What does it mean to be a woman? A man? What does this have to do with being human, and humane? How does being a man or a woman determine our personhood?
Our common-sense view might tell us that the distinction between men and women is natural and that it determines the roles that society assigns to them. It says women give birth, so they must become their brood's prime caregivers; men don't, so they must go into the world, compete and ensure their brood's survival. We also argue that this is a practical division of labour.
We sometimes invoke the divine. Religion says the distinction is god-given so we must surrender to it. Sometimes, we use science to argue that the binary of genders is a fixed anatomical fact. We thus continually find stories that absolve us of the responsibility for setting right something that has gone very wrong with our ways of thinking and living.
It is not just women who are being controlled. It is not just that female foetuses are being killed; that girls are being deprived of an equal opportunity to education and nutrition; that they are being told not to climb trees or do mathematics; that women are being molested and raped; that wives are being battered and killed; that women are not being allowed to rise to the top of their professions; that women are expected to take a backseat, stay at home, look after the kids and be happy with their lot; that women are being objectified; that women are being told what to do and what not to.
It also men who are being controlled. It is also that boys, though given the right to unfettered birth, are being told not to cry when in pain; that boys are being asked to perform in every football match, every exam and every party, till they are fully burnt out; that boys are expected to excel at everything they do and are raised to fear failure; that boys are being told not to pursue dance; that men are being pushed to develop unnatural muscles; that men are expected to be breadwinners; that they are expected to kill for their countries and die for their religions; that men are expected to endlessly protect the women, the nation and the world.
Have you ever wondered whether nature or god would create something so imperfect, which at its extreme leads to death? I would rather own up to our role in creating a society that dehumanises both women and men (though not equally, of course).
For social science studies have shown, again and again, that gender identities are culturally constructed. We are born biologically male and female (even this is not immutable, but that is a complicated argument for another time), but we become masculine and feminine through socialisation.
These constructs change over time; indeed, we can actively transform them, if we have the will. We are not puppets in the hands of society; rather, we are its makers — at all levels, in our homes, in our classrooms, in our work spaces, on the streets.
Moreover, it is imperative that we squarely confront the fact that this binary gender ideology is not symmetrical but embedded deeply in a power structure that allows boys and men to dominate girls and women, giving the former a sense of intoxicating superiority.
The binary is a hierarchy that sanctions brutality and condones violence. It is a structure that perpetuates inequality and injustice. It is a structure that some of us call patriarchy.
Patriarchy dehumanises the oppressor, the men, as much as it violates the oppressed, the women. Both are victims. Yet both can become agents of change.
If the powerful do not recognise, question and challenge the limitation that patriarchy places on them, the subjugated will have to continue their battles, come what may, for a better world.
(Gita Chadha is a Mumbai-based sociologist)