Gender Roles and Development of Individuals: A Cross Cultural Comparison
Updated: May 25
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What an individual thinks at a particular moment is not a reaction to a situation alone, but includes years of constant moulding and remoulding, in conscious and unconscious ways, of thinking, ideologies and growth. Vygotsky’s theory stands apt when he insists that a child’s all-round development is secured through their social-cultural interactions with the social environment. As a student of psychology, I have come to realise that gender is an essential aspect of the society of which an individual is only one miniscule part. The era, including the socio-politico-economic and historical happenings of a particular territory, establishes the way of living; unspoken rules and conventions that one must follow in order to be socially acceptable, better known as gender roles in formal English. With conformity on board, these conventions and traditions are passed on from generation to generation with its own inclusions and exclusions to fit the flow of time. I feel this is what makes gender roles an interesting concept to study. How can a concept, so evolving and debatable, influence the society into conformity? Debatable because of the dubious basis which the concept is based on? Who established the colour blue and pink for a boy or a girl, respectively? Why was it stated that girls needed to play with dolls and boys are supposed to play with army toys or solve smart puzzles?
But instead of focusing on these nearly tabooed questions, this article intends to focus on the differences between gender roles in two different cultures from the same continent and the influence of socio-cultural expectations on the citizens, with special focus on the women.
Being a woman in this still-a-developing nation, Indian culture has been a primary choice, even though the state of women is still extremely disappointing. We might come to agree that the urbanic cities, hand in hand with various organisations, are making some efforts towards the path of women upliftment, the rural borders are still very much in tatters. However, what unites women of every state, strata, class and caste is the oppression through the societal expectations that are imposed on one’s upbringing right from the beginning- men are brought up to be the oppressor and the women are moulded to be the oppressed. It starts right from the birth of a baby girl. In a personal narrative of a foreigner working in an orphanage in India, as a part of her assignment, she mentions how “most of the orphans dumped on the home’s doorstep are baby girls…..” due to the deep-rooted concept of a baby boy being more profitable than a girl, as he is “destined’ to grow up to be the earning member of the family- earn a wife and a handsome fortune as dowry and father more children, sons preferably (Bradley, 2010). The cycle continues. Girl are expected to mature way earlier than they should, while being encouraged or rather pushed towards household chores like cooking, cleaning, serving, looking after the members of the household, etc. and are punished if they try to deviate from the traditional values of “being submissive to elders, not ‘fighting like boys’, being sacrificial….” (Srichand, undated). In the same personal narrative as the above one, Bradley notices how girls, even of five years old, have to take care of the younger orphans- bathe them, feed them, tend to their needs; they are reprimanded if they do not abide by their roles. However, the same isn’t the case for boys. Though they’re expected of the same, they’re not forced to follow it. In another survey conducted in the state of Jharkhand by a senior research and programme associate at International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), 90% girls accepted that their primary role revolves around being a caregiver, where they’re expected to be part of the household chores from a very young age and by the age of 15 drop out of school to focus on their domesticity skills. (Shukla, 2020). The same article reports that after a certain age, their movements in the outer world are restricted and they are required to acquire permissions before even going over to their friend’s house as “74% of the girls felt that a family’s honour lies in the girl’s hand, and 33% felt that ‘good girls’ do not roam in public spaces.”
In an Indian family, there is a head who takes all the final decisions involving every member in the family. The head is usually the eldest male member; post his death, it would be his son. The male members have the power to command over the female subordinates, but have to follow the orders of their senior male members. Jeffrey Hays (2008) highlights that a daughter-in-law holds the least amount of respect at her in-laws. He writes, “Women are strongly socialized to accept a position subservient to males, to control their sexual impulses, and to subordinate their personal preferences to the needs of the family and kin group.” A married woman in India is expected to worship her husband as a God- Pati Parmeshwar, as known in Sanskrit. She is expected to wear bangles, bindi and vermillion to show respect to her in-laws and is supposed to be the last one to have her meals. Her position only improves once she produces sons, the more the better.
