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Cross-Cultural Gender Conceptions

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Rachel Gardner

on 2 July 2013

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Transcript of Cross-Cultural Gender Conceptions

Gender Conceptions

Biologically speaking,
refers to the division of a species into the categories of
based on distinct anatomical and physiological differences. This division – acknowledged throughout the world – has a large impact on the social dynamics of societies in the form of the social construction of
. Essentially,
gender roles
refer to the expected psychological and physical behaviors that a society assigns to being either male or female, and these assorted characteristics are referred to as
(Nanda, 1990). Adherence to or departure from one or the other denotes a person as man or woman in the eyes of that particular society. On the other hand, an individual’s
gender identity
refers to a person’s “subjective feeling of ‘maleness’ and femaleness’” (Bering, 2010), and to the way in which gender manifests itself in their daily interactional experiences (Pascoe, 2005).
Because gender itself is a social construction and different societies embody different cultures, which shape and perpetuate their own norms, it follows that the definition of masculine and feminine also varies (Nanda, 1990). So, anatomy is only one of the many criteria that exists to shape a society’s conceptualization of gender. Moreover, the degree to which gender is differentiated or seen as immutable varies between societies, as does the ability to accept or tolerate ambiguity.

Thus, through a cross-cultural comparison of gender systems it can be shown that the Western construction of a biologically based gender binary is not universal, nor particularly infallible, as evidenced by the existence of and reaction to gender variance within the West itself and the established differences in gender criteria and institutionalization of alternative gender roles in non-Western cultures.
by Rachel Gardner
The Western construction of gender is strongly based on a sense of biological determinism that “takes physical manifestation to be the ultimate truth” (Sell, 2004). The ties between sex and gender are so strong that the terms are often seen to mean the same thing. Thus, it is this indelible connection that accounts for the gender binary. Just as individuals are divided into two distinct and concrete biological categories at birth, so too is gender. Being a man means being masculine, and being masculine, despite encompassing a multitude of criteria, is fundamentally defined by being male. Ultimately this division is a manifestation of the Western “propensity for dichotomies” (Nanda, 1990), such as body and mind, active and passive, strong and gentle. These things “reinforce what we hold to be true about male and female” (Sell, 2004).
Furthermore, because the assignment of sex occurs at birth, the assignment of gender roles does too because “the notion that beings follow bodies lies deeply entrenched” in Western social structure (Sell, 2004). According to Serena Nanda in her 1990 ethnography, “Western psychological studies support the view that gender identity is closely linked to sex assignment and subsequent socialization”. In this sense, an individual who is assigned male at birth will be socialized to exhibit masculine behavior, and this socialization continues throughout their life in the form of various social regulatory mechanisms that police gender nonconformance, specifically the prevention of, or punishment for, feminine behaviors.
The Western conception of sex and gender is so strictly defined and dichotomous that problems often arise when the society is faced with individuals who transgress simple categorization, such as sexually ambiguous – intersex – individuals, or people who can be sexually defined but who “exhibit behavior deemed appropriate for the opposite sex” (Nanda, 1990). It is important to note that, due to the great diversity of human experience, no society’s conceptions of sex and gender are all encompassing. However, what we must examine here, in addition to the differences in gender construction, are the different ways that societies respond to these challenges.
In the case of the West, sexual ambiguity and conflicts between gender role and identity are met with erasure and mitigation in such a way that the “view of sex and gender as dichotomous, ascribed, and unchanging” (Nanda, 1990) are reinforced rather than redefined on the societal and even individual level. Western psychologists “view gender variance as pathology”, treating gender nonconforming people “as sick or insufficiently developed” (Sell, 2004). Even in the instance of intersex individuals – a phenomenon that single-handedly undermines the belief in a fixed biological dichotomy – their sexual intermediacy is not accepted and “treated as medical catastrophes requiring surgical and or hormonal ‘corrections’” (Sell, 2004). Furthermore, “researchers who study gender identity disorder… exclude individuals with underlying chromosomal or somatic abnormalities” (Bering, 2010). They are merely an exception to the rule, independent of the rule more likely, and their gender identity is seen as inherently ambiguous because of their equally ambiguous sex.
