index.html The Interpretation of Gender Roles in English Reading Texts by Arab University Students



Kawakib Al-Momani

Jordan University of Science and Technology





 This study investigates how signs inserted in texts are sometimes lost in the process of interpretation. It focuses on the decoding strategies Arab students at university level use in interpreting the meanings in their English reading texts and the impact of their cultural rooted thinking on their choices of interpretation. A short narrative English text in which gender role stereotypes are encoded was chosen. The text was first analyzed semiotically within Hall's (1974) framework of encoding and decoding embracing the three factors of sender, message and receiver. Then the text was given as a reading task to 100 Jordanian English major students, freshmen and sophomores at Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST). Their responses were analyzed and interpreted quantitatively and qualitatively. Three strategies of decoding were identified: the dominant code, the negotiated strategies, and oppositional strategies. The study showed that the majority of the students opted for the negotiated and oppositional strategies in interpreting the signs related to gender issues. It also showed that their rooted gendered thinking played a crucial role in their interpretation of the embedded message and lead to loss of the intended message.

Keywords: Semiotics, interpretation, encoding, decoding, dominant code, negotiated strategy, oppositional strategy, stereotypes, culture, gendered thinking.

1. Introduction

Human beings have created a world of signs and continue to create new ones to express the anthropomorphic meanings of their lives. These take the form of messages which are normally coded in different means of communication, one of which is the written text, in particular school textbooks. Social rules and values are usually inserted in reading texts as signs. Knowledge of the world plays a crucial role in interpreting these values. Learners usually bring their experiences to their interpretation, and common sense assumptions about the world make it possible for social actors, as cultured beings, to both produce and interpret the texts they encounter in their everyday life. As we enter the twenty-first century, it is essential that the schools be places that help students better understand the complex, symbol-rich culture in which they live as well as other cultures through decoding the signs inserted in their textbooks. As such, educating learners about cultural issues plays a major role in the art of interpretation, but it cannot be successful unless their existing knowledge is explored. This study investigates how signs are sometimes lost when the sender and the receiver belong to two different cultures. This is done through the exploration of the cultural forces of the learners and the effects of these forces on the strategies of decoding the messages in their reading texts. For the purpose of this study Arab English major students at university level have been exposed to a text on gender roles chosen from an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) textbook and where asked a number of open-ended questions about the message inserted in the text. My interest in the topic of gender role manifestation in textbooks stems from the following facts: 


     Semioticians and Discourse analysts agree that texts are social spaces in which ideologies, beliefs, social relations and other socio-cultural values are implied through the explicit content. The written text is a dangerous mode of expression for the manifestation of ideology, hegemony and power relations within a discourse community. Fairclough (1989, 1992, 1995) states that in their ideational functioning texts constitute systems of knowledge and beliefs. Therefore texts are but signs of our cultural, social and ideological values. One social aspect that is commonly encoded in texts, particularly textbooks, is gender relations. Like power relations concerning race, ethnicity, class and culture, power relations related to the social and cultural meanings attributed to being male or female are part of the writer's discourse community views which are evident in the language of texts. Mathis (2003) study on gender issues in the US and Japan concludes that the view of men as fighters and protectors of women and family is embedded in people's thinking and manifested in their practices. This is the case in the US where women enjoy a wider range of freedom than other women in most Eastern countries. Negative representation of women's potentials and contributions in the society has always been evident in the language of texts especially textbooks. Different types of texts mediate a particular ideological orientation about different sexes: children's books, for example, portray girls as sweet, naive, conforming,   dependent, caretakers, mothers, princesses in need of rescuing, while boys are typically described as strong, adventurous, independent, fighters, rescuers, and capable (Singh 1998). In most cases texts reflect some sort of what Alverman and commeyras (2005) call gendered thinking which they define as a 'cultural artifact that shapes the way we interpret the world'. 


      This view, however, has changed recently and great efforts are made all over the world to break gender role stereotypes. This is attributed to the fact that people around the world are now more conscious about gender issues than they were decades ago. The awareness of gender role stereotypes started with the 1970s endeavor of feminist scholars who were interested in investigating the ways in which language and other forms of communication reflected and were used to reinforce gender inequalities which were perceived as natural by the common culture (Epstein 1986). The question of gender has begun to be addressed in Language pedagogy. Many textbook writers have started gearing the wheel towards awakening people's awareness to women's rights. Alverman and Commeyras  (2005) observe that:


Concerns regarding sex bias and a male-dominated reading curriculum have produced numerous studies on the portrayal of male and female characters in textbooks. Authors concerned with sex bias have written books where male and female characters are portrayed in ways intended to break down stereotypes.


