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Women in Islam: Between Dignity & Discrimination (Part 1)

Part 1 of 4 (Sex & Gender) of a series regarding women in Islam, as taught by Norhayati Kaprawi, Kiyai Hussein and Dr. Nur Rofiah.

This article is written in regards to what I had learnt from a 3-day workshop conducted by Sisters In Islam on the 20th to 22nd September 2013 with speakers Norhayati Kaprawi (Malaysia), and Kiyai Hussein and Dr. Nur Rofiah (Indonesia). First of all, I’d like to extend many thanks to Sisters In Islam for conducting the workshop. It was such a memorable experience. I’d also like to thank Norhayati Kaprawi, Kiyai Hussein and Dr. Nur Rofiah for sharing with us an abundance of knowledge. Rest assured, what you have shared with us shall not go to waste, and the knowledge you’ve given me shall be carried with me throughout my life. And also, thank you to everyone that I had attended the workshop together with. The experience would never be the same without an easygoing, friendly bunch just like all of you. Thank you, once again, to everyone that made this possible.

    DISCLAIMER: Text found in this series of articles, Women in Islam: Between Dignity & Discrimination, are elaborations and longer explanations of what I had learnt from the workshop, from my own reading and research. Wallahualam.

The words “sex” and “gender” have been used interchangeably, but it is important to note the distinct differences in their meanings.

What is the difference between “sex” and “gender”?

A simple way to put it would be:

  • Sex = male or female
  • Gender = masculine or feminine

Sex

A working definition used by the World Health Organization (WHO) is that “‘sex’ refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.” In a book written by David Knox and Caroline Schacht, “Choices in Relationships: An Introduction to Marriage and the Family”, they stated that the biological sex in humans are determined by five factors:

  • Chromosomes: XX for males, XY for females
  • Gonads: Ovaries for female, testes for male
  • Hormones: Greater proportion of estrogen and progesterone than testosterone in females; greater proportion of testosterone than estrogen and progesterone in males
  • Internal sex organs: Fallopian tubes, uterus and vagina for females; epididymis, vas deferens and seminal vesicles for males
  • External genitals: vulva for females; penis and scrotum for males

Though we were brought up to believe that there are only two sexes that exist in this world, the reality is that there are many sexes. There are also intersexed people and hermaphrodites, whose anatomy involves genital ambiguity and chromosomal genotype and sexual phenotype other than just XY-males and XX-females.

Some examples that relate to sex would be:

  • Women have a vagina, men don’t
  • Men have a penis, women don’t
  • Women can get pregnant, men can’t

Gender

A working definition by WHO is that “‘gender’ refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.” The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation recently released their GLAAD Media Reference Guide explaining that “gender identity is one’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or a boy or a girl).”

Gender identity is a personal, innate, psychological identification as a male or female, which may or may not match the person’s biological sex or designated sex at birth, making the person a transgender. A “transgender” person is someone whose biological sex does not match their gender identity. For example, a male can identify to be feminine or a woman can identify to be masculine. Also note that not all transgendered people are homosexual or bisexual.

Below is the story of Jazz, an 11 year old transgender, who was born a male, but gradually was raised as a girl due to Gender Identity Disorder (GID).

Most people would connect to their gender identity through gender expression. “Gender expression” refers to external characteristics, such as grooming, behaviour, mannerisms, speech patterns in which a person manifests their gender identity. For example, a man who is feminine or a woman who is masculine. However, masculine or feminine traits are shaped by society and may vary greatly from each culture to the next. For example, what one presumes as feminine may not be considered feminine in another culture. Every culture has different expectations of how women or men should behave, dress or look.

Like how we were engineered to accept only two sexes, society usually only recognizes two genders; masculine and feminine. Under the umbrella term “transgender” is a wider range of genders, ranging from transsexuals to cross-dressers to genderqueer people. According to M. Gopi Shankar, a student of American College in Madurai and author of book regarding gender variants, there are more than 25 genders biologically identified and accepted through recent medical research.

