Community Update

Digital Empowerment Toolkit Now Available!

At World Pulse, we recognize the need for ongoing learning—for you and for your community! Our toolkits aim to provide the resources you need to advance your social change work.

We are excited to introduce our Digital Empowerment Trainers’ Toolkit, a dynamic resource to help you bring the benefits of connecting online to women in your community. Check it out today! »

Rainbow of life.

Anyone, anyone of us is a unique spark.

We are like the trees in a forest. As you look distractly to the whole multitude, then to someone of them, you easily acknowledge they are just that, “trees”. But as you watch more carefully, you immediately discover no one is identical to another.

We, the same!

But we're humans, and as such we have an important difference from trees: we love inventing categories, assigning people to some of them, and imagining they will behave in predictable conformity to the supposed average, or ideal, of that category.

Too often, own's category has something infinitely better than others.

One of these artificial categories is known to all of us: “race”. I don't know how many million lives have been sacrificed in its name. Yet, this is a concept not resisting scientific investigation: barely stated, the variability of human population (a natural population as anyone else) is too large for a small number of clusters to be identified. Differently stated, science says each individual is a race in herself.

We also know. There is a category more deeply entangled in our mind: gender. After all we are animals, have to reproduce, and hence it was quite an advantage to develop structures allowing us to discern potential mates with minimal or no waste of time.

Obviously, half population is female, and the other is male.

Then, again obviously, males behave as “men” and females as “women”.

Another obvious step: why not have / expect “men” and “women” to divide works in some economically-optimal way?

One more, and last, “obvious” step: once roles are established for each category, why not to attach to each of them some merit value, and say one is infinitely better than the other?

This “obvious” division may not, in principle, lead to discrimination of one sex against the other. But it very often does, and in our times this tendency has reached a level not only unacceptable, but almost suicide for our species.

Little question: women today are on the side bearing the heavier load.

I haven't definitive truths to state. Only some bits of information which may intrude a bit of doubt in the vast sea of “obvious”.

More specifically, that it may not be possible to define what a man/woman is in purely logical terms.
Would categories be something really natural, it should be immediate to assign anyone to their own, without error. OK, but how, then, concretely?

You may base your decision on, say, external genitals. If they are one shape, that person is a “woman”, if they are the other, is a “man”. And then, based on this finding, expect how this person “should” be, behave, feel, and stand in the world.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, it depends on the observation point), this approach doesn't work. In the real world there are various intersex form. And maybe, they are not “pathological” forms, but just a manifestation of the normally immense variability of any natural population. And, I repeat it, we humans are: nature is not outside us, we are “just” one of its parts.

If external shape doesn't work, you (living on a highly technological planet) may try with something more fundamental, like chromosomes.

At school we were explained any human has 46 chromosomes, including two having something to do with sex determination. If you have two XX such chromosomes then you are a female. If your “sex” chromosomes are XY, then you're male. It seems so simple and binary…

As research proceeded, this simple model turned to be just the most common case. It's now known a 23:XX genotype may develop into a male-looking phenotype and, viceversa, a 23:XY into a female. This, not to speak of other well known and relatively common variants like XXY, XYY, Xo, XXX (some resulting in diseases, but in many cases just passing unobserved).

All these variants are not that common, but also not so rare (prof. J. Roughgarden, herself with an interesting story of warmth and courage, has pointed out these variants are in fact “too much” common in population genetics terms: their existence confers some selective advantage not yet identified, something like mediterranean anemy: two copies of a mutated gene results in something quite lethal, but if you have just one then you're protected against malaria; this protective effect maintain the mutated gene at a high level in the population, even though two copies of it have deadly effects).

Another recent discovery (which I fine wonderful, connecting generations one to the other) is that of “microchimerism”. During pregnancy, contrary to anything assumed in the past, some of the mother’s cells filter out into the child, and implant there. The proportion varies from individual to individual, but I remember figures in the order of 1 maternal cell per 1000 (I’m not sure). Isn’t nice? Any human living on Earth is also (in a tiny part) the “twin sister of his/her mother”. These parental cells may have some important function, in priming the immunitary system. A recent paper in Scientific American describes this phenomenon in quite depth. An interesting implication is, all human have not “just one” genome, but surely two (the person and his/her mother) or even three.

Whatever the detailed reason, there are (many) cases in which you may find assigning people to one category is difficult.

In these last tens of years an impressive amount of research has been made on gender issues (in many cases with an alarming utilitaristic and stereotyping attitude). As money was put into these research projects, findings did emerge and, as usually happens, they provided more questions than definitive answers.

