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Gender differences, nurtured or nature?

Understanding Gender: How Culture and Biology Have Differentiated Gender Roles for Ages

Religious and cultural interpretation:

Christianity refers to God as “Him” and not “Her”. It maintains that God created man (Adam) first and then form his rib Eve the first woman (Eve) was created. In other words, women are secondary and dependent beings. In the bible, the original sin in the Garden of Eden is attributed to Eve and she was the one who tempted Adam to follow suit. Mankind has been paying for this ever since.

In the book of Genesis, the lord said, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16)

Islam too maintains that men were created to rule over and manage the lives and affairs of women. It states: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made one of them to excel the other and because they spend their property (for the support of women). So good women are obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them” (Quran 4:34).

It associates women’s bodies with impurity. Going to toilets, on a journey, being sick and touching women are all considered equally impure acts. Those who have done any of these are instructed not to pray until they wash themselves clean.


Manu, the author of the Dharmashastra notes: 

“Knowing their disposition (women), which the lord of creatures laid on them at creation (i.e., their reproductive power, their sexuality, their essential nature), every man should most strenuously exert himself to guard them”.

Manu also wrote: “Men must make their women dependent day and night, and keep under their own control those who are attached to sensory objects. Her father guides her in childhood, her husband guards her in youth, and her sons guard her in old age. A woman is not fit for independence”.

Aristotle holds that women are naturally lacking in intelligence and rationality. Being natural fools, women do not deserve to be citizens who could participate in public affairs. They are to leave these matters to the men who could represent their interest better.

The English poet John Milton writes that God created Man in his image, ‘He for God only’, while women was created as an afterthought, from Adam’s rib. Not being in God’s image, women were to realize God in him that is, Man.

In the Meitei society, one folklore which passed through the generations by word of mouth is: “Nupadi chammagi Mapuni”.

Sociological perspective:

If we try interpreting the above quotation and lines from the sociological perspective, sociologists would argue that it is the mythological and cultural justification for the position of women in society. Sociological literature argues that the religious explanation of masculinity and femininity are historical in nature though they claimed to be transcendental and universal. They evolved over a period of time.

Early on in human history, human beings have been confused and awed by the phenomenon of birth. Birth seems to them as miraculous and it looks like only women knew the cause. But once men learnt to domesticate animals, they realized that they (male) too played an important role in procreation. And by this time they had also established themselves as the superior sex explaining motherhoods and birth in a way which did not concede too much power to women. And they came up with an ingenious idea claiming that women are inferior because their bodies are “unclean”. They “menstruate” and “give birth”, acts which involve lots of flesh and blood.

The ancient Hebrew text also suggests that man was the source of the child’s soul, and woman was merely the field in which the seed was sown. Hence in this way they deny much of woman power over birth. Worshiping women as mothers while devaluing them in all other senses thus became a way of displacing and managing fears about female power and sexuality.

Thus, Vivekananda once rightly said “writing down smritis etc. (religious text), and binding them by hard rules, the men have turned the women into mere manufacturing machines”.

American anthropologist, GP Murdock conducted a survey of 250 different societies of the world and in overwhelming majority sexual divisions of labour exist. He suggested that biological differences such as the greater physical strength of men and the fact that women bear children and their nursing qualities tied them to home. And because of their physique they are limited to less strenuous tasks and the advantages inherent with the division of labour by sex presumably account for its universality.

Social anthropologist Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger argue that sexual division of labour is the result of millions of years of adaptation. In the primitive society, men go hunting and women are left for rearing and bearing children for millions of years because of which we are wired and attuned for it.

Freud argued that the difference between men and women stemmed largely from innate factors such as anatomical differences resulting in penis envy among females. This resulted in a huge criticism against him. Karen Horney, a neo-Freudian who strongly disagreed over his view contended that the differences between men and women is not the result of anatomical difference but of how women are treated by society.

She argued that if women were raised in a different type of environment, they would see themselves more favourably. Or in other word it was not the male penis women envied, but rather the power and autonomy associated with maleness.

Her criticism can be supported by the work of American cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead who has done a ground-breaking work on how temperamental differences between male and female were culturally determined rather than biological or innate in her book “Sex and Temperament in three primitive societies” (1935), a study of three different tribes in different parts of Papua New Guinea. Her work actually turns prior assumptions and theories on their head revealing a range of contrasting gender roles.

Among the Arapesh tribe, she found both men and women do equally strenuous tasks and have similar personalities. They tend to be co-operative, peaceful and unaggressive and responsive to the needs and demands of others. The Arapesh ideal is the mild, responsive man married to the mild, responsive women.

In marked contrast to these attitudes, among the Mundugumor, both men and women developed as ruthless and highly aggressive and maternal cherishing aspects of personality was at the minimum. It is the type of personality which we in our culture would find only in undisciplined and very violent male. The Mundugumor ideal is the violent aggressive male marrying violent aggressive female.

