Gender Benders

The social media dominates our world as many of us stay indoors trying to keep safe and healthy. Staying at home has not been something that many of us are used to. It was not surprising that a discussion started in one of the groups I am in, on what work is appropriate for men and women, and whether it was good time to teach sons how to cook. There were many arguments both from the women and the men. Some argued that domestic chores were no longer chores with machines and automation, and how cooking was irrelevant in the times of home delivery and to know how to cook an omelette or make khichri was sufficient survival skill. Others argued that both boys and girls need to be involved in cooking and cleaning and that the lockdown was the best opportunity for developing these skills. As in many social media arguments it could not be settled.

So here is a short quiz you may choose to take and check out where you stand in this matter. 

GenderBender Quiz.

How much did you score?

If you ask me, it does not matter, because the pictures had all things mixed up. Even by pure chance you could have scored a high 8 or 10, and if you followed all the social customs you could possibly have score exactly ZERO. That is the point of Gender and its difference with Sex. Sex is what you are born with. If not always then almost always! Its to do with ‘Look It’s a girl’ or otherwise which people exclaim after taking a brief look into the groin of the newly born baby. Sometimes it is a bit confusing and then in recent years people are going in for sex reassignment surgery or in plain terms sex change operations and that makes it a little more complicated. But Sex is by and large simpler compared to Gender.

Sex is simple, because infants all over the world and across all times were born looking more or less similar. Most were clearly boys or girls with some infants having confusing or ambiguous genitalia. Those infants who had a penis, would have their voices break and start growing some facial hair in their teens at a time we call puberty. Similarly, girls would start budding breasts and while like boys they would grown hair in their groin and armpits, they would not grow facial hair. Sex this way is simple with primary, genital differences, and secondary sexual characters. Sex finally leads to one important difference in the way girls and boys later contribute to reproduction when they are mature. Women can bear children and breast feed them, while men are limited to contributing some sperm.  

Gender is way more complicated! If you were guessing whether the shaded person in the picture was male or female, you were most probably looking for a host of different clues. What was the person doing? Who were they with? What was the body language saying? And so on. These are clues that can very often lead to the right guess, but as you saw in these pictures, its not always right. That is the problem with gender. Gender is a set of social roles every society creates for boys and girls who later take these rules into their lives as men and women. Since they are rules, most people follow them, but they can and do get broken. Also, since they are social rules, they keep changing in different societies. In the same country or the same city different social groups can have different rules, and what is most certain is in the same social group it changes over time. Saris and salwar give way to pants and jeans and dhoti, kurta to trousers and shirts.   

The problem with Gender is not that it is social, but the fact that it creates a different set of rules for girls and for boys and later for women and for men.

Check out this short 90 second clip -

Did you see any difference in the way the mother was treating her son and her daughter? Was she willing to give both the same level of support and freedom?

In most cases as in this short clip, the answer is an emphatic No! For various reasons parent, even when they profess that they love their girls and boys equally, have a slightly different set of rules for the two. In most cases the boys and the girls accept it because that is what they see around them. But when these different rules are applied for the first time, the daughter could feel hurt, feel she is being treated unfairly. This is what you saw in the film clip. As children, boys often don’t feel affected by this ‘difference in rules’, because they are not hurt and over time slowly accept and later ‘justify’ these ‘difference in rules’. So, the rules could be that the wife will cook while the husband can read the newspaper or continue to do work from home. The rule could be the daughter will be expected to help her mother with the laundry while the son could be playing fantasy cricket or watch a series or do whatever he wishes. The rules could also be that the son is expected to go out and fetch the stuff from the delivery man while the daughter is not. These rules vary from family to family, but are usually justified with some logic which could be ‘in our family’ or that ‘these are not good times’ but consistently create some differential among women and men, boys and girls.

This quiet acceptance of social rules, which the girls may consider ‘unfair’ creates an unequal situation for the brother and sister and later for men and women. For women it creates a system of discrimination and for men a set of privileges. This leads to an unequal distribution of opportunities and social power in society. These differences get magnified at the social scale. In India, girls are consistently less educated than boys. Women work more at home and though many also contribute to the family income they are rarely considered primary workers. According to economists, only a fourth of all women in India are ‘workers’ even though they are busy working both inside and outside the homes. Then of course women hardly own property. And then comes the key gender constraint for women. In India, women can rarely choose who they marry and how many children they would have. Their reproductive functions are controlled by the ‘family’. The parental family is extremely anxious to protect this, and the young unmarried woman’s ‘love-life’ is closely monitored. Young unmarried men enjoy a much greater freedom.  

This difference, nay inequality in the treatment of girls and boys, women and men is the problem with Gender!

If you agree that there is a problem with Gender because of the inherent unfairness of rules for women compared to that for men, being at home provides a great opportunity for experimenting with change. It is the perfect time for trying out something different. And no one needs to know. Boys and men can experiment with cooking and cleaning while the women and girls enjoy their favourite TV show or work from home. It would of course be much better if we shared the work and the fun. After all gender equality need not be all of us doing everything but sharing and caring and having fun together.

Trust me, once we start having fun doing things together and for other, each gender equality becomes what we want and cherish for ourselves and for our communities.

Vive la Difference! Down with Inequality!!    


  1. Very powerful writing.. excellent movie clip. Wish more people changed their mentality seeing and reading this.

  2. Good one Abhijit! Simple and speaking to a fairly smug middle-class audience. Entertaining too so that informs but doesnt scold. Except that a privielege analysis limits the problem to one of individual behavior whereas gender inequality is a structural issue. Loved it.

    1. Agree entirely with your contention about the structural aspects of gender.


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