“Indian culture is abundant with legends and mythologies where heroes and heroines have chosen various genders. Ironically, today the western nations are progressive in researching and educating about gender and sexuality expressions, while we, despite our rich cultural heritage of respecting and accepting gender variations, are lagging behind and even lacking that sensitivity.”

Some examples related to gender would be:

  • Women tend to do more housework than men
  • Men tend to be the breadwinners of the family

Gender stereotype

“Gender stereotype” are simplistic generalizations about gender attributes, differences and the gender roles of individuals. It is important to note, however, that gender stereotype does not reflect the accurate reality about the specific gender.

A.H. Devor, author of many gender and sex books, for example “Gender Blending: Confronting the Limits of Duality”, has created his own scheme, a synopsis of how we were brought up to perceive sex and gender. According to him, these are “learned social beliefs” however, not everyone agrees that they are true although they are widely believed to be so.

The Ideology of the Dominant Gender Schema

  1. Sex is an intrinsic biological characteristic. There are two and only two sexes: male and female.
  2. All persons are either one sex or the other. No person can be either. Normally, no person can be both. No person can change sex without major medical intervention.
  3. Genders are the social manifestation of sex. There are two and only two genders: men and women, (boys and girls). All males are either boys or men. All females are either girls or women.
  4. All persons are either one gender or the other. No person can be neither. No person can be both. No person can change gender without major medical intervention.
  5. Gender role styles are culturally defined expressions of sex and gender. There are two main gender role styles: masculinity and femininity. Most males are masculine men. Most females are feminine women.
  6. Many persons do not exactly fit their expected gender roles. This is due to imperfect socialization or psychological pathology.
  7. By virtue of evolutionary selection processes, those persons who are males, boys or men, deserve greater social status, authority and power then those who are females, girls or women.

A.H. Devor has spent his life studying gender and sex and got heavily involved into the life of some people, interviewing them for the books that he had published. You can read some of his observations at “How Many Sexes? How Many Genders? When Two Are Not Enough”.

There are four basic gender stereotypes which can be divided into personality traits, domestic behaviours, occupations and physical appearances, for example:

  • Personality traits: Women are often expected to be passive and submissive, while men are often expected to be self-confident and aggressive.
  • Domestic behaviours: Caring for children is traditionally believed to be done better by a female, and males are usually seen as the breadwinners of the family.
  • Occupations: Not until recently, nurses and secretaries are usually seen an a woman’s job, while most doctors and construction workers were a man’s job.
  • Physical appearance: Women are usually expected to be poise and graceful while men are tall and broad-shouldered.

The basic understanding to what constitutes to someone being feminine or masculine is as follows:

  • Femininity: dependent, emotional, sensitive, quiet, innocent, weak, soft, self-critical
  • Masculinity: independent, aggressive, competitive, experiences, strong, active, self-confident, rebellious
  • Androgyny: a gender in which the individual does not have dominant femininity or masculinity

Gender stereotype creates the birth of gender roles, in which different societies have different ideas of what a man or a woman should do, like their role in the house, in the society, in the workplace etc. “Gender roles” are the way people act, what they do and say, to express being a man or woman.

Some traditional gender roles would be:

  • Men become doctors, women become nurses
  • Men become breadwinners, women become housewives
  • Men become bosses, women become secretaries

It is amazing thinking about how we live in a world far more diverse than any number of simplistic dichotomies can describe. The truth is that a man or a woman can exist in the body of any sex, however, that is a notion most of our society is still against. Many prefer sticking to their beliefs of there being only two sexes and two genders, and the thought of anything other than “normal” scares them.

If you are wondering why the topic of sex and gender is important in talking about women’s rights, I think I ought to tell you that the act of stereotyping a gender is absolutely dangerous and holds inevitable consequences upon our society. Stereotyping causes judgment, and judgment causes gender inequality, which will be my topic for Part 2.

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