What is ‘Gender’? Definitions and risks in various approaches

Introductiongender toilet

What is gender? What is the difference between men and women? What distinguishes masculinity and femininity? Seeking to answer these questions can represent a framework for the conceptualisation of gender, but it will differ according to context – community, individuals, their ages, and so on. In this post, I would like to consider some definitions of gender and the risks we may face in approaching gender issues.


Gender in second-wave feminism

The debate on gender/sex distinction emerged in the middle of 1950s (Friedman 2006). During the 1960s and 1970s, the shaping of so-called second-wave feminism succeeded in reworking the language of gender. This distinguished gender from sex, defining sex as a naturally fixed dualism around which gender is socially constructed. Thus, Friedman (2006 ) states that ‘gender  is actually largely caused by social norms and institutions – and thus can and should be transformed’. She also argues that this sex/gender distinction could provide the basis for a feminist movement for gender equality. However, it could also emphasize sex differences and risk sliding into essentialism and determinism.


Butler’s definition of gender

In 1990, a new perspective on gender was introduced by Butler (1990, cited in Friedman 2006), who argues that the notion of sex is invariably inherent in that of gender. Thus, sex constitutes the performance or the product of the social and psychological discourse on gender, and sex per se can be eliminated as a discrete category (ibid). This hypothesis allows us to involve in the dialogue people who have hitherto been marginalised by existing categorisations of gender, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning (LGBTQ) communities. However, Friedman (2006) claims that Butler’s perspective ignores the significance body image, and tends to dismiss the challenges to those who feel that they have birth defects, physical abnormalities, and/or psychological disorders.


Risks in approaches to gender and gender inequality/equality

Both second-wave feminists and Butler agree that gender is produced by the social structure. Based on such a definition, then, solving gender issues and transforming gender inequality require change, or, in other words, the intervention of the social structure, as embodied by culture and traditional practices. Chambers (1995) defines development as ‘good change’. However, whether development can be achieved through ‘good change’ or requires a more deliberate intervention would seem to be determined by the position of the development agent: insider or outsider.

The debate on the wearing of the hijab or burqa, which Muslim women use to cover their hair or body respectively, is a good example, as it suggests multiple insights into gender and the social structure, and the perspectives of both insiders and outsiders. A report by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) (2006) states that:

The wearing of the headscarf is a complex and multifaceted issue that is often raised in public debate in most European countries during recent years, particularly in the areas of education and employment. It is in these areas that the issue of the headscarf has become controversial, as it is seen as a symbol of female oppression and gender inequality.

As a consequence, some states have banned the wearing of religious coverings generally in schools and/or workplaces (Ssenyonjo 2008: 148).


Photo credit: femispire.com


However, many Muslim women do not feel that such a mode of dress is as a symbol of oppression and decide to wear the hijab or burqa for various reasons of their own. For example, Hoodfar (1997) cites the case of a young working woman who chose to take up the veil when she got engaged because wearing the hijab was a suitable way of expressing her good character to her fiancé’s very conservative family. Kapoor (2014) asserts that many women also wear such coverings for security reasons and that they can prevent unwanted gazes from men. In short, for Muslim women, wearing the hijab or burqa ‘can be a tool of identity, freedom, empowerment and emancipation’ (Ssenyonjo 2008: 198). Thus, the decision to wearing the hijab or burqa is a reaction to the social and personal context in which women find themselves.


Photo credit: Kapoor/Al Jazeera


Veil may be a border between insider and outsider.


The aforementioned contrasting reactions to the wearing of the hijab or burqa are indicative of the differing perceptions of insiders (Muslim women) and outsiders (Western countries). We must therefore recognise that the attempts of outsiders to achieve gender equality, such as banning women from wearing the hijab and burqa, can lead to the denial of insiders’ socially constructed culture and oppress their rights.



In summary, gender can be defined as a socially constructed concept; therefore, any approach to the achievement of gender equality must accommodate the social norms of all actors in the issue. In my opinion, when we discuss issues around gender, we have to consider the possibility of cultural influence.




Chambers, R. (1995) Poverty and Livelihoods: Whose reality counts? Environment and Urbanization 7(1): 173–204.
European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (2006) Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia. Vienna: EUMC.
Friedman, A. (2006) Unintended Consequences of the Feminist Sex/Gender Distinction. Genders [http://www.genders.org/g43/g43_friedman.html] 43 . (Accessed: 8 December 2014)


Hoodfar, H. (1997) Return to the Veil: Personal Strategy and Public Participation in Egypt. In: Visanathan, N., Duggan, L., Nisonoff, L., and Wiegersma, N. (eds) The Women, Gender and Development Reader. London: Zed Books, 320–325.


Kapoor, S. (2014) In Pictures: Beyond the Burqa. Al-Jazeera. Available from: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2014/09/pictures-beyond-burqa-20149161034537557.html (Accessed: 8 December 2014).
Ssenyonjo, M. (2008) Moslem women, religion and the hijab: A human rights perspective. East African Journal of Peace and Human Rights 14(1): 147–199.


One comment

  1. Star
    You show a broad understanding of different historical perspectives on gender and sex. You could develop this further by also engaging with critics of Butler.

    Your discussion about different cultural contexts and the role of insiders and outsiders in gender transformation – and the example of how wearing the hijab or burqa is interpreted – is interesting. I encourage you to develop this further by engaging in some of the academic literature about this.

    The first paragraph of your section on risks is not very clear. Try to develop the argument here more clearly and also integrate more of the academic literature.

    Tips and clarifications
    – Your English is mostly easy to understand, but think about asking a native English speaker to check through and correct some small errors.
    – Think about embedding more links and other materials in your blog


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