Gender designation in different cultures
Some cultures recognize genders beyond the binary. Other cultures recognize only two genders, but do not equate gender at all with sex and recognize that gender can be fluid in life.
The Dayak are a farming community in West Borneo. When anthropologist Christine Helliwell visited, she described how the community did not know how to define her gender, "despite her female body." She writes: "Gerai people remained very uncertain about my gender for some time after I arrived in the community... This was despite the fact that people in the community knew from my first few days with them both that I had breasts (this was obvious when the sarong that I worse clung to my body while I bathed in the river) and that I have a vulva rather than a penis and testicles (this was obvious from my trips to defecate or urinate in the small stream used for that purpose, when literally dozens of people would line the banks to observe whether I performed these functions differently from them). As someone said to me at a later point, 'Yes, I saw that you had a vulva, but I thought that Western men might be different.'"
The Dayak associate expertise, not sex, with being a man or woman. To them,"[a] 'woman' is a person who knows how to distinguish types of rice, store them correctly, and choose among them for different uses." As Helliwell learned more about rice, "she became 'more and more of a woman' in their eyes." Her gender still remained ambiguous, however, because she never gained the expertise of even a girl in the community.
The Hau are a community in New Guinea. To them, masculinity and femininity wax and wane as someone ages. Children are not born as men or women and are not recognized as such until puberty. From then on, each son a woman bears increases her masculinity and each son a father sires decreases his masculinity. By the time Hau become elders, they are once again genderless.
The Lovedu are a community in Zambia. They assign gender by social status instead of biological sex. Higher ranking people are considered men. A high-ranking female could even marry a young, lower-ranking woman and be considered the father of their children. The biological father in this case would be one of the lower-ranking women's lovers.
The Nnobi in Nigeria have a similar system.
Unlike in the United States, children in the Netherlands are not taught that gender has to do with male or female hormones. Instead, children are told that everyone has a mix of the "so-called male and female hormones, just in different proportions." The Dutch also make sure to teach children that levels of these hormones vary within and between genders. Similar to the Hau, the Dutch see age and gender as intertwined, although the Dutch connect these changes to hormones, not child-bearing.
5-alpha-reductase deficiency is a rare genetic condition that makes all children appear genetically female until puberty. This disorder is common "[i]n an isolated village in the Dominican Republic." Because of this condition, gender cannot be assigned until puberty.
In Simbari, a village in Papua New Guinea, girls who grow up to be men are called kwolu-aatmwal, "or 'female thing that transformed into a male thing.'"
Women and girls in Afghanistan are not given an education, are not allowed in public without a male chaperone, and are not allowed to work outside the home. This can be a burden on the family. Families without sons thus sometimes pick daughters to be boys. These daughters transition to look more masculine by cutting their hair and wearing men's clothing, and socially transition by changing to a men's name. These daughters are called bacha posh, meaning dressed up as a boy.
These children are accepted enough that few are surprised if a girl suddenly becomes a social boy. In fact, close people participate in the illusion. When the daughter reaches puberty, she becomes a social girl again and the family may choose a younger sibling to become a boy.
One father wrote about his bacha posh: "It's a privilege for me, that she is in boys' clothing.... It's a help for me, with the shopping. And she can go in and out of the house without a problem." Note that while the daughters socially transition, the father still uses she/her/hers pronouns.
- Wade, Lisa & Myra Marx Ferree. Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. New York: W. W. Norton, 2015.