Gender: Whose Agenda?
It was a slow Friday evening at one of Harare’s popular cafés and the couple sitting at the opposite table was getting ready to leave.
“Mdhara,” the man called out to the person taking orders at our table, “Can we have the bill.” Obviously offended by the assumption made, the attendant looked back to the man to show her very feminine facial features. Upon realising his error, the man apologised profusely.
The mdhara was in fact a woman.
It seemed like an honest mistake that anyone could have made. The waitress was dressed in a loosely fitting pair of trousers and shirt, and kept her hair very short. And from behind, there was no way of trying to guess her sex.
After a good laugh about the mistake, all was well once more. But just moments later, I overheard the group of women sitting at the next table discussing the incident with not quite the same joviality that had preceded.
“Why would a woman want to look so much like a boy?” I heard one of the women ask her colleagues.
“She must wear skirts or at least grow her hair so that she looks normal,” another of the women added.
At a time when the media machine is going into overdrive over South African 800m athlete Caster Semenya’s gender, the importance of this statement cannot be overlooked.
And the questions it begs cannot be left unanswered:
What is normal with regards to gender? How should a boy, girl, man or woman behave in order to safely pass as such?
It is a well-appreciated fact that socialisation often sets the parameters of what is expected of us as males and females. A short-hand summary of these expectations is that if one is male, they must be macho, fearless and offer protection to the ‘weaker’ females. On the other hand, females ought to be submissive, gentle and nurturers of families – as mothers and wives. This is aptly exemplified by the artefacts and toys that young children are socialised into playing with. While little boys get toy guns and aggressive video games for their birthday presents, little girls get sedate tea sets and Barbie dolls instead.
The latter are intended as precursors to womanhood and a life of service for little girls. Ultimately, what they are being taught is to have an inclination towards domesticity and Barbie-like beauty. As so aptly put in the 1970s by the social commentator, John Berger, in the highly influential book, ‘Ways of Seeing’, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at (by men).” In other words, women are intended to represent objects of beauty for men’s pleasure.
Obviously, our waitress did not fit this conception. Instead, just like Caster, she seemed to slip into the vague grey area of uncertainty, fitting into neither of the parochial binary constructs – of maleness and femaleness – we often use to classify people.
This is probably why Semenya recently felt compelled to do a photo shoot with a popular South African magazine in which she got ‘dolled up’ in pretty frocks and makeup as though she were a beauty queen.
But the truth is she is not.
Caster Semanya is a fist-pumping athlete who likes to show the camera her muscles and her raw determination.
Unfortunately, the camera’s lens will not accept that image of her as normal. If we are to believe that she is indeed female, and therefore normal, she must show us that she has been socialised accordingly for the role.
Sadly, ours is a world defined in terms of polar opposites. One is either black or white, fat or thin, male or female, and so forth. There exists limited space for those who seek to define themselves outside of the social structures we inherit and use as our template for normality from age to age.
I asked two questions. My own answer to them is that there is no such thing as normality in terms of gender. Often, we as humans try to define what is normal so that we find justification for our definitions of those who do not fit in with the ruling ideologies as being abnormal or abominable.
One simply is what one is.