The influence of culture on gender identities

South Africa is a constitutional state that strives to promote the equality of rights for every gender, race, cultures and religions. Unfortunately too often these constitutional commitments and promises are not always implemented.

It is very important to highlight upfront that the term culture is broad. There is consecutive culture that is informed by traditional norms (e.g. men are heads of the households), modern popular culture which; is informed by global experience exchange (e.g. feminists also have a role to play in society), intellectuals culture; which is informed by constitution, academic information or discoveries (e.g. upholding human rights for everyone despite their age, race or culture is always important). Thus, our view isn’t based or bias to any of these cultures.

According to Stats SA 2011 Gender Statistics, South Africa ranks fourth among the 87 countries covered by the 2012 Social Institutions and Gender Index of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.  This reflects the country’s strong legal framework in respect of gender equality and women’s rights. Of course Activate Network or Activators aren’t immune to these stereotype believes. Now and again we do observe some exclusion tendencies. In most cases, perpetrators do not have a negative intention to hurt others, but rather act out the cultural intolerant teachings.

Despite the usually misunderstood difference between gender and sex and the impact that it has on one’s identity, African culture is realistically a gender sensitive one. Social analysts and activists, [hopefully] understand that what you are born as (sex-biological) is not in proportion to how you would be identified as socially.  

More than two decades later, those discussions are still continuing throughout the country and within the Activate network.

What one would refer to as a challenge in this context, is the fact that South Africa is a culturally and religiously diverse country. That tends to create expectations on social interactions and behaviors. This has become somewhat a belief system and has resulted in psychologically influenced social misconceptions that have to do with gender roles.  

To give a practical example; one is born as a Xhosa girl, solely because of her parents being of that tribe/ethnic group. She is Christian, which already takes away a portion of her definition as a Xhosa-culturally.  Then she moves to a township and attends junior and senior school there, being exposed to a ‘street-smart’ culture that is liberal and not so stern in terms of gender roles, there she notices her strength and ability to challenge such stereotypes . Then she moves to the city and gets exposed to what society terms as ‘alternative gender identities’, the LGBTI community. She identifies with them and befriends them, which takes away a portion of her Christian religion in totality. Then she gets married to a metro-sexual man, who is in touch with his feminine side but still identifies as a man attracted to women. Now take this web and link it back to this woman being Xhosa. How much of her ‘heritage’ or ‘culture’ has she stuck to? And is it wrong that this is the type of culture she has adopted? The answer is debatable.

That is normally more or less the experience of most South Africans.

Now let us take the issue back home to Activate Network. The organization and the social change drivers often speak of a just and inclusive society.  The statement sounds very interesting but the big question that we do not really ask is, what does this mean in terms of gender Identity?

A number of things such as:

  • The fact that gender identity is not one’s sex. The two influence each other, but they are not the same.

  • Understanding what feminist movements are about and what they stand for; which is definitely not to shoot men down.

  • Gender inclusivity and the comprehension that the LGBTI community is not an ‘otherwise’ or ‘alternative’ gender, but an identity, like that of men and women.

  • Challenging the stigma attached to sex through gender roles and perceptions

This is how other activators view the issue both within the South African landscape and within the Activate network.

Cape Town based metrosexual health activist and Activator Karabo Manatisi said “The cultural prejudice or impartiality on gender identity has an ability to build or destroy others. The sad reality is that most men from black communities use culture to rubberstamp outdated patriarchal views. I have experienced a lot of verbal victimization when I am playing my sexual activism role (distributing sanitary pads). According to some men from black communities, culture doesn’t allow REAL MEN to talk, let alone touch sanitary pads.  Sad and backward as this sound, unfortunately we have men within the Activate Network whose cultural informed thinking is less progressive. “

On the other hand, East London Fort Hare LLB Student and 2015 feminist Activator, Isasiphinkosi Mdingi said “Society needs to unlearn the standards that have been made to categorize the people’s genders. As a feminist, I think this notion that a girl’s place is in the kitchen and they won’t be women enough if they are not married to MEN has to stop. I think organizations like Activate are doing their bit to address patriarchal beliefs but I think they can do more.”

A Durban based Indian muslin 2014 social entrepreneur and Activator Nazareen Ebrahim said “Culture influences gender identity by re-enforcing the stereotypes associated with roles assigned to women and men. I have heard the argument too that the emasculation of men by more independent women breaking out of the mold of being housewives and mothers and moving into earning their livelihoods, has contributed to men becoming more effeminate in their ways, thus having a preference for men rather than women. I cannot back that argument with solid research but have heard this multiple times as a continuous thread of conversation.”

Gauteng based arts practitioner, producer and Activator Sibusiso Nkambule said “The native people were given a mandate from unwritten laws that a woman is a woman because she embraces a weaker nature. A man is a man because of strength .When a woman reflects different qualities we deem that as unacceptable. A man becomes a little less firm they question your manhood. If a woman is firm then she is disrespectful therefore patriarchy is something that will have to be undone from root level, where we learn our identity we need to be taught equality. Activate in my own opinion is a perfect platform tone and voice to speak of anything that is a social issue. I think the network is doing a great job. It was at activate when I discovered the LBGIQ community and they were vocal and they made some of understand exactly what they are about. The network could do more however it is doing enough.”

Bloemfontein based Free State University LLB Student and 2013 male Activator; Tshepo Mabuya summarized the cultural influence on gender identities as the contestation of values terrain where unfortunately masculinity abuse of power comes into play or  those who constantly shout louder (even if they might not have facts to support their views) turn to be hailed as the winners “The influence of cultures leads to the inferior and superior complexes that various genders fall victim to in their identities.

Taking the issue outside of South Africa or Activate Leadership context, you would realize virtual space or the web has however created an incline in gender-based violence which mainly stems from mostly men trying to ‘reclaim’ masculinity through various forms of violence. According to United Words (2011), Within South Africa, there is a specific atmosphere which reinforces traditional gender roles. Under Apartheid, the black male was emasculated. The whites who enforced Apartheid were the males who held all the power within South Africa, therefore, black males did not fit into their “specific” gender roles. Their masculinity was stripped from them. After Apartheid, the black males started looking for ways to regain their power, leading to a specific act of violence found in the townships in South Africa. It is known as “Corrective Rape”.

“Corrective Rape” is the idea that Lesbian women/ gay men can be cured of their homosexuality through heterosexual men raping them. The idea that these individuals need to be “cured” stems from gender roles. The men who commit the rape are trying to force women and men back into their prescribed gender roles.

More than two decades later, those discussions are still continuing throughout the country and within the Activate network.

In essence, heterosexual men also need to be conscientised of their privilege in society, which is influenced by history and enables them to have access to opportunities over women, lesbians and gays in society. Keep in mind that this privilege is based on gender identities, without taking away the fact that in some instances men can be victims of oppression; such as in racial and economic factors.


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