In the third tribe, the Tchambuli, Mead found a genuine reversal of the sex attitude of our own culture, with the women being a dominant, impersonal and managing partner and the man the less responsible and the emotionally dependent person.

Therefore if we go by her work, we can draw the inference that temperamental attitudes which we have traditionally regarded as feminine such as passivity, responsiveness and a willingness to cherish children – can so easily be set up as the masculine pattern in one tribe and in another it can turn out as an outlawed for the majority of women as well as for male. Hence there is no basis for regarding such aspects of behaviour which we traditionally conceive as feminine or masculine as sex-linked. This is how social and cultural conditioning shaped individual behaviours. And the standardized personality differences between male and female are largely the cultural creation if we go by Mead theory to which each generation, male and female is trained to conform.

Sex is considered as a fact, one is born with either male or female genitalia. However gender is considered as social construction, that is to say, only after specific meanings came to be attached to the sexes, did sex differences become pertinent. The social role model theory argues that the gender differences result from the adoption of gender roles that defines the appropriate conduct for men and women. These gender roles are the shared expectation of men’s and women’s attributes and social behaviour and they are internalized early in childhood and subsequent developmental stages.

When we dress a girl child in a “soft colour” and buy a male child a “gun”, when we punish a girl child for behaving “like a boy” or teasing boys for being “timid like a girl”, we are doing “gender”. We have a pre-determined gender script in our mind and imposed them accordingly to the sex identity. Hence, if we go by Mead theory, there is a high probability to believe that gender and gender roles are the outcome of social construction. For example, we heard the common notion in the Meitei lexicon known as “Nupi sin” and “Nupa sin”. What are these norms and who set them? Of course, not some invisible divine entity sitting above the cloud.

In our day to day experienced we see men and women doing things which are considered not typical of their sex. There are men who find great pleasure in minding children. There are also men who are shy and diffident and anxious and self-deprecatory. And we also know that there are as many women who are as angry and impatient as men and not all women are timid or retiring. We also know of people who are physically not of either sex, that move in and out of male and female identities. Thus it can be argued that our ideas of male and female natures derive less from empirical facts and observations and more from norms and expectations that govern our lives.

The societal norm that we have is powerful and influential not because everyone adheres to it but because it is made to seem natural and universal. But do these norms remain constant? Certainly not. We find certain norms in one historical period and discredited in the next generation. Today I cannot dare say that women must be confined at home. Yesterday’s deviance becomes today’s normality. And this is how society evolves and progresses.

If the society’s collective sentiment remains so high, there will be little deviance but neither will there be any change or progress. Contrary, if the value sentiment becomes too low, the collective sentiment would lose its power to control human behaviour and people would become no less than a wild animal and the society would become dysfunctional. Thus Durkheim proposed to maintain “moderate energy”, so that they do not crush the originality.

We can take these examples in the family system. Let us suppose parents who have a single child and the parents provide every available resource to the child and become overprotective. Therefore their attempt to protect the child to a great degree may consequently undermine the child fatally. And the child is less likely to develop resilience in the face of misery and thus stagnation occurs in the personality (high value sentiment). On the other hand, inadequate levels of affection and support and the prevalence of aggression and rejection towards children are linked to manifestation of behavioural disorder like aggressiveness, hostility and crime (low value sentiment).

While a family with multiple siblings who are exposed to do their work independently when they can and even if they sometimes engage in conflict among themselves, toughens their personality and helps develop resilience (moderation). (Jordan Peterson Lecture)

One would probably imagine a typical woman as a good wife and mother, keeping a good home and rearing a child are considered women responsibilities. The wife-mother often feels the pressure to live up to standards that are exacting. This may translate into anxiety about cooking, cleaning, pleasing the husband, children’s education, their clothes and so on.

But does this norm work the same way for all and in practice? Hypothetically I personally feel not. The poor women may have experience differently than the middle or upper-class women. Their primary concern would probably be food security, survival and safety: Is there enough food to last these weeks/months? Will they be able to live without fear of displacement and eviction often in the marketplace?

Therefore with poor women different logic works. Thus in the same society there may exist different sorts of expectations. It does not mean that they do not fulfil their roles as wife-mother but the chances are that they must have experienced differently.

The idea of a good wife-mother and of social norm and expectation may have become fully conscious, should their lives change for the better. With a steady income and a sturdy house and when survival is assured, they may perhaps begin to adhere more consistently to the norm of the good wife and mother. And of course, now they will start talking about feminism. Stomach comes first before ideal.

