Gender as a Social Structure

While reading work on sociology of work, international immigration, and urban sociology, I started to pay attention to gender as a main social identity that shapes one’s experience in this world. Being a man, a woman, a gay, a lesbian, or a transgender can significantly shapes the outcome of one’s life chances in many aspects of life. This realization has pushed me to make a more critical dive into gender as an important identity.

What is gender?

One definition that I have encountered is that gender could be considered as a social structure, which Daniel Lee Kleinman interprets as follows:

At the most general level, there are no formal rules defining gender relations. Instead, they are typically informal but deeply entrenched, and create a stratified system in which, in general, women experience more constraints and men more opportunities (Kleinman, 2005).

Kleinman understands gender relations as a function of daily interactions between the two sexes that make up a social system whereby outcomes of women in various aspects of life are worse than that of men. In other words, these relations make up a black box where once two individuals go through it, the woman would get a worse off outcome, while the man the better one.

When using this definition to understand the current rape controversy in India, where many women sued their ex-lovers in court, and alleged that their ex male partners raped them during their relationship. Most of the cases were consensual sex. Thus the court could not charge any man on the account of rape. However, when I read the Guardian article about the case, my first question was why did these women have to take the desperate measure to bring their ex-lovers to court for a crime that they did not commit?

Some of them were forced into doing so because their families forced them to sue the men.

When parents discover their unmarried daughters are in a sexual relationship, their horror at potential “dishonour” to the family name leads many to make spurious allegations of rape, having first bullied their children into submission. (The Guardian)

Families could not stand the fact that their daughters were sexually liberal, and having sex before marriage. Therefore, in order to save their “honor,” they force their own daughters to lie in court.

This rape controversy provides a lens to interrogate gender relations in India. There are at least three group of actors that are involved in those alleged rape cases. One are the women who choose to (1) lie in court about their ex-lovers, (2) slander the integrity of their ex-lovers, which could harm their reputation, and thus could cause substantial economic and social damage to their lives, (3) damage their own reputation, and thus their own economic and social prospects. Given all the potential harms of their actions, they still chose to go to court. That means they are willing to risk (1) the judge announces that they lied, (2) everyone will terminate their social relations with them because they are liars, and having had sex before marriage. Regardless of the court’s decision, the one guaranteed outcome is that the men’s reputation is completely destroyed.

In general, in any patriarchy women would come out of a negotiation, and get the shorter end of the stick. It’s clear that they suffer from some form of injustice. In the context of India, they use the formal channels to correct these injustices under the false promise that they would get some back. As the analysis above suggests the only thing they get back is to destroy the men’s reputation at the risk of destroying their own reputation. Rape as a legal battle would destroy both sides, especially if no-one commits any crime.

Is there any other place in society where they get back the injustices that men have incurred upon their bodies, and their moral values other than at court? Is it the court’s responsibility to arbitrage gender negotiations of a patriarchal society in which the court is embedded? Would the court come up with any effective measure to correct those injustices, or reinforce the mechanisms through which those injustices are inflicted on women’s bodies and mind. Why do women choose to go to court other than any other place? Does it mean that Indian court system is actually fair and effective?

These cases of false rape raise more questions about Indian society than it could answer. They open the door of the family. It is the social institution where symbolic violence on women’s bodies are inflicted. When I think about how India could solve the gender inequality issue, I think the institution of family should be killed first. It is single-highhandedly the most powerful, most penetrating institution that makes both men and women make decisions that are harmful to their bodies and their future. In the above rape cases, most women were forced into making those decisions because their families made them do so. Who are the family, and whose honor is it here? My guess is that it is the father’s honor that the daughter destroyed if she has had sex before marriage. In other words, the one single person in the family that would make the decision is the father, and everyone else in the family unit collaborates with him to force the daughter to destroy herself, and her ex-lover in court. In the process of modernizing its society, I personally believe that India would have the most difficulties modernizing its family institution.

Currently the labor force participation of women in India is 26.97% while that of Laos, a much poorer and smaller country is 76.97%, or of Myanmar, also a much poorer country is 51.09%. Even its poorer South Asian neighboring country, Bangladesh, has 33.19% of female labor force participation. This figure is telling when one thinks of who has the upper hand in the economic inequality in terms of gender in India. If women do not work, as a social group their average income and wealth would be much lower than that of men. Having no economic power means that they would not have power in many other realms in life such as health care, education, and political power as well.

Dowries are considered as illegal in India, yet families still expect them. Why does this practice still persist?  Dowry is a gift, often money that the bride’s family basically gives the groom’s family. So while the groom’s family gets both tangible monetary dowry and  free human labor (in this case the future female domestic worker, the wife), the bride’s family loses a daughter, and a significant sum of money. How could a marriage system be set up in such a way that the outcomes are heavily tilted towards the man’s family? What can the woman gain in this situation? Nothing but a false promise of protection of a patriarchy, and institutional legitimacy of the family.

At a general level, all the informal practices in India really give men opportunities while imposing myriads of constraints on women. That comes as no surprise if more men graduate from college than women, and more men enter the labor force than women. How is it possible to intervene? What can an individual do to change this situation? What can a society do to change this situation?








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