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?



  1. I think it is important to acknowledge the flexibility of gender roles and that we as human's are at our best when we embrace both our "masculine" side (strength, boldness) and our "feminine" (nurturing, loving). I think if we truly look at these roles we find they aren't gender defined at all, but are the fullness of humanity (and divinity, but that might be a discussion for another day). A father who is able to love and nurture his family and tenderly hold is infants and attunes to them is as important as the mother who will protect her family fiercely if called to do so. As gender-segregated as most societies have been for centuries, gender-mixing is necessary for us to learn important skills and ways of being from each other and to give ourselves permission to tap into those parts of ourselves we would otherwise quash. For me the thing that is in danger of being lost is the pride, comfort and joy of being what we were made and called to be. I am proud to be a woman, although there are certainly a few molds that I break. I hope the men in my life are proud of their masculinity in all of its glory. But that's not about which "social roles" I fill, or which gender I hang out with more (I've always felt more at ease around my male friends, my father has always been more comfortable around women). It's something deep and possibly undefinable where a large part of my identity ultimately rests, yet knowing it is only one part of a greater whole.

    1. I like the idea that we probably need a certain amount of gender mixing to learn things we might otherwise miss. I also like the idea that it's a loss if we don't feel some deep pride/confidence about our own gender: we shouldn't ultimately try to be an androgynous society.

  2. This is an interesting point to think about at a time when everything is about gender equality and erasing the lines of gender differences on an official level, but at the same time, media and culture are painting both genders with broad strokes (any TV commercial will reaffirm this). Obviously I think that both mixing and separating are equally important, though I can't say specifically why.
    If I look at my own life and situation, what's missing more is the same-gender socializing. I work in a company (and an industry) that has a preponderance of female customers and employees (I'll say it, it's the scrapbooking industry). There are certain bonding moments that occur among the women at my work (when one has a baby, becomes pregnant, gets engaged, etc) where I become literally the "odd man out" - even though I am a father myself. Baby showers, bridal showers, and the like are not events that a man gets invited to (not that I would want to), but with my work situation, I don't have a lot of male friends to do those traditionally male things with (like... uh... bowling? Going to the bar?).
    I guess what it's coming down to for me is that without the structure of the LDS Church (I'm in the Young Men's organization), I would probably have very little if any all-male interactions. Maybe it is just because men are by nature less sociable than women (is that an unfair stereotype? It feels true to me).
    Ultimately I'm glad to have a reason - even an obligation - to spend some time with single-gender groups, and I think the loss of such groups would be more damaging to men than to women.


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