March 2022 Reading List on “A feminist insight into gender norms and standards”
Curated by Sumini Siyambalapitiya who is a Research Assistant on the Economics team at Verité Research. Her current work is within the realm of gender economics and public finance in Sri Lanka. Sumini’s bio can be found after the reading list.
In order to understand gender norms, roles & standards, and the way women and all people subjugated within the patriarchy navigate and contend with the realities of their lives, it is important to start at the very beginning. An essential read in the feminist canon in this arena is Simon de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It is an extensive (although not complete) study of Western women and their relationship to men over history. De Beauvoir writes, “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one”, exploring how women, through the entirety of their lives, are shaped and conditioned into what is deemed acceptable and there is nothing biological or intrinsic about the identities enforced upon them. The Spark notes summary is a great entryway to familiarise yourself with de Beauvoir’s work.
A few other interesting texts are listed below. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that gender is not something one is, but rather a product of repeated gender performance. This challenges the idea of gender as a stable identity, instead suggesting that it is an acquired socio-cultural one. Chapter 1 of this book can be found here. Michel Foucalt’s The History of Sexuality is another classic text that contends with ideas of power, knowledge, and identity. Foucalt’s writing however can be very dense and hard to grasp, so here, is an essay by Angela King — The Prisoner of Gender: Foucault and the Disciplining of the Female Body, that uses Foucalt’s analysis to explore how the female body is a target of disciplinary power. Finally, Women and Power by Mary Beard explores the history of modern misogyny and by extension the history of silencing women, both literally and figuratively.
Building on this theoretical foundation, we can now explore how these gender norms, roles, and standards operate in society. The simplest way to think about it is as ‘the rules of the game’. A woman’s place in society and the social hierarchy is dictated by her adherence to patriarchal standards of beauty, behavior, amongst other things. Compliance, or in other words, playing by the rules of the game, is rewarded. But this ‘reward’ can only get you so far because in complying you are reinforcing the existence of the patriarchal power structures themselves. You are damned if you do, damned if you don’t — there is no winning the game.
Beauty is one of the most pervasive manifestations of this. This article in Feminism in India titled Beauty Standards — The Ugliest Trick Of Patriarchy, explores the deeply personal way in which beauty as a form (if not the most important form) of cultural capital is imposed on women from a very young age. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf is an important (although slightly dated) read that explores the profoundly problematic pressure women face to conform to unattainable societal beauty ideals. For the 21st century woman, to not conform is to risk it all. Not just societal acceptance, but respect, legitimacy, and power are all tied to one’s physical attractiveness. The term ‘pretty privilege’ isn’t thrown around for no reason. And yet, despite the gains that the “lucky” women gain from conforming to socio-cultural standards of beauty, it leads to the characterization of feminine individuals as shallow, vapid, and self-absorbed. Shay Alexi Stewart captures this exact paradox in their poem Song of the Pretty Bird.
In Trading on Heterosexuality: College Women’s Gender Strategies and Homophobia, author Laura Hamilton explores how young women in an American college campus negotiate the gender inegalitarian spaces, especially in the context of social life, by deploying gender strategies. Heterosexuality is the mechanism at play here, the cultural capital at stake is the ability and desire to attract a man. In this context, a young woman’s ability to signal her heterosexuality and perform gender in a way that hegemonic masculinity deems legitimate, enables her to acquire better treatment than others. The costs here are multiple. First, it deeply reinforces heteronormativity into the social script. Second, it pits women against each other as they compete for visibility and acceptance. This is particularly true for women who are already in race and class categories not associated with hegemonic masculinity. Finally, it contributes to homophobia and homophobic behaviors as people who do not play by the ‘rules of the game’ are punished.
In South Asia, the most important determinant of status and mobility is respectability. This is a direct result of its colonial history and is a gendered phenomenon that continues to shape the lives of South Asian women today. Katherine Twamley and Juhi Sidharth’s Negotiating Respectability: Comparing the experiences of poor and middle-class young urban women in India is a really interesting article that explores the intersection of gendered mores and class/caste mores. It is also a poignant reminder that for people subjugated by the patriarchy, rarely are their experiences one dimensional — it is never just about gender, just about race, or just about class. Twamley and Sidharth’s work explores the way gendered ideals of respectability shape the lives of women in different social classes. Despite similar value attached to norms of respectability across society, middle-class young women strike a ‘passive bargain’, upholding ideals of respectability by shoring up symbolic capital for a ‘good’ marriage and class privilege. Women from ‘lower-class’ backgrounds show more active resistance to an ideal that they struggle to achieve.