Psychological perspective:

(Recent development in Gender studies and the argument posed by Jordan Peterson)

The social role or constructionist model would argue that the social differences that exist between the sexes can be equalized by promoting egalitarian social policies and economic development and the law that serves the equality for both sexes. And of course this has been seen in many developed countries and particularly Scandinavian countries who have championed in producing an egalitarian state in terms of gender equality. But the surprising fact is, “as countries become more gender egalitarian, personality differences tend to manifest more rather than decrease” which now have come to be known as the “Gender Paradox”. Or in other words, when the cultural differences between male and females minimized, the sex differences tend to increase rather than decrease.

One would hypothesize that the higher economic development and the dissolution of traditional gender specific roles that was instilled with distinct preference in women and men in the developmental stage will lead to narrowing down of gender differences in preferences. And gender difference in preference should manifest themselves only if both women and men have sufficient access to material and social resources to independently develop and express intrinsic preference. However, one research published in science, reveals that economic development facilitates the unfolding of differences between women and men.

More developed countries feature a high level of gender equality in political, social and economic domains which is a critical requirement for expressing specific gender desire and preference independently. And as women become less exposed to male dominance, gender differentiation reinforced itself through greater opportunities for independent development and self-expression for gender specific choices in more developed and egalitarian countries. Or in other words as gender equality increases both men and women gravitates towards their traditional sex roles. The findings suggest that the gender specific preference may relate to what psychologist termed as the “Big Five” or value priorities.

Over the last five decades personality psychologists/psychometricians have developed a remarkable technique to gather a number of personality trait features to measure the temperamental differences between men and women. The measurement is done in a theoretical manner using adjectives, phrases and sentences that give every possible description contained in human language. And they use large samples and powerful statistics to sort out the resulting mess. Often known as the “Big Five” personality traits or by the acronym “OCEAN” model or grouping for personalities used by psychometricians, developed from the 1980s onwards in psychological trait theory.

The research reveals that men and women are more similar than they are different, cross culturally. However as Jordan Peterson puts it, the differences that do exist are large enough so that they play an important role in affecting important life outcomes, such as occupational choices. The differences are, “Men are less agreeable” (more competitive, harsher, tough-minded, skeptical, unsympathetic, critically minded, independent, stubborn). And hence such tendencies manifest higher rates of violence and antisocial behaviours among males. Therefore male are more likely to go to jail than females (choice made at extremes not the average).

Women are higher in neuroticism or negative emotion. As a consequence, they experience more anxiety, emotional pain, frustration, grief, self-conscious doubt and disappointment. And women have the tendency to experience depression at twice the rate of men.

And one of the largest psychological differences between men and women, yet identified, is men on the average are more interested in “things” and women on the average are more interested in “people”. Therefore as a consequence we see less number of female engineers and there is an overwhelming number of female nurses while more male tend to become engineers.

Research on “Gender equality paradox in STEM fields” reported that girls performed similarly to or better than boys in science in two of every three countries, and nearly in all countries, more girls are capable of college level STEM field study. However paradoxically, the sex differences in the size of relative academic strength and the under-representation of girls and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics field `become more prominence as country become more gender neutral. It is not that the females are not good at STEM subjects but they are not interested in the field. And this has been demonstrated in the Scandinavian countries that have gone far ahead in equalizing gender differences. The research article also suggested that the life quality pressure in less gender equal countries promotes girls and women more with STEM fields. (The Gender Equality-Paradox in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, Gijsbert Stoet, David C Geary,

And one argument often raised by the radical feminist in the West is the gender pay gap. Both the radical feminist and radical left tend to demand equality of outcome. And radical feminist throw the blame on male dominance and patriarchy. However in one research article published on ScienceDirect reveal that the individual differences play a role in apparent sex differences in earnings. It is reported that “The Dark Triad” and “Big Five Traits” are correlated with income. Narcissism, psychopathy, extraversion, conscientiousness and limited neuroticism reported higher earning. Or in other words, men who were more narcissistic and women who were less neurotic reported more yearly earnings.

Thus as Jordan Peterson argues that the temperamental difference and interest affect the occupational drive and the occupational choice in turn affects the variability in income. Hence the political doctrine that promotes equality of opportunity will naturally lead to inequality of outcome. (The role of personality in individual difference in yearly earnings, Peter K. Jonason, Peter J . O’Connor)

Concluding remarks:

The personality differences that emerge between male and female are obviously natural and it has to do nothing with discrimination. Most of the drudgery related to women seems to be more sociological in nature. A particular historical and sociological identity is displaced onto female sex and made to appear natural to it. But of course the natural difference of more physical strength in the male body may also be one reason why women have to suffer since the beginning of history.

The more physical strength in man can be used as an advantage to oppress women. This inherent tendency can be seen ever-present both in the political history of the human race and the animal kingdom. Of course, intelligence can play a great role because in terms of physical strength animals are more superior than humans but the fact is, the latter rule the world. And it is the same intelligence that differentiate between human and animal. So long as human society goes with the philosophy that the strong will always triumph over the weak then naturally the weak will be crushed under the feet of the strong. And in terms of gender relation if a man and a woman are left on an isolated island where civilization cannot reach, the chances are that the male has more advantage to dominate the female as the males body has a surplus strength, aside of which has more intelligence.

