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This section should provide you with some basic knowledge about Gender, its meanings, implications and problems. It is targeted at pedagogical staff, gender workers1 , and of course everybody else who is interested in Social justice and reflections on gender. It is conceptualised as a paper for people who want to engage against sexism and gendered Violence. Here, we want to give some inputs on gender, some theoretical concepts and some space for reflection.

From the very beginning of the reflection about gender, it appears as an essentially contested concept, marked by slippery terms. Quite the contrary to the commonsense institutionalised conception that human race is divided in two symmetrical and complementary genders: male and female. The feminists’ fight for women’s “equality in difference” demonstrated deeply rooted gender inequality in recognition as well as in access to public sphere and to social resources which universally prevailed along the history and in different cultures. Today, at least in some parts of the world, legislation on principle ensures equal opportunities enabling women to participate on an equal footing with men in the public sphere of paid productive work and politics. However, the assumption underlying the public sphere in democracy is the norm of the “universal human being,” whereby the question of who sets the standards for the universality of human beings is not challenged. It is still not recognised enough that the so called “universal” norms that are observed in the public sphere are norms constructed according to hegemonistic rules set by white, adult, heterosexual males to which “others” must aim for them and adjust to them if they want to take part equally. The hegemonic “universal norms” set by white, adult, heterosexual males make “deviant” not only women but also different social groups of men who do not fit to them according to, for example, Ethnicity/race, Class, sexual orientation, gender identity, life-style practices etc.

Therefore a lot of violence has gendered elements, for example insinuating remarks about a female body or the permanent challenges within groups of boys to prove their physical strength, their braveness, their masculinity… Nevertheless it is important to realise that not every boy is a perpetrator and not all girls are victim, the majority of both is peaceful and those who became victims and witnesses of violence need support. Sometimes it can cause or promote violence to refuse this support, for example when a youngster is said to have a homosexual attitude and gets bullied by their peers because of this label. Then it needs careful educational treatment for the whole group. For pedagogues and educational workers it is important to have a clear position concerning sexism and gendered violence and also to articulate it.
One important section on a specific form of gendered violence is: Sexism.

What is sexism?

  • To whistle at a passing woman (irrespective of your gender)?
  • “The women should go shopping, that’s what they are good at”.
  • Sexism is something that is defined in a political dictionary as “the practice of domination of women. It is a practice that is supported in many different ways that are critical to our socialisation into our sex roles, and therefore makes this domination acceptable in society -through language, visual association, media representation, and stereotyping, especially on the basis of the mothering/caring role of women. Sexism is important also because all women experience it in different ways, depending upon their social and economic situation - within the family and in jobs - and it limits the ways in which women seek to actualise their potential. (Shirin Rai at http://www.answers.com/topic/sexism). Today we know that boys and men can experience sexism, too, as well as all the genders and sexualities that also exist. For example, men who are fathers and would like to take paternity leave, sick leave or would like to share the parental leave with their partner or decide to work part time to take care of the child, are often bullied at workplace by their colleagues and employers, like “what kind of man are you, can’t your wife/partner took care of the child?”.  Still, looking at wage gaps, looking at who owns the majority of all properties (men) and who does the majority of all work (women), who most often experiences serious domestic violence (women) and who isn’t represented properly in the majorities of government (women), then the structural impact of sexism is quite clear.

Let's proceed now beyond binary conceptions of gender with a simple question:
How many genders do you know?

Ok, Gender... (Theory!!!)

 ...is usually used to attributing masculine and feminine characteristics to an assumed fundamental biological sex. It stands to question whether such a natural base exists at all, but anyway socio-cultural codes and conventions, the rules by which society functions, determine the allocation of these specific traits to the sexes.

Parents often, for example, with the color of their baby’s' clothes inform the society about the sex of the baby. Pink colour is 'reserved' for girls and blue for boys, which doesn't mean that girls naturally like pink and/or boys the blue colour. In the experiment, which took place somewhere in USA around 1970, there was a six month old baby and a group of mothers. First, they dressed the baby in blue coloured clothes and mothers were told the baby is a boy and they observed their behavior towards the baby boy. Mothers were telling him, how strong he is, what a brave little boy he is, and they would give him boy's toys (cars). Second, they dressed the baby in pink coloured clothes and observed mother's reaction toward the baby girl. They were telling her how pretty and lovely she is and gave her girls' toys (dolls). Well, it was the same baby, once dressed in a blue and once in a pink colour!

The important fact about it is, that the hegemonic gender differences are organised hierarchically and create social injustice.
Socialisation is a period when young people test and appropriate components of their identities. They try to figure out the society’s expectations of ‘acceptable’ gender attributes which are flaunted within institutions such as the family, the peer group, the state and the media. These images and norms are internalised, quite often in a violent processes of adaption.
Gender is socially constructed; it differed and still differs from society to society and from age to age. It is also constructed in its repetition (Butler 1991) and in everyday interactions (“Doing Gender”, West/Zimmerman 1991). Everybody does this in their own specific way, regardless of which body they are born with, how they are socialised and socialised themselves and have the ‘proper’ gender attributes.
Taking into account the violence and pressure used to maintain this concept of “properness” (by society as well as by institutions and individuals themselves), we can not take gender as a “neutral” concept. Too many boys and girls, too many intersexuals, trans- and other genders suffer from the sanctions, than profit from the assumed safety of the assigned gender dichotomy. 

