When mentioning that I don’t identify as a woman, I end up in a lot of debates with people who believe in abolishing gender. Recently, I’ve comprised an explanation of why arguing for the abolition of gender is a form of colonisation.
Gender as an epistemology
You probably have heard of the philosophy that gender is a social construct. What that means is that, while there may be biological and bodily markers of what we refer to as “gender” (or “sex” as it is just as much a social construction as “gender”), the concept of gender is something constructed by our culture. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, as some may take the connotation of “social construction” as, but rather that cultures define it.
But I want to go further than that. Gender is not just a social construct, but it is an epistemology. What’s an epistemology? Simply put, it’s gained knowledge. It means that, while 2 + 2 = 4, the fact that:
- we know how to add the numbers
- we know what numbers are
- we know what these figures represent
- we have a process by which we’ve come to know how to add these numbers
- we have created signs to represent them, and
- we have created a process to represent everything
All of this is an epistemology. It is a process of knowing. Gender is no different.
I feel making a distinction between an epistemology and a social construct is important, especially when we’re approaching gender through an intersectional lens.
Gender is not just performance, it is a process that we come to know ourselves and others. It something that we have placed importance on, categorised, and developed over centuries. The problem with “social construction” is that it paints a stagnant picture. We don’t just construct gender and then we’re done. It’s not like a building that’s made up that we all live in. But it’s something that we do constantly, that we change, that we mould, and shape, and it’s something that we’ve been doing for centuries.
And if we’ve been doing it for centuries, that means everyone has been doing it in their own ways for centuries. I’d hate to come across as the, “This is the way things are, there’s no sense in changing it!”, because that’s totally not what I’m saying. If gender is a social construct, a building, a stagnant thing we’ve built that can be torn down, abolition makes sense.
But gender isn’t a stagnant force. It isn’t something we can just tear down. The problem I have with abolishing gender is that I don’t feel it’s a realistic approach. While I’m not suggesting that gender can’t be fantastically oppressive and terrible, abolishing all of it for the sake of it’s oppressive bits seems like not only throwing the baby out of the bathwater, but like trying to sieve a baby made of water out of the bathwater before you throw it out, which leads me to my next issue. How do we define gender?
Gender is an epistemology, and it’s an epistemology that’s constructed through the lenses of other intersections. Most of the dialogue that I’ve seen that suggests abolishing gender comes from a usually white perspective. They have their own perception and concept of what “gender” entails. The problem when you take that outside of a white-centric perspective is that not only is it far more complex, but the process of applying white gender epistemologies to other gender epistemologies becomes a colonising process.
For example, a great many people familiar with the trans community may have heard of hijras, a concept of gender that exists within South Asia. A great many usually white trans people have called hijra’s “trans” or put them under the trans label. Regardless of their intention, to take the epistemology of “trans” and apply it to something like the hijra can be seen as an oppressive or colonising act. The hijra are hijra. That is their name. Unless a hijra specifically identifies as transgender or trans, applying our own concepts of gender and sexuality constructed within white supremacist cultures to people outside of our epistemological framework is redefining them on our own terms for our own benefit.
Another instance of where this occurs is within the American/Canadian indigenous or native concept of two spirit, which is in and of itself an umbrella term for multiple tribal concepts of third or mixed gender roles. The definition not only differs from tribe to tribe, but in many cases applying the white concept of gender toward two spirit people, again, becomes an act of oppression and colonisation. Especially when, without any indigenous or native background, white people adopt the identification mantle of “two spirit”.
This experience of gender within cultures also applies:
Despite not really going out of my way to look androgynous or masculine (unless for specific reasons, such as drag), and despite ample cleavage and curves, I sometimes tend to be read as male. In Bangladesh (where my family is from) I get parsed as male first when I’m not wearing a salwhar khameez (which pretty much every young woman in Bangladesh wears) — then they work out I’m a foreigner and define my gender as Not From Here. A similar effect happens in Malaysia though to a lesser degree, and occasionally the same applies in the Western world. I feel like a lot of people see my ethnicity first, as well as my constant state of Foreign, and get really flummoxed about the idea that I could have a gender. Hell, my race was such a big deal growing up that I never got to contemplate any other part of my being until I left school!
