Questioning the gender binary: an absolute priority

A cursory glance at the ways in which a large number of people out there write about feminism would suffice to denote a worrying reality — to an awful lot of self-proclaimed feminists, ‘feminism’ continues to be a movement, a discourse and an analytical tool meant near-exclusively for cis, able-bodied and wealthy white women. It goes without saying that the many efforts to question, critique and deconstruct this approach to ‘feminism’ need to continue, with the utmost vigour and energy. If someone advocates for a feminism that only encompasses cis women, then it is a form of oppression that perpetuates a colonial, patronising and a very ‘white’ attitude, as this type of discourse strongly rests on, reinforces and reaffirms the gender binary. The gender binary is all but a thoroughly outdated, colonial Abrahamic, invasive, intrusive and brutally violent concept. It should have no decisive place in a progressive world. The extent of one’s commitment to the gender binary provides a fine measurement of their commitment to equality and justice to all. Coming from a non-Western sociocultural backdrop, I perceive the gender binary as a thoroughly colonial, patronising and deeply patriarchal concept, systematically deployed to discriminate against cis and trans women, colonised peoples, people of colour and gender-plural people. Through cycles of colonisation that perpetuated Abrahamic faiths in South and Southeast Asia, the original sociocultural traditions of the countries in the region were ruined, downgraded, and obliterated. This is what has led to societies that are extremely intolerant of any form of gender plurality, and gender presentations that challenge the Abrahamic gender binary.

It is high time for people of faith and ministers of religion of Abrahamic faiths should admit the colonial violence inflicted by the conversion and proselytizing drives of their faiths in countries cross the global South. Their faiths were instrumental in causing tremendous harm, torture, rape, violence, and in obliterating indigenous sociocultural traditions and modes of knowledge production. It is impossible to deny this reality, and any deviation from denying this amounts to hiding one’s head in the sand.

As for feminism, it is absolutely crucial to question, critique and invalidate society’s fixation with the gender binary. It is at the heart of the gender hierarchy of the cis male positioning as superior to the cis female. Questioning and deconstructing the gender binary serves to demonstrate the futility and of gender-based oppression and discrimination, and

Even when people write in a progressive and trans-inclusive vein, they continue to stick to the gender binary and use language that validates the gender binary. See, for instance, this paragraph from an article recently published in the Guardian:

In the late 1980s, there was a schism among feminist activists whereby some radical feminists began excluding women whose female identity was anything other than entirely conventional. This exclusion has been controversial and small-minded from the outset. It continues to this day, even though it seems plain that the last thing needed by women who have suffered so much trauma to be accepted for what they are, is this fundamental and fundamentalist rejection. Likewise, it’s not surprising that women whose identity is so hard-won are often intensely interested in the subject of gender politics.
Some people do not seem to see that gruelling gender-reassignment is undergone to make the bodies of women less male, or, in the less highly publicised process of female-to-male transition, the bodies of men less female. We are, as I say, who we feel we are in our heads. Trans women, like so many women who have had breast cancer, sometimes need the help of surgeons, because it is helpful for one’s social body to support and confirm one’s biological identity, not contradict it.

Despite the writer’s obviously laudable intentions of calling out the restrictive nature of trans-exclusionary feminism, the vocabulary used here is that of cis-heteronormative world in which the gender binary reigns. When one uses the words ‘woman’ and ‘man’, these words cannot and should not be used without the qualifying adjectives — cis-and-trans. Irrespective of what a gender binary-obsessed society constantly tells us, being born with au uterus does not make someone automatically female. Similarly, being born with a penis does not make someone automatically male. A human being with a uterus can very well be male, and a human being with a penis and testicles can very well be female. In between, there can be a host of gender categories — including what is known in the Western world as ‘intersex’, with specific variations and specificities across different sociocultural traditions. Being violent towards transwomen, despising transwomen and transmen of color, denying trans people their reproductive rights and the right to have a family, assuming that people are born ‘male’ and ‘female’, are all but inanities of individuals who are unprepared or unable to ‘un-learn’ the controlling, subversive, colonial and patriarchally-imposed structures of control, which are especially palpable not only in Western societies, but also in all societies with a high influence of Abrahamic faiths.

It is very important to make this basic reality comprehensible to a wider audience, especially to people working with young children, healthcare authorities — especially those dealing with childbirth, ante-natal-and post-natal care. In hospitals, the standard practice of putting a blue rubber tag on babies born with penises and a pink one on the wrists of babies born with uteruses need to be done away with, and replaced by a wide palette of colors, or a single-gender-neutral color. Society does not have a right to take decisions on behalf of a baby, until that baby comes of age and is in a position to make their own decisions [this also, most importantly, applies for the voilent practices of genital mutilation of babies, especially in the forms of what we know as ‘female genital mutilation’ and ‘male circumcision’ — a critical engagement with this issue should form the topic of a separate article]. It is a totally unacceptable absolute folly and an aberration to maintain that ‘there are so few trans people out there’ or ‘the majority of people in this world are cis people’. Restrictive discourses of this nature have long been used to restrict rights of people. Secondly, this is coded transphobic language, as if trans people were some form of epidemic. The obsession with the gender binary prevents many people from assuming their gender identities — a large majority of transwomen will especially account to this reality — as being assigned ‘male’ in a cis-hetero-patriarchal and racially stratified society makes it very hard for people to assume their femininity. Secondly, acknowledging the futility of the gender binary does not take anything off ‘cis’ people. All it does is contributing to making society perceive gender in its true form - as a broad concept that cannot be boxed into two restrictive categories.

In sum, there is a very clear need to repeatedly clarify that the term ‘feminism’ includes a range of ideological positions, and that the progressive and forward-looking current of feminism lies in an intersectional feminist perspective. Transfeminism represents a highly advanced manifestation of intersectional feminism. As Audre Lorde had it, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own”. A transfeminist activist is someone who engages in collective struggle (for a multitude of perspectives on transfeminist activism and academic theorizing, see the latest issue of the TSQ journal). A Transfeminist perspective cannot ignore the vital social and gender justice struggles of marginalized communities, such as the struggles of First Nations/indigenous peoples over their rightful land and their bodies, and cis women’s, trans men’s and other gender-plural people’s campaigns to secure safe and legal terminations when they so require. Transfeminists are also people who constantly engage in self-critiques, and for whom terms such as inclusion, equality and diversity are not ends in themselves. These are on-going struggles, and it is very important to question shortcomings in how programs that facilitate diversity and inclusion are managed, critically examine the ways in which the most marginalized voices are often ignored, and to work tirelessly towards ensuring voices to the marginalized. A transfeminist perspective would invariably be very critical of how the large majority of LGBT and Trans-support groups are run — often prioritizing the boosting of egos and personal agendas of specific individuals instead of harnessing a collective community spirit of upward sociopolitical and economic mobility.

To be continued.