It has been clarified a possible mechanism of “sexing”, in which a sexually neutral (but objectively tending towards femaleness) embryo is molded into a female or a male. The process, still in part unknown, involves a lot of steps; in case of a male, these include “defeminization” and “masculinization” under hormonal control. These stepss, although occurring in sequence, seem to be quite independent and variable from an individual to the other. This is especially apparent in the human brain, where some structures assume a sort of priming and shape typical of one sex or the other.

One aspect I find fascinating is, the brain sexing is not exclusive to one sex, just “typical”. Exceptions now are in impressive numbers, not just in 1 out of 10000s like genetic variants: numbers like a 25% may be more appropriate. If you consider the tendency we human share to feel confident with people whose behavior we can better predict, in the personal reality of each of us it’s highly likely that “almost all” our close friends and relatives have our same brainsex asset, regardless they are female or male.

Of course, as you enlarge the picture more and more, and add details, things progressively bur out as they become more complex, and the existence of just two categories begins to appear for what it is: nothing more than a questionable perception (more on this later).

Please, forgive me for having said so many abstract things… Actual, real stories are, I know, more interesting.

Let’s think then to one specific case, just as an example.

Genomic asset: 23:XX. External genital shape: male. Internal genitals: female (not easy to detect on birth, but on the first menstruation you realize). Facial body hair: male. Trunk and arms body hair: female. Overall body shape: female, with little breast. Voice timber: male (with some upper harmonics which can be easily suppressed). Skull shape: in overlap zone. Brain type (as from S.B. Cohen classification): “E”. Elbow and knee articulation: externally facing, female-like. Hands and feet length: male-like. Hands and feet bone diameter: female-like. Yearly average of nocturnal heart rate: 66 (close to the female, and far from male average). May add much more.

This may seem an unfortunate Frankenstein on a first glance. But it isn't, this is a living real individual (actually, this laboratory specimen is just me – I had nothing better in my hands), just seen under the microscope at high enough magnification. Take any other individual at random, dissect him or her this way (this is not something nice, I admit), and you will end up in a mess of apparently contradictory details summarizing in nothing more than a “special, unique set of instrument readings”.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In my own personal journey I have sometimes felt quite alone. My specific case, I admit, is not of the commonest type – the amount of “contradictions” in the always-contradictory structure God and chance donated to me is, no question, somewhat larger than usual. I’m sort of androgynous creature, but not perfectly, just a bit, in fact tending more towards the female state than male.

What it does mean for me? Well, not so much. Right, although enlisted as “man” I know very well and in detail what menstrual cycle is, by direct personal experience. I know what it means feeling the time pass, and nature within. Guaranteed, however: nothing in this makes me less, or more, human. In a sense, I’m grateful to my body the way it is: it’s a sleek and efficient “machine”, with an incredible resistance (especially in warm climates – I can walk and stay active for many many hours without eating or drinking while my friends fall exhausted one after the other). It also has some nuisances (my liver is constantly removing a bit-toxic chemical with a mild androgenizing effect, and is in permanent overload; I lose salts, calcium especially, faster than usual; and other little nuances). But in the very end, this is me. I can’t conceive any other way of living and experiencing the world other than through the wonderful machine Nature has assigned to me.
Given circumstances, I feel my experience might be of value. In a sense, I’m a sort of living litmus paper, myself an unusual standpoint from which to see and feel. Close, very close to people (I really love to stay connected), yet at a distance, at least from preconcepts I can’t fit in. Circumstances impede me to have a child on my own; but as an exchange, I got a freedom to explore very few people will ever have. As you realize you have an entire planet to wander in and explore, either traveling physically or just with your mind, well, you also begin to feel responsible.

One thing is sure: you can be in an ideal situation to make interesting discoveries on what counts and what does not.

An interesting point is, how other people judge you. As I said, just being in a place I give contrasting signals. I present me as a “man” (sort of. A natural android? ☺), yet many people perceive “also” the evident signs of femaleness and in some way react. Often they politely accept my presentation and act towards me as a man, but this does not happens always, and some interact with me as a woman.
In a sense I’m neither, I’m a category in my own. But the variable way others deal with me often provides revealing cues about we humans and our nature.

Who chooses a reference gender when interacting with me very often does spontaneously and sincerely. But this is not always the case, as I discovered in many cases at work. Concrete episodes often looked me in their full paradoxical essence, but overall I noticed people “choose to interact with me as female if they, by doing so, imagine they can pay less”.

Corollary: it’s considered perfectly normal, in Italy, to pay women less for an equal work (to the illogical point to pay less the same person, considered as a woman instead of a man).

This practice is even institutionalized, as I experience on my own skin, again paradoxically: there exist some companies which routinely stop women careers around age 33, assuming they will soon have children; this decision is incredibly impersonal, sometimes taken on the basis of just a tiny word in a computer. As absurd it can seem, this flag has been used also on me - on a cautionary basis, I suppose. I left that company (with full satisfaction).