Gendered respectability politics in Sri Lanka is very similar to the rest of South Asia. Norms of ‘good womanhood’ in this particular context operate through the framework of laejja baya; where female respectability is defined in terms of sexual propriety, modesty, and obedience. Asha Abeyasekara and Jeanne Mareck explore this in-depth in their article Embodied shame and gendered demeanors in young women in Sri Lanka. The foreground for their analysis is interviews with mothers and daughters following acts of non-fatal suicidal acts that were in most cases catalyzed by the accusation of violated propriety. In Sri Lanka, much like in other South Asian societies, maintaining feminine respectability is inextricably tied to the honor of one’s family, community, and nation. To contest one’s freedom is to potentially jeopardize Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and the Sri Lankan state itself. This idea is explored further in the following texts: ‘Mothers, daughters and “whores” of the nation’: Nationalism and female stereotypes in post‐colonial Sri Lankan drama in English by Neluka Silva, The Changing Role of Women in Sri Lankan Society by Malathi De Alwis, Respectability and rights. Sexual and reproductive health and rights of Sri Lankan women formerly involved in prostitution by Malin Jordal, Ann Öhman & Kumudu Wijewardene and Labour, Feminism and Ethnicity by Kumari Jayawardena.
Understanding the nuances of how gender norms & standards are perpetuated and how they control the lives of women can seem very bleak. But for as long as the patriarchy has imposed itself on the lives of women, women have continued to subvert and challenge ideals of ‘good womanhood’, even if it may come at a cost to them. A really great example of this is the women working in garment factories in Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zones. Sandya Hewamanne has studied their lives extensively, and how they forge their identities as gendered and classed subjects by rejecting the subjectivities enforced upon them by the Colombo middle-class and their politics of respectability. City of Whores: Nationalism, Development, and Global Garment Workers in Sri Lanka and Performing Dis-respectability: New Tastes, Cultural Practices, and Identity Performances by Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zone Garment-Factory Workers are two of Hewamanne’s most poignant works on the topic. The majority of young women working in the FTZ are migrant workers from rural areas and low-income families. They are already transgressing several gender and cultural norms by living alone and away from their families, however, it is their choice to distinguish themselves from any aspiration to any norms of respectable femininity via their choice of fashions, taste, language, and demeanor that they truly subvert the power of patriarchal power structures. In the words of an FTZ worker herself — “However much we try to be like them, they will always brand us as lower class. Once you realize that, you start seeing the stupidity of those high fashions. Then you start to think, hmm, there is value in what we do and in what we like.”
- The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
- Gender Trouble, Judith Butler
- The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucalt
- The Prisoner of Gender: Foucault and the Disciplining of the Female Body, Angela King
- Women and Power, Mary Beard
- Beauty Standards — The Ugliest Trick Of Patriarchy, Nandhita Hariharan
- The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, Naomi Wolf
- Song of the Pretty Bird, Shay Alexi Stewart
- Trading on Heterosexuality: College Women’s Gender Strategies and Homophobia, Laura Hamilton
- Negotiating Respectability: Comparing the experiences of poor and middle-class young urban women in India, Katherine Twamley and Juhi Sidharth
- Embodied shame and gendered demeanours in young women in Sri Lanka, Katherine Twamley and Juhi Sidharth
- Mothers, daughters and “whores” of the nation’: Nationalism and female stereotypes in post‐colonial Sri Lankan drama in English, Neluka Silva
- The Changing Role of Women in Sri Lankan Society, Malathi De Alwis
- Respectability and rights. Sexual and reproductive health and rights of Sri Lankan women formerly involved in prostitution, Malin Jordal, Ann Öhman & Kumudu Wijewardene
- Labour, Feminism and Ethnicity by Kumari Jayawardena.
- City of Whores: Nationalism, Development, and Global Garment Workers in Sri Lanka, Sandya Hewamanne
- Performing Dis-respectability: New Tastes, Cultural Practices, and Identity Performances by Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zone Garment-Factory Workers, Sandya Hewamanne
The Curator: Sumini Siyambalapitiya
Sumini works as a Research Assistant on the Economics team at Verité Research. Her current work is within the realm of gender economics and public finance in Sri Lanka. She graduated this past year from Lafayette College in the United States with a dual degree in Mathematics/Economics and Women, Gender and Sexuality studies. She is an avid reader, tote bag wearer, lover of the sun and fan of her cat!