By Hassanal Noor Rashid.
Throughout history the search for identity has been an integral part of what we recognize as the human experience. The existential struggle to discover who we are and what our purpose in life is, leads many on various journeys.
Our identities are shaped by a complex and significant number of factors, ranging from the historical and the cultural, to the ethnic and the religious. ‘The Other’ and perceived differences from the Other also often shape notions of identity.
There is a dark side to this pursuit of identity. In various instances, great conflicts have raged over the pursuit and assertion of identity as it ultimately gets tied to notions of dignity, pride and even justice. Identity takes on the form of zealous dogmatism where differences become so irreconcilable, that it results in human suffering and injustices.
Here we shall discuss the notion of Gender as one of the most significant aspects of human identity that has long been the focus of much historical debates and controversy and which has seen a resurgence in various societies, most prominently in Western ones.
This discourse on gender has inspired many to question the actual importance of gender, the role it has in societal building and the very meaning thereof.
There will be three parts to this essay. Firstly we shall examine briefly the meaning of Gender, secondly, we shall highlight the various contemporary gender issues, and finally some suggestions will be laid out on how to best tackle these challenges.
GENDER: MEANING & DISTINCTIONS
However, before we begin to examine the current trends in Gender issues, a brief distinction needs to be made here for the purpose of clarity so as to avoid confusion about the meaning of gender within the context of our discussion.
Gender is largely distinct from sex classification. Sex has two clear classifications with its distinction mainly based on genetics and apparent biological traits. A male is genetically male and a female is female. There is no abstraction to this distinction as it is fundamentally rooted in hard science.
Gender however is more abstract and complex, addressing matters pertaining to the roles normally associated with both sexes, commonly known as masculinity and femininity. These roles which are more commonly developed within a contextual framework are therefore unique cutting across varying socio-cultural environments.
The idea of masculinity and femininity has largely to do with the power structures within a society. In many historical traditional settings, the male masculine ideal has been one of a provider or a hunter (correlating with the male physical attributes), tasked to protect and ensure the well-being of the family and community. This role empowers the male with a sense of authority over the aforementioned family unit and places him centrally important to the survival of the community. This has led many societies to develop a very male oriented foundation, termed popularly as a patriarchy, and gives much access and influence in the public sphere to men.
Women in patriarchal societies occupy the private sphere more often than not, having their roles relegated to care-givers, home-keepers and other similar roles. They tend to be keepers of the home and family life, and in various instances, take on subservient roles to their male counterparts.
This particular patriarchal arrangement ultimately awards men with more power, as matters to do with the community as a whole, fall under their societal jurisdiction. Such power allows them to enforce their will, wants and needs far more strongly in comparison to their female counterparts, and, consequently men make up for much, if not all positions of leadership in these communities.
There have been instances where the inverse is true as well where societies have embraced a matriarchal form of social order. But what is exemplified here is that much of our understanding of gender normativity is highly linked to existing social power structures which favour those who dominate them, or are perceived to have rightful authority over them.
As history has shown, the patriarchal mechanisms which governed societies maintained themselves well into the modern era with much of the rules set, albeit in varying degrees. Different societies however all had their own unique interpretation of gender roles. This changed when the world began moving towards the Industrial Revolution. Traditional male roles were challenged as automation and innovation within the agricultural and manufacturing sectors began to grow more dominant. In direct correlation with economic growth, infrastructures and higher quality of education, a perceived egalitarian system of governance was beginning to replace traditional power structures, thus challenging established social norms and the status quo.
Women now could access the mechanisms of power and many begun to demand more active participation within the public sphere of society.
This is where the first seed of feminism was sown, with many questioning the lack of women’s participation in politics, the professional workforce and anything beyond their traditional gender roles. This trend grew and became more prominent in a post Second World War socio-political landscape. Women rightly demanded for more rights and participation, for women’s issues and concerns to become matters of discussion within the arena of politics and civil society, and ultimately, they began to question the legitimacy of the patriarchal system, the foundation it is constructed upon, and its relevancy in this contemporary setting. This became what some perceived as a post-modern era of feminism.
Gender, was recognized for what it was—an artificial construct that could be challenged and redefined to meet the needs of modernity. What this redefinition would be however is a matter that is up for debate, but what is clear is that many women and men were beginning to question the meaning of gender and its relation to identity, morality and justice. This has also had the effect of strongly empowering women to speak out against injustices faced by them, forcing many to review and revise how we practice laws and governance which ultimately shapes how we view human rights today.
The debate on gender discourse has had a turbulent history due to the frictional discourse from both its supporters and detractors. Feminism as a school of thought has also undergone varying levels of evolution, with its first incarnation promoting inclusivity into the existing societal power structure, to its more contemporary form of deconstructionism and redefining set norms.
