Friday, May 27, 2016

Gender: An Intro

Wherever I live, I seem to struggle with gender roles. I hate that I the idea of fitting into a box, of being cast in a mold and therefore being expected to behave in certain ways. Despite this, I fit many classic American gender stereotypes for women: I cook, I craft, I watch rom-coms, I nurture.

Wearing men's shorts and a men's t-shirt, I happily
toil away pouring cement for a day in the Domincan
Republic. I was the only person who poured the entire
time. Looking back, perhaps I felt I had something
to prove? Regardless, it was backbreaking work and
really fun!
I have tried to break out of the American gender expectations. I went years without owning or wearing pink...then I realized I look pretty good in pink. I went years buying only men's pants. It turns out, a woman's cut actually fits my generous hips more comfortably. I chose activities and careers that required physical activity-proving to myself and others that women are capable of physical challenges and manual labor. I loved it and the camaraderie I found with the men and especially the many women I worked with.

Over time, I realized that trying to get out of the box was an unsuccessful fight. At some point, my quiet, passive aggressive fight against genderization (hello, pink Legos? Really, come on!) meant I was doing exactly what I was trying to fight against. I was putting myself into a box to prove I could not be put into a different box. I was denying things that make up my personality while not actually demonstrating anything profound.

I stopped fighting the things about myself that fit American stereotypes and simply accepted that I am who I am. Parts of me are stereo-typically American woman. And, parts of me are stereo-typically American male. And that is fine. I do not need to change, the stereotypes do.


Then, I moved to Lesotho. 

In Lesotho, gender is even more defining than it is in America. There are male responsibilities and female responsibilities. Women cook, clean the house and yard, take care of the children, do the laundry, serve the men, fetch the water, fetch smaller sticks for cooking, weed the crops, tend the home gardens, and the like. Men take care of the animals, plant and harvest the crops, cut the trees, build the homes, and other larger tasks. While most Basotho can do anything from both lists, if someone of the appropriate gender is available to do it, doing a task that belongs to the other gender is unlikely.

The gender expectations do not stop with chores and work. Traditionally, men wear pants and women wear skirts (although in younger generations this is not seen). When a woman marries, she transitions from wearing short skirts to wearing long skirts that cover the knees. A small blanket is added around the waist and her head is covered with a hat or scarf when she leaves home. When women wear a kobo (blanket), it is pinned in the front. For men, it is tied or pinned on the side.

Women in my community sit
on the upper side of the pitso ground,
next to the Chief's office
Men sit across from the women,
alongside the Chief's fields and
corrals.
Men and women sit separately at community events. A man must stand and remove his hat to address the group. A woman may sit or stand and should keep her head covered while addressing the community. Even when men are present in smaller numbers, they generally speak more than the women.



Bo-Ntate sitting together enjoying joala at a party. The women
are around the back of the house preparing food together.
When women arrive at a party, they immediately report to the cooking area and begin helping with preparing or serving food. The men gather together-often near where the animal(s) were slaughtered or where the joala (sorghum homebrew) and wait for the women to bring things to them.

Although women's secondary and post-secondary education rates are higher, men are still employed in the professional sector at a higher rate. Additionally women are far more likely to contract HIV then men due to both physiology and culture. This aspect of the culture is explained well in the phrase: Monna ke mokopu o oa namalla which translates to men are pumpkin and should go abroad or spread out. Over time Masali ke cabbage o oa ipapa or women are cabbage and should stay home has been added to the phrase. While it may have begun more literally referring to the idea that women should tend the home while men should go out to tend the animals, hunt, and deal with warfare, today it is often used when justifying the idea of men having multiple partners.


Click through to Gender: My Work, the next installment on this mini-series on Gender in Lesotho

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You should choose as your life's work whatever feels the most like play.
-Harvey Oxenhorn