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The place of gender in social and symbolic world

By Maureen Chigbo and Mercy Tartsea-Anshase
28 November 2022   |   3:39 am
The society is increasingly becoming aware of the place of gender in the social and symbolic world. By symbolic world refers to the everyday world as selectively represented and constructed on television and across different factual and fictional genres.

[files] The Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Pauline Tallen. [PHOTO CREDIT: Official Instagram page of Pauline Tallen]

The society is increasingly becoming aware of the place of gender in the social and symbolic world. By symbolic world refers to the everyday world as selectively represented and constructed on television and across different factual and fictional genres.

This is increasingly defining how men’s and women’s roles are perceived in the society. Zuleyka Zevallos (2022), a Peruvian-Australian applied sociologist, underscored the place of gender in society when she noted that sociology makes a distinction between sex and gender. “Sexes are the biological traits that societies use to assign people into the category of either male or female, whether it be through a focus on chromosomes, genitalia, or some other physical ascription. When people talk about the differences between men and women they are often drawing on sex – on rigid ideas of biology – rather than gender, which is an understanding of how society shapes our understanding of the perspective of those biological categories,” Zevallos observes.

Nonetheless, another school of thought argues that gender is more fluid and may or may not depend upon biological traits as it is a concept that describes how societies determine and manage sex categories; the cultural meanings attached to men’s and women’s roles; and how individuals understand their identities including, but not limited to being a man, woman, transgender, intersex, genderqueer and other gender positions. “Gender involves social norms, attitudes, and activities that society deems more appropriate for one sex over another. Gender is also determined by what an individual feels and does,” posits Zavallos.

Flowing from her thoughts is how society influences our understanding and perception of differences between masculinity (what society deems appropriate behaviour for a “man”) and femininity (what society deems appropriate behaviour for a “woman”) and how it in turn, influences identity and social practices and determines power relationships in the society, and how this changes over time and how it is portrayed in the symbolic world, given the saying that art imitates life events.

This belies the fact that sex and gender do not always align as cis-gender describes people whose biological body in which they were born matches their personal gender identity. This experience is distinct from being transgender, which is where one’s biological sex does not align with their gender identity. Transgender people will undergo a gender transition that may involve changing their dress and self-presentation (such as a name change). Transgender people may undergo hormone therapy to facilitate this process, but not all transgender people will undertake surgery. This is unlike intersexuality, which describes variations in sex definitions related to ambiguous genitalia, gonads, sex organs, chromosomes or hormones.

Transgender and intersexuality are gender categories, not sexualities. This is because transgender and intersexual people have varied sexual practices, attractions, and identities as do cis-gender people. There is also the gender-queer phenomenon, which either draws on several gender positions or otherwise not identifying with any specific gender as in the case of non-binary; or they may move across genders (gender-fluid), or they may reject gender categories altogether (agender). The third gender is often used by social scientists to describe cultures that accept non-binary gender positions.

From the above is the fact that sexuality is about sexual attraction, sexual practices, and identity. Just as sex and gender don’t always align, neither do, gender and sexuality. People can identify along a wide spectrum of sexualities from heterosexual, to gay or lesbian, to bisexual, to queer, and so on or they can be asexual, which refers to individuals who do not feel sexual attraction although they could be in romantic relations without sexual contact as it is acknowledged that sexual desire and behaviours can change regardless of sexual experience. This consolidates the fact that gender and sexuality are not just personal identities that arise as a result of relationships with other people, which depend on social interaction and social recognition, which also affects our understanding of self in relation to others.

The social construction of gender is manifested in how they are featured in the symbolic world. That is why Nkechi Nwankwo, an author and gender expert, said “Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, beliefs, and attitudes about what it means to be a woman, man, or non-binary person in a particular society. That is, social construction produces the gender relations of power in a particular context and time. This also means that gender may be different in different contexts and time.

According to Nwankwo, the importance of gender is to provide communities and groups with a framework for social relationships and the division of labour. “Unfortunately, in most societies, those gender relations tend to subordinate some groups, often women, assigning them an unfair share of unpaid work (such as child and elder care; cooking, and cleaning) and excluding them from key decision-making and governance positions. That is the reality for most communities in Nigeria,” she said.

Nwankwo said: “The symbolic world, such as movies and books, is an attempt to reproduce reality. Writers and creators often mirror what they see or imagine in any context. Sometimes, when gender relations have changed in society, writers and producers of the symbolic world may remain stuck in age-old gender constructions. An example would be the enduring portrayal of stay-at-home wives that is prevalent in the symbolic world but mostly non-existent in the Nigerian reality.”

From the perspective of the World Health Organisation, “Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed.  This includes norms, behaviours, and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time.

“Gender is hierarchical and produces inequalities that intersect with other social and economic inequalities.  Gender-based discrimination intersects with other factors of discrimination, such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability, age, geographic location, gender identity, and sexual orientation, among others. This is referred to as inter-sectionality.

According to the WHO, gender influences people’s experience of and access to healthcare. “The way that health services are organised and provided can either limit or enable a person’s access to healthcare information, support and services, and the outcome of those encounters. Health services should be affordable, accessible, and acceptable to all, and they should be provided with quality, equity, and dignity.

The WHO also noted the gender inequality and discrimination faced by women and girls which put their health and well-being at risk.

“Women and girls often face greater barriers than men and boys to accessing health information and services. These barriers include restrictions on mobility; lack of access to decision-making power; lower literacy rates; discriminatory attitudes of communities and healthcare providers; and lack of training and awareness amongst healthcare providers and health systems of the specific health needs and challenges of women and girls.

Consequently, women and girls face greater risks of unintended pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections including HIV, cervical cancer, malnutrition, lower vision, respiratory infections, malnutrition, and elder abuse, amongst others. Women and girls also face unacceptably high levels of violence rooted in gender inequality and are at grave risk of harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, and child, early, and forced marriage. WHO figures show that about 1 in 3 women worldwide has experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

It noted that harmful gender norms – especially those related to rigid notions of masculinity – can also affect boys’ and men’s health and wellbeing negatively. For example, specific notions of masculinity may encourage boys and men to smoke, take sexual and other health risks, misuse alcohol and not seek help or health care. Such gender norms also contribute to boys and men perpetrating violence – as well as being subjected to violence themselves. They can also have grave implications for their mental health.

In addition, the WHO stated that, “Rigid gender norms also negatively affect people with diverse gender identities, who often face violence, stigma, and discrimination as a result, including in healthcare settings. Consequently, they are at higher risk of HIV and mental health problems, including suicide.”

All these are featured in the symbolic representation of gender which Hanna Pitkins (1967) said has been the least studied dimension of political representation with regards to tackling important questions such as: What are women and men symbols of, and how is gender constructed in policy discourse? What functions symbolic representation fulfills in the construction of gender, what social roles get legitimised in policy discourse, and how this affects power constellations, ultimately revealing much about the relation between symbolic, descriptive, and substantive representation.

On her part, Emanuela Lombardo and Petra Meier (2014) draw on theories of symbolic representation and gender, as well as rich primary material about political debates on labour and care issues, partnership and reproductive rights, gender violence, and quotas. Using this original data, the authors show that reconsidering symbolic representation from a discursive perspective makes explicit issues of (in)equality embedded within particular constructions, as well as their consequences for political representation and gender equality.

This important exploration raises relevant new questions regarding the representation of gender, which form valuable contributions to the fields of political science, political theory, sociology, and gender studies.

All these considerations significantly determine the place of gender both in the social and symbolic world.