      Here in Jordan the ministry of education has replaced Arabic textbooks with new books free from gender differentials focusing on topics and activities of general interest for both boys and girls like: buying toys not dolls or cars for example, or flying kites which both girls and boys enjoy


     Being aware of the crucial role which text plays in changing the reader's views towards gender issues, many writers and educators have produced reading texts which expose and even challenge gender role stereotypes. In challenging these stereotypes  different practices can be observed such as: the indirect exposition of traditional gender roles, through manipulation of text type and genre, like narrating a story where males are portrayed as exercising power over the females in their families; neutrality, like using 'chairperson' instead of 'chairman'; and humor, like jokes.


     Within humor there are a number of practices which expose traditional gendered thinking, one of which is gender role reversing, the concern of this study. Gender role reversing is usually resorted to ironically. Spender (1980: 158) states that reversal of roles has often been useful as a 'consciousness-raising device'. She argues that a few researchers have attempted to reverse the situation and see what happens when the dominant group encounters this situation. It is not intended to mean that texts should be directed to encourage reversing gender roles. On the contrary, reformation in the view towards the relationship between men and women should not be seen as a matter of reversing roles. Nor should it be assumed that changing the language of text towards this sort of reversing will change our gendered thinking. Alverman and Commeyras (2005), emphasize that  'Merely changing the language of texts ... or creating  stories about boys who want to study ballet or girls who are baseball umpires will not change our gendered view of the world'. Gender role reversing is a practice that is commonly used in texts humorously to expose the conventional thinking of the roles allocated to males and females in society. But is this exposition always interpreted as a challenge to existing views on gender roles?  And how do Arab students interpret this practice? This study is an attempt to answer these questions. The analysis of the data will be carried out within the semiotic theory which will be highlighted in the following section



2. Theoretical background


     The science of signs  'Semiotics' or 'semiology'  emerged in a literary or linguistic context through the work of two theorists: the Swiss Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and the American philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce (1839-1914).  These two philosophers inspired Charles Morris, Umberto Eco, and Roland Barthes and others who have contributed to the field of semiotics through their research and analysis of the development of the sign. Saussure divides a sign into two components- the signifier (the sound, image, or word) and the signified (the concept the signifier represents, or the meaning). For Pierce a sign is of a triadic nature. It consists of a representamen which stands for an object, interpretant,' somebody ' and ground.' some respect'. Therefore, a sign stands for something (representamen), to somebody (interpretant), in some respect (ground) (see Nash 1989). The patterns of meaning in signs are of three types iconic, symbolic and indexical. An iconic is a direct way of signification where a sign looks like what it represents. A picture of a cat, for example represents a cat. The symbolic meaning, like the flag, is determined by convention. In other words, its meaning is arbitrary; it is based upon agreement and learned through experience. Language is one example of the symbolic patterns. It uses words as symbols that have to be learned. Unlike Hieroglyphic and Chinese languages, most other languages have no iconic or representational link between a word and its signified concept or symbolic meaning. An indexical meaning is an indirect way of representation where the sign is a clue that links or connects things in nature. Smoke, for example, is a sign of fire; icicles mean cold. In language, figures of speech have indexical meanings. Therefore, through signs, we are able to represent, interpret, and develop knowledge and signification.

     Barthes (1977) in his analysis of images as those in advertisements, divides the system of signification into three parts, that of the linguistic message, the coded iconic message, and the non-coded iconic message. The linguistic message operates on two levels: denotational, and connotational. The coded iconic message is the totality of all of the messages that are connoted by the image itself:   The non-coded iconic message is simply the literal "what it is" of the image.  Barthes identifies two functions of the linguistic message with regard to the iconic message: anchorage and relay. With anchorage, "the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image towards a meaning chosen in advance" (Barthes 1977: 39-40). In a system of relay, "text...and image stand in a complementary relationship...and the unity of the message is realized at the level of the text as a whole (i.e. story, the anecdote...etc.). Most systems are actually a combination of anchorage and relay' (Barthes 1977: 41).

    Danesi (1999:395) argues that 'the choice of language structure in conversation is shaped by a circuitry of connotata, and that it is the connotative dimension of language that guides the navigation of meaning through the discourse situation. Therefore, he continues, someone who studies a foreign language has, initially little or no access to such circuits, given that language teaching tends to be based on denotative models of meaning, and thus can rarely be a participant in real discourse situations until he or she has acquired the underlying connotative maps that chart the flow of meaning in discourse'. Different decoding strategies, to which we will turn now, are usually used to interpret the connotative meanings of language.




