by Jenna McDaniel
When we are young, we get put in time-out for breaking the rules or for doing things we aren’t supposed to do. Adults scold us and say, “Bad girl” or “Bad boy”, as they try to teach us how to abide by a set of socially appropriate guidelines for behavior. But as we age, we learn, both consciously and subconsciously, how to conform to the world around us. We develop and grow to assimilate the cultural norms of our society, creating an environment that contributes to making this world go round.
Azita and her husband live in Kabul, Afghanistan and have for years, raising their four daughters. The eldest two are twins, Benafsha and Beheshta. Mehrangis is the middle girl and Mahnoush is the youngest. Although a strong family of six, they were nevertheless viewed in Afghan society as incomplete, weak, and vulnerable, due to the simple fact that they only have daughters. In Afghanistan, a woman’s primary aspiration is to bear a son. When she doesn’t, she is given the insulting title of dokhtar zai, meaning “she who only brings daughters”. The mother, Azita, was passionate about pursuing her career as a politician, but lacked support from her extended family and peers. Most Afghans don’t know that the sperm from the father carries the chromosomal makeup for each child, determining whether a male or female child will be born. As a mother without a son, Azita, just like any other Afghan mother would, took the brunt of her community’s disapproval. People were unsympathetic, branding her untrustworthy and incomplete, merely adding to the embarrassment she and her husband already felt. Azita and her husband’s approach to solving this dilemma was to have a boy. At the age of six, they cut their youngest daughter’s hair, changed her clothing, enrolled her in boys’ sports, and called her Mehran. Mehran’s newfound status provided a number of benefits to the family, including greater freedom for her siblings, pride from her father and most importantly, approval from the outside world.
As an outsider, I can immediately find countless areas of disconnect in this story and draw the conclusion that societies with cultural norms such as this are just flat-out wrong. But are they really? Through the distant eyes of a white American college woman, it’s easy for me to judge, criticize, and discredit. And yet, I recognize in my instinctive judgment a need for empathy. The world needs more understanding and acceptance. Conformity to social norms and values is a struggle many individuals face. Social standards vary, and we create and maintain them. Social trends come and go; yet the unwritten rules of behavior and social protocol always stay. Time and again, generation after generation, these rules remain. Whether we choose to accept them or not, these variations in cultural expectations continue to flourish all over the world. They are what define us and keep our societies unique. Lifestyles and cultures that are different from those we are accustomed to can alter our perspectives by shining new light on facets of life that were previously unknown to us.
Finding that empathy within us is all it takes to make expanding our horizons that much simpler. Azita and her husband sacrificed both their careers and their reputation for their daughters. Conformity can be a critical factor to social acceptance for many people, particularly women. It’s not at all unusual to feel self-conscious, and put the desires of society above our own. In Western culture, conformity can be a woman’s greatest enemy, leading to make-it or break-it opportunities that may be once-in-a-lifetime chances. The STEM fields and high-stakes business positions are two career areas that have far fewer women than men. Success in these fields often boils down to strategy, timing, and overcoming the inequality of opportunity between men and women in jobs of high measure. For women, there is an almost essential level of conformity required to make themselves seem deserving and worthy of particular positions. The most common areas of industry in which we see more woman CEOs are the media and consumer goods. This is due in large part to the fact that these industries have been open to women for longer than technology and science-based firms have. America has long claimed to be a land of “equal opportunity” and it is imperative that the nation stays true to that promise.
The rates of social conformity are much higher in women than in men. According to a 1982 study completed by Santee and Jackson, women are more sensitive than men when it comes to their interpersonal relationships. Due to this higher level of sensitivity, women tend to prioritize those relationships, therefore making themselves more apt to conform in order to make, maintain and keep them. In terms of fairness within society, it is a woman’s degree of mental satisfaction and acceptance of herself combined with the extent she is willing to conform, that can ultimately determine her achievement in today’s world. For some, the seemingly forced conformity is worth it, for others, not so much. It’s a personal decision that takes into consideration self-worth and the goal one is striving towards.
For women who choose not to conform, the outcome varies. For some women in certain cultures, it could mean life or death. It could cost a woman her reputation, as seen with Azita’s story, or a career opportunity, or any other important part of one’s life. It seems there is far less acceptance for the nonconformists, those that stand out and make their own path in life. But who is to say that that’s not acceptable? Choosing to conform or not to conform to the cultural norms of society is only the beginning. Taking a step back and recognizing the incredible lengths the human race will go to fit in is when we are able to note our own priorities and whether or not conformity falls within them. Is it worth it?