Saturday, May 12, 2012

Gender, Seating Arrangements, and Social Development

In Punjabi Sikh culture, men and women sit on separate sides of the center aisle at a wedding or other religious service.  I don't think it's a rule or anything, just tradition (though weddings tend to bring out the tradition in people to the point where it might as well be a rule). Punjabis also do a lot of socializing in same-gender groups.

In LDS churches, most of us spend one hour with our with an age group, one hour with a gender group, and one hour seated by family with the whole group. We also have formal gender-based organizations and spend time with them occasionally in service or social activities.

I recently read Sylvester Lamin's The Coconut Bond, a novel that gives a fascinating look into recent Sierra Leonese history and culture. It makes passing, casual reference to characters' initiations into the poro secret society for men and bondo secret society for women. There's a Hugh Masekela song called "African Secret Society"--the title sounds like it's an imaginary thing, but he's probably referring to similar institutions in South African cultures.

Yesterday I started wondering when and how often mainstream Americans spend time in formal or informal single-gender groups. Many teens and a few people in their early twenties participate in single-gender sports teams. A few participate in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, though I believe enrollment numbers are down for both organizations. In popular culture, watching sports is often presented as a male bonding activity, and book clubs as female--though in practice, both are probably mixed-gender activities more than single gender.

I understand, of course, that gender roles can lead to damaging gender inequalities. So there's a good case that we should just get rid of single-gender groups and socialization patterns and aim for a society where there are no real gender distinctions between the two biological sexes.

Then again, there may be a reason why so many cultures have developed structures for some socialization in single-gender groups. If we're gaining something in America by largely neglecting such groups and patterns, are we also losing something?

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