2.1 Decoding strategies

     Contemporary semioticians refer to the creation and interpretation of texts as 'encoding' and 'decoding' respectively.  The use of these terms is intended to emphasize the importance of the semiotic codes involved, and thus to highlight social factors (Chandler 1995). In the context of semiotics, 'decoding' involves not simply basic recognition and comprehension of what a text 'says' but also the interpretation and evaluation of its meaning with reference to relevant codes. Within this view Hall (1970) identifies three interpretative strategies for the reader of a text to decode the message. These are summarized in Chandler (1995) as follows:

§         dominant (or 'hegemonic') reading: the reader fully shares the text's code and accepts and reproduces the preferred reading (a reading which may not have been the result of any conscious intention on the part of the author(s)) - in such a stance the code seems 'natural' and 'transparent';

§         negotiated reading: the reader partly shares the text's code and broadly accepts the preferred reading, but sometimes resists and modifies it in a way which reflects their own position, experiences and interests (local and personal conditions may be seen as exceptions to the general rule) - this position involves contradictions;

§         oppositional ('counter-hegemonic') reading: the reader, whose social situation places them in a directly oppositional relation to the dominant code, understands the preferred reading but does not share the text's code and rejects this reading, bringing to bear an alternative frame of reference (radical, feminist etc.) (e.g. when watching a television broadcast produced on behalf of a political party they normally vote against).

     Hall believes that there is no problem when the message is adapted and decoded within the dominant code of hegemony which is the ideal-typical case of what he calls 'transparent communication'. Problems arise when the receivers develop a 'negotiated' strategy which contains a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements, or when they develop an 'oppositional' strategy which operates when the viewer understands the literal and the connotative inflection given by the discourse, but decodes the message in a contrary way. Lester (1995) confirms this arguing that 'making communication more effective (i.e. as an educational goal) is difficult when moving beyond the strictly denotative level of the message'. He clarifies that a signified relationship requires emitter (encoder) and receiver (decoder). If the receiver decodes the sign the way the emitter intended when encoding it, the message is successfully communicated. Otherwise the message will be poorly communicated producing what he calls 'Aberrant decoding', and hence the sign may be lost in interpretation



2.2. Losing the sign in interpretation


      We comprehend language through using complex patterns- referred to as codes- of associations which we learn in a given society or culture. These codes or secret structures in our minds affect the way we interpret signs and symbols encoded in text and the way we live (see Berger 1982). Since people bring different codes to a given message (because of their social class, educational level, political ideologies, world view...etc.), it is possible for misunderstanding to arise between the sender and the receiver of the message, especially when the target audience belongs to a different culture

      Rumelhart (1980) argues that 'Individuals comprehend material by using their prior knowledge to produce an anticipating meaning'. Hence, the sign in the text could be lost if it doesn't fit in the learner's knowledge framework. Barthes (1977) on the other hand argues that texts direct the reader among various signifieds of the image causing him to avoid some and accept others through an often subtle dispatching, and guides him towards a meaning selected in advance.  The producer of text in this case appears to be telling the viewer something like: 'I want you to get this meaning from among different other meanings'. Fowler (1991, 1996), however, argues that early models of critical linguistics gave too little power to the readers, so that they seemed to be passive vessels or sponges, absorbing an ideology that the source of the text imposed on them. He says that this pessimistic conception must be eradicated because when we read we bring certain expectations about what counts as 'sensible communication'. That is because texts are organized in relation to those expectations. Those early views can be eradicated through the active deployment of the mental schemes and processing strategies which the subjects have in advance of their first encounter with the object being processed.

     In this study the researcher is trying to find out who directs who. Is the text enough to guide the receivers to the meaning the sender selects in advance? Or is it the receiver, driven by his rooted thinking, who directs the text towards the meaning that fits in his cultural framework? 



3. The study:


Cultural Background


     The interpretation of the message concerning gender role stereotypes is bound to and determined by the incarnated cultural views on the role both men and women play in society. These views are derived from forces of gender role shaping that are present in almost every aspect of our life. Now in this age of technological development, particularly in the field of communication, new values from different cultures concerning gender roles have been introduced through the media. Therefore, one might find two or three contradicting forces working together at the same time in the same society and even in the same family. Jordan is one part of the Arab world which is very much affected by these changes. As a member of Jordanian society and from my personal observation of debates and discussions on gender issues at all levels in different types of media and even in everyday discussions, I can identify three different forces of gender-role construction that work together in Jordanian society: Traditional forces, Religious forces, and Modern forces.


     Traditional forces refer to the set of social values which are shared by all people in Jordan regardless of their religious affiliations. These values are derived from the historical heritage of the Arabic culture based on the philosophies which prevailed in the pre-Islamic era.- a mixture of old scriptures teachings and atheism. According to these philosophies, a woman does not have any rights except those given to her by the male members of her family. She is only allowed to do what the male members (i.e. father, brother, husband) allow her. These forces are primarily concerned with what is socially acceptable and unacceptable.


