Exploring Gender Roles in the United States of America and in Iraq Essay


            This paper will explore the differences between the gender roles attending the typical American family and those attending that of a common Iraqi family. In doing so, a non-exclusive list of influencing and determining factors will be presented in order to better understand how the differences came to be. These factors include the degree of egalitarianism between the opposite sexes which in turn is highly determined by overarching components such as customs, laws, traditions, and public policies governing and influencing the activities of society. After exploring these differences between the families, an analysis of whether or not the subject matter of this paper is of a relatively valid and critical concern or should be so. This said analysis will be undertaken in order to pinpoint issues of vital importance, if there are any. Finally, a presentation of the current debate on the subject matter will be laid out, with the end goal of drafting, or at the least, predicting what possibly will make good future policies to regulate the respective situations in the United States and Iraq as regards the issue of gender roles within the context of the family.


            Experts from different fields of the social sciences have recurrently used ideal-types in attempts to describe representative samples of different communities to the end of implying that their sample populations are truly representative of their subject population. However, at this point, this writer would like to forewarn the reader that ideal-types can only describe so much. Traits may cluster and assume a semblance of representativeness, but in a society drastically differentiated by politics, religion, ethnicities (such as Iraq), such representativeness is rather difficult to achieve, especially if one uses second-hand materials for his sources. Hence, the reader is advised to keep in mind that what follows is, at best, an overview of the topic at hand, and in no way a comprehensive elucidation upon the matter.

Fundamental Commonality

Before the tackling the differences between the two groups, mentions should first be given to the commonalities between the two. Not many commonalities can be observed at the level of higher life stages (i.e. young adulthood and adulthood) but a major gender expectation is common in both societies. This common gender expectation is rooted on the biological and physiological composition of males and females. In both American and Iraqi families, the eventual gender roles played by males and females are greatly influenced by their respective physical make-up, their physiological strengths and weaknesses as “actual physical differences between males and females may play a role in attitudes toward the growing child’s cognitive development” (Anastasi, 1985). However, as will be seen later, this notion of inherent differences between boys and girls is highly debatable and others have opined this to simply be a gender myth. Also, as between the American and the Iraqi societies — and expectedly, in other societies as well, the determining quality of these biological and physiological differences is overwhelmed by the capacity of a child’s social environment to shape the gender roles that he/she would perform for the rest of his/her life.

Gender roles within a typical American family

            In probing into the gender roles respectively played by the males and females of a typical American family, this author will employ two approaches: a) a look at the developments in the said arena decade by decade starting at the time of World War II, and b) a chronological accounting of the changes in the said roles brought about by the different life stages. However, in both approaches, a preliminary factor responsible for the current state of landscape as regards gender roles in the U.S. needs to be mentioned. It should be noted that that the U.S. is an industrialized nation, a fact that explains why the country’s women, even prior to World War II had already penetrated the working population more substantially than did those of the rest of the world.

            Now, as to the first approach, the following is a narration regarding the developments in the area of gender roles starting from the period of World War II, to wit:

·         Circa World War II: More and more women became part of the labor force in order to take the place of working males who were enlisted to join the U.S. armed forces. Hence, at this point, the traditional masculine notion of the male being the “protector and aggressor” (Adler, 1993) of society and of the family was highlighted and placed into practice.

·         Post World War II: Majority of the women ceased to be wage- and salary-earners and returned to their traditional domestic roles, a happenstance which almost inevitably resulted to a “postwar baby boom”. (Adler, 1993)

·         1960s: This era was marked by social revolutions which included the sexual revolution, the birth and potency of the civil rights movement, and the heightening student activism, among others. All these produced a questioning and more critical mass of women who started acting against the traditional notions of female roles. The renegade atmosphere was further bolstered by an economic recession and by the proliferation of birth control, both of which resulted to a decline in birthrate and to the re-entry of women into the work force. This inclusion of women to the workforce was not only maintained but was also strengthened by the expansion of their entry to more and more occupations and professions, “areas that were formerly both dominated by men and outside traditional female-dominated spheres;” (Adler, 1993)

Second, as to the gender roles formed and honed during the life cycles of males and females, the discussion as regards this is divided into sections, namely, 1) infancy and early childhood, 2) school years, 3) young adulthood, and 4) adulthood.