So the focus is on “people with ‘normal’ chromosomes – biological males and females – who feel, psychologically, like the opposite sex” (Bering, 2010). Describing gender variance in this way reveals and propagates the Western gender binary in that it admits no possibility of a third, alternative gender” (Nanda, 1990). Even the act of labeling and categorizing different types of observed variance is essentially a means to “relieve ambiguity… to avoid the kinds of sex and gender combinations and alternatives that make us uncomfortable because they violate our basic cultural rules” (Nanda, 1990).
According to Sell (2004),
“most closely fit the paradigm of only two genders”. These are individuals whose gender identities are opposite the role assigned to their biological sex. Returning to the reaction towards gender variance from a Western psychological perspective, dissonance between one’s biological sex and gender identity leads to a state of gender dysphoria. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition defines gender dysphoria as a “strong, persistent cross-gender identity… a persistent discomfort about one’s assigned sex… and a sense of the inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex” (Sell, 2004). Often it is this “negative emotional state… that factors into the decision to undergo sex reassignment surgery” (Bering, 2010). Thus, according to Nanda (1990), we define transsexual as a “temporary, in-between sex status” that “cannot be, in our culture, a permanent possibility”. So bodily alterations aim to remove individuals from this “in-between state” (Nanda, 1990). This implies that an individual’s gender identity is often not enough, that they will be considered “real” men or woman after changing their anatomy. Hence, this view is a product and reinforcement of the belief in the ties between biology and gender that is rooted in Western society.
The closest the West comes to an alternative gender role is
individuals. According to Sell (2004), these are people who “transgress the boundaries of gender” but don’t “intend to cross, nor… necessarily think of themselves in terms of the opposite sex”. These people are sexually defined at birth and anchored to the expectations of a gender role, but their gender identity is one of intermediacy, of being neither men nor women. This comes close to the gender variance found cross-culturally, but unlike the examples discussed later, it is not, in the West, an institutionalized alternative role. Over time this label “has come to be used as a catchall to describe the entire community of gender-transgressors” (Sell, 2004). Its evolution into an umbrella term that encompasses all forms of variance effectively diminishes, if not entirely erases, the experiences and identities of individuals who do not conform to the Western binary. According to several of the participants in Sell’s research, “the cultural bias towards the binary” and the resulting change of transgender to imply “gender-crossing” in general, makes many of them feel “even more invisible than they already were” (2004).
In the end, Western society does not acknowledge gender variant categories in order to promote alternative gender roles, but to “reinforce our cultural construction of both sex and gender as invariably dichotomous” (Nanda, 1990). To reiterate, no society has an all-encompassing construction of sex and gender, one that can define and accurately label all individual diversity, but what we will now examine is how non-Western societies construct and perpetuate their gender roles while leaving room for leniency, even systematically embracing diversity.
The first example are the
of northern India. In Serena Nanda’s ethnography, they are described as a religious community of ritual performers born either intersex or anatomically male, who are traditionally impotent and/or “emasculated” through an operation in which their genitals are removed. In addition to this they partake in stereotypically feminine behavior, most evidently in their outward appearance and dress. They are seen as occupying a state between the genders of man and woman, thus embodying and articulating their own alternative gender role. Thus, the gender criteria in this culture pertains to sexual and reproductive capacity, as well as adherence to masculine or feminine social roles. Additionally, their “culture centers on the worship of the Buhachara Mata… the Mother Goddess worshipped throughout India” and “they are viewed as vehicles of [her] divine power”. Therefore, Indian society, which is largely structured on Hindu ideology in which sexual ambiguity and variety are prevalent, institutionalizes the role of hijras through religious sanction. In this way, though their culture maintains “well defined and differentiated” gender roles, they still acknowledge and account for gender intermediacy and fluidity. (1990)
In Islas’ ethnographic documentary, the