Religious forces refer to the Islamic values that concern gender roles and relations. These forces are concerned with what is accepted as divinely allowed or forbidden. Muslims believe that Islam developed as a reaction to certain traditional forces in Arabic society and all forms of injustice and inequalities that prevailed in the pre-Islamic era. The orientalist William Montgomery Watt  in an interview with Maan & McIntosh (2000) says that:

... At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible - they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons. Muhammad improved things quite a lot. By instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, he gave women certain basic safeguards. Set in such historical context the Prophet can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of women’s rights.



Islam is believed (by its followers) to have initiated a campaign in taking serious steps towards lifting the position of women and treating them as partners of men with equal rights and duties. They are seen as "the twin halves of men"(see Fernea 2000). In Islam, relations between the sexes are governed by the principle of complementarity rather than the principle of equality (Obermeyer 1992). In many Islamic societies, there is a division of roles. The man is fully responsible for the maintenance of his wife, his children, and in some cases of his needy relatives, especially the females. This responsibility is neither waived nor reduced because of his wife's wealth or because of her access to any personal income gained from work, rent, profit, or any other legal means. Because of this the Qur'an justifies that men  

should always be in charge over women (Qur'an 2:228)  A woman's primary responsibility is usually interpreted as fulfilling her role as a wife and mother (Ahmed 1992, Badawi 1971). 


With the passage of time a lot of the Islamic values started to fade out as a result of the gradual drifting from the teachings of Islam, a matter which allowed the traditional forces to re-dominate.  Al-Qaisi (2000:27-29) argues that 'what some western commentators consider to be shortcomings in Islamic views towards women is partly derived from stereotypes and misconceptions reinforced by the practices of some Muslims who are ignorant of the reality of Islam'. (My own translation)


  Modern forces refer to new values that have been acquired through the contact with the West through technology and modernization methods.  The image of women has completely changed in the last twenty years and women have become more conscious about their problems and rights. And even more recently, in the last ten years, women have become more concerned about the role that is traditionally assigned to them and more aware of their Islamic rights for which they are now fighting (Fernea 2000).  A lot of things have changed and Jordanian women are now competing with men in every realm of life even in politics. They can be found in almost every field: education, economics, the media, hospitals, factories, the courts, banks and industrial complexes.


      The mixture of the three forces mentioned above has produced some sort of controversy and misunderstanding as to what the real role of each gender is and how it should be interpreted. Therefore, some sort of confusion has been created especially among the young who are torn between the three forces.  In the course of this study we will find out how this confusion may affect  the interpretation of text and whether this will lead to the loss of the sign in text or not.



3.2. Method of data collection and analysis




     The subjects for this study were all first and second year English major students at Jordan university of Science and Technology (JUST) (Irbid, Jordan) in their second semester of the academic year 2006-2007. They started their degree in 2005 or 2006 which made them freshmen and sophomores at the time of the research. A total of 100 students participated in this research. They were between 18-20 years of age. A representative sample of the responses of fifty students (25 females and 15 males) was analyzed. The reason why there were fewer males than females is that it is normal in English major classes at this university that women outnumber men.. Like all Jordanians, these students started learning English as a school subject in, or before the fifth grade (currently from the first grade). They were homogeneous in terms of their linguistic and socioeconomic background, educational system, and filed of study. They lived in an exclusively Arabic-speaking community and had learned English as a foreign language prior to taking it up as their major field of study at the university. These students are Jordanians who share a similar set of traditions and social values. They are enrolled in an English program (English for Applied Studies) where they take two main courses in reading comprehension 114 and 117 in their first year as prerequisites for a number of ESP (English for Specific Purposes) reading courses.


     University students were chosen for this study because it is widely assumed that they are amongst those most affected by the modern forces more than any other group in Jordanian society. Many maintain a western appearance, use western languages (i.e. English and French) when they converse and often behave in western ways. As such, many in Jordan consider them to be open-minded, and are thus probably well able to interpret discourses which reflect the western views on gender issues more than others.


