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09 November 2011

Participative Approach to Understanding Gender

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By Syed Ali Mujtaba

The term gender is quite value loaded term. When we discuss this word, often the context happens to be women. Most often gender is being talked about in terms of discrimination faced by the fair sexes.

In order to create an understanding of the term gender, a workshop was organized by the All India Secular Forum (AISF) in Mumbai on October 30, 2011. The female participants from Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) and some students SNDT college, Mumbai took part in the workshop.

Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, Dr. Ram Puniyani and Dr. Chandrakant Puri were the resource persons of this workshop.

The participants were divided into groups and were posed certain postulations were made and each group was asked to come up with their own understanding of the hypothesis. Some very interesting observations were made during the discussions that were moderated by the resource persons.

Following postulations made were put up for discussion; 1) Difference between gender and sexes 2) Biology makes women weaker than men 3) Women who dress or behave in culturally inappropriate ways are inviting assault 5) A woman who leaves the house because her husband beats her up is over reacting 6) Women are better care givers than men.

Difference between Gender and Sexes

The explanation was given in repose to the understanding the term ‘gender and sexes were vague. Some said that gender is the sexes- male and female, some mentioned gender is the discrimination that women face, still other held the view that its discrimination faced by men and women differently.

The resource persons corrected the understanding of the term explaining that gender is a social construct and it’s essentially the roles, opportunities and the expectations of the society from the sexes. These can be changed. On the other hand, sex is a biological construct which is not changeable.

Biology makes women weaker than men

Some of the points that emerged during this discussion were; women are not biologically weaker than men. Some were of the opinion that women were ‘naturally’ more tolerant. They were made in a way that they get less angry and are calm. However, this view was challenged by the other participants and the trainer since this indicates towards bio determinism which is self destructive to feminism.

The point that was underlined was women and men are both inherently violent and tolerant. What makes women more tolerant or calm in certain situations is their socialization and upbringing which essentially discourages women to question or disobey making them submissive and meek.

Women who dress or behave in culturally inappropriate ways are inviting assault

In this, there were also two opinions. Some felt that it was not acceptable for women to outrage the sensitivity of her community and dress in an outrageous manner. Others felt that it may depend on the woman if she was comfortable in what she wore. This was also debated. The discussion led to the larger issue of control over the bodies of women and if deviance in any form is acceptable and if it’s acceptable to oppose this deviance through violence or assault. This discussion was enriched when the participants shared their personal experiences and insecurities and how they all at some level feel the city spaces to be unsafe for women.

A woman who leaves the house because her husband beats her up is over reacting

The next discussion saw less of debate where everyone accepted that violence against women in any form was unacceptable. Here interestingly, the general reactions of society and especially of the police were discussed.

A patriarchal society normalizes violence against women and thus mounts pressure on them to adjust with the abusive husband. Many factors are cited for convincing the woman to put up with violent husband like her economic dependence on the husband, no awareness of legal options, social stigma for the woman’s family etc.

Women are better care givers than men

The last discussion was on women were better care givers than men. There was general agreement on this theme but some participants challenged this notion as swell, One participant cited the example of her own husband who is often ridiculed by the neighbors for doing all household chores like cooking, cleaning, washing etc.

In this context the concepts of masculinity and femininity were explored and subsequently how patriarchy also deprives men of their choices was discussed.

The next session was the film screening of ‘Bol’ a film based on patriarchy in its various forms. The film depicts violence against women. The discussion that followed the screening of the film was very lively.

It was an emotionally charged atmosphere where most of the participants could relate to the oppression faced by the women characters in the film.

The discrimination faced by a girl child in a household in terms of education, opportunities and roles were discussed. It was agreed upon that such discrimination should be studied in order to understand gender based violence.

Also, how religious fundamentalism affects women adversely was discussed, citing examples from personal experiences.

The importance of questioning and critical outlook as well as listening or having an open mind to differences and other perspectives was sufficiently agreed upon during the discussions.

The issues how women are penalized due to deviance is in society was discussed. It was highlighted that women must have control on their bodies and reproductive functions. The participants gave examples of some of the cases they have witnessed where preference to male child is so prevalent that the women are compelled into having multiple pregnancies having detrimental effect on the health and choices of women.

This was the second workshop in the series to consolidate the understanding of communalism. The first workshop discussed the concepts like communalism, religion, identity politics and caste, etc

The next workshop will focus on the theme social identity. This topic will be further explored in terms of the understanding on gender issues and consolidate the understanding of patriarchy.

This report is prepared with the help of the inputs provided by the organizers of workshop who run a forum call secular perspective. Any queries regarding this workshop can be addressed to Irfan Engineer (irfanengi@gmail.com) or to (secularperspective@googlegroups.com)

Needless to say that this is a very laudable attempt by some concerned members of the civil society in Mumbai to create peace and harmony in their city. This model is worth emulating in other parts of the country as well.

[Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba@yahoo.com]

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