The Subtle Tricks Social Roles Play

Apr 13 , 2019
By Michael G. Behailu

I came across Joseph Arrington Jr’s, also known as Joe Tex, song “Hold On to What You’ve Got” the other day. It is one of the singer’s well-known works, albeit with lyrics that have not aged accordingly.

He sang of a “woman who will stay right there at home and mind the children, while [the man] is gone to work” and a “woman who will have [the man’s] dinner cooked when he comes home,” clearly depicting what a woman is expected to do and be, a house wife.

Now, consider how societies are constructed and organised. While doing this, try to think of the roles and responsibilities “given” to women and the roles and responsibilities “taken” by men.

What do we have now? Are they different, proportionate or acceptable?

As we live in a very diverse world, societal norms are different from place to place and from country to country. Such discrepancy is created because of the agents of socialisation, which include family, peers, school, work and social media.

They play a significant role in shaping an individual into contemporary societal norms and values. They mold them to fit into society. These agents, however, being part of an ever-changing environment, will go through various and diverse changes due to discoveries, an improved way of thinking or life.

These agents, at some point in time, have defined and determined who will do what in a society and who will make decisions. Most societies, unfortunately, have allocated to men decisions they consider significant, and women have been relegated to the periphery. Gender roles is a manifestation of this.

Like any other society, Ethiopia has had a set of gender roles where there were distinct demarcations in which both sexes should proceed. This is describable in the daily encounters that manage to surprise us.

What will amaze us more, a woman or a man who cannot cook? Are we as much surprised by a woman that cannot change a tyre as much as a guy that cannot do the same?

When we think of the things that women and men should be able to do, we have a clear distinction in our heads that we have inherited from societies’ imposition of such roles.

The socialisation agents perpetuate these gender roles mostly without questioning them. Since childhood, boys are given “manly” tasks like playing football, changing car oil or farming out in the field, while girls are given “womanly” tasks such as making the bed, washing the dishes and playing indoors. They grow up with that set of mind.

This matter is all the more complicated by the fact few of us are a fan of people or groups that stray from the norms set by society. When and if an individual or a faction within the society starts deviating from societal norms, they are considered abnormal and are ostracised. This is one of the reasons why even some of the clearest cut backward cultural artifacts, such as female genital mutilation, are still prevalent. People have a hard time letting go of a culture in which they have been raised.

Thus, I was not surprised to hear when Joe Tex sang as such, as his words resembled the assumptions of his society. He only sang about what he saw and experienced growing up in his community. He always expected and viewed women as not more than what has been “given” to them, while men were adventurous and explorers of the world.

Yet cultures, traditions and norms only exist as long as we allow them to. We must be able to choose what is good for all of us and reject what we know to be counterproductive. Our effort should be focused in creating a fairer world, not one where half of the population thrives at the expense of the other half. It is only through a coordinated effort that we will be able to tackle the problems faced every day by women.

PUBLISHED ON Apr 13,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 989]

Michael G. Behailu is an economist, gender activist and blogger. He can be reached at

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