The sample text and task


     The students were given a reading passage which was allocated 30 minutes in  a session of 50 minutes in two consecutive lectures in the same day. The passage was taken from an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) textbook (Matters intermediate) (see Appendix B). It is a  journalistic story entitled 'Mr. Mustard is jailed'  which manifests the practice of reversing roles. Gender role reversing  is seen here as an encoding practice of gender role stereotypes. This narrative has been chosen for this study from a number which deal with sensitive topics that are seen as complex social issues in Jordan. In this story, the husband is portrayed as performing a female role represented by taking over household chores; including cooking and cleaning,  and the wife as a man with typical male behaviors as: untidiness,  forgetting important occasions as birthdays, going out on holidays with a friend, and never telling the spouse when to come back...etc.. The story goes on and the result was that they had a fight over supper and the husband grabbed his wife by the throat and eventually she died a few minutes after she had arrived hospital.

     The passage was given to the students followed by the following open ended questions: 


1. What do you think of the role Mr. Corlett played in the house?

2. What do you think of the role Mrs. Corlett played in the house?

3. What would you do if you had a wife like Mrs. Corlett?

4. What would you do if you had a husband like Mr. Corlett?

5. Why do you think Mrs. Corlett behaved that way with her husband?

6. What message do you think the writer is trying to convey?


 Analysis Approach


       A semiotic analysis is employed to meet the research objectives. The principles underlie the semiotic study of the linguistic signs, is that there is a material signifier, which expresses the sign (text), and a mental concept, a signified, which immediately accompanies it (meaning). Hall's (1974) dynamic model of encoding and decoding in addition to the traditional semiotic approach embracing the three dimensions of sender, message, receiver, will be adopted in the analysis. Although Hall's model is originally concerned with television signs, it is adopted and adapted here to the analysis of the written text. Concerning message, the analysis attempts to investigate the receivers' strategies of decoding: dominant, negotiated and oppositional. In order to examine which strategy readers usually follow in decoding the message behind the text, the analysis focuses on negotiating meaning at the macro level. In spite of the importance of linguistic features (micro signs) and their significations, the analysis of the text in hand will not give linguistic elements priority. The linguistic elements in the text are seen as the details that complete the image created by the story. The main interest in the analysis is to find out what decoding strategies receivers opt for, and the effect of their rooted thinking on the interpretation of the signs.


    In a semiotic analysis every work is supposed to have a meaning and the analyst's quest for knowledge is to discover that meaning. (Which meaning could be what the author intended or what it would have meant to an ideal audience of its day). In both cases the analyst knows what he is attempting to discover (Culler 1987).  Therefore, within the framework of sender, message, receiver, our quest for knowledge is to discover the sender's intended meaning (encoding) and the receiver's interpretation (decoding). In order to do that two questions need to be asked: 


1) Which meaning is intended by the sender?

 2) What does it mean to the target receiver?  


     In order to answer these questions the analysis in this study is carried out in terms of two stages: the first stage (encoding stage) (5.1 below) tries to answer the first question through providing the possible interpretations of the signs in the text in light of its context of production.  The analysis focus is the overall meaning of the text. The assumption behind choosing a macro level of analysis is that text itself can be approached as a practice, or as a sign. 'The sign is not confined to the meaning of specific linguistic elements but could also include the whole text and the conclusions drawn from premises and arguments that are developed in the text' (Eco 1979:  84).  The second stage (decoding stage) (4.1. below) tries to answer the second question through the analysis of the receivers' responses to a questionnaire in the form of a reading task followed by the six open- ended questions listed in (3.2. above). The task was given in a reading period assigned for reading comprehension, and was allocated 20 minutes under the supervision of the researcher. In order to avoid directing the learners towards a specific view, no discussion was given before the test. The purpose was to elicit the learner's views without the influence of the researcher's attitude. The aim of the analysis at this stage is to explore the learner's ability to discover hidden discourses. That is, what is intended to be said but not said, conveyed and yet not conveyed. What is implicit and falls in the categories of presupposition or implicature, Thus, it is not concerned with information conveyed but with impressions created by insinuation


4. Interpretation of the sign


4. 1. Stage one (encoding):


     The first stage tries to answer the first question, Which meaning is intended by the sender?, through providing the possible interpretations of the signs in the text.  In order to answer this question it is useful to consider some contextual elements behind the production of the text.


a)      The text is chosen to be a reading passage in an (EFL) textbook compiled by Western writers who belong to countries that consider themselves pioneers in enlightening other nations about rights and duties.

b)      It is intended to be read by English learners from different cultures with different views and attitudes.

c)      It is produced in the twenty first century, which witnesses a renaissance in different aspects of our life and embraces the possibilities of new ways of thinking that run counter to our own rooted ways of thinking about the role played by males and females. 