… What counts as “femme” in the Western queer world is pretty much what the women in my family are by default — and yet femme is supposed to be a conscious expression of gender. My cultural expectations of “manliness” (which may or may not be synonymous with “butch”) fit closer to the Western ideas of metrosexuality, which I see is parsed as effeminate masculinity. (E.g. my dad is Very Manly, and part of being Very Manly is taking care of his appearance and wearing well-tailored clothes.)
In this situation, not only are we pushing a white epistemological concept of “gender” onto other cultures, but if we go forth with abolishing it, how can we expect people for whom their gender interacts so closely with their race, their religion, their cultural background, to divorce or even to recognise the bits and pieces of gender that are independent of their culture to destroy? Or, if gender is an epistemology, is race and other intersectional factors part and parcel of gender in such a way that one cannot simply abolish it alone? And if we attempt to do that, it leads to the next big problem I have: that the abolition of gender may be, especially stemming from a white feminist bases, a colonising force.
When abolition is colonisation
I’m reminded of the book Sex at Dawn, which discusses how evolutionary psychology and modern day perceptions have influenced Eurocentric epistemology of sexuality. They reference the example of anthropologists examining a practice within a culture and labelling to monogamous marriage, when “marriage” in that culture only meant that two people slept in the same tent.
It becomes clear that our epistemological understanding of “marriage” and “love” exists in one form within white supremacist culture and even when applying a lens to this culture, we can be frightfully biased and wrong. How we define these words and concepts is a process. If applying our own modern epistemology towards previous behaviours results in misunderstandings, imagine the difficulties of defining and applying gender towards all cultures in an attempt to abolish it.
Quite often anthologists and others attempting to classify and and give names to other cultures have created problematic systems that are oppressive. In fact, you see this with the concept referenced above, “two spirit”. “Two spirit” as a name has become more popular where previously the term “berdache” was used, based on the French bard ache implying a male prostitute or catamite and originating from an Arabic word meaning “captive, captured”.
While applying “trans” to “two spirit” people may indeed be less initially offensive than “berdache”, it is still an effect of applying a white understanding to a concept which may not exist. “Two spirit” people aren’t just two gendered spirits, but it can apply and define a variety of concepts about gender and identity that just don’t have a translation easily into white concepts.
Years ago, when I was studying anthropology at university, one of my female professors held up a photograph of an antler bone with 28 markings on it. “This,” she said, “is alleged to be man’s first attempt at a calendar.” We all looked at the bone in admiration. “Tell me,” she continued, “what man needs to know when 28 days have passed? I suspect that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.”
Sandi Toksvig’s quote suggests that sexism clouds Eurocentric epistemological understanding of history. If we’re incapable of giving women credit where credit is due, how do we expect to be able to apply an understanding towards others — and is that even a correct understanding?
It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that there is a society which has no word for “gender”, where the concept of “gender” does not exist. While there may be behaviours that certain people do or don’t do that are gendered within a white epistemological framework, if a culture has no concept of it within itself, then how exactly do we abolish it?
Do we simply put our Eurocentric epistemology of gender toward the culture and abolish whatever does and doesn’t fit our definition? And what if, despite not having a concept of gender, the culture is still oppressive towards one sect of the population which has a biological difference that we would judge as a sex characteristic (e.g. for example, what if that culture saw being square jawed as a sign of power and men just so happened to be the predominantly square jawed people in power)? Do we reframe it under gender? How do we approach it? It all becomes incredibly complicated.
The problem with abolishing gender is that not only do we have to define it, apply our definition towards other cultures, demand they remove gender from their own race, cultural, spiritual or whatever background, but also assume that the abolition of the concept of gender will result in equality or a lack of discrimination. In doing so, from a white perspective, we effectively create a colonising project wherein we’re intervening in their own identities, behaviours, and practices in an attempt to make their lives better.
I’m up for hearing other concept of how we can overcome gender as an oppressive force, redefine it, change it, or morph our epistemological understanding of it. But I have a hard time supporting the abolition of gender within all epistemologies and frameworks. I’m not even sure if abolishing gender within a white epistemology is possible, but working within my own understanding and cultural framework seems a far better approach than attempting to abolish a concept that I not only feel people identify with on a deep level within my own culture, but also exists in so many variant forms within and outside of white supremacist culture, that attempting to abolish it means colonising the world with my understanding of gender first.
I hope other feminists which support the abolishment of gender consider how their abolition can turn into colonisation and address that point within their criticisms of gender. Because I wholeheartedly agree that feminism that is not intersectional is bullshit.
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