The Social Construction of Gender | Mohamed Al Sadadi

Published as part of “The Gendered Economy: Between the Constant and the Changing” which was held on August 25, 2016 at Coffee Republic in Riffa. 

Gender as a social construct is the sociological view that gender is not naturally endowed, but rather socially constructed. This view maintains that certain cultural and societal elements interact to create gender roles, which are then prescribed as ideal or apt for individuals belonging to the corresponding gender group.  While some sociologists argue that such roles are exclusively social constructs, others believe that biological factors influence gender roles as well. The term gender was historically adopted to distinguish biological sex and socialized aspects of masculinity and femininity. The social construction of gender is commenced at birth when infants are assigned masculine and feminine names, colors, and gifts. Later, boys are taught to play with “masculine toys” such as cars which girls are expected to play with dolls. During teen years, media outlets such as magazines and television reinforce gender roles instructing teens to behave in a certain manner according to their gender. Generally, women are portrayed as fragile and weak and are constantly expected to be aesthetically pleasing. Men, on the other hand, are portrayed as strong financial providers.

The Need to Belong

The idea of gender as a social construct can be framed within the evolutionary notion of Herd Behavior, which describes how individuals within a certain species can act collectively without any centralized direction, and is a term that can be applied to numerous phenomena ranging from bird flocks to human riots. Having evolved from primates, Homo sapiens are known to be social animals. The need to belong is one of our basic needs, which ranks third in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs following physiological and safety needs. External validation from our friends and families are constantly needed and often sought.  From an evolutionary perspective, the needs of belonging, love and friendship ensure the safety and organization of the herd, which are directly linked to the end goals of survival and reproduction (or gene propagation). Examining different environmental and cultural factors, in light of our need to belong, we can gain insight into how they interact to form gender stereotypes. These factors can vary from: race (the focus of this paper), language, class, sexual orientation, geography, etc.

In her short essay “Where I Come From Is Like This”, Paula Allen argues that “in the West, few images of women form part of the cultural mythos, and these are largely sexually charged”. In contrast, she then describes how differently Native American tribes view women, which offers them more freedom and choices to define themselves without any social contempt influencing their identities. While white women are torn in between the images of “the Madonna” and “the witch/goddess/whore”, American Indians are primarily defined by their tribal identity, yet are not expected to play any specific role. If white women seek to transcend the limited roles prescribed to them, they will experience social alienation. Social alienation acts as a societal deterrent for individuals as it would mean that their need to belong is not met. In this, Paula explains how these two racial groups, which happen to live in the same geographical location, view women and womanhood so differently, however, she does not tackle question of why. From an evolutionary point of view, the answer is quite simple: There are more whites than American Indians.  Whites enjoy the luxury of being a dominant group or herd; while Native Americans constitute a smaller competing minority, but how do population sizes influence gender roles?

Gendered and Racialised Power Dynamics

Members of dominant groups often grow up with a strong sense of security that minorities lack. Peggy Mclntosh, in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, outlines: ”I did not have to educate our children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection” and “ I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial” among other examples of “white privilege”. This sense of security generates strong dominant traits in white males, and leaves the white woman defined in relation to the white man. By contrast, minorities are raised to be more defensive, and are more likely to feel socially isolated or experience discrimination. This isolation creates common interests, within the minority groups, shared by both genders, which bring men and women closer. Hence, a woman that belongs to a minority group would easily identify with her race, while a woman that belongs to a majority would struggle in defining herself as the males in the group establish power over her.

For example, Allen explains that “since the coming of Anglo-Europeans beginning in the fifteenth century, the fragile web of identity that long held tribal people secure has gradually been weakened and torn” which resulted in a situation where “an American Indian woman is primarily defined by her [racial] identity” in relation to the new dominant group. Moreover, McIntosh states that “many of white students in the United States think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see whiteness as a racial identity”. All of these statements point to the dominance of the white racial group, which has been displayed numerous times throughout history in Europe and America (through colonization, slavery, resources wars, etc.), which resulted in the lack of differentiation between gender roles in minority groups.

