Male and Female in the so-called modern couple

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The balance of power within relationships is becoming much less related to gender, a fact which some people find disconcerting.

One of the most striking aspects of how the sexes relate within today’s couple, is the way in which many women have asserted their own individuality. They are seeing themselves in a new light and redefining their roles within society. Whether in poor countries, where a quick examination of the facts confirms the standard observation that women are in a position of inferiority, or in Western countries where they are generally seen as being free from the chains of social conditioning, many women are now insisting on a more « objective » appreciation of their worth. Feminism has provided a theoretical framework for these new demands and has sometimes even imposed them as new role models for women.
These demands and new-found awareness may not yet have succeeded in resolving all the problems associated with male-female relationships, but they have brought about a general improvement at most levels of society. Within the couple, for example, task-sharing is evolving and will continue to evolve, not because of any action on the male’s part but because of what women themselves have achieved, together with shifts in the general political, social, cultural and economic environment. In many instances, we see the notion of « male » or « female » tasks losing its traditional meaning to become merely a rough guide. And in reality, even if the term continues to be used, it does not necessarily refer specifically to one or other sex. Increasingly, men are undertaking what were once considered exclusively « female » tasks.
As innocuous and irrelevant as such changes may appear, they nonetheless have far-reaching implications for the image of men and women. They challenge male prerogatives and enable women to overturn (or reduce the significance of) entrenched cultural patterns. In general, the notion of male or female with respect to the couple is the changing factor. The balance of power and strength is being redefined on grounds other than gender. These days, economic power, cultural wealth and so forth may, within the context of the couple, make the woman’s voice the dominant one, so that the man finds himself in a position of inferiority, that is, the dependant partner. Without women actually setting out to assume the male role, a kind of role reversal is taking place. More than anything, this inversion is part of a logical progression.
I have attempted to demonstrate these ideas in an essay entitled La sexualité féminine en Afrique [Feminine sexuality in Africa] published by L’Harmattan (Paris, 1999).
These changes also have their effect on the quality of relationships between the sexes. The emancipation of women could make men more psychologically fragile, particularly as a result of the very ambiguous attitude that a number of women have about their own roles or so-called male ones. In fact, while essentially wishing to close the gap between the sexes with respect to their relative privileges, some women try to turn certain situations to their personal advantage by reminding the man of his duties and responsibilities. They want him assume his responsibilities, but at the same time they want him to be sufficiently sensitive to the way things are changing to see that he can no longer consider certain privileges his by right. Hence he is forced to relinquish a good many of his privileges while, at the same time accept the responsibilities that go with being a man.
Although simple enough in theory, in reality the present state of affairs is somewhat more complex. It has been blamed for the fragility of some men and women, an increase in the divorce rate, and in particular for radical changes to the notion of the couple. Women themselves sometimes have difficulty relating to this situation as if, for many of them, emancipation is more difficult to deal with than oppression was. This problem is analysed by Denise Brombardier in her essay, La Déroute des sexes [Sexes in Turmoil], published by Seuil in Paris.
Nevertheless, it is quite clear that being a woman and assuming all the responsibilities of being a female is not easy. Nor is it easy to assume all the responsibilities of being a man in a society which is constantly evolving with respect to certain very traditional sets of values.

Samy Tchak is a sociologist and has published a number of works, including Femme infidèle [Unfaithful Woman], (novel, Nouvelles éditions Africaines de Lomé, 1988), Formation d’une élite paysanne au Burkina Faso [The Creation of a Farming Élite in Burkina Faso], (L’Harmattan, 1995), La Sexualité féminine en Afrique [Feminine Sexuality in Africa], (L’Harmattan, 2000), and Place des Fêtes (Gallimard, Continent Noir collection, 2000)///Article N° : 5486


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