In the summer of 2018 I lived in a house with 3 other women. We spent a lot of time together that year, and there were many late-night conversations about the sexism, misogyny, and male violence we had experienced. We talked about not fitting into what society had expected of women, we stopped shaving together, and we encouraged each other to not be ashamed of our natural bodies. We called rape crisis lines, organized protests, and exposed violent men in our communities. Mitali* shaved her head in a defiant act of rebellion against Indian expectations of beauty. Joy* became empowered to use her voice to speak up for the oppressed. Miriam* started to confront her religious parents and come to terms with her sexuality. The four of us dreamt of what a feminist world could look like and envisioned our lives free from patriarchy and violence.
Now, one year later, all three of them identify as “non-binary” — no longer a woman.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, non-binary means:
An adjective describing a person who does not identify exclusively as a man or a woman. Non-binary people may identify as being both a man and a woman, somewhere in between, or as falling completely outside these categories.
So how did three feminist women who were bravely defying gender norms and tackling the male violence in their lives suddenly decide they are non-women?
Non-binary identities are on the rise. In the UK, the number of non-binary students appears to have doubled between 2017 and 2018. With two-thirds of young people who identify as trans being female, it’s likely that most of the growth in non-binary identities has come from young women. While there is a dearth of research in this area, my experience is not unique. To feminists, this should not come as a surprise.
A 2018 article in Teen Vogue outlined the experience of one non-binary woman:
I reject the whole concept of gender. Growing up, I never felt people were wrong when they called me a woman, but it felt like a label imposed on me rather than one that fit. Then, in college, I learned about non-binary identity, and that did fit. Sure, I have likes and dislikes that some might label “feminine” or “masculine,” but I don’t feel any need to label them that way. The gender binary has made me feel pigeonholed, and I don’t want to identify with it.
Feminists have long rejected the concept of gender, defining it as oppressive sex-role stereotyping and maintaining the goal of abolishing the gender caste system. Rather than rejecting gender, the writer in Teen Vogue seems to have bought into it entirely, believing that she must not be a woman simply because she does not fully meet the expectations of womanhood. Does she think her experience of being falsely categorized by gender is unique? Is she “not like other girls”?
An article on the website Aeon ran a few months later with the subtitle: “A world segregated into male and female categories feels suffocating. Nonbinary identity is a radical escape hatch.” The author claims that non-binary identities are taking a “sledgehammer” to gender categories, tackling the oppressive system, and creating a better world for all. She tells stories of facing threats and embarrassment caused by confusion about her sex. In one case, a man yelled at her for going into the women’s bathroom.
Women who aim to identify out of womanhood are going to be sorely disappointed, though.
Gender is a system that oppresses us and is inherently contradictory. No woman can ever be fully gender-conforming (though some certainly try more than others) and since gender has been socially constructed we all exist outside of this binary at our core. There is nothing inherent about a gender identity, and claiming otherwise is anti-feminist.
Consider for example the various gender non-conforming activities a typical western woman may do on any given day:
- Putting on pants rather than a skirt
- Going to work rather than staying at home
- Not smiling at every man she see on the street
- Wearing her hair naturally
- Speaking her mind
- Spending time thinking about anything other than pleasing men or how she looks
- Enjoying a sci-fi movie or tv show
- Making a joke
This may all seem trivial, but when we look at the obviously ridiculous ways in which normal life is gendered it becomes clear that no woman alive could possibly be entirely gender-conforming. If a woman does actually meet all stereotypical markers of femininity, she would likely be considered a whore (regardless of her actual sexual activity). Personally, I refuse to wear makeup, allow my body hair to grow naturally, wear pants and boots rather than dresses and heels, work as a software engineer, reject wifely duties with my male partner, and plan to never have children as long as it remains in my control. Am I non-binary?
The hardcore gender advocates would say that no, I am not, because I still identify as a woman. I accept that I am female, that my body is a female one which is regulated by the state, that I have survived girlhood and male violence which I experienced because I am a female.
I’m sympathetic to the desire of many women and girls to escape our female-ness. Growing up as a girl-child in this society is not easy. You will never be pretty enough, smart enough, or wanted enough. Or you will be too pretty, too smart, or too wanted. Either way, it’s probably your fault.
Mitali knew that when she returned to visit India she would be at risk of assault even though she shaved her head. This week a mother and daughter in India were beaten and had their heads shaven in public as punishment for resisting rape. While in the United States she may be able to claim to be a non-woman, women who walk more treacherous roads do not have the privilege of opting out of womanhood. Could these women have avoided the violence and humiliation by claiming to be non-women? Their womanhood will be forced upon them whether they want it or not; and who would want it?
Miriam feels uncomfortable in her female body. She has breasts, and curves, and a vulva. Her body is not like the models’ on the magazines, and she dreams of cutting it open and escaping the confines of her flesh. She wants to be allowed to exist beyond the expectations of womanhood that the patriarchy places on her physical form. Men are allowed to exist in this way, as whole people independent from the shell that houses their mind. Yet, she knows she is not a man. She knows this because of the way her body is controlled and policed. She says “Gender is Over,” but then why couldn’t she escape it?
Joy is scared and angry. She saw what happened to her friends who were women. She heard the horror stories and she watched us all try to cope and escape in the ways we could manage. She held Mitali and Miriam close as they cried in the night and searched for healing and meaning. No wonder she wanted nothing to do with it anymore. Being a woman is fucking horrible.
I mourn for these women who have disowned their womanhood, choosing to run and hide from the oppression of their gender rather than boldly reject its power over their selfhood. To have so much pain, misogyny, and fear inside of you is to live in a constant state of unsettledness, never feeling safe or comfortable. In our last days together, I tried to show them a feminism that rejects gender rather than embraces its lies — but since I am “female” and they are “not” I could not possibly understand their pain. They said I was hateful.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Women and girls should be able to live in a world free from gender and all forms of patriarchy and male violence. We should be allowed to be women and be complex, creative, and whole. We should not have to reject our biological reality in favor of magical thinking in order to cope with the world in which we live.
Non-binary women are a testament to the great pain of being a woman, and the desperate need many of us have to find an escape. At the same time, women who claim to be non-binary throw all other women and girls under the bus. The claim that we are privileged for identifying with the sex “assigned to us at birth” misses the inherent violence in being a female under patriarchy. In some countries, 70% of women have experienced sexual or physical violence from an intimate partner. 137 women are killed every day by a member of their own family. At least 200 million women and girls alive today have experienced genital mutilation, mostly before the age of five. This is why feminists argue for sex-based rights for women and girls.
Those who are the most non-conforming, no matter how they identify, will face oppression for transgressing social norms. Women are especially likely to be targeted for violence and discrimination based on gender non-conformity. This is true regardless of how the woman identifies, since the attacker can not know the internal “gender identity” of the woman before the prejudice occurs.
The uncomfortable truth is this: saying you are “not like other girls” is not an identity, it’s misogyny. Non-binary-identifying women like to claim an extra degree of oppression over women who they call “cis,” a term which implies that certain women are complicit in their own oppression. But we are not privileged for maintaining an understanding of the basis of our oppression; you are privileged if you believe you can escape it.
Update: I’ve been fired from my unrelated job for writing this piece.
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