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Source of text: Article by Gourav Dhiman


The gender problem in India emerged after the seventies. We have in our country a large number of feminists who have advocated the up- liftment of women including those residing in rural India.

These feminists belong to different disciplines and walks of life, especially so­cial activities. Some of the feminists include Bina Agrawal, Maitriyee Choudhuri, Madhu Kishwar, Janaki Nayyar, Bina Das, Tiplut Non- bri and others.

Interestingly enough, the term ‘sex-gender system’ was coined by an anthropologist Gayle Rubin. This term has recently found wide currency among feminists. It refers to the institutionalized system which allots resources, property and privileges to persons ac­cording to culturally defined gender roles.

Despite average number of feminist social scientists, theorists and thinkers in India and elsewhere, the concept of sex-gender system remains not much clear. It is, it ap­pears, in the process of formulation.

Let us begin the analysis of sex-gender system by providing a defi­nition of gender. Though, initially, the concept was introduced by an anthropologist, normally anthropologists in general are critical of feminist tendencies to universalize what are really only culture- specific features of the sex-gender system.

It is argued by social anthropologists that the male dominance over females in all the socie­ties is not the same. It varies from culture to culture. The dominance in a nomadic society is lesser compared to a settled society. Stressing this point of variation in gender relations, Sandra Harding observes:

Of course, the sex-gender system is expressed in differing intensities and forms in different cultures and classes.

Men’s and women’s na­tures and relative abilities to determine their own social, economic and political lives appear very different if one looks from matrilineal to patrilineal societies, from pre-capitalist to capitalist formations, from aristocratic to democratic cultures, and of course from wealthy to poverty-level and white to black lives in America today.

Anthropologists differ basically from feminists. The latter argue that women all over the world, notwithstanding their cultural and caste-class belongingness, face discrimination against them.

It appears that the anthropological perspective has a wider support from empiri­cal reality. Let us take the example of Hindi novels written by Premchand.

It is a common thread in Premchand’s novels to find the hero beating his wife. In rural India, generally, disputes are settled by men by beating their women.

The God of Small Things, says that normally when­ever men return home at night in drunken state, they beat up their women. The anthropologists, are, therefore, justified to say that the intensity and form of sex-gender system is culture-and-society-specific.

The anthropological perspective may further be explained with reference to India. The status of women in a bureaucratic and manage­ment society is better. She is respected. She lives in luxury, drives a car, visits beauty parlours and spends money on cosmetics. On the other hand, the discrimination of women in a peasant society is full of injustice.

Among the tribals the men often enjoy drinks and make the women toil day in and day out both in the field and the house. Thus, for all considerations, the gender issue has to be analyzed in the con­text of the containing society. We now take up some of the meanings given to sex-gender system. These meanings are drawn from feminist research, writings and scholarships.

Let us bifurcate the term ‘sex-gender’ to derive some precise meaning. The term consists of two words: sex and gender. Women, as a sex, are a separate group ‘due to their biological distinctiveness. It is only women who can procreate.

Thus, their sex clearly defines them, not as a sub-group or a minority group, but as a half of the whole (population). Men are the only other sex. Obviously, we do not here refer to sexual activity, but to a biological function.

Gender is the cultural definition of behaviour defined as appropri­ate to the sexes in a given society at a given time. “Gender is a set of cultural roles. It is a costume, a mask, a straitjacket in which men and women dance their unequal dance.” Unfortunately, the term ‘gender’ is used both in academic discourse and in the media as interchangeable with sex.

For laymen, sex and gender are synonymous. In fact, its widespread use is probably due to it sounding a bit more ‘refined’ than the plain word ‘sex’ with its ‘nasty’ connotations. Such use is unfortu­nate, because it hides and mystifies the difference between the biologically given sex and culturally created gender.

Let us make our analysis a little more clearly. Whenever in technical terms we talk about sex, we mean biological composition and when­ever we talk about gender we attach a cultural meaning. For instance, among Hindus, a woman can wear a bindi and apply cosmetics to her face.

This aspect of woman explains the gender status of a woman. Again, a woman normally cannot work as a priest or officiate at the nuptial ceremony. She is disqualified for such assignments because she is a woman. Thus, gender is social and cultural and sex is biological. Sex-gender system resembles racism. A race is a valid biological phe­nomenon but racism is socio-cultural.

Defining sex-gender system in a specific way, we again refer to Harding:

The size and shape of this newly visible object are becoming clearer. The sex-gender system appears to be a fundamental variable organiz­ing social life throughout most recorded history and in every culture today.

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