The Arab Woman

In applying this hypothesis to the Arab world; firstly, we see that in light of the need to belong, one can understand why Arab women are hesitant to break the chains society is tacitly or explicitly imposing upon them. Islamic apologists would argue that the Hijab/Burka is not imposed on women in the Middle East, but is rather a personal choice.  Without delving into the philosophical topic of free will, we can discredit this argument using the Herd Behavior hypothesis. Simply put, Arab women conform to society’s expectations not out of personal choice, but rather out of fear of social alienation. The personal choice argument is an argument deployed in order to make Arab women feel as if they are in control of their own lifestyles, and humans, as self-conscious beings, naturally dismiss notions deflating their sense of control. Furthermore, some Arab liberals would argue that the Arab woman lacks the courage to challenge societal forces, albeit the Arab man faces the same fear. For the sake of impartiality, if we claimed Arab women lack the audacity to wear short skirts if they so choose, we should equally concede that Arab men lack the audacity to wear ear piercing, as well. In both cases, women and men face the same deterrent: the fear of social alienation.

Thus, the Arab woman is not short on bravery, but rather is at the center of oppressive societal forces acting against her autonomy. Arab men do indeed have cultural elements limiting their freedom, yet Arab society is generally more tolerant of instances where men break the norms. Arab women, on the other hand, do not enjoy this luxury.  The Arab man can espouse a woman who failed to win his family’s approval without fear of being disowned and as such is not forced to elope should his lifestyle defy tradition. The Arab man is not seen as an extension to his parents, but rather as an independent entity.  In contrast, the Arab woman is viewed by her father, brother, and husband as a piece of property that needs to be shielded to defend the family’s honor. The Arab woman is expected to wear her unwarranted misfortunes like a scarlet, and consequently has more incentives to conform and avoid alienation.

And at times, the Arab woman identifies with her oppressor and reinforces her own shackles. While this phenomenon is worth exploring in a separate paper, it is worth mentioning its resemblance to the Stockholm syndrome where feelings of affection are felt by victims toward their captors in kidnapping or torture scenarios.

Assessing the Hypothesis

Secondly, we can examine the role of race in creating different gender roles in the Arab world. As an example, Bahrain is small in terms of real estate, but large in terms of demographic complexity. Its population has a Shia’a majority and a Sunni minority. However, unlike the West where the white majority is the dominant group, Sunnis assume power in Bahrain while Shia’as have been marginalized historically. As such can the dominant group-minority hypothesis be applied to Bahrain? Do Bahraini Shia’a women correspond to Native American women while Sunnis to White women? Can the Shia’a woman assume more roles than the Sunni woman? Although a sociologist would be more suited to answer this question, I could not find any evidence supporting the above claims. While Native American women, primarily defined by their tribe, can assume more roles than white women who are torn between two sexually charged roles, I suppose Shia’a and Sunni women are equal in the scarcity of roles they can assume. An exception to this rule can be detected following the political crisis in 2011 when Shia’a women clearly started to assume roles as political activists, while fewer Sunni women were involved politically.

Similarly, Bahraini society is composed of an Arab majority, and a minority of Bahrainis with Persian roots.  I believe the dominant group-minority hypothesis is more applicable in this case.  Bahraini Persian women are primarily defined by their Persian origin, as Persians could experience isolation, bringing both Persian men and women closer together. Persians are also socialized to be more defensive and proud of their origins, which solidifies their Persian identity. In contrast, Arab women struggle to define themselves as Arab men establish power over them. Hence, the Bahraini Persian woman can assume more roles within society than the Bahraini Arab woman.

In summary, gender is a social construct imposed on both women and men as they struggle and strive to belong. Men have more autonomy and can assume more roles within this construct, while women are usually offered limited number of roles accompanied by uncompromising expectations. In the Arab world, the social construction of gender is evident through the daily social dynamics and the socioeconomics of the community in question.  Promisingly, the new generation of educated Arabs is questioning gender stereotypes and other cultural elements once seen as constant.

Mohamed Al Sadadi is a Risk Management Consultant with a B.Sc. in Applied Mathematics and minor in Philosophy and Spanish from Purdue University; and a post-graduate diploma in Economics from University of London-LSE. You can reach him via Facebook.

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