Infancy and Early Childhood           Expectations and assignments of gender roles are established at birth and even before birth, as many American couples choose to find out the sex of their child during pregnancy. Preparations are then be made, “such as the selection of nursery room color and decor and the purchase of gender-appropriate toys and clothing.” (Adler 1993) In this regard, blue remains the traditional color for beddings, clothes, and accessories for boys and pink, for girls.

In the area of discipline, boys are more likely to be physically punished,[1] while girls are more likely to receive verbal reprimands.[2] Boys may also be given greater freedom in their physical environments than girls at a much earlier age. Hence, it appears to be that early parent-child interactions may be responsible for the formations of distinct social environments for male and female children.

School years               Gender role assignments are further fostered by means of chore allocation at home.[3] Girls are traditionally tasked to assist in the preparation of meals and to do household chores while boys, on the other hand, are usually encouraged to engage in tasks seen as more masculine. These masculine tasks include “helping their fathers with car or plumbing repairs” (Adler, 1993) “Not surprisingly, children’s preferred activities and job aspirations follow gender-typical paths.” (Adler, 1993) These differentiations in treatment are further espoused in the childrens’ schools.[4]

Young adulthood       There is increased pressure to follow traditional male and female roles in the stage of adolescence as differences between males and females become more pronounced with the onset of puberty.[5] Bancroft (1990) suggests that the acquaintance with sexuality at this stage highly influences gender behavior. Also, preference during middle and late childhood for same-sex friends begins to make way for efforts to establish relationships with those of the other sex. The mass media also contribute to adolescents’ gender development. Williams, et al. (1986) explains that teens often identify with idealized television characters and advertisement models who elicit strong messages of appropriate gender behavior. These adolescent beliefs and gender assignments carry on into adulthood.

Adulthood      At this point, “women, to a greater and greater extent, are achieving in the world of work, although women are still paid less than men.” (Adler, 1993) As aforementioned, an increasing number of women have entered male-dominated fields. On the other hand, more and more men “are entering female-dominated fields.”  (Adler, 1993) Furthermore, there are more businesses owned by females than ever before. But despite all these, women still continue to face “barriers in reaching the higher levels of their chosen careers.” (Adler, 1993)

As to the division of household labor and its relationship to gender-role orientation, data show that, generally, women, assume carry out more of the household labor than of the financial responsibilities. This finding indicates that although women’s work roles outside of the home, her domestic chores are not lessened. On a lighter note, however, research further reveals that a more and more household tasks are accomplished by both feminine and androgynous-oriented males compared with masculine-oriented males.

Gender roles within a typical Iraqi family

            Now, as to the gender-roles traditionally played by members of a typical Iraqi family, a completely different picture as that of the American family can be seen. In trying to understand the situation, a precursory look at the political and economic landscapes of the country is very critical. Although the study of Iraqi gender roles is highly complicated by the fact that Iraq is a country attended by various tribes, social classes, various ethnicities, and even religions, all of which influence family lives, there are nevertheless representative data which are good indicators of the situation or the plight of Iraqi families, factors which shape the gender-roles they end up performing.

Lasky (2004) states that “from 1958 to the 1990s, Iraq provided more rights and freedoms for women and girls than most of its neighbors. Though Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial government and12 years of severe sanctions reduced these opportunities, Iraqi women, before the occupation, were still active in many aspects of their society.” As to the post-U.S. invasion, Lasky further states that the period of U.S. invasion and the present Iraqi government has done little in effectively bettering women’s plight.

In a Women for Women International Briefing Paper (2005), a follow-up on Lasky’s earlier observations can be found. The paper states that Iraqi “women have been marginalized and excluded by both the U.S.-led Transitional Governing Authority and its successor, the Iraqi Governing Council.” Women with progressive advocacies and who do not follow the traditional wardrobe for women have been favorite targets for retribution. Also, conservatism borne about by stringent cultural concept of honor forces male members of the family to kill women considered as “loose” in order to purportedly protect the honor of the family.

Similar to their women, males also perennially suffer from violence arising from sectarian feuds, riots propagated by rebel groups and insurgents, and clashes between the local community and the U.S. forces.

As a result, violence, abductions and murders have elicited fear from the local communities which has subsequently kept them either crippled (unable to work) or constantly mobile (fleeing their homes and/or leaving their country altogether).

