What is Gender Studies: Historical Ideologies and Challenges


Historical Ideologies of Gender: Gender has been seen as a crucial aspect of societies. Gender studies look at the varying aspects that influence gender and how it shapes an individual’s personal and social identity.  Early primitive societies based gender based on the biological sexes, male and female and had defined gender roles. The males would go out and hunt while the females stayed home and reared children. Gender also influences the power held by an individual as the males were seen to have more power and authority in society. However, present-day, in the twenty-first century gender, has become more than a mean of assigning roles. The gender roles and norma are blurring, and the distinguishment in specific roles is shrinking. Present-day gender is looked at as a construct. Gender is used as a marker of one’s social identity. However, gender has also been proven to be a spectrum rather than a binary. Looking back at the initial gender roles, they too have been challenged by the current societies across cultures wherein males and females are not defined by their primary roles.


Read: Gender Sociology

Defying Gender Roles

In modern societies, it is common to see women working and obtaining high positions in the workplace. However, not so common, it is also seen that there are men who chose to stay home to cater to the family. This phenomenon can, however, be observed in some tribes as well, which have variation in their gender roles. Anthropologist Margret Mead (1935)  found in her research on the primitive tribes in Papua New Guinea, one of the tribes in her research, the  Tchambuli tribe had a reversal in the initial gender roles wherein the women would work but also care for the family while men spent their time wallowing about decorating themselves. Here the women were the leaders and continued to lead the tribe.

Breaking the Binary

Looking at gender as a spectrum present-day gender studies aim to look at genders that are not limited to the binary. Here, they view gender on a spectrum where an individual’s gender identity is not defined or limited to their biological sex. Looking at the legal framework, India views gender as a ternary. India recognises male, female and the third gender. The third gender is, however, a debated concept. Primarily India sees the third gender to be those belonging to the hijra community who are prominent in South Asia. Back in 2014, the supreme court of India passed the historic NALSA judgment which declared India would legally recognise the ‘third gender’ which were the Hijras, Eunuchs and anyone who was not a part of the traditional binary. However, the law forced all people within the listed categories into one gender identity although this judgement granted constitutional rights to all those within the “third gender” it still violated people’s choice to not conform to the idea of gender.

Challenges of Defying the Binary

Unfortunately, this seemingly progressive step was limited as the Parliament of India passed the Transgender Persons Bill in 2019, five years after the NALSA judgement. This bill was widely criticised for being transphobic as the bill claimed to protect the rights of trans citizens only after they were issued a certificate validating their identity. Although the bill aimed to protect the rights of trans citizens, it demanded the submission of proof of sex reassignment surgery to the government. This surgery is expensive and possesses health risks. This also only recognise male to female or female to male conversions. This was seen as an attempt to fit trans people into the pre-existing binary. Hence this prompted several people to struggle with their gender dysphoria as they were unable to meet the required standards of the government.

Looking at the binary itself, it can be seen that women are still victims of the patriarchial system which favours men. As a result of the patriarchy women and other gender identities apart from cis men are often victims of crimes perpetrated by men. This poses a threat to their mental and physical safety. To counter the patriarchy, there have been waves of feminist movements to ensure gender equality. These feminist movements are also intersectional of aspects such as class, caste and race, which are factors that can contribute to the oppression. Hence feminism is seen as an intersectional movement aiming to achieve equality.

Gender Stereotypes and Oppression

Looking at the two genders represented by the two main biological sexes of male and female, there is a vast difference between the treatment of men and women and how they are viewed in society. Each gender is expected to adhere to societal expectations placed on them based on their gender right from a young age. Despite the gradual relaxation of the roles, most people are expected to conform to gender roles established by their respective societies. These roles influence stereotypes which are upheld by society. A man is expected to be emotionally and physically strong, aggressive, loud and dominant. A woman, on the other hand, is expected to be emotional, caring, chaste and submissive. These roles are reinforced right from childhood which conditions men and women to adhere to these stereotypes. These stereotypes are influenced by other factors such as race, class, and caste, as these can influence the power differences between a man and a woman. Dor example looking at the Indian context a Savarna woman is considered to have more power than a Dalit man. However, a Dalit woman faces a combination of caste as well as gender oppression. Gender roles are also seen as a means of expression where the stereotypes and roles help affirm their gender. Hence, in several societies, people who stray from their defined gender roles are looked down upon and even ostracised. These people are often those who are classified into the category of the third gender.

Gender Studies as a Tool

Gender studies study gender through the various sociological lenses of factors influencing it such as politics, race, class, caste, sexuality, and looks at theoretical ways to ensure equity of all genders. Gender studies educate people on issues which in return ensure positive outcomes such as the implementation of the NALSA Judgement as well as calls for criticism and protests against gender-discriminatory acts such as the Trans Bill, the Wage gap and rising violence towards women and those who fall under the third gender. Gender studies look at the intersections of gender with other factors influencing oppression and aim to understand and create a society where all genders are at equity, and the differences between genders are more fluid hence creating space for people to express their gender and sexuality safely.


Battle India. (2020). Battle for the right body: The reality of sex reassignment surgeries in India. Retrieved 7 June 2020, from https://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/delhi/2020/feb/24/battle-for-right-body-the-reality-of-sex-reassignment-surgeries-in-india-2107686.html

Hindu Net Desk. (2019). The Transgender Persons Bill explained. Retrieved 7 June 2020, from https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/watch-all-about-the-transgender-persons-bill/article30122229.ece

Pathak, S. (2020). India Just Passed A Trans Rights Bill. Why Are Trans Activists Protesting It?. Retrieved 7 June 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/12/04/784398783/india-just-passed-a-trans-rights-bill-why-are-trans-activists-protesting-it

The Library of Congress. (2020). Papua New Guinea: Sex and Temperament – Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture | Exhibitions – Library of Congress. Retrieved 7 June 2020, from https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/mead/field-sepik.html

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Shubha Arvind is currently pursuing a degree in Psychology with an Open Minor at FLAME University. Her passion for culture studies, sociology and film and she aims to focus her minor around them. She actively participates in discussions and hopes to make a change. Her hobbies include playing the violin, swimming and art.