of Juchitán, Oaxaca in Mexico are described as biological males whose behavior more closely corresponds to stereotypical feminine roles. Many dress in feminine clothing and hold feminine occupations such as embroidering, cooking, and decorating. It is this adherence to certain feminine social roles as opposed to masculine ones that disqualifies muxes as men, but conversely it is their inability to fulfill feminine reproductive roles that disqualify them as women. The level of acceptance and cultural integration apparent in this region causes the indigenous Zapotec people to view the muxes as a third gender. (2006)
In the Balkan highlands of former Yugoslavia and Albania live the
, or sworn virgins. These are individuals born biologically female who “take a vow under the law of the Kanun”, a traditional set of laws or ethics, to remain celibate (Swift, 2000). They subsequently behave in a stereotypically masculine manner – dressing, working, and living as men do (Sell, 2004). They are treated by family and the community as men and are even referred to using masculine pronouns. According to Swift (2000), the transformation of a virgjinesha occurs for multiple reasons, such as in the traditional cases of a woman deciding to not partake in a pre-arranged marriage (and therefore no marriage to anyone, ever) or a family’s lack of sons for whom inheritances go, or in more contemporary cases on the grounds of personal gender identity.
Similar to the sworn virgins of Albania is the institution of
female husbands
in numerous patrilineal African societies. The practice is described as an “economically based kinship arrangement” (Sell, 2004) wherein a woman who cannot have children marries another woman who then “enters into sexual relations with a man to bear children” (Lassiter, 2008). By taking a wife a woman becomes recognized as a man “with all the attendant privileges” (Sell, 2004). The children born by the wife “refer to the first woman… as ‘father’ and inherit property… through her father’s patrilineal lineage” (Lassiter, 2008). Depending on the region, the first woman may or may not already be married to a man, in this way the “fact of their femaleness is not openly acknowledged… but not forgotten” (Sell, 2004). This cultural occurrence is a prime example of the flexibility and transience of institutionalized gender fluidity.
Another exemplary testament to gender impermanence are the
of Oman, an Islamic society in the Saudi Arabian Peninsula. According to Nanda, these are individuals who are born biologically male and are treated like men in many social aspects, for example being “referred to in the masculine grammatical gender form” and having “all the rights of a man” under Islamic law. However, “in Oman, the definition of a man centers on sexual potency”, and one is not considered a man, but a xanith, if “he takes the receptive, passive role in sex associated with being a woman”. Thus they fulfill various feminine gender roles while being understood as neither men nor women. Despite this, a xanith can become a man by marrying a woman and demonstrating his fulfillment of the “active, penetrating role in sexual intercourse”. Unlike the ascribed temporary status of transsexuality in the West, a xanith may change his gender but his previous identity as a xanith was not a transitional one. They occupy roles in Oman society such that their alternative gender is fully recognized.
The examples discussed above are only a handful of alternative gender systems that exist throughout the world. Ultimately they stand to illustrate how undeniably tethered to social construction gender conceptions. The degree of gender permanence varies from society to society, as does the gender role criteria itself. As we have seen, the focus may lie on anatomy, sexual and reproductive capacity, adherence to outward masculine or feminine social roles, and even all or none of these things. The Western criteria and foundations in biology create an impossibly dichotomous and immutable gender conception, one where “any movement away from conventional manhood and womanhood” is considered a “movement towards, and desire to be, the opposite sex” (Sell, 2004). On the other hand, even in other cultures whose gender roles are hierarchical, defined, and greatly differentiated, gender ambiguity or variance is acknowledged and institutionalized. I feel that knowing about and understanding these things about gender is important because it opens the doors, both on the societal and individual level, for acceptance of oneself and of others, and the dismantling of a restrictive and harmful dichotomy.

Bering, J. (2010). The third gender. Scientific American Mind, 21(2), 60-63. Retrieved from

Islas, A. (2006). Muxes: Authentic, Intrepid Seekers of Danger. Ethnoscope. Retrieved from

Lassiter, L. E. (2008). Invitation to anthropology (pp. 69-181). New York, NY: Alta Mira Press. Retrieved from

Nanda, S. (1990). Neither man nor woman: The hijras of India. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Pascoe, C. J. (2005). ‘Dude you’re a fag’: Adolescent masculinity and the fag discourse. Sexualities, 8(3), 329-236. Retrieved from

Sell, I. M. (2004). Third gender: A qualitative study of the experience of individuals who identify as being neither man nor woman. Psychotherapy Patient, 13(1/2), 131-145. Retrieved from

Swift, E. (2000, June 9). Crossing boundaries: Albania’s sworn virgins. Jolique.com. Retrieved from
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