List of some possible and impossible Genders:


Contemporary pedagogical approaches think of gender in the plural rather than singular, so we use “masculinities” and “femininities”, suggesting that gender is crossed and influenced by many other categories, depending on context and situation. And even though there is a serious lack of words and it is not always easy to find the suitable expression to talk about gender-equivocality, we have to take into account that femininity and masculinity is never a clear concept but a construction that works by excluding the nonspecific.

Exclusion plays a big role in the concept of heterosexual matrix. What is that? Well…


Don’t worry, you don’t have to find a phone or any other difficult technique to enter, because you are already in. You didn’t notice? Well, that’s the matrix…
The heterosexual matrix…
…is a cultural and social arrangement which consists of three dimensions: the anatomic gendered body (sex), the social performance of a gendered role (gender) and erotic desire. These three dimensions interact with each other all the time, a certain gender role can cause a certain desire, a desire can fix a gender and a desire is also sometimes the effect of a certain body. The heterosexual matrix organises these dimensions and cares for their symmetry: We usually think that there are exactly two genders (male and female), which are easy to distinguish from each other. It is easy because we think there are two “symmetrical” and “complementary” sexes, two anatomically differing bodies with differing functions, identities, social roles and… desires. These desires are heterosexual, they are targeted to the respective other gender. Therefore sex and gender are perceived as sexualised nearly all the time, to be exact: as heterosexualised. The matrix tells us: this is normal, this is even natural. Judith Butler, a feminist philosopher who thought and wrote a lot about this stuff, shows that the automatic connection between bodily appearance, gender and desire must be attributed to the constant repetition of the same gender norms at the symbolic and concrete level which has a naturalising effect, thus obscuring the artificiality of these norms. Therefore biology is not a fate. In fact, we DO gender almost all the time, when we talk, when we belch, when we walk, when we kiss, when we (don’t) comb our hair. The heterosexual matrix (Butler started to use the term “heterosexual Hegemony” in her book “Bodies That Matter”, 1993, but as science fiction buffs we stick to the matrix here) works when we continuously repeat what we think is suitable for a man or a woman respectively. And it is logical, when things are repeated as identically as possible for thousand and thousand times over a long period of time (ages!), some mistakes will happen. The matrix is brittle, and such “mistakes” which are not consistant with the social norm (like a female-to-male transgender with the status “man” giving birth to a child or boys wearing skirts) show that the arrangements of the heterosexual matrix are produced all the time. It’s a parody of something we just imagine, but we don’t know the original. Or can you tell me what the original female gender is? No, you can just decribe what is percieved as normal for a female gender, but there are still many other female genders that are somehow female, too, aren’t they? (Compare the tennis player Martina Navratilova, politician Condoleeza Rice and hip-hop star Missy Elliott…). And because of these complexities which we usually can’t bear, we often try to get rid of all the mistakes which confuse us, or at least veil them or define them as “abnormalities”. For example, the existence of “third genders” like intersexuals, transgenders and other ambiguous gendered identities causes a lot of official strategies of delegitimation, like the association with (mental) diseases or juridical differences between heterosexual and homosexual marriages. The heterosexual matrix is a contraint we shouldn’t afford becauses it causes so much pain to adjust oneself to such narrows ideas of gender all the time.

It is necessary to have some knowledge about your own history of gender, how you became what you are and what you are (only for this moment, some things might change quite quickly), to be clear about what attracts you, where you are fragile, what you are afraid of, etc., because then you can be a bit clearer about what you can offer to others.

Exploring your own gender:

  • With which toys did you play when you were a child? With which toys did you not play, for example because it was reserved for “the other gender” or because it was not available because it belonged to another class (like a certain doll was too expensive to buy)?
  • What did adult people or peers say to do, and what you shouldn't do?
  • Which clothes were of certain interest for you, which were forbidden?
  • Who were your ideals (sportsmen, singers, your big brother/sister...)?
  • What was the relation to other children like, f.e. in school? Competitive, interested, threatening, ambiguous? Can you see any meaning of gender, class or culture in these relations?
  • What did your parents, your family, your peer group expect from you?
  • What did you suffer from?
  • Did you experience anything like initiation rites?
  • When did you feel strong?
  • When did you feel weak?
  • Which memories did you avoid while reading these questions?

It is interesting to search for normative elements in one’s own gender biography and also to look for contradictions. Nobody is just male or female, but some behaviour is sanctioned by peers, parents, teachers, colleagues, etc. This is quite important in the work with youngsters, they have to find their way to a suitable gender performance, sexual orientation, handling of their body, and they have to deal with external expectations, violent social and interpersonal actions.
Sometimes, Education in “gender-homogenious” groups (yes, we have just learned that gender is never homogenious, but words are limited and of course people identify themselves as “girls” or “boys”, it helps to orientate and somehow there are simply no other easy options) can help to reflect the binary gender system, one’s own gender performance and it’s limits and also the handling of violence – as victim, perpetrator or witness.
We stop here with our short overview about the gender topic and recommended reading in the other sessions:
Violence [link to self learn violence]
Or here:
some data on sexism:

Some information on contemporary womanhood: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/jun/08/arts.comment

Herdt, G. H. (1996): Third sex, third gender: beyond sexual dimorphism in culture and history, New York
West, C./Zimmerman, D. H. (1991): Doing Gender, in: Lorber, J./Farrell, S. A. (Eds.): The Social Construction of Gender, Newbury Park, 13-37


1  Gender workers as defined in GemTrEx project are in any professional paid work and are in direct or indirect contact with people, are active in social work and adult education (but can be broader) and work with special focus on gender (GemTrEx project, more information in Standards and Training for Gender Workers in Europe. Quality criteria and further education, www.gemtrex.eu).