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Gender Construction in Naga Society

Y. Hotoni Yeptho
Assistant Professor Sociology
Sazolie College, Jotsoma

 

The present conflicting situation in Nagaland reveals so much on the pent up doubts, anger and confusion  coupled with the tension between conflicting traditional structures  and  insecurity over the rights guaranteed to empower women through positive discrimination in the form of reservation. Many people have hold the opinion that the crisis is not confined to the issue of women .Rather the escalation is blamed to the apathy of the government that fails to listen to the collective voice of the people who needed time  for  in-depth understanding and consultation of the implication of the ULB election in a “ unique” state of Nagaland. Over the situation and the turn which follows one can see  there is a wide chasm between the need and cries for equal representation  in the political echelon-decision making body, the need to move ahead and equally fierce and archaic attitudinal denial for the same in the name of protecting one’s tradition on a counter. The rosy picture of Naga women where women are supposedly empowered have come to the picture once again but this time as thorny! Women in Nagaland appear to be enjoying a higher status compared to their counterpart in mainland Indian society. However in reality traditional and customary practices discriminate and grips women in many ways. Since gender is more of an issue of involving our tradition and customs this paper tries to look at how gender is constructed and how gender roles restricted women to fully exercise its potential. It also looks critically at the construct of gender justice and chauvinist institutional biases and stereotypes that have entrenched in our society especially towards the economically weaker section such as women in a patriarchal Naga society where the land belongs to men, women have no land rights, women are not equal to men in status concerning certain aspects of life and women are not entitled to get share in the ancestral  property.

 

Increasing number of people has taken strong public positions in support of women’s struggle for equality and not equally number of men and women squirming over the issue. Nevertheless, the traditional male gender role remains well entrenched as an influential element of our culture which perpetuates the inequality between the men and women. This view focuses on cultural aspect rather than biological as the primary determinant of gender differences.
Men and women are different from each other in terms of their physical attributes or sex. However society has made another difference between the two sexes-that of gender. Sociologically the word gender refers to the socio-cultural definition of man and woman, the way societies distinguish men and women and assign them gender/ social role and are expected to follow accordingly. These ideas are also called “gender stereotyping”. Gender stereotyping are beliefs human hold about the characteristics associated with males and females that greatly affect the development of a society, the gender equality and inequality. Strong evidence from around the world confirms that gender equality accelerates overall economic growth, strengthen democratic governance and reduces poverty and insecurity and therefore promotes development and empowerment. On the contrary gender inequality tends to slow economic growth and make the rise from poverty more difficult. It promotes discrimination rather than development. In our society by virtue of male’s greatest ascribed status, men have more legitimate power than women. Gender roles are expectation regarding the proper behaviour, attitudes and activities of male and female. As soon as a child is born families and society begin the process of gendering. Boys  must be masculine –are told to be active, strong ,aggressive, tough, daring ,dominant, protective, and outgoing while girls must  be feminine-emotional, fragile, sweet and submissive. Male babies get blue blanket, female gets pink and purple. Boys are expected to play with trucks, blocks and toy soldiers while girls receive dolls and kitchen goods. These traditional gender role patterns have been influential in the socialisation of children. Who appropriated pink as girls colour and black and blue as that of boys in the first place? Or that girls are the best inside the four walls? And boys should be domineering? Or made the girls guilty if she jumps around? The answer to this question is society that makes boys feel “sissy” to express emotion and cry, or to  stay at home to take  care for the babies and  do household chores, it is society that makes women feel out of place and out of their  domain whenever she feels ready to come out and participate in the nation building process. And it is adults of course, who play a critical role in guiding children in those gender roles deemed appropriate in a society. Parents are normally the first and most crucial agents of socialisation. But other adults, older siblings, the mass media and religious and educational institution which exert an important influence on gender role socialisation. Society often exaggerates male female differences not only in its role but in appearances and behaviour as well. For instance, media portrayed women as models shapely, young women in a bathing suit and ultra thin female figure as barbie doll and men are portrayed in an unrealistic and exaggerated muscularity characteristic of professional wrestler. We construct our behaviour socially so as to create our exaggerate male –female differences.

 

For example, men and women come in a variety of heights, sizes and ages. Yet traditional norms regarding marriage tell us that in heterosexual couples, the men should be older, taller and wiser than women and should be a bread winner. Such norms only help to reinforce and legitimize patterns of male dominance. Our society exaggerate and focuses on “masculine” and “feminine” qualities and evaluate men and women in those terms. And thus we continue to “do gender”.

 

For men as well as women gender roles may be disadvantageous.  For instance, boys who successfully adapt to cultural standards of masculinity may grow up to be inexpressive men who cannot share their feelings with others. However traditional gender roles have restricted females more severely than males. Women have been confined to subordinate roles within the political and economic institutions though in some cases gender role restricted male as well. Given that   hunting, warfare and subsistence farming activities require role specialisation considered as functional necessity. In their assigned roles men were required to be frequently away from home and thus it was more functional for women limited by pregnancy, childbirth and nursing to be assigned domestic roles near the homes as caretaker of children and households. Women may have been farmers and food gatherer in their own right but they were dependent on men for protection from the attack s of enemies. Women dependence on men in turn produced a pattern in which male activities and roles came to be  more valued than female activities and role. Thus most people  will agreed that  work done within the  houses even though devoid of material value is work.But only those  women who worked outside their homes  are termed as “working women”.However if we assess the economic importance of a household women, she contributes equally in the economic upliftment of her home even while doing no outside job. She cooks, washes and maintains the home. In case she is relieved of these jobs and helpers are engaged for these, a good amount of money has to be spent on these helpers. An educated mothers who teaches her children at home saves the money paid to the tutors. These mindset of undervalued of women’s task and her contribution usually goes unnoticed. We should not be surprised when Manu the Hindu law giver who was supposedly prejudiced against women  shows concern about women as he wrote “where the women are honoured, there the very gods are pleased: but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite ever could yield result”. It is  an unpleasant taste when  an analogy is made  of our status with  that of the society which practice sati(burning of  wife at the funeral pyre of her  husband),jauhar (where women collectively immolate themselves to protect their chastity when it is endangered) in medieval times! and concluding Naga women enjoy better status. Yes its true Naga women do not burn themselves to  death!.

