The concept of “gender socialisation” may not be widely recognised, but many children fall victim to it in their upbringing, and adults tend to behave, and to treat children, on the basis of stereotypical ideas about each gender. Gender socialisation creates moulds into which people are fitted from early infancy, causing us to form expectations of how people should behave based on their gender. If someone decides to step outside these stereotypes they will usually attract unwanted attention from their peers, family and community.
However, we should first of all distinguish between sex and gender. According to the UK government, the term “sex” refers to biological characteristics determined by anatomy, chromosomes and hormones, which mean that one is generally either male or female, and sex is assigned at birth. “Gender”, meanwhile, relates to social behaviours that society views as feminine or masculine. Gender identity, unlike sex, is a personal, internal perception of oneself, and so for some people it may not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
The process of gender socialisation begins even before birth, intensifies in adolescence, and is influenced by race, culture and class. So how are people socially categorised by gender? Before birth, one of the first questions people ask of expectant parents is “is it a girl or a boy?”. And so begins the chain of gender-based categorization or discrimination, and of children being burdened by gender-based social expectations.
Once born, girls are dressed in pink while boys are dressed in blue, and their rooms are painted pink or blue on the same basis. When they are old enough to play with toys, girls are given dolls, which subtly teaches them that a girl’s role in life is to look after children. Girls are also given toys like mini-kitchen sets to play with, so that they learn from an early age that they are responsible for cooking and housework – indeed, most play kitchen sets for children come in pink! Meanwhile, boys get toys like cars, or balls, or dress-up police uniforms, all of them related to some kind of job, from which they learn that they are supposed to work in order to support the family in future.
On top of that, people treat girls and boys differently. For example, when people look at little girls they will probably say something like “isn’t she pretty/sweet/small”, whereas with boys they will say things like “isn’t he strong/brave/clever”. All such comments help to steer children towards the way they ought to be, even before their personalities are formed. In the home, meanwhile, what children notice is that jobs like cooking and cleaning are considered roles for mothers, with fathers rarely joining in with housework. This reinforces stereotypes regarding the difference between male and female. And as children grow up into adolescents, each sex takes on new gendered roles and behaviours.
In many countries, girls are required to start helping with household tasks, and are expected to be cleaner and quieter than boys. Similarly, boys start feeling obliged to talk loudly or behave in ways that show their masculinity.
In some less advanced settings, girls may be forced to work without pay in the home or get married even before the age of 18. Such situations often involve horrifying cases of marital rape and pregnancy that may expose girls to various diseases, as well as domestic violence should they attempt to resist such decisions being taken for them by others. These difficulties usually also get in the way of girls completing their education or working outside the home, resulting in diminished self-esteem or a lack of personal growth and development.
These gender stereotypes even apply to body language. For example, if girls sit in a way society doesn’t consider “feminine” they will be criticised. By the same token, if boys don’t sit in a certain way, the patriarchal society may react with remarks questioning their masculinity. Likewise, showing feelings of insecurity or low self-confidence – indeed, emotions generally – is considered more shameful in men than in women, despite there being no rational basis for such distinctions. This indirectly contributes to the creation of fake personas that take a lot of effort to maintain. It also shapes other behaviours, such as directing girls and young women towards games appropriate to their lesser social standing, while males tend to engage in tougher sports.
The values and practices outlined above are prevalent in Omani society too. Furthermore, girls are constrained from an early age by a stricter dress code than boys, both at home and at school. Schools in Oman require students to wear uniform, and while both girls and boys wear long garments their colours are different; and while it is acceptable for little boys to wear a simple skullcap, little girls are forced to cover their hair with a white headscarf, which in conservative Islamic circles is considered a religious obligation on young women once they come of age. This is a clear example of how girls and young women are under greater pressure to conform to religious rules even before they become adults, in the same way that society later controls women more strictly than men. As part of their Arab cultural heritage Omanis have even inherited Arabic proverbs that downplay men’s mistakes and overinflate those of women, as if only women ever do anything wrong while men can get away with anything.
Within the home, girls are taught that not doing housework constitutes disobedience towards their parents and, because housework is considered feminine, boys are not encouraged to help with household tasks, thus reinforcing the stereotypical image of families and relationships, effectively reducing them to a set of rigid, pre-determined functions.
After leaving school at the age of 17-18, girls are sometimes encouraged or even forced to marry, whereas boys marrying before the age of 18 is viewed as unnatural, and is neither socially nor legally condoned. Indeed, boys are encouraged to continue their studies and work as police officers, judges or politicians, without their career ambitions being limited to certain jobs. For those young women who do manage to go to university, traditional social customs will in many cases play a role in limiting their options, for example by requiring them to marry first or at least get engaged, or to study at a university in the same town as their family residence; or by limiting their choice of subject to those leading to jobs in certain fields, such as teaching, where there is less mixing in the workplace between sexes.
Even when young women are able to choose their university and subject freely, and are not weighed down by marital responsibilities, the university system in Oman discriminates against them heavily. Even after they have reached the age of 18 and left the family home they continue to be treated as minors. First of all, the so-called “permissions” system restricts their basic human right of freedom of movement by requiring young women to obtain permission from their “guardians” every time they want to leave their university accommodation. Secondly, young women who live in university accommodation are not able to drive, even outside the university. There is a female supervisor too in every building, part of whose job is to check that women return by 9pm, and who are authorised to phone their parents or guardians. After 9 pm they are not even allowed to order a takeaway meal. Other rules, according to the Deanship of Student Affairs at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, include a prohibition on overnight visitors, a ban on books or magazines judged “morally harmful” by the university administration, and a ban watching television. The dress code is likewise extremely strict.