     The Semiotic theory recognizes that different researchers will interpret signs differently based on their background, culture, and experiences. Therefore decoding  meanings may vary from the intended meaning of the image. However, in light of the factors mentioned above, we can approach the text itself as a practice encoding a social value.  The text under scrutiny belongs to the genre of journalistic reporting of a social incident. Inserting this genre in an English textbook has probably been motivated by the fact that telling a story of social nature is an interesting and attractive way of reflecting discourse in language. Using the field of journalism, in particular, adds more attraction and dynamism to the language giving the impression that it is a real story. Right from the title of the story " 'Mr. Mustard' is jailed" and the lay out of the text (see Appendix B) one can tell that there are hidden discourses behind the humorous setting of the text. In search of these discourses, the researcher presents the following two possible interpretations for the practice of reversing gender roles and the writer's motivation to choose this text as a reading assignment in a textbook:


     The first is that the writer tries to manifest women struggle for gender justice in an indirect signifying way. Therefore, instead of telling a story with typical traditional role assignment, he resorts to the practice of reversing roles to show how hard it is to be a woman. This indirect practice is more effective than the direct, straightforward narration of what suffering women sometimes experience. The writer appears to be saying something like 'in order to realize the bitterness of an experience one has to go through it'. Saying that women's life is unbearable will not be as effective as imagining yourself (as a man) in her place. Spender (1980: 158) states that reversal of roles has often been useful as a consciousness-raising device. She argues that a few researchers have attempted to reverse the situation and see what happens when the dominant group encounters this situation. To clarify on this let us study the following extract from the text:


It took the jury just ten minutes to find out that the 58-year-old balding civil servant not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

Corlett, described as a man of 'impeccable character', had gradually taken over the household chores during his 26 year marriage, including cooking and cleaning... Medical witnesses at the trial said Corlett was like a house-proud wife with craving for perfection. A pent-up rage built up in his wife's untidiness. His wife started going on holidays with a friend, never asking if he wanted to join them and never telling hem when she would be back. 


     In this story, the husband is portrayed as performing a female role. This is indicated in expressions like: He had gradually taken over household chores; including cooking and cleaning; and he was like a house proud wife. The wife, on the other hand, is portrayed as a man with typical behaviors as: untidiness, a male behavior which the majority of women complain about; going out on holidays with a friend, and never telling the spouse when to come back. The story goes on and the result was that they had a fight over supper and the husband grabbed his wife by the throat and eventually she died a few minutes after she had arrived hospital. Reversing roles is ironically resorted to in order to expose gender role stereotypes


     The second is a patriarchal interpretation that moves in the opposite direction. The signification, then, is not rejecting the traditional gender role assignment but rather showing what would happen if we tampered with or manipulated this role assignment, and thus sustaining the traditional gender role stereotypes. The writer appears to be suggesting: 'look what would happen if men or women overstep their gender boundaries'. This interpretation conforms to the gendered thinking in all societies where men and women are seen as two different categories each of which must preserve the corresponding behavior. If they cross the gender boundaries, they are categorized as gays, referring to gender deviation not to sexual deviation (Cameron 1997, 1992). Nevertheless, in light of the above contextual factors and what is known about the effort of the feminist movements in the world and the feminist activists in the West for achieving gender justice, this does not seem to be the real signification. However, the text is there in the hands of the learners and they can come out with the interpretation that complies with their beliefs and education. How much they know about the world and about women’s rights in their society and elsewhere determine their interpretation of the text.


4. 2. Stage two (decoding):


     The second stage tries to answer the second question -What does it mean to the intended audience?- through the analysis of the receivers' responses to a questionnaire in the form of a reading task.. The students were given the text (Appendix B) as a reading task followed by the six open- ended questions listed in (4.2. above)


  Method of data analysis    


     The data collected through the questionnaire were analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively: qualitatively by matching the learners' responses on the above six questions to the two possible interpretations of the text in (4.1 above.) and in light of the different gender shaping forces in Jordanian society discussed in (3.1.) above. Quantitatively, the findings from learners' responses were summarized in percentages (Appendix A).



5. Findings and interpretation of responses


     Generally speaking, it has been found that the majority of students believe in traditional gender role assignment and that they are compliant with it. Most of them followed the negotiation and oppositional strategies in that they understood the literal and connotative meaning of the text but they decoded the message in the contrary way producing a patriarchal interpretation. This is manifested in the following summary of the results of the students' responses. It must be pointed out that all the responses on the six questions were elicited and sometimes even quoted from the subjects' answers. It must also be noted that the same subject sometimes gave a variety of answers to the same question. The order of the answers for each question is given according to the percentages in the tables in Appendix A: from highest to lowest.


Question one

What do you think of the role Mr. Corlett played in the house?