However, it is to be noted that the times are changing and Women are getting more and more opportunities to flourish. As a paper aptly concludes, how “As compared with the past, women in modern times have become powerful in various fields and have achieved a lot but in reality they have to still travel a long way.” (Mainwal, 2014)
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Another Asian culture aligned on the same lines of a patriarchal mindset. The women in Japan suffered a lot during the scheme of “comfort girls” where they were encouraged to provide unpaid sexual services to the Japanese soldiers during world war II. Similar to gender roles in India, women are expected to primarily take care of their husbands and their families- a caregiver. In his paper, Yamaguchi (2000) notes down the gender roles that still persist including associating women with all the household chores while men are meant to manage the earning aspect of the family in the outer world. In their family life, a woman’s role is defined by the concept of “three submissions”- first to their fathers, second to their husbands and lastly to their sons. (Cooper, 2013). Women, from their early childhood, are trained in femininity including tidiness, compliance, self-reliance and courtesy; along with participating in household chores and entertaining guests. (DeBlasio, 1985). Similar to India, married women would project their mark of wedding by blackening their teeth and shaving their eyebrows off. In schools, girls and boys are put in separate classes indicating the priority of the boys’ education over the girls’. In student organisations, the girls were required to look after the needs of the boys while the latter had a fun time participating in various events. (Belarmino & Roberts, 2019). Till date, women, even if given the opportunities to have a professional life, are expected to juggle between their roles as a mother and a wife and as a professional in a workspace. (Kitagawa, 2010). In a study of 10 adult women from different backgrounds studying in a university, the vast majority felt that their inherent responsibility was to serve the men and rear children, maintain “....their appearances to portray feminine traits, i.e, looking cute or beautiful.” (Belarmino & Roberts, 2019). The same subjects confess how they are expected to wear make-up and wear heels in a professional setting, otherwise, it comes off as a rude, disrespecting gesture towards authority.
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Nonetheless, times are changing and so are gender roles. According to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology, 98.1% of female students reached high school, 2012 and 45.8% continued with undergraduate studies. In 2019, Japan secured the 19th rank in the Gender Inequality Index (GII) released by the United Nations in their Human Development Report, indicating lessening inequalities between the genders. Nowadays, even men are equally participating in household chores including looking after a newborn. They’re called Ikumen, literally meaning men who raise children but the ratio gap still has a huge distance to cover. (Kaise, 2018).
Personal Reflection: Developmental Impact of the Concept
Rao et al., in their paper (2015) highlights the Ericksonian stages of socio-cultural approach to the development of an individual. It, aptly, fits the concept in choice and their implications on the development of an individual. In the second, third and fourth stages, the importance of the external environment is what pushes the child towards an healthy development of the self and unfortunately, in these very stages, young girls are imposed with the responsibilities of managing and pleasing members of the family. Constant criticism upon straying from the expectations of the society, blatant discrimintation, lack of affection, curb their self-confidence and trap them in the endless loop of subservience to their male counterparts, owing to the feelings of inferiority. Rao et al., also mentions the Gender Scheme theory which explains the science behind the phenomena. Children are not only aware of their gender at a very early age but also realise the roles that the society expects from these gender prototypes. When they start identifying with one of them, they automatically start following or trying to abide by these expectations to have a place of their own, mainly to earn the appreciation of being a “good” child. In cases of girls belonging to the two aforementioned cultures, they realise that cooking or taking care of the household is a feminine characteristic and they must follow it to fit within the society. But even though it helps them to “fit in”, it also teaches them to ignore their own well-being which is detrimental to their individualistic development. This brings us to the type of culture. India and Japan both have collectivistic culture where placing self over others is highly discouraged; members are asked to be more group-oriented. This itself has its own shortcomings but the worst affected are the women who have to place everyone else on planet earth before their well-being. It affects their physical well-being as well as India reports 53% anemia among women alone. Statistics show “20% of maternal deaths are directly related to anemia and another 50% of maternal deaths are associated with it.” (Anand et al., 2013).
The entire patriarchal approach to these cultures are like vicious death traps with zero routes out. Passed on from generation to generation, women themselves have accepted their defeat and have turned their backs to each other. Mothers chide their daughters to be obedient while mother-in-laws, having faced the same humiliations and desperate to hold an authoritative ground, drags their daughter-in-laws down. Their development, unfortunately, is measured by the amount of sacrifices in their life; the more a woman sacrifices, the higher is the false pedestal they’re placed upon. Set up as role models, it leaves their self-esteem in tatters and increases their feeling of inadequacy. It feels as though their entire existence is regulated by everyone else but their own.
As a woman of an urbanic city, I’m blessed to have a family that supports me and my dreams. It is easy for me to talk about this oppression and injustice with bitter words and extreme empathy because I’m in a privileged position, with proper mental, physical, biological development, outside the death trap. But I’m still a woman of this culture; am I really, then, exempted from the expectations?
Akankha Basu Roy (Guest Writer)
Akankha Basu Roy is a second-year student pursuing her graduation in BA Performing Arts, English, and Psychology from Christ (Deemed-to-be-University). She originally hails from Kolkata and is an ardent literature and psychology enthusiast. However, books have always remained as her first love.
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