In recent times however, fueled by social media and the advent of the internet, access to unfiltered information has never been easier. It had also allowed for groups to be formed who share similar aspirations or concerns, organizing themselves effectively into small pockets of social activists connected through the online space they share. Many of these same activists have taken up advocacy for gender rights onto social media, promoting a new form of activism.
However, due to the nature of the discourse and accessibility to the materials and spaces for discussion, the arguments supporting and criticizing gender movements have been much more focused and distilled. Much of gender discussion has begun to take a more hostile tone, with various groups exhibiting what can only be described as zealous and insular dogmatism.
In the next section, we shall look at another social phenomenon which contributes significantly towards the rise of dogmatism within the gender discourse and is particularly prevalent within much of Western and European society. This phenomenon in summary is the rise of Individualism and its conceptual foundations within Western discourse and we will discuss how it contributes significantly to the Gender discussion.
INDIVIDUALISM & LIBERALISM: THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION AND THE SHIFTING OF PARADIGMS
In the 1960s till the 1980s, there was a significant popular social movement which had challenged the traditional foundations of normative behavior throughout much of European- Western society. How one views issues pertaining to sexuality had become increasingly contested, with many fringe groups and sexual expressions now becoming emboldened to loudly and unapologetically announce their presence. At the heart of this movement was a strong assertion for rights of the individual and equality of the individual when it comes to their personal choices and preferences.
This assertion of individualism however is a philosophical idea that lies at the heart of most of western society. Its assertion of person-centred goals and its privileging of personal freedom and personal choices meant that collective sexual norms would be scrutinized and criticized. Individualism in that sense laid the foundation for the gender and sexual revolution.
The subordination of collective sexual norms to individual preferences was further encouraged by the media and by cultural and artistic circles which perceived these choices exercised by the individual as a manifestation of the larger expression of freedom that distinguished democratic societies from totalitarian ones. Within the context of that period in history — the decades of the Cold War — the assertion of sexual freedom thus became yet another flag-bearer in the battle between two ideologies.
This also explains to some extent at least why sexual freedom manifesting itself through gay and lesbian rights and other similarly oriented concerns became so integral to liberalism from the eighties onwards. In societies where liberal thought is not conditioned by a pronounced notion of individualism, these ideas on homosexual rights have not struck root. Indeed, in those parts of the world where the sense of collective well-being and solidarity is still strong, there is very little enthusiasm for the sort of sexual revolution that some so-called liberal societies in the West espouse.
Differing understandings of sexual rights and gender identities may not be due entirely to ideological orientations. The socio-economic status of a society may also be an important factor. Many Western liberal societies have reached a point in their economic ascendancy where the individual is no longer dependent upon the collectivity or the community the way his counterpart in a poorer social setting is. In the latter situation because his basic needs and necessities are intertwined with those of the community, the social norms and traditions of the community exert a huge influence upon the individual. This is especially so of prevailing sexual norms.
Nonetheless, it is wrong to view societies and individuals who do not subscribe to certain Western notions of sexual freedom as ‘retrogressive’ or ‘anti human rights’ or ‘against the dignity of a marginalized group.’ Apart from a different perspective on the relationship of the individual to the community or of the integrity of the community itself, there are many societies who remain attached to profound philosophical principles about sexual propriety, male-female relations, the institution of marriage and the sanctity of the family. Some of these philosophies also value gender equality and revere the position of the woman. To dismiss such principles outright is an act of arrogance.
It smacks of dogmatism.
It is such dogmatism and its critique that we now examine.
CHALLENGES WITHIN AND WITHOUT
An article appeared in the news website, Russia Today November 2015 entitled “West in war on sexual norms” written by Sam Gerrans . In it the author criticizes the recent trends in what he perceives as fallacious arguments stemming from the discourse promoting transgenderism and post-modern feminism. In it, he not only heavily criticizes the core ideas of transgendered identity and gender neutralism, he also is blunt about his disdain for the ham-fisted approach which many advocates have taken.
“The pattern is clear: if you want to be a woman (or a man), you can be one by pretending to be one and if you can get enough people to agree with you: it’s true. And anyone who disagrees is a bad, evil person”.
In another article by the same author once more on Russia Today entitled “The Gender Agenda in the War on Normality”, there is a strong assertion for gender as a fundamental foundation, and that it is under attack by what is termed as Cultural Marxists.( The criticism here is leveled more directly against gender neutrality and what is seen as a virulent politicization of gender). Children have become the new battleground for this supposed war on normality, with the new generation of parents using their children to advocate for their beliefs by “parading them about in public places and on You Tube in order to achieve Skinneresque social engineering outcomes.”
The author even goes as far as to say that “Gender is not a spectrum, it is a polarity. If its ideals are opposing, it is part of its purpose. They are designed to complement and perfect each other while remaining distinctly different. Any society that loses its grasp on this obvious reality has no future.”
