Mon | Dec 17, 2018

Michael Abrahams | Challenging social norms

Published:Monday | October 16, 2017 | 12:38 AM

I walked into the surgeon’s changing room as I usually do on a Thursday morning, the day I schedule my patients for major surgery. The scrubs (operating room attire) that are available are customarily blue or green.

That morning, I got hold of a green shirt, but the only pants I saw in the closet were pink. So, I kept looking for green or blue pants, rummaging through a sea of pink. Then, suddenly, I realised what I was doing, and that it was irrational and unnecessary.

Like most of us, I was socialised to believe that the colour pink is for girls. I consider myself to be a free thinker, one who is not enslaved by social norms. I even tease some of my patients who insist on knowing the sex of their unborn offspring, so that they can buy the appropriately coloured clothes, and tell them that their babies will not give a rat’s ass about the colours of their onesies.

But social and cultural norms are often deeply ingrained, and influence the way we think. Many of these accepted and prescribed rituals and practices are benign, but some can be downright harmful.

Chinese foot binding is an excellent example of the latter. For approximately 1,000 years, ending in the 20th century, girls in China were routinely crippled by having their feet bound. Usually between the ages of four and six, girls’ feet were tightly bound, with the process involving deliberately breaking the bones of the toes and other bones in the feet, and curling the broken toes underneath, causing the feet to resemble hoofs, measuring about four inches. The process was extremely painful and debilitating, and sometimes resulted in infections, and even death from gangrene.

It is thought that this bizarre ritual began in the 10th century, when Emperor Li Yu became mesmerised by one of his concubines who bound her feet and danced seductively on her toes. The practice became so entrenched in Chinese culture that by the mid-17th century, most females in China had tiny hoof-like feet. The very poor ones escaped binding, as they needed to be mobile and agile enough to work in fields or on boats. So bound feet were the accepted thing, while unbound feet became associated with being in a lower class, and were rejected by men of higher classes. Finally, in the 19th century, following exposure to Western cultures, the custom stopped.

Harmful social norms, such as the above-mentioned torture of Chinese girls, may take a long time to become extinct, as a population comes to its senses. In this case, exposure to traditions outside of their world made the difference. Sometimes, however, one person can make a change.

Nice NailanteiLeng’ete, a 26-year-old Maasai activist, persuaded 7,000 people in her village in Kenya to put an end to the horrific practice of female genital mutilation. Although all her classmates underwent the procedure, and were unable to continue their education, Nice refused.

In this barbaric operation, the clitoris is cut off, sometimes along with the inner and outer labia of the vulva. The procedure has no health benefits for girls, but is associated with a host of complications, including haemorrhage, infection, urinary problems and difficult childbirth, among others. I have a friend from an African country who survived this ordeal. Her sister was not as fortunate; she bled to death.

But in societies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East where the ritual is carried out, it is a rite of passage for girls, with some men refusing to marry women who have not been cut. Nice decided to show Maasai warriors in her village videos of what takes place during the procedure. Many had no idea how cruel it was, and were repulsed by what they saw. They have since abandoned the ceremony and, thanks to Nice, no girl has been cut in her village since 2012.

Every now and again, I hear people pardon questionable behaviours, claiming that they are part of their culture or result from how they were socialised. But socialisation and culture are flimsy excuses for the endorsement of harmful practices. Corporal punishment of our children comes to mind.

Beating children, often with anything that we can get our hands on, has been normalised in our culture, but may be doing more harm than good. Remember that it was once part of our culture for black people to be slaves. It was also part of our culture for only light-skinned women to be bank tellers. Today we look back on those practices and cringe. It would be in the best interest of our society, and especially our children, to re-evaluate attitudes and practices that we embrace, but can cause damage.

As for my pants dilemma, I put on a pair of pink pants and strode confidently into the operating room, generating laughter from the nurses and the patient on the operating table, who I reminded that have access to sharp instruments. The janitor later apologised for the absence of pants in the traditional colours. I told her that she had absolutely no reason to apologise. The social norm is for men not to wear pink. But who cares?

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.