Cultural Construction of Gender

A pervasive ideology of social hierarchy—ranking based in religious principles—is found in the caste and the gender systems. In behavioral, material, and symbolic ways, one's position in the world is relational and emergent, yet is also bound by one's birth status of caste and gender. Nepal is fundamentally a patriarchal society, and it recognizes only two genders, female and male (although ancient medical texts describe ambiguously sexed individuals). The same word for caste, jaat, is used to refer to one's sex, and referents share the ideas of a common "natural state," and common biological and social features with others in the group, from the time of birth. Just as an individual can never change her caste, so she can never change her biological and social sex. Similar values operating in caste reproduction are found in gender hierarchy, such as ritual purity.

The Nepali family structure may be extended, stem, or nuclear; the ideal family is one in which brothers live with parents, wives, and children in one household. Alternatively, brothers will live near each other, for their economic livelihood depends on sharing patrilineal resources such as land, animals, tools, and clients. Sex-role dichotomy is found in the household domain in many forms. For example, men plough fields and women carry fertilizer and weed the crops. Women cook and clean, while men attend to political affairs. Studies show that women work more hours than men throughout the agricultural cycle, a finding true for lower castes as well. The people with the greatest amount of leisure time are high-caste men, and those with the least are high-caste women. Within the lower-caste groups, who are primarily artisans, a gender division of labor in the household is similar to that in high castes, though economic activities are more varied and complementary (Cameron, 1998).

Rural Nepalis dress in fairly traditional and similar ways, and people's age, life stage, and caste can be partially discerned from their clothing. In warm weather, infants are often naked to allow for easy cleaning, or they are wrapped in a light cotton cloth; in cold weather, layers of cloths are used. A cap is almost always worn throughout the year, to protect the child from the ill effects of wind. When carried, infants are bound to a relative's back with a long shawl tied around the caretaker's chest. Everyone cares for children, even youngsters, and the latter learn early how to sling a sibling or cousin-sibling on their back. At night, babies are swaddled and sleep near the mother in the warmth of the upstairs hearth. Toddlers graduate to their own tailored garments or wear outfits purchased at local stores. Most clothes are made of cotton or polyester, and sewn locally by tailors and seamstresses. Shoes are optional, depending on the season. Young girls wear jumpers or long tunics with loose-fitting pants, and boys wear long tunics with fitted drawstring pants. Depending on caste, married women wear saris, long full skirts or long tightly wrapped lungi, and locally stitched blouses. Women prefer brightly colored clothing, especially red, and their skirts always cover the knees and calves. Local stores sell manufactured garments for boys and men, polyester and silk saris for women, and wool and cotton shawls, all imported from India or southern Nepal. Before the introduction of cotton cloth, garments were made from locally manufactured hemp and wool. Boys and men wear small hats called topi, which are made from Nepali hand-woven cotton. Women and men wear sex-specific clothes. Only recently has it become acceptable for girls to wear pants, though married women are still reluctant to do so.

Men keep their hair short, and women wear theirs long and in braids. Shorter hair fashions for girls are found in urban areas, and sometimes among unmarried girls. An attractive female is one who has shiny long black hair, dark eyes, light skin, and plump rosy cheeks; an attractive boy has the same features (except with short hair) and is strong. Wealth, education, and storytelling and musical talents are also deemed attractive. Desirable and ideal behaviors in girls and women are subservience, obedience and respect for elders and males, being soft-spoken and composed, and showing restrained laughter. The same is generally true for boys, though greater latitude is granted in their behavior.

Throughout life, the sexes are separated in many ways, and people's closest friends are those of the same sex. Gender is a complexly articulated social signifier, and finds many behavioral, familial, and social expectations. The symbols that organize gender relations include purity, impurity, and honor—symbols that also organize caste and kinship relations.

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