Sunday, January 03, 2010

Being Feminine: A Matter of Socialisation or Biology?

In one of my recently published interviews in Muse India, I stated that I differed from Simon de Beauvoir in her 'Other' theory where she says “one is not born but rather, becomes a woman.” I further stated that I think a woman is born as a woman.

There are inherent physical, behavioral, emotional, and psychological differences between men and women and we affirm and celebrate these differences as wonderful and complementary. These differences do not evidence the superiority of one sex over the other but rather, serve to show that each sex is complemented and made stronger by the presence of the other. As a different unit, similar to man, the female mass has their right for equity as well.

Such a statement by me surprised some of my scholar friends in that how could I state this when it is known to me that according to social anthropology, gender is more a societal than a biological phenomenon. This article aims to clarify my stand.

I started my blogging at this blog with “Bicycle and Me,” where I wrote of my experiences of childhood. As my father had an obsession for a male child, he wanted to see me as a boy and therefore, I was dressed as a boy; my hair was cut like a boy’s; and I used to play boyish games with boys instead of girlish games with girls. In my second blogging, I mentioned my Portuguese friend’s query, where he asked whether this had any impact in my sexuality in later life or not. It is clear that these cross-gender activities did not make any difference in my later life and I grew up normally as a woman.

When I studied more about gender theories, specially in Anthropology, I found that the anthropologists tried to confirm that gender is not innate but is based upon social and cultural conditions; my mind did not accept the theory so easily. Margaret Mead, in her anthropological study in 1935, concluded that the differences in temperament between men and women were not a function of their biological differences, rather, they resulted from differences in socialisation and the cultural expectations held for each sex. (See: Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies .by Margaret Mead; New York: Dell.). This is, I think, the earliest study that led to the conclusion that gender is more a social and cultural factor than a biological one. According to this study, it is the social environment of the child, such as parents and teachers, that shapes the gender identity of a child. A child learns what to wear (girls in frocks and boys in shirt-pants); how and what to play (dolls for girls and cars for boys); how to behave (passivity and dependence in girls and aggressiveness and independence in boys); and how to reciprocate (gender-wise thoughts, feelings, or behavior). And these learnings confirm an appropriate gender-wise appearance and behavior, which leads to gender identity.

The sex/gender distinction seen as a set and unchangeable dichotomy does not help social scientists. They might have feared that “the set of sex/gender distinction serve to ‘ground’ a society's system of gender differences, [but] the ground seems in some ways to be less firm than what it is supporting.” (See: the essay “Transsexualism: Reflections on the Persistence of Gender and the Mutability of Sex in Body Guards” by Judith Shapiro in the book The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity (eds) J. Epstein and K. Straub, 1991). Other social anthropologists like Moira Gatens , Henrietta Moore, Pat Caplan dismiss the idea of a biological domain separated from the social. Even Pat Caplan declared that “...sexuality, like gender, is socially constructed.”

From the discussion above, one can see that gender identities are grounded in ideas about sex and cultural mechanisms create men and women. But we also have to remember that the biological sex is related to chromosomal sex, genitalia, assigned birth sex, or initial gender role which are rooted deeply in science and somehow proved rather than hypothetically assumed. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes within each cell; twenty-two of these are alike in both males and females. But when we come to the twenty-third pair, the sexes are not the same. Every woman has in her cells two of what we call the ‘X’ chromosome. But a man has just one X and another Y chromosome. These sets of chromosomes are what make males and females different.

The sex hormones--primarily estrogen and testosterone--have a significant impact on the behavior of males and females. For example, why do boys typically like to play with cars and girls like to typically play with dolls? Social anthropologists think it is the impact of socialization while Biological science thinks it is the role of these sex hormones which differentiate the choice children make gender-wise. Biology says the sex-specific differences in the brain are located both in the primitive regions, and in the neocortex--the higher brain region that contains 70 percent of the neurons in the central nervous system.

The neocortex is divided into two hemispheres joined by a 200-million fiber network called the corpus callosum. The left hemisphere controls language analysis and expression and body movements while the right hemisphere is responsible for spatial relationships, facial expressions, emotional stimuli, and vocal intonations. Females use both their right and left hemisphere to process language in certain circumstances while males just use one hemisphere. Females also reach puberty two years earlier than boys, as per biological science, and this changes the way they process social and sexual information.

There are still some characteristics and feelings that I think social anthropologists rule out for the sake of their theory. What about the voice pitch? Males have harsh voices and females have soft voices. This is a biological characteristic and it is related to gender. The crisis of infertility may create a serious trauma to a female, which a male cannot feel. This is a feeling innate with specific feminine gender and it is more a psychological and biological than a social problem. The menopausal psycho syndromes are totally biological and not categorised with this social gender theory. Social anthropologists emphasise that we are all trying to pass as a gender which is decided by cultural systems, not our biological sex. But what happens in the cases of transsexuals who do not pass it? The operation does not make their bodies fully male or fully female. The genitals will not function as genuine genitals and their chromosomes cannot be changed. Voice pitch and other physical characteristics might reveal their transsexualism.

Actually, the high level of testosterone in males drives them toward some specific masculine characteristics, while the lack of high levels of estrogen in women creates a natural, biological push in the direction of feminine characteristics. Each gender has different strengths and weaknesses; this does not mean that one sex is superior or inferior to another. Being feminine is a woman's birthright! It is always hard for me to understand why any woman would want to give up this cherished possession. I feel proud and adore my feminine dress, grooming, carriage, posture, voice, and language.

I want to use an integrated analysis of oppression which means that both men and women are subjected to oppression and stereotypes and that these oppressive experiences have a profound affect on beliefs and perceptions. I am against the patriarchy role model of society but it does not mean that I want to replace a matriarchal form of society in place of the existing patriarchal one. What I want is to develop equal mutual relationships of caring and support between all genders and I want to focus on strengthening women in areas such as assertiveness, communication, relationships, and self esteem.

Above all, I feel myself more a writer than a feminist. As a writer, I feel more sensible and sincere to my feelings and as a feminist, I am more inclined towards my femininity.I just don't understand how people can be feminists and not realise that to be feminist, you must also not be racist, ableist, homophobic, etc. If you are feeling oppressed by a masculine world, then you should not be prejudiced and bigoted towards other oppressed groups either, whether they are a result of patriarchy or not.

I hope my stand has been further clarified. If it hasn’t, I’m sure you’ll let me know!