That you are sterile or not (something inhumane, but which would at least give a bit of crazy, Nazi-style logic to the process) does not even enter the equation: the essential thing is whether you are male or female.
Period.

Then, there are the expectations. I’m me, of course. As plastic and flexible I may be, there is a firm core of feelings, experiences and believes which defines me as a human being and nothing may hage. But there are expectations other have on you because you have been assigned to some gender. And these expectations has really nothing to do with the real you.

In my case this gives quite messy consequences: most people have to build one armor, one persona only, the way you present to world in a socially acceptable manner. I’m demanded to have two, at least. If I choose the right one, that’s all quite fine, I “pass the exam”. But if I don’t, consequences are usually catastrophic – so I had to learn quickly to detect in which of the possible direction a person is stereotyping me.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I’ve been too long. It’s time to arrive at a point, and to distill an experience. I have already abused of your so precious time…

If I’m asked what may I try saying to another person about the important point of my experience, I’d place on the first place this:

The way women are considered, treated, paid, not given voice and right is an patent, unacceptable and arbitrary injustice. The deepest and less tolerable one, maybe, in these times. This injustice is practiced and founded, I think and strongly state based on personal experience, on literally nothing. On nothing worth, at least. As I said "women", I might add children and, in general, the weak and, de facto, "low valued". Same, it can't sincerely be accepted, although common it may be.

The second thing I can now say is: other things are of importance, than gender. These are really universal and, I feel, “natural”. All-encompassing, truly in touch on the way we humans are built. Someone better than me with words will surely formulate this all in a single sentence, I try with few points.

First of all, love. In the sense of a passion for all the “others”, even apparently inanimate, this world is made of. To become so keen, sensitive and intelligent to understand the stories they can teach to us. To open up, and allow this all change you from the inside. This is obvious and primary with persons. But also essential with nature. With the small, and the big.

And, also, any chance to express this love. As Khalil Gibran, the wise, so effectively pointed out, work (and anything else) what is, if not love made visible? Let your love flow, and the bread you bake will be sweet. Otherwise, poison. It applies to bread, work, and the whole world as well. But for this to happen, you, anyone, should have the material possibility to. Freedom, this is what we all need. Freedom from hunger, war, and the unneeded. Shelter. And, yes, love we can learn from.

Then, curiosity. We, as humans, are natural explorers. I state wandering in freedom is as primary a need as food, shelter and love. It has to do deeply with our dignity of human beings to have always opportunities to learn, see, and connect – what we can’t do, if we are locked to some place, or fixed mindset. I state this should be possible independent on gender, ethnic group, income. God has given this planet, the whole planet, the entire universe, to anyone of us, as a unique person, in present and future – and not as a property, just as a borrow. With, I feel in the deepest way, the entitlement to go and know it. And it is not even necessary our wanders are in the real world: they may occur in the vast spaces of mind, or in the immense realms two souls can disclose together. Maybe we will be judged sometimes for how we made this. Now, we judge ourselves.

Then, the possibility to be ourself. To just stand or to grow, whatever we like, but in authenticity. This need is not just primary for us as single beings: it’s also essential to humankind as a whole. As many as we are, the best we can do is, as so many of you already said, to speak “one to the other”, on a person-to-person basis. Without the mediation of some artificial category (like, after all and despite anything science will find, gender is). I understand: this may be not always simple and rewarding, as it is “among us of Pulsewire”. Each of us is unique, I said. But, this uniqueness is not akin to our real essence. We have so much in common we can always find common grounds on which to communicate. This may require effort sometimes, especially if our premises are different, but we must do: there just is no chance. An Italian writer, Primo Levi, once wrote that accepting the effort to open up and communicate is the only thing with the power to save us from the horrors we, as a species, have already practiced. Some of us (as women? ☺) may find connecting easier and rewarding. But, let’s admit, it is not always so – and the most difficult cases are right the most important, if we want a world in partnership.

That's for now.

We all need positive action.

Let's invent it.

Mauri

Magazine »

Read global coverage through women's eyes

Inside Congo's Growing Sisterhood

Inside Congo's Growing Sisterhood

Community »

Connect with women on the ground worldwide

Face to Face with the U.S. Special Envoy to DRC

Face to Face with the U.S. Special Envoy to DRC

Campaigns »

Be heard at influential forums

WWW: Women Weave the Web

WWW: Women Weave the Web

Programs »

Help us train women citizen journalists

World Pulse Voices of Our Future

World Pulse Voices of Our Future

Blog »

Read the latest from World Pulse headquarters

Highlights of the 2014 World Pulse LIVE Tour

Highlights of the 2014 World Pulse LIVE Tour

Partners »

Join forces with our wide network of partners

Nobel Women's Initiative

Nobel Women's Initiative