1 the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)
either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions: adults of both sexes.
“Hen,” the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun has stirred an interesting debate over the role of gender in our society. Even though this debate is not new, Sweden has undoubtedly been a pioneer in pushing for a “gender-neutral” education for children, by starting at the nursery school level. Sweden is the first country to establish a gender neutral nursery school. During the past few months, the media has increasingly addressed the question of gender in different spheres, ranging from gender-neutral underwear, to gender-neutral bathrooms, to using gender-neutral terms in schools, to the world’s first gender-neutral sex toy, to Veterans of Foreign Wars becoming gender neutral as well.
I have always been fascinated by the concept of gender, particularly how gender is socially constructed and how it gives us an identity. It is a fact that men and women are biologically different: we define our sex based on our reproductive organs. Gender however, is different. How do we define our gender? Other than the evident biological differences that exist between men and women, our society has constructed traditional gender roles that prescribe certain behaviors based on what is considered “feminine” and “masculine.” Anthropologist Margaret Mead was among the first to distinguish between gender and sex and study the ways in which cultural conditioning plays a much bigger role than biology in shaping men and women’s behaviors. Even though every culture differs as to what these behaviors entail, there is a sense of universality, (or rather, a “western universality”) among most of them, so for instance, it is the norm for girls to wear dresses and for boys not to wear them; or for girls to play with dolls and boys to play with cars, and so forth.
These might seem like pretty trivial examples, but if we analyze them closer we will soon realize that these behaviors are “taught” or “imposed” on us. I think that even if some children are given the choice to decide what toy they want to play with, family, society and school will still be responsible for shaping that child’s gender. This is why Sweden’s move to neutralize gender in schools is revolutionary in that it is challenging societal preconceived notions of gender.
Foucault’s studies on power relationships, gender and sexuality, explain how we construct our social meanings of normalcy, and how these social constructions are used to marginalize and oppress behaviors that divert from the “norm.” All social institutions play a role in forming these notions, and gender is certainly one of them. Foucault encourages us to find our identities outside of the “normal” patterns established by society (Feinberg & Soltis, 2009).
The deconstruction of gender, from a woman’s perspective, I think poses an incredibly interesting challenge and question for our future generations. Gender has undoubtedly played a role in power structures around the world and throughout history. Millions of women around the world still face discrimination and violence- just for the sake of being female. For example, women in Iran are worth “half” than their male counterparts, limiting their inheritance and property rights, making them victims of “justifiable” domestic violence, and requiring the permission of their husbands to travel, among many other differences. Will deconstructing gender and redefining gender roles improve their lives? Will our world become more egalitarian, just and equitable if gender as we perceive it today changes? I don’t have the answer to these questions but I do think they are worth asking and worth exploring.
In conversation with Dr. Mark Stern, who specializes in political economy, social theory, and public education, among others, when asked if he thinks gender matters, offered the following interesting insight: “I believe that gender could represent human potentiality. Gender represents a horizon or possibility for human engagement with the world–how we express who we are, how we feel, and what we do with that. Gender represents possibility to be and to be otherwise–potential, rather than limit (the way it currently functions).” Seen from this perspective, gender becomes an enabling factor as opposed to a disabling one. It represents another dimension of freedom- of freedom to choose and feel what we identify ourselves with.
Does gender matter? I would argue that it matters as long as it empowers us, and as long as it doesn’t function as a means of oppression or “normalization” where we hinder the potentiality of expressing our identities as human beings.