But it is a mistake to think that strength lies in muscles. Every person on earth including wild animals are likely to retaliate whenever they are provoked. But we will find only a few who have the will power to persevere and remain unaffected by both praise or blame, even when physically provoked. And it seems that the history books are the history of only such a few people. They touch our hearts and life and we also see powerful political figures thrown into the dustbins of history. And if one truly believes in muscles then one should not repent when some wild animal comes and eats/attacks us as it is the law.

Someone like Vivekananda would worship “women” as the manifestation of god while a pervert may see women as a sexually gratifying object. And the problem ultimately boils down pertaining to the question of individual “character” and not exclusively of sociological phenomenon per se. As Jordan Peterson in one of his interviews rightly said that “nothing can substitute character” neither wealth nor knowledge. And if I look down upon women that means I am consciously or unconsciously disregarding my own mothers. Only a pervert and psychopath can do that.

For evil, only the stringent law can manage but the most significant change can be brought only when we change ourselves. The parents also have a great responsibility to socialize their child in a manner where they become ever-conscious that the girls/women they meet and encounter in the streets/workplace are someone’s daughter, sister and mother like we all have. And what is in the gender identity? If the sun and star were a conscious being they would be surprised when we call them by their names. Humans produce and reproduce language and we named them. I being a Hindu or Sanamahi adherence does not mean that I am a good person. And there is no extra bonus on being a male or female. What is in the name? Names and forms are just a medium to recognize someone or an entity. Our character must be our identity.

When people talk about patriarchy, they usually associate it with male but it is a misnomer. Bell hooks, an American feminist said that “women can be as wedded to patriarchal thinking and action as men”. Patriarchal thinking has to do with individual psychology and sociology can provide only observed consequences. Psychotherapist Real uses the term “psychological patriarchy” to describe the patriarchal thinking common to females and males.

Psychotherapist John Bradshaw’s states that “patriarchal rules still govern most of the world religion, school system and family system – the foundation upon which patriarchy stands “the repression of all emotion except fear; the destruction of individual will power; and the repression of thinking whenever it departs from the authority figure’s “way of thinking”. Therefore it is the root of psychological ailment. And it affects both the males and female children in the family system.

Even if men receive more rewards from the system, we must recognize the fact that women also play a great role in perpetuating and sustaining patriarchal culture. Because in doing that as Bell hooks puts it, “we will recognize patriarchy as a system women and men support equally and dismantling patriarchal culture is a work that men and women must do together”.

Sometime we see mother-in-law become the worst enemy of daughter-in-law. And the problem even gets worse if the mother-in-law dislikes the daughter-in-law even before the marriage. But probably she would not like her own daughter to be treated in another home in a manner in which she treats her daughter-in-law. Psychologically speaking, the mother-in-law is not able to think her daughter-in-law as her own daughter. At the same time, she is not able to empathize with the situation in which the daughter-in-law is in, that was once experienced by herself.

And whenever we saw women being caught publicly for selling some intoxicant and even the case of adultery, most often we find that the women participant show high level of aggression and rage humiliating with all their might, their fellow women as if they have never committed mistake in life. If the women who is found guilty happens to be their own daughter and blood relative, how will they respond to the act? Most probably they may want their loved ones to be least known to the public and disappear from the situation as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean that they will not teach them a lesson or repent the act. But they will obviously not act blatantly in the public but in private space. That is the difference between “nungsina warakpa” and “kalakpenna warakpa”. Hence the same sex domination and exploitation is a fact and reveals the lack of empathy. I am not saying that the value sentiment must not be invoked at all but the degree to which it manifest should not exceed beyond the limit of humanity.

According to the data from the latest electoral rolls, Manipur has a total of 19,58,087 voters, including 9,51,409 men and 10,06,581 women. This means that female voters outnumber male electors by 55,172 in the state. But it is surprising that we see the least number of women representatives fighting for the elections. Hence the legislative house itself is male dominated and the epi-centre of the problem began from here as well. It is probably the male who will decide and direct and address women’s problems. It is as if my problem and fate were to be decided and solved by someone else. This is what we call patriarchy. The data also implicitly suggest that women themselves uphold such patriarchal culture. Even if ideal women come up to contest election, I doubt whether the women will concertedly vote for her in any of the constituencies. Therefore women must also stop interiorization of patriarchal values and upholding it.

We often wish to style our lives according to the standards set by society and the desire to earn its appreciation and respect by imitating its values. But in doing that we must not become a slave of false social value and social opinion or the “blind obedience”. We must not lose our scientific temperament and rationality.

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