This is reflected by various social movements happening in both Europe and the United States recently, largely in conjunction with the push to normalize transgenderism into everyday society, and with many new-age parents adopting gender neutrality in regards to the upbringing of their children.
There is also evidence of a push within various institutions whereby there is an advocacy for Gender neutral toilets, or more specifically unisex toilets, where both male and female share a bathroom space together, serving as posters for gender-neutrality.
Gender is also naturally swept in together with issues pertaining to rights of homosexuals as any discussion on gender would include sexuality and identities related to it. Traditional gender roles carry negative connotations, either being labeled as archaic, conservative and even oppressive.
What is important to draw from these narratives is that issues pertaining to Gender Equality and justice, have taken a confrontational tone between two sides that hold distinct beliefs on the matter, one set in tradition, another self-proclaimed progressives. The views advocated by Sam Gerrans are not unique to him alone. They have become steadily popular within the discourse on gender issues, especially among those who feel that contemporary feminism is acting directly in a confrontational manner going so far as to vilify the male gender itself.
These allegations are not unfounded. The sentiments among fringe elements in social media and even public space, especially among self-identified “progressive feminist” groups lend much credence to this perception. Primarily concerned that the current feminist movements spearheaded by online social media activists not only criticizes what is perceived as harmful stereotypical masculine ideals, some even go as far as to espouse rhetoric which suggests that men who uphold traditional masculinity and do not comply to a particular version of feminist ideals, should be reeducated or outright removed from society. Anyone who seeks to respond to their shrill rhetoric is quickly labeled as ‘misogynist’ or ‘bigot’ or even ‘rapist.’ The vitriol is evident for anyone to see when they venture into websites which features these discussions.
The response to the feminists from the other side of the proverbial field is equally problematic. Some of those who respond are guilty of adding and even inciting hateful rhetoric. Much of the rhetoric here revolves around ridicule, with many lumping all feminists into a single group and declaring them to be mentally unsound, of parading around, and of other absurdities. A much more serious accusation leveled at feminists is of misandry. The previously noted vilification has inspired groups to be formed who feel that feminism and contemporary gender movements are in their own way bigoted and contributing much to the social dilemmas we are facing today. There are no kind words among these groups towards those advocating feminism or anyone who genuinely criticizes existing societal frameworks, which ironically results in the vilified vilifying of the vilifier. Some groups have been known to harass and even send death threats, reinforcing their violent persona image — an image that that they have been criticized for.
Here the self-consuming circle is complete and we can see how one group feeds off the other, bloating into two polarizing groups split between ideas of gender identities. Their prejudices are constantly legitimized and are used as evidence to promote their own cause.
However, what is of greatest concern is in fact the very vitriol that these groups exhibit as it begins to borderline on dogmatism, and perhaps this is where the real problem lies.
Strangely it is an observable trend that such forms of extreme dogmatism occur mainly in Western societies, as there is a long history of western discourses swinging into extremes especially on highly charged political and social issues.
Dogmatism more often than not represents two contrasting ideological discourses that are irreconcilable with one another. It promotes a dangerous state of mind where its merits are dependent on the very thing it opposes, but at the same time leaves no room for reconciliation or meaningful discussion. This leads to an advocacy of ideals that severely lacks any element of human compassion and falsely lays claim to progressive thought.
In fact it can be stated that the representation of these two groups and their dogmatic rhetoric does not contribute to and arguably damages the very cause they are supposedly advocating for, with each group’s absurd vilification of the other. Gender discussion and discourse becomes the ownership of the arrogant and the absurd.
Meaningful discourse, progressivism and humanity do not benefit from it and may even come out lesser for it.
The contemporary nature of gender discourse is a phenomenon that will continue to undergo varying stages of evolution as society grows. Even though the present arguments are dangerously dogmatic by nature, it does not mean that there are no important issues which are highlighted that need to be discussed within the context of gender.
Issues pertaining to gender equality, whether it is equal pay, rights, political participation, safety and justice are far too important to ignore as a society. A society, especially a progressive one, must take responsibility and see to the well-being of all its people. Many times over the criticisms of society and the patriarchal institutions that govern it do indeed point towards various injustices that need to be remedied in both developed and developing societies.
This does not mean however that we should allow the discourse on gender to be dominated by those seeking to impose their dogmatic beliefs on it. Much like the nature of gender itself, the issue is not one that is binary but instead it has its own nuances that need to be carefully negotiated and this requires active participation by civil society.
There is an important need for civility in these discussions however, as pointless vilification and a serious lack of human compassion detracts from the value of these arguments, perhaps the most important element to move forward with. Without reasonableness and a compassion for one’s fellow human beings, the moral foundation upon which gender issues rely does not have much credible ground to stand on.
Gender discourse needs more active participation to stem the effects of zealous dogmatism from polluting it and it is an issue that needs to be addressed together as a human family.
Mr. Hassanal Noor Rashid is Programme Coordinator with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST)
24th August 2016