     As Table I (Appendix A) shows, the majority of the students expressed their respect to what Mr. Corlett did in the house. What is surprising in their responses on this question is that the males tended to show greater respect for the role Mr. Corlett played in the story than did the females (60% males vs. 50% females). 52% Females vs. 40% males did not like the idea of a man taking charge of housework. This is possibly a reflection of the social value in the Arab world that the house and the family are the woman's own kingdom and she always brags about keeping her house under her own control. This view complies with the traditional forces discussed above and conforms to the social environment in which these women were raised.  Now as women work outside the house, this legacy they have taken from the previous generations concerning housework is becoming a personal and cultural burden. Culturally, women are still expected to take care of the home and family even if they also have paid employment. Thus, they are increasingly expected to be superwomen who can handle everything.

(Table I)


Question two

What do you think of the role Mrs. Corlett played in the house?

     Although the majority of the subjects gave the expected typical answer, 'She was not a good wife', (66% males, 55% females), the results again showed something surprising. The females had a variety of answers:  She was careless and selfish, she had control over her husband, and she was rejecting her role and playing a man (for percentages see Table II). However, the males gave only one answer: She was rejecting her role and playing a man. The underlying assumption behind these responses is the fact that traditionally and religiously in Arab society, a woman is disfavored if she acts as a man. Similarly, men are also looked down at if they act as women. According to these norms, a husband and his wife have a 'leader-follower' relationship. The man normally takes the lead, as he is fully responsible for financial support. Culturally and religiously, this is acceptable and women do not mind it. Mannish behavior is socially unacceptable for a woman and so is womanish behavior for a man. Therefore, for a woman to be seen as a good wife she should not act as a man. This confirms the implication that Mrs. Corlett's behavior is acceptable for a man but not for a woman- which conforms to the patriarchal interpretation: sustaining the traditional gender role stereotypes.

(Table II)


Question Three

  What would you do if you had a wife like Mrs. Corlett?

     Originally, this question was addressed to the males. However, the females gave   again a variety of answers to the question. The majority, 25%, gave the answers: I would talk to her and let her know her duty and I would divorce her (for percentages see Table III). The males’ answers, on the other hand, seemed to be more reasoned – 60% gave the answer: I would talk to her and let her know her duty; 20%   answered  I would put limits to her and have more control over her, and 20% said: I would divorce her.  This relates to one of the premises in Islamic Marriage that the man is given the right to have the final word in making decisions, and so he must be wise in using this right. Accordingly, the male students tended to show this wisdom in their responses. What is surprising in these responses, however, is that none of the men said he would marry again although this is legal in Islam and not unusual –although rare- in Jordanian society. What is more surprising is that 6% of the females gave the answer: I would marry another wife. What is even more surprising is that among those who gave this answer was a Christian female student. When asked  why she thought so she said 'nothing disciplines a woman, like Mrs. Corlett, more than another wife'!. 

(Table III)


Question Four 

  What would you do if you had a husband like Mr. Corlett?

     The aim of this question was to elicit answers from the subjects that reveal their way of thinking towards the other gender through talking about Mr. Corlett. 80% of the males gave no answer on this particular question thinking it did not apply to them. The question was addressed to females. However, the males who gave answers, (20%), believed they would not let the man work in the house, and the majority of the female subjects believed so too. Women gave a number of (see Table IV). Again, a reinforcement of the patriarchal interpretation is obvious here through answers like I wouldn't turn my husband into a woman, and Housework is the woman's job …etc.

(Table IV)


Question Five

Why do you think Mrs. Corlett behaved that way with her husband?

     The majority of the subjects both males, (40%), and females, (40%), believed that what happened in the story was the fault of Mr. Corlett because he could not keep his wife under control. He gave her too much freedom and he accepted to take the role of a woman. Hence, an assumption that women's freedom must be restricted. This view is again derived from the unconscious compliance to conventional (traditional) values concerning gender roles in the Arabic society.

(Table V)


Question Six

What message do you think the writer is trying to convey?

     This question was the most sensitive one as the researcher wanted to find out how the subjects interpret the hidden meanings in the text and what assumptions will be drawn by them. All subjects started with a statement summarizing their opinion about gender roles indicating that each one is allocated a specific role to play in life and if gender role is reversed, problems will be created. The percentages in (Table VI)   reveals that the majority of the subjects are in compliance with the traditional assumption that if  traditional gender roles are manipulated, serious problems will be created. Only 10 % of the female students touched upon the other implicit meaning: 'If women do to men what men do to them, men will not bear it and may end up killing their wives.

