Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Gender and Identity

Since the start of the exchange I've been aware of various references to unwritten rules society assigns to each and every one of us according to what sex we are:
  • "Boys only for football."
  • "I'm a boy, I'm meant to pack light" (ignoring the fact the boy next to him had the heaviest case in the team, and me, a girl had the lightest in the team...)
  • "Why don't you [me] wear make up... do something with your hair... pluck your eyebrows..."

In the UK, despite years of feminism and so called equality, women are still paid less than men when comparing like for like jobs. This is partly because women are able to take up to a year off for maternity leave whereas men are only entitled to 2 weeks paternity leave once their partner gives birth. Also in the UK, I've heard countless accounts of mothers being made to feel guilty for choosing to work whilst their kids are still young but I've never heard fathers have the same pressure on them. When dating, I've only been out with one guy who's made an obvious effort with his appearance for the date, whereas as a woman, I'm expected to look good not just on a date but most of the time.

In the UK, at least it is now reasonably socially acceptable for women to decide to choose a career over becoming a mother whereas this isn't the case all over the world. It hasn't always been in the case in the UK even. Before the First World War, the distinction between roles for men and women were very clear (at least within certain classes). The man would go out to work to provide for the family whereas the woman would be expected to stay at home and look after the children. The First World War changed this to a certain extent because so many able bodied men left to fight in the war so women had to step in to fill their positions at work. After the war, there was then a "surplus" of women because so many men had died whilst fighting in the war. These "surplus" of women all had to find jobs to fend for themselves. This and other events in the twentieth century changed the perceived role of women in the UK.

So far, I've been focusing very much on males and females, as society's view on gender is that it is very much a binary concept. Experiences through my life, both from people I've met and how I see myself have made me start to look at gender in a slightly different way.

I feel like I got a pretty genderless upbringing from my parents. That's not to say I was unaware of the difference between boys and girls, but I've only once been aware in my 23 years of either of them telling me how I should act according to what sex I am. They treated my brothers and I as three individuals, not as two boys and a girl. I haven't felt this in society in general, and I am often made to feel a bit of an oddity because I am bombarded by all these images of what it is to be female from adverts, magazines and other media, and sometimes by my friends (although not intentionally on their part).

During the course of my life I have met both trans and intersex people. Trans and transgender are umbrella terms which can include:

  • transsexual people (those who consistently self-identify as the sex and/or gender opposite to what they were labelled at birth, seek to transition to live as their self-identified gender and may take hormones or have surgery to change some of their physical sex characteristics);
  • androgyne or gender queer people (those who self-identify as having a non-binary gender and see themselves as neither simply a man nor simply a woman);
  • cross-dressing or transvestite people (those who dress occasionally or regularly like the opposite gender but are otherwise happy with the sex and/or gender they were labeled at birth).

Intersex people (previously also called hermaphrodites) are those who are born with external genitals, internal reproductive systems or chromosomes that vary from what is considered to be clearly physically male or female. There are many different ways in which someone can be intersex. One example is Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome where people who are genetically male (XY chromosomes) have bodies which are unresponsive to testosterone and are therefore born with female external genitals and so are raised as girls. They may often only find out they are intersex when they are teenagers. Another example is Klinefelter Syndrome were people have XXY chromosomes instead of having either XX or XY chromosomes. Some intersex people self-identify simply as men or as women despite their physical sex being in-between male and female but others resent being made to live as either men or women and would rather have their intersex status legally recognised. [thanks to JM and AS for your help with the terminology]

The existence of intersex, and trans people to me somewhat questions the binary and static view of gender that society has. In exploring my own view on gender I find myself stuck between two representations. I don't truly believe that someone's sex or gender should define how they act. But I also can't deny that there are certain characteristics that are apparently inherently male or female. So I'm stuck between these two representations of gender:


I think both representations have their merits but neither are perfect. How would I define myself within these two representations? In the first representation I'd fall within the female circle, as I don't have any problem with that label, but that wouldn't mean I'd have to act totally "female". I myself identify as a woman, because that's what I am physically, but there are so many aspects of apparently being "female" that I neither possess or even identify with. So, if I was to place myself on the spectrum in the second representation, I'd probably be here:

If all of society accepted either of these representations of gender would so many trans people still need to go through intrusive surgery in order for them to realise their true gender?

An aside...
Since coming to Aleppo...
I've noticed a complete difference in how men and women are treated. In my host family, my host mother stays at home all day cooking and cleaning. When my host dad comes home he expects everything to be done by his wife, to the point where he will not get water out of the fridge for himself and pour himself a glass. He even doesn't get rid of the water on the bathroom floor after he has washed his feet when he comes in at night. My host brothers are the same. My little host brother sits watching the TV whilst my host sister and I are cleaning the flat. Also, when he comes home at close to midnight he seems to think it's OK to sit and order his mum about (once shouting ateeny akil 10 times). We barely ever see my big host brother but when we do he's making some demand of his host mother or other.

Also in Aleppo...
I've always felt a bit weird because I don't make that much effort with how I look, but it's even more pronounced here. Pretty much every woman I see (except for my host mother) is immaculately dressed and made up. When going to a party, my host sister made a comment about how I was just in jeans and T-shirt (or something along those lines, it was in Arabic), and at the time I just lost it. Why just because I'm a girl should I be expected to spend hours getting ready making myself "look nice". It's fine if people decide they want to do that, but why is it such an issue if someone chooses not to?

At work...
Boys and girls do not integrate. At all. Whenever Dania and I pick up a new group of kids, they always divide along gender lines. We have to fight to get them to mingle with one another. I don't think it's the boys as such, it seems to be more the girls clinging together. It's understandable though if they are brought up to think that they should be seperate from boys. To me it seems such a weird attitude, as boys not being able to spend time socially with girls means that they end up just objectifying them, which cannot be seen as a good thing.