The gender question: Moving beyond tokenisms
A good place to begin is to look at the larger structure of gender itself, which animates the lives of all people. Gender issues might not be as specific as women’s issues but they are inevitably issues related to women, like they are issues related to men and all individuals on the gender spectrum.
As we speak of gender issues today, the automatic assumption is that they are solely about women's issues. While women's issues are undeniably significant, this reductive conflation enables only a short-sighted look at gender. There's little attention directed to how gender is constructed and plays out socially and affects all individuals.
Problems women face, for instance, is also linked to how masculinity is defined and practised in our everyday circumstances. In fact, the gender binary itself is an obsolete way to approach the matter. While looking at gender, there is an urgent necessity to not look through a myopic perspective and examine all aspects of it. In light of the International Women's Day getting celebrated this month, we must ask substantial questions around gender and move beyond tokenistic gestures.
Endeavours to acknowledge women's contribution in our lives often strengthen stereotypes as they celebrate the various roles women are conditioned to play - the roles of a sacrificing mother, a supportive wife, a sensitive daughter, and so on.
Instead of liberating women as individual agents who can craft their own destinies, such superficial manoeuvres congeal their potential and individualities into inflexible moulds and look at them through stereotypical definitions of womanhood. There is little talk about things of consequence, like creating better laws for women's freedom and safety. This is conservative at best and does not take women's humanity and social realities into consideration.
Somehow, then, despite the attempts of the international community to empower and emancipate women, the end result has been reduced to heedless celebration on certain days and then an amnesia about things which actually matter in this regard. On the whole, the idea of empowerment arrives on certain days as a commodified ideal that is merely looked at and not actualized. This needs to be addressed and changed if we intend to beneficially transform the gendered social sphere we inhabit.
A good place to begin is to look at the larger structure of gender itself, which animates the lives of all people. Gender issues might not be as specific as women's issues but they are inevitably issues related to women, like they are issues related to men and all individuals on the gender spectrum. Asking broader questions about gender roles is going to challenge stereotypes and give people greater freedom for self-fashioning. For example, why must men be the breadwinners for the family? Why must men be aggressively masculine? Or, why must women look a certain kind of beautiful? Why should they always prioritize the domestic sphere? Gender expression cannot be contained in the binary of man and woman and there are endless possibilities for self-expression.
When we look at the situation from a broad, open-minded perspective, real troubles and challenges become prominent. There is no selective liberation from fixed roles as they are all in tandem. Therefore, to address women's problems, we must acknowledge the problems faced by all individuals and dismantle the structure that assigns roles to people.
Men's issues, then must also not be forgotten. Impositions of toxic masculinity do not simply cause violence in our social sphere, but also imprison the selfhoods of men and adversely impact their mental health. Organizations working in this regard, however, get a fraction of the attention superficial campaigns on the International Women's Day do. LGBTQ+ issues are also put in another category and seldom seen in the same context.
Men and Boys Coalition UK, for instance, looks into problems faced by male parents, rape survivors and prisoners and issues such as the high male suicide rate and men's specific health issues. The Trevor Project in the US is dedicated to suicide prevention among LGBT youth. These are serious concerns which need to be taken care of, but are seldom visiblised against tokenistic celebrations which endorse a limited view of gender. Difficult concerns which affect women are also barely discussed in such a culture.
While celebrating women in families, issues of domestic violence, marital rapes and women's mental health are almost never spoken of. Similarly, there is no discussion on problems women may face as professionals or agents in the public sphere, nor is there an insistence on better legislation and relief services on these fronts.
The fundamental problem with contemporary approaches to paying tribute to gendered actors and individuals is that we engage in more lip-service than action and do not think of fundamental changes which will allow greater mobility to people. Stronger laws around privacy of individuals, for example, will do great benefits to protecting all gendered actors from cyber crimes which intend to sexually exploit and defame.
A greater cultural conversation on gender roles will help combat the shame people face in defying them and forging their own ways of being. We need to move beyond the gender binary, ask for change and not engage in romanticized celebrations which ultimately keep things the way they are.
To sum up, we need to grapple with the complex social reality of gender and do away with tokenisms. To build a better society for individuals of all genders, we should introduce an open-approach to gender early in people's lives and empower the younger generation to undo gendered fixities. Let us vow to make the world suitable for people's dignities and freedoms, let us pledge to affirm people's claim to a liberated life.
(The author is founder, Upsurge Global and Senior Advisor, Telangana State Innovation Cell)