(Table VI)



6. Discussion


     It is obvious from the analysis above that the receivers' interpretation reflects the strong influence of traditional forces in their society. Religious forces come second and no substantial influence of the modern forces was observed in spite of the modernization appearance they have. This conforms to Mathis' (2003) study on gender issues in both the American and Japanese cultures who concludes that  Aristotle and Confucius's ideals of inherent male superiority are still prevailing though unconsciously when gender issues are discussed. It also conforms to Byram’s view (1989) who argues that learners relate the communication system of the foreign culture on the basis of the communication system of their own culture and that, to a varying degrees, they may attempt to assimilate the pragmatic patterns of the target culture to those of their own culture (ibid :64). Consequently, the majority of the learners believed that men and women are assigned specific roles and that if these roles are manipulated, very bad consequences are likely to occur. In addition, the majority believed that the man should have a strong personality and thus he must put limits to his wife's freedom. She should be under his control.


     What is surprising in the results is that males tended to be more progressive in their views about women. They provided more rational attitudes towards gender roles and about solving problems with wives. However, their interpretations of the signs in the text were subject to their conceptual framework about the issue of gender roles in society. Any analysis of this cultural issue must fit in that framework. Taken as such the intended message in the text may be lost in the interpretation, and the text would do nothing more than sustain what is already known. However, when a story is made up or chosen from a corpus of texts to be taught as a reading passage, it is supposed to be scrutinized and analyzed at both the surface level and the deep level of meaning. The intended meaning (the message) is usually expressed in the deep level. The assumption that each gender has a role to play and the manipulation with that is dangerous, does nothing but sustain the obvious. I think that after all the effort exerted on liberating women from gender role stereotypes and after all the struggle women movements went through to achieve a better status in life for women, this assumption may not be the real message intended by the text selected for EFL learners. If this were the intended message, then all the efforts of the developed countries to show their concern about women rights in the rest of the world would be in vain. Only a patriarchal perspective would produce such an interpretation.



Concluding remarks


     Signs in text can be interpreted (decoded) in different ways (strategies). The first is the dominant code strategy which is described by Hall as transparent communication where viewers work with the dominant code of (denotative) meaning of the signs; the negotiated strategy, where a mixture of denotative and oppositional elements are decoded producing some sort of contradiction; and the oppositional strategy which operates when the literal and connotative meanings are enabled by the discourse but the receivers opt to the opposite interpretation.


      It has been clear from the analysis that the majority of the subjects opted for the second and third strategies. They realized that there is a message behind the story but worked their interpretation within the framework of their own experiences producing an interpretation that matches the entrenched schemata of the roles allocated to women and men in their society   – which, I think, is opposite to the intended message


     We can conclude that the sign in the text has been lost in the process of interpretation. However, the responses of the receivers themselves form another sign. That is, the extant to which traditional forces influence the receivers' interpretation of gender issues.   The practice of gender role reversing in the story is a signifier for breaking gender role stereotypes. The readers' adoption of another signified (sustaining traditional gender roles) is a signifier for another signified which is the readers' entrenched gender schemata developed by the traditional forces within which they worked out their interpretation.





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Appendix A


Table I : Subjects' responses to question 1: What do you think of the role Mr. Corlett played in the house?'




I respect the role he played because his wife was ill



I don't like the role he played because this is the woman's job



Marriage is a matter of sharing in good and bad






Table II: Subjects' responses to question 2: ' What do you think of the role Mrs. Corlett played in the house?'



Subjects' responses



She is not a good wife



She was careless and selfish



She had control over her husband



She is rejecting her role  and is playing a man




Table III. Subjects' responses to question 3: ' What would you do if you had a wife like Mrs. Corlett?'



Student's responses



I would talk to her and let her know her duty



I would divorce her

19 %


I would still help her



I wouldn't do any housework



I would do what her husband did to her (kill her)



I would marry another wife



I would put limits to her and have more control over her




Table IV: Subjects responses to question 4: What would you do if you had a husband like Mr. Corlett?'



Subjects responses



I would respect my husband and care for him more



I would do all house work myself and not let my husband do it because housework is the woman's job



I wouldn't turn my husband into a woman



I can't imagine myself in that position



I would make a balance between housework and enjoying my time



No answer







Table V. Subjects' responses to question 5:' Why do you think Mrs. Corlett behaved that way with her husband ?'



Subjects' responses



Her husband gave her too much freedom



She was selfish and lazy



She is bored of her husband



May be she is taking revenge because may be her husband betrayed her



Because she was ill



She has a stronger personality than her husband



They have bad relationship



She is a free woman, she shouldn't have got married



She wants to be the man of the house







No answer







Table VI: Subjects' responses to question 6: ' What message do you think the writer is trying to convey?'



Subjects responses



The main job of a woman is to take care of her house and husband



Housework is a matter of sharing



A man should have control over his wife



If women do to men what men do to them, men will kill their wives



A man can't deal with domestic work







Appendix B


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