In terms of the gender-roles played by the members of a family within the family and within the community, it can be said that theirs paint a picture drastically different from that of the American family whose environment is far comfortable and stable than that of an Iraqi family. As many men and women are reduced to non-employment and constant fleeing, there is little standardization nor predictability in terms of what a man is supposed to do and what he actually does and what a woman is supposed to do and what she actually does. There is no fixed daily routine as violence and fear are the ones that set a typical family’s schedule and agenda. Strife drives families from homes.[6]

For those who have managed to retain their homes, there is little delineation between male chores and female chores at home as both sexes are engaged in the same household chores. The traditional role of the male as the bread-winner of the family is also shoved to the background as females may feel forced to work for the family instead as the males of the households can easily be seen as targets of the menace that is continuously happening in the streets.

Yet despite this absence of stability and predictability, certain customs, indicative of the woman’s place in the family and in society, still remain unaltered by the current economic, political and security landscapes. In fact, these customs, instead of fading away, have actually gone worse. “In rural areas, honor killings and mutilations, forced marriages, and female circumcision persist” (Women for Women International, 2005) on a great scale. These also take place in urban centers although in a lesser scale. A good example of this harassment is the situation “in Latifya, a city south of Baghdad, [wherein] Sunni radicals have covered walls warning women and girls not to go out in public without covering their heads and faces and threatening death to the violators.” These practices fundamental in Iraqi societies, therefore, show that if their families can be categorized into any of sociology’s familial classifications, then Iraqi families would fit aptly into that of a patriarchal set-up. It reveals many of this category’s indicators — dominance of the males in the family, double standard of sex morality, male representation of the family group in to the community, low social status for women and patrilineal transmission of power and rank.

Importance of the topic

            Probing into the dynamics of gender-roles within the family, how these affects society and vice-versa is a very important subject to which attention has to be given. What is more important, however, is the side-by-side juxtaposition of the typical picture of an American family with that of a typical picture of an Iraqi family for in doing so blatant inequalities in the ways of life of the two is underlined. Pinpointing these inequalities, their sources, and their gravity is crucial if we are to come up with an effective action plan to counter the problem.

Application to other contexts

            An application of the understanding of the symbiotic effect of the gender-roles within the family and societal factors can also be applied to other countries and other sub-communities. For instance, comparing and contrasting gender-roles in, say, Japan, with that of China can shed light into why their current policies concerning population growth and population control, respectively, are what they are. Also, a comparison of the gender-roles dominant in Company X with those in effect in Company Y may explain why Company X’s personnel organization is more business-friendly than that of Company Y’s.

Positions on the subject

            Opinion-makers have contributed to debates regarding gender-roles. One very basic debate is that of the nature vs. nature debate. Briefly, nature theory espouses the idea that the characteristics and functions of individuals is dictated by the biological and physical composition while nurture theory attributes a person characteristics as a product of society, a result of social interactions and not inherent qualities as nature theory would posit.

            Having already shown the gender roles prevailing both in the U.S. and in Iraq, it is easy to debunk the dichotomous treatment of gender roles which the nature vs. nurture debate extends to the topic. As the reader has seen, the creation of gender roles is influenced by both. Work tasks given to men and women are usually based on their physical strengths, and almost all of the rest of gender expectations are instructed by society.

            More specified theories attribute certain traits to men and certain traits to women in terms of their respective social behavior. For instance, “social stereotypes maintain that females are “nicer” and more nurturant than men” (Eagly, Mladinic, ; Otto, 1991). However such stereotypes, as all other stereotypes are very vulnerable to attacks. This “helpful behavior” of women can be questioned if one is to pay more critical attention to what is meant by the researcher as helpful. In the above description of the gender role scenario in the United States and Iraq, stereotypes are but mere conventions that aid people to think about their society. In the U.S., for instance, attitudes productive of acts and decisions which were previously seen as not fitting a lady were debunked for the sake of economic and other societal concerns (i.e., the renegade attitude of women during the 1960s social revolution). This is not to say that stereotypes are altogether untrue. What this writer is trying to convey is that although there is truth to them, they are nevertheless not fixed and are capable of being altered, often to suit the call of the times, which in turn is dictated by politics, economics, changes in social thinking, and even the climate.

What public policies should be implemented? Why?

