Gender is like an invisible web. Even if you know it is limiting and want to get out, you don’t know where to begin. Most people do not even see gender as something that is externally imposed on them, limiting their spontaneous being.
Gender – how to untangle the tangle?
As Dhamma (Dharma) practitioners we should understand the basic principles of cause and effect and of the absence of a permanent self. Many practitioners apply these principles in their everyday lives. However, it is gender that is often the stumbling block.
It seems that western Buddhists are happy to accept that everything about them is conditional and dependent on one cause or another – everything but gender. One might argue that gender is the last bastion of Self for us. We tend to fuse our gender identity with our core sense of self.
In case someone should wish to untangle this tangle, it would probably be along the normal path of any Buddhist practice: 1. Notice; 2. Accept; 3. Let go.
For practitioners with experience, the second and third step would be if not easy, then relatively familiar.
It is the noticing, which might be extremely challenging. Noticing subtle gender patterns in your particular case is like getting out of an invisible web. Gender seems as natural to us as eating cereals for breakfast.
Wait a second. Is eating cereals for breakfast a course of things prescribed by nature? We all know it is not. I ate cucumber and tomato salad for breakfast in Israel and borsch for breakfast in Ukraine.
There is no ‘I’ in gender
Gender is part of society’s structure. The ways gender expresses itself are many and are different depending on the particular culture, class, education, and financial situation of particular individuals.
As long as people are blind to the realities of gender as it is currently imposed by patriarchy, they are compliant. Even the ones with the best intentions. Men who do not see the reality may ask question like: “Why do women wear these ridiculous high heels? I do not force them to. I would never wear these even if people were forcing me to.”
Such questions show a misunderstanding about how society works. People are not separate individualised entities who make rational choices. Each person is a patch on a fabric of society, the same way as each individual is part of the energy network between the sun and the earth, with all its plants, animals, water and minerals.
It is easy to confirm or refute this claim: try to exclude yourself from the energy network – for instance, don’t go to the toilet next time you want to. Next, try to exclude yourself from society – for instance, start speaking Russian in the UK or don’t pay a bus fare.
Repercussions will be immediate and obvious.
How are you male? How are you female?
How are you caught up in the web? In one group of society being a woman means wearing a pony tail and being beaten by your unmarried partner, in a different group being a woman means having your body, clothes and jewellery accessed by your husband’s business associates in order to configure his status.
While for some being a man means showing no emotion and working yourself to death at 40, for others being a man means living a life of creativity while your Mother or your wife takes care of your family and home.
There is a saying that in a society where slavery exists everyone is a slave. Slaves are slaves to their masters, and masters are slaves to the social order. Slaves have no control over their lives, but neither do their owners. Slave owners have to have slaves, they have to depend on their labour, and they have to avoid treating their slaves as human beings.
In patriarchy, which is absolute majority of societies now in existence on earth, the situation is similar. Everyone upholds patriarchy: women, men, the elderly and the children of both sexes.
Children are particularly vicious and vigilant in this regard – just watch them play or listen when they pass their judgements on what girls and boys should wear, how they should have their hair and down to minute detail of what and how they should eat.
Those who challenge patriarchy are deemed strange and unacceptable and labelled in a variety of derogatory labels. “Butch”, “gay” (both when used as an insult, not as a self-identification), unfeminine”, “girl-like”, and simply “weirdo” are applied to men and women who behave outside of a patriarchal model of life.
In societies that offer people more opportunities (or in circles of societies which offer people more opportunities) such individuals have a choice of joining like-minded people and feel relatively safe and accepted.
With the help of the whole arsenal of Buddhist practices, such as calming down, being present and seeing clearly, coupled with compassion, we can slowly start noticing gender patterns that rule our lives while bypassing our better judgement.
For a woman, is having a smaller portion of food than men natural? For a man, is talking first and controlling the flow of a conversation natural? For a woman, is smiling as a response to a hurtful remark natural, in order to keep peace? For a man, is producing hurtful remarks as a way to hide your emotional vulnerability natural?
In a Buddhist centre, is it natural for a man to assume he will be up there on the platform teaching the Sangha in a few years, if he sticks with it, while for a woman, is it natural to assume that no matter how long she sticks with it, she will still be preparing tea for the visiting male teachers?
Is it natural for a male Buddhist practitioner to have his household revolve around his daily sittings and retreats, and is it natural for a woman to shove her sitting meditation whenever there is a gap between serving others, and dream of a retreat as a special favour from her loved ones?