but Ram and Abdullah doctors and engineers.
The classroom activities deny girls their right; most of the teachers ask questions to the boys rather than girls; even when asked, girls sulk and avoid answering questions and the teachers do not insist on their answering either.
It is not rare to see young male teachers teaching in mixed classes not to turn to the girls and address them at all; they ignore the girls who offer to answer questions and choose the boys to answer questions.
Traditionally, subjects such as language and literature, in which not much cognitive skills are involved are known as ‘girls’ subjects’ and mathematics and physics ‘boys’ subjects’. Girls tend to attribute failure in academic subjects to lack of abilities and to equate success with ‘luck’.
In colleges, as adolescents, girls are again and again made to be conscious of their gender role. Having been sensitized to their gender identity by their parents and society, they begin to have their first fears of human obsolescence; they begin to think ‘What will boys think of me?’
The drive for social acceptability, popularity and recognition is constantly tempered by concern with what boys will think. They are made to feel that it is safest just to be women, members of the weaker sex – sexually attractive, sensitive, emotional, nurturant and supportive companions to men; in other words, they slip into ‘woman’s place’ as defined by the biology-as-destiny ideology, not competing with boys, as they are less than them.
The Yemeni society, like that Indian society, is patriarchal in nature and there is an undercurrent of bias against women, which is pointed out and protested against in the reports in the Yemen Times often.
However, attempts to balance it are not absent; many organizations, non-governmental as well as governmental, keep raising their voices against the bias, but more has to happen.
In educational institutions, especially in colleges where mixed classes are a norm, girls are at a disadvantage, though their number exceeds that of boys: they often feel frightened to ask questions or answer them, exclusively because, as one of them confessed, they are afraid of the boys who would tease them outside the class if their answers were wrong or correct; they are often hesitant to participate in the classroom discussions, again because of the fear about the boys; they cannot meet the teacher to discuss their academic problems, unless they found someone to accompany them; there are hardly facilities for their sports and games in many institutions; in other words, as stated above, they are all the time conscious of ‘what will boys think of me?’
Men prefer uneducated women
Being a patriarchal society, their homes have a lot of restrictions, but in schools and colleges, they can be helped to see them as individuals with rights equal to the boys, which the constitution has granted them.
In personal conversations, I have found that many boys in colleges are not happy about girls studying in colleges; their place is home, according to them.
In a recent article in the Yemen Times entitled ‘Educated women are lost treasure’, it was painful to read that men don’t prefer to marry educated women for various reasons, most of them are based on bias against women; it is, however, heartening to note that there is a change in the thinking of men in recent times, as evidenced by the statements of a few men interviewed.
Of course, things are not as bad as it was in the past; healthy positive signs are forthcoming. We see women participating in all spheres of life; woman minister, woman ambassador, women educationists, women educational leaders, women police, women doctors, women journalists, women administrators and executives and women businesspersons; most of these jobs were once considered to be exclusively ‘men’s jobs’.
Girl students competing with boys in inter-university competitions and winning prizes, girls competing for scholarships to study abroad and going abroad for higher studies are healthy trends towards recognizing women’s role in the society.
Women’s forums voicing their concern about the inequality between sexes and women’s organizations training women to participate in national activities are on the increase; media too play a useful role in highlighting incidences where women fight against their problems in the society such as early marriage, harassment against women etc.
More women attending illiteracy eradication classes, as recently reported in the Yemen Times, show the urge in them to improve their status.
Schools and colleges have responsible roles to play in perpetuating this healthy trend, instilling confidence in girl students and letting them believe that they can do.
The confidence-building exercise should begin in schools, by including in the classroom teaching stories about successful women in the world and in Yemen, brave women like Queens Bilquis and Arwa; stories that appear in the newspaper of women who fight for their rights.
They should be encouraged to participate in class discussions and clarify their doubts, if hey have any, without worrying much about the boys. They should be appreciated openly if they get better marks than boys in tests and encouraged to be competitive.
Boys should be educated to accept the equality between sexes and should be made to realize that educated women are an asset to the family, as some of the men interviewed have reported in the article mentioned above.
The schools and colleges should often look at their curriculums closely to see that they are not gender-biased either in terms of teaching materials or methodology or evaluation.
Teachers have to often ask themselves if their classroom interaction favors one sex against the other; if their classroom examples are gender-biased; if the jokes they use in the class are against one sex and so on in order to stay gender neutral.
It is more important in English classes because most of the materials we use in our school and college classes are male oriented. (I have analyzed the school English textbooks in Yemen and found that they are biased against the female sex.)
Moreover, we have the burden of teaching a foreign language, most often through materials smacking of a culture alien to our students and to us, a culture, in which ‘anything can go’ in the name of liberation, as some people think.
The materials we choose should be gender neutral; where they are not so, the students should be encouraged and empowered to argue against them teasing out the gender- bias in them; this will lead to sensitizing them – both boys and girls – to gender equality so that the future generation has a healthy development.
As Thiruvalluvar, a great Tamil poet points out, “all human beings are equal in their birth”.