            Public policies should embrace the idea of change in terms of gender roles. They should espouse a spirit of egalitarianism to the extent that laws which are limiting of a certain sex’s choices and actions should be abrogated. A more liberating set of policies regarding child-rearing and child education should be established. For instance, the education system should espouse more gender-neutral scenarios in schools and let the children be, without any imposition of lady-like decorum and the like. This should be so because for as long as society continues to breathe into the lives of young people myths about their gender, the more these young people are wired or are conditioned to fulfill such societal expectations, making it hard for them to adapt to drastic changes, such as those fuelling the country of Iraq. If these social constructs of gender roles are let to take hold of the minds of the youngsters, just imagine how an American teenage girl would respond when confronted with the situation wherein she has to leave home and work for the family, while her father and brothers merely wait at home for fear that if they go out, physical injuries, if not death, would welcome them.

Trends in the next 10 years

            This writer opines hat the gender roles currently pervasive in the United States are not about to experience monumental changes, ceteris paribus. This is because, the country has achieved a form of stability in terms of its political landscape to the extent that the sphere of the family is seen not be threatened by any impending major social overhaul, unlike in the case of Iraq. On the other hand, the current socio-political, economic, and security scenario in Iraq is very open to developments. Iraq is experiencing a period of transition. This means that current pervasive gender roles and also, the current ambiguities attending them will surely experience change and achieve stability in the coming years. Whether these changes spell a more stable set of gender roles, the world is yet to see.

Reference List

Adler, L. (Ed.). (1993). International Handbook on Gender Roles. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Anastasi, A. ( 1985). “Reciprocal relations between cognitive and affective development with implications for sex differences”. In Sonderegger T. B. (Ed.), Psychology and Gender. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Bancroft, J. (1990). The impact of sociocultural influences on adolescent sexual development: Further considerations. In J. Bancroft ; J. M. Reinisch (Eds.), Adolescence and puberty (pp. 207–216). New York: Oxford University Press.

Etaugh C., ; Liss M. B. (1992). Home, school, and playroom: Training grounds for adult gender roles. Sex Roles, 26: 129-47.

Lasky, M. (2004) Iraqi Women Under Seige: A Report by CODEPINK: Women for Peace and Global Exchange. Retrieved May 3, 2007 from http://codepink4peace.org/downloads/IraqiWomenReport.pdf

Maccoby, E. E., ; Jacklin, C. N. (1974). The psychology of sex differences. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Mussab, A. (March 08, 2006) Sectarian strife drives Iraqi families from homes. Retrieved May 2, 2006, from http://www.wwrn.org/article.php?idd=20755;sec=46;con=34

Oppel, R. (April 30, 2006) 100,000 Families Are Fleeing Violence, Iraq Official Says. Retrieved May 2, 2006, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/30/world/middleeast/30iraq.html?ei=5090;en=3b622b00e22b5010;ex=1304049600;partner=rssuserland;emc=rss;pagewanted=print

Serbin, L. A., O’Leary, K. D., Kent, R. N., ; Tonick, I. J. (1973). A comparison of teacher response to the preacademic and problem behavior of boys and girls. Child Development, 44.

William, J. (1953). The structure of the Brazilian family. Social Forces, 31: 340-75.

Women for Women International (January 2005). Windows of Opportunity: The Pursuit of Gender Equality in Post-War Iraq. Retrieved May 2, 2007, from http://www.womenforwomen.org/Downloads/Iraq_Paper_0105.pdf

[1] See Maccoby, E. E., ; Jacklin, C. N. (1974). The psychology of sex differences. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
[2] See Serbin, L. A., O’Leary, K. D., Kent, R. N., ; Tonick, I. J. (1973). A comparison of teacher response to the preacademic and problem behavior of boys and girls. Child Development, 44.
[3] See Etaugh C., ; Liss M. B. (1992). Home, school, and playroom: Training grounds for adult gender roles. Sex Roles, 26: 129-47.
[4] Although of no less importance, further discussion as regards this matter will not be pursued as this does not directly concern the topic of this paper. Suffice it to say, that gender-role differentiations exist event at the early stages of childhood.

[6] See Mussab, A. (March 08, 2006) Sectarian strife drives Iraqi families from homes. Retrieved May 2, 2006, from http://www.wwrn.org/article.php?idd=20755;sec=46;con=34 and Oppel, R. (April 30, 2006) 100,000 Families Are Fleeing Violence, Iraq Official Says. Retrieved May 2, 2006, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/30/world/middleeast/30iraq.html?ei=5090;en=3b622b00e22b5010;ex=1304049600;partner=rssuserland;emc=rss;pagewanted=print