 

Until recently land is considered to be the most important asset of the people and is considered as an essential commodity to which women have no control that  greatly  lowered her social  status   as the productive wealth creating and  livelihood sustaining asset is denied to her. Control and distribution of land are rigidly determined by the customary law and are shaped by patriarchal nature of institutions which are all culturally shaped and structured within the dominance of man. In Nagaland women are considered to be subservient to men when it comes to the politics world as well- a platform for decision making and exposure and expertise. Even if the women have all the flawless qualities to rise up, most of the time the cultural and traditional practices disable women to move up. To exercise the above functions what a person need is intellect, prudence, diligence and assertiveness which  a female as well as male can possess. While dwelling on gender empowerment, Women are expected to fly and shine  whereas the hegemonic traditional customs draw the sharp boundaries which disable women to access the most scarce and valued wealth  as equity and justice is related to tangible material . Their feet is tied under these   traditional practises and women are unable to  make a step forward as they are not  welcome  and encourage  in putting heads together. Moreover  we  often contemplate the situation of a working women, questioning how can she manage her career as well as domestic responsibilities at one time? And it seems unfair to just contend with the fact that women are best when they perform only their traditional homebound duty dutifully. Rather than making women stronger to tackle more responsibilities society tries  to demoralise them by assigning them only with one major task even if women have proved in many other fields that they are  competent enough to perform both.

 

Gender inequality dwells not only outside the household but also centrally within it.It stems not only from pre existing differences in economic endowments between men and women but also from pre –existing gendered social norms and social perceptions. It lays adverse impact on developmental goals as it reduces economic growth, blocks women from participation in social and political activities and hinder the effective utilisation of  human resources  where women constitute 48% of the total population in Nagaland. Our unconscious biases don’t just show discrimination, they also influences our life choices and chances. Man   are stereotyped to believe that they are better and encouraged to  choose the subject such as computer science and engineering and women in  humanities subject such as  education ,psychology and  sociology etc..All of us male and female are unconsciously gender biased and these biases lead well meaning men and women to do things that perpetuate the status quo without our ever knowing/realising it. There is no denying the fact that society is made up of interdependent parts, where each role contributes  to the functioning of the whole society. This view  suggest that in traditional societies social equilibrium was maintained by assigning different task  to men and women and stereotyping of their roles which is not always negative  and that might have suits them  at that  point of the time. But society does not remains static it evolves and change over the time and  become a better version  of itself by adopting, accommodating and filtering ideas and methods. Moreover when normative role behaviour becomes too rigidly defined our freedom of action is often compromise. It is society which allows for a degree of flexibility in acting out roles, but in times of rapid social change acceptable role limits are often in a state of flux, producing uncertainties about what appropriate  role behaviour should be. In our culture when one do not  fit in those gender boxes, our society does not know what to do. Anything outside the boxes is seen as breaking a rule and consequences can be dire. People who think and live outside the gender norms are treated with contempt, disbelief, intimidated, coerced and society react  ranging from amusement to revulsion. Out of such present  scenario  we can remind ourselves of the  apt  remark of George Bernard Shaw that “progress is impossible without change and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”. The need of the hour is to focus our energy not on fighting the old but  in building the new. Change is often difficult and accomplishing good things in life requires significant change that pushes us beyond our comfort zone. Because we’re so frequently having to fit into gender box it is often this that is dictating us what to say, what to study, what to aspire in life and how to conform to existing norms. This has limited the roles and capacity force for progress  and transformation. It raises the question why gender then is so important to us?  What if we were not limited by gender? I believe we can wisely and systematically dismantle unconstructive and demeaning stereotype that  our society have created. The mentioned chasm between the two extreme contradiction  can better bridged if we began to  see gender on a continuum, a range of possibility for male and female. It is not about putting anything in anyone’s head.It is about opening our mind to accepting ourselves and each other for who we truly are and what we are capable of. If men understand that women rights are human right and that gender equality is not a women’s issue but it is a human issue which affects us all, and  if man realise that empowering girls is empowering community, that we are on the same boat, If we truly see gender this way we would  all lead wiser and compassionate  towards each other sex  as man and women who complement and not who compete and bring about destruction  in the process.

 

Regardless of the political agendas and views it is  important to come together, stay united  and support each other on the bigger issue  and not let this circumstances divide ourselves.  True gender equality is when both men and women have  a voice and it sounds farce when we proclaim that men and women enjoy equal status and privileges in Naga society  devoid of the voice of significant other. As it stands now its obvious that my eyes can’t see what i  hear so loudly of rhetoric gender discrimination  free society .How could i miss the vibrations this great issue has brought about in our land?

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