Yesterday October 12th marked “The International Day of the Girl Child.” As a woman writing about gender, the first thing that springs to mind is that she must be a feminist. I deign not to shy away from my persuasion, but really, feminism has got nothing to do with gender.
In effect, gender has been variously confused with sex, which exclusively denotes the person’s biological makeup, i.e. whether they are born male or female.
Gender on the other hand refers to ‘socially constructed notions about masculine and feminine roles that may or may not exactly coincide with notions of a person’s sex’. In our societies wherein gender relations have historically been unbalanced and especially biased against women and girls, overall concepts about gender are the underpinning systems of subordination and domination.
When a little boy runs out naked from the house, it may elicit laughter and perhaps the chidings of amused neighbours and family. When a little girl runs out naked from the house, these same neighbours and family are visibly uncomfortable. She is reprimanded and ordered to immediately return to the house to cover up.
What this teaches the boy is to be brazen about his own sexuality from an early age, whereas the girl is taught inadvertently to be ashamed of her own sexuality. This transmutes to issues of promiscuity among women and girls when they digress from the societal dictation to ‘cover up’ in later life.
Meanwhile we are ALL so accepting of a man’s promiscuity; in fact it is nothing to be ashamed of on the part of a man. A man boosts about siring10 children with 9 different women, and it is so NORMAL. A woman has one child out of wedlock and it is what it is…”she is not a good woman,” “not a wife-material,” etc. etc.
We must understand that in order to have good women, there must be good men in the society. Equal treatment of our children, irrespective of whether they are born male or female, translates to equal opportunities and equal rights for men and women in later life, which in turn ensures equal outcomes for both sexes.
Today, the discussion about gender equality panned partly due misconceptions about the notion of 50/50, but mainly because of deliberate misinformation by religious zealots. Gender equality does not refer to men and women being the same, but alludes to women’s and men’s rights, responsibilities, and opportunities not being dependant on their respective sexes, which even the most religious zealot did not determine for himself.
Happily, the very religion we subscribe to, i.e. Islam, which about 90% of Gambians practice on a daily basis, is the most gender sensitive religion I know of…In every invocation, Moominuma is followed by Moominat, Muslimuna, Muslimat, Sadiqina, Sadiqat etc. taking into consideration the interests, needs, and priorities of both women and men.
Finally, God in His Glorious Quran metes out equal punishment to both sexes for their indiscretions. In the end, there is no punishment set aside for men and then another for women. For He is a Just God.
Thus gender alludes to the ‘social attributes’, ‘roles’, and ‘responsibilities’ linked to being male or female. It goes further to denote the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relationships between women and those between men. Specifically, gender includes in its ambit all the ‘expectations about the characteristics, aptitudes, and likely or appropriate behaviours of both women and men, including what it means to be masculine or feminine.’
Apparently, gender roles and expectations ascribed to being male or female are learned behaviour over a period of time. “Boys don’t cry”, “Girls should be girly,” and “The best vocation of the woman is her culinary expertise” are set examples. By allusion, while I advocate that all women should be feminists, which unfortunately most women are not, some men are feminists however; all normal human beings should be gender activists. Because gender is intrinsically linked to everything we do.
To date, many women and men are pinned down in societal stereotypes about the roles they are supposed to play to the extent that many live very unfulfilled lives. Gender in particular is generally a broad social and political issue that intricately determines men’s and women’s rights, participation, access to power, and social and political status among other things.
I am a woman means I am supposed to be expert housekeeper and cook, in addition to any other role I assume in the workplace. In effect, referring back to my encounter with the belligerent dock worker about fifteen years ago, who called out that …Marriage to a man is supposed to be the best degree I ever have. The wrongful notions about gender just permeate every level of our society. And as I alluded to earlier, women and girls bear the brunt end of the injustice.
Yet in the Arab world for instance, men prepare and display their expert culinary skills unabashedly. Men go shopping for their wives, cook up a meal and do other things our men here interpret unashamedly to be women’s roles in the household. I remember my aunty recounting a story about an Arab man who held on to his crying baby in a store in England. The baby was literally wailing and flaring his arms whilst his mum stood aside unconcerned. When the people around came over and asked the man to give the baby to his mother to suckle him, the man continued to coo his baby until the baby calmed down. Later the man explained that in the irate state that his wife was at that moment in time, he did not wish for her to suckle their baby because; the anger would seep through to the breast milk. “I don’t want our baby suckling anger-tainted milk. It would make him an angry person when he grows,” he expounded.
Well, how many of our men claim not to be able to even cuddle their own babies because it is so “small”, or “for fear of breaking it”…and all the excuses they give. Some men truly believe that it’s a woman’s natural gift to take care of kids. Ironically, I was born not knowing how to take care of babies and I am a woman. In fact, I had a latent fear for babies till I had mine, when I had to learn out of necessity. Typically, it would have augured well with me if my partner learned along with me and helped as and when needed when our baby was born. But you know what they say here: “Mom defar toubabeh,”… meaning, “She’s trying to be a white woman”…
Indeed when I travelled overseas I loved to visit the Parks alone. As a writer, my most fun thing to do unfortunately is to be on my own and to observe people. What awed me most were the guys that came out to babysit their babies. Subsequently, with the people I interacted, I never had the inkling whom they loved most between their parents. There were even a few people I met who were brought up by their stay-at-home dads or single dads. It was a very new concept to me no doubt.
Around here, the answer is obvious. I love my mum more than anyone in the world is the common mantra.
I believe our men here miss out so much with respect to their kids and families in general due to specific gender roles the society carves out for them. Kids grow up so fast, and for the most part, they only see and know their mums-they are sick, they see mum; they are hungry, where is mum; they are happy, mum is with them. Their fathers are like ATMs. And I refer to good fathers here. They need to buy something, that’s when father comes to mind. This is very sad. Dads work so hard, their values should not be measured by monetary gains. It does not belie judgement that family is the most important thing in the world…
Yet nobody wants to be a societal misfit. Societal expectations inveigle too strongly. We conform without questioning for the most part. However much strength of character one possesses, nobody is strong enough to stand alone against societal norms. THE SOCIAL ORDER will tear you apart. My mum will hate my sister-in-law, if she feels she is leaving the woman things for her son to do…It is simply, an abomination!
Thus, whereas gender is relational because it does not exclusively refer to women or to men but rather to relations between them, gender defines certain roles that men and women play in society thus reinforcing stereotypical behaviours, connotations and expectations over time.
Before the Second Republic, I never in my wildest dreams conjured that women could be given such positions of responsibility as heading a Ministry as Minister of State. Inquiries resulted in knowledge about two or three persons who got high in the pinnacles of power before that. Yet I learnt that the earliest a woman got a Phd in The Gambia goes as far back as the 1920s. When I first heard about that in a lecture given by Nana Grey Johnson earlier this year, I was astounded. I could not help but ask, what happened in between that a new impetus had to be injected into the educational system by introducing free education for girls.
The answer is simple. There were no tangible effects for the worth of education for girls. If due consideration was given to educated women then, it would have been enough PR to identify with. In short, the recent notion that women could be Minister of every given post in the echelon of power and/or a Permanent Secretary is what it is, very recent. Seeing the female Ministers especially the Vice President of The Republic, who happens to be the longest serving minister in her position of responsibility, imbues women and girls with the audacity to hope, to conjure the notion in their minds and to work harder still to achieve their dreams-whatever they may be. They are imbued with the hope that they could be placed any posting of responsibility in The Gambia if they work hard enough…
To be continued
Rohey Samba is a Gambian writer and publisher of three anthologies of poems namely, Mother Gambia…Beats, Behind My Back and Heart Songs.