Last week’s post elicited a lot of responses both as comments on the post itself and also personal messages and phone calls from those who know me well. Most of it was concern about my health; but a few others were about my strained relationship with my family. In my culture we do not talk ill about our own kith and kin. Our expression for airing your dirty laundry in public is “spitting with an upturned face”…..I attempted explanations with some, but with others I thought I would continue to communicate through my blog.
In our Anthropology class we talked about Sex vs. Gender. Sex is determined by biology. Whether you were born with male parts or female parts. Gender on the other hand is socially constructed. That is to say, we learn what it means to be male, female or otherwise through how society decides it should be. I have previously written about how I was brought up to be “ladylike”; where we didn’t climb ladders, do heavy lifting or any of the other jobs that our society considers to be man’s work. In contrast New Zealand women are brought up to tackle any sort of task around the house or farm or workplace without discrimination. This is a good illustration of how the “female gender” is defined differently in Sri Lankan society vs. New Zealand society.
For my next assignment, we have been given a large amount of reading material and one such paper is about “son preference and daughter aversion” in rural Tamil Nadu in India. It is not relevant to my essay topic, but I had a quick look through it as it was very interesting. One of the points made is that son preference came about because of the parents’ belief that their sons as wage earners would provide for them and take care of them in their old age. In order to combat the practice of infanticide of female children, social activists are trying to point out to these people that with access to better education and job opportunities there is no reason that daughters could not fulfill this same function of provider.
This got me thinking. In my own family, there are only two daughters and as the oldest child, until my health complications a couple of years ago, I took full responsibility for most of the goings on, much like a son would have done if there had been one. I helped financially and paved the way for my parents and sister migrate to New Zealand as soon as I was in a position to do so. Any weddings, funerals, new births meant a hit on my bank balance. All loan requests from extended family were dutifully conveyed to me. Despite all of this, I remained a daughter to my parents, especially my father who I now believe considers females to have lesser intelligence than males. It puzzled me for a long time why despite three University qualifications and a high flying corporate career, my father always questioned my ability to think for myself and make good decisions. Now I understand that he had been brought up to think of females as being weak and unable to make wise choices and that this conditioning overrides his own ability to see things as they really are.
My life today bears little resemblance to what I am supposed to do as a female as per the expectations of the society I grew up in. I am man and woman in this house because I cook and mow the lawns too. I take out the garbage and bake cookies. As such, my socially constructed gender role is no longer valid. If as a traditional Sri Lankan female I am not supposed to do certain things like have single males inhabit my spare room when in need, then surely those old rules no longer apply to me given I no longer fit within the definition of a traditional Sri Lankan female? I am happy enough to revert back to my traditionally defined gender role when a male family member steps up to the plate and takes care of all the traditionally male jobs in my life. Since there is little chance of that happening in this lifetime for me, I guess I will just continue as I have been doing…….