“Towards Gender Inclusivity: A Study on Contemporary Concerns around Gender” – A conversation

June 6, 2014


by V. Geetha

[In May 2013, Alternative Law Forum and LesBit published a report titled “Towards Gender Inclusivity: A Study on Contemporary Concerns around Gender” by Sunil Mohan on trans-queer and feminist politics within a capitalist system. We present V. Geetha’s comments to the authors of the report presented (in her absence) at the release of the report. The link to the original book can be found here: http://orinam.net/towards-gender-inclusivity-sunil-mohan-and-sumathi-murthy/ – Ed.]

1. What strikes the reader immediately is the startling cover image, both evocative and rich in imagery. And you tend to stay with the image before you get into the book.

2. The introduction sets a tone that is open, non-combative and earnest – quite startlingly, the authors make their argument for doing two difficult things, and for the rest of the report, they do one quite successfully while wrestling with the second.

– the first of these two things is their capturing of processes, the spirit and content of discussions, rather than stay with individual case studies. Case studies are interesting only if they become the basis for believable, complex biographies or monographs, otherwise they become convenient examples for writers to attach their larger arguments. I found it refreshing the authors decided therefore not to be bound by individual stories, important as they are. Further, if they had stayed with stories, then they would have had to account for the diversity of their so-called sample, and that’s always frustrating, since even if you have accounted for every kind of ‘difference’ it does not always add up to a rich, variegated picture. What they have done instead is bring in differences where and when they matter – and that works very well and also enables the reader understand what a truly different point of view is. It is related to the larger argument, but yet is emphatic about where it disagrees or is saying something else. If they had worked with case studies, they would have ended up with something more simplistic: everybody says this, dalits say that, adivasis say this and that and so on, and the manner in which everything relates to everything else, even while differing would get lost in the telling.

– the second thing the book sets out to do, and which is nicely stated in the introduction: separate gender from sexuality and recognise it as a separate category which may be related to sexuality but is not always associated with it, This is very well put, for it allows the authors to draw attention to how gender identities and sexual behaviour need not ‘match’ in the way we expect them to match. However, as they get into their argument, I see how it is difficult to completely disentangle gender from sexuality, especially since in practice, gender choices are never simply that, and one enters into a pre-existing world of sexual arrangements that are gendered in very given ways, and so it is not easy even for argument’s sake to detach the one from the other. But the problem really has to do with language, expression, the nature of sexual lives and practices, and the laws and rules that regulate gendered roles and expectations. And here, whatever gender one transits into, it places that individual in a very defined relation to the intertwined worlds of property, reproduction and social class (and caste) in our context) – so whatever the call of desire or pleasure, it is forced to heed if not accept the bind of property and progeny.

It is evident the authors recognise this, for as they make their case for female-born sexual and gender minorities, they argue that it is the ‘privatised’ almost ‘invisible’ nature of existence that renders the female condition vulnerable to discrimination and injustice. In fact this is one of the more original aspects of the study – if one were to consider other such studies, which haven’t as far as I know not made much of this private-public divide. But this cuts into the heart of patriarchy, and enriches our understanding of the effect of such ‘private’ existences that are doubly invisible, and worse, banned literally from accessing or desiring a life out of the domestic. In fact this is perhaps why we have almost no historical memory of those who chose to transit from female to male, for as far as patriarchal societies are concerned, this transition is bound to unsettle the core of patriarchal arrangements. Take the story of Joan of Arc – one of the reasons why the Catholic Church considers her a ‘heretic’ or a Christian who has ceased to be one, or is opposed to Christian teaching is because she persists in wearing men’s clothes, and would not get into female attire, even when she is arrested; or when she asks to go to confession. The Church regards this as a great sin.

3. One of the more interesting points the authors raise – and hopefully will discuss and write on this more – has to do with the various social implications of those who transit to other genders: their example of a female-to-male (FTM) who is afraid to ‘face his own son’ raises important questions about parenting, motherhood (both as in individual experience and social practice) and if these ancient ways of nurturing may not mutate into something even more rich and deep. Elsewhere the authors refer to how in the case of a FTM wanting to leave behind home and child, women’s groups tend to be judgmental and look askance at a mother ‘neglecting’ her duties. However there, they invoke the language of rights – perhaps that is not so important, because clearly what we ought to perhaps reflect on, has to do with something even more fundamental: about the nature of care, how do we rethink care, nurture and make these experiences more ‘universal’ and non-gendered than they are at present, rather how gender identity need not be relevant to these practices. While working in the refugee camps post-partition, Gandhi prays that he becomes as ‘compassionate as the Prophet’s eunuch’ and while we may wonder about this use of words, I think there is something here that allows us to think of nurture beyond gender.

4. Around pages 23 onwards, and thereafter, the authors return to the importance of separating gender and sexuality – and their manner of putting it is both direct and profound, that desire does not have to be linked to biological sex, and rather to gender. While this complicates the idea of ‘gender’, rendering it as something that is chosen, produced, as even a state of transit, there is this problem ( and I have referred to it above): that while ‘sex’ed identity has been seen as ‘natural’ and ‘biological’, gendered existence too has been thus ‘naturalised’ in the course of history. In fact sexual preferences, diverse expressions of desire have been allowed greater leeway, less for the female-born, and more for the male-born, but even so, than diverse expressions of gender. Female-born persons wanting to break with gendered social roles and expectations have been punished very cruelly throughout history, or made monstrous. Women who desire other women, women who ‘play’ men in the course of love-making, women who ‘dress’ as men in erotic play: across the world, many cultures have ‘allowed’ illicit desire one way or another, in however limited a fashion, but not illicit gendered lives – because as you know, for the female born to covet what is in public – commerce, education, power – is taboo. And if women do covet and access these, they remain either exceptions, or are made to ‘pay’ in other ways. For example, in medieval Europe, women were active in craft and commerce, but could not inherit, could not dispose of property, were enjoined to remain ‘honourable’ wives on the pain of death…. Likewise, adultery, same-sex love etc were not unknown, and were punished, but the punishment was more brutal than for those who transgressed given social gendered roles.

The authors may want to think through this more carefully, and ask if ‘gender’ choices can remain free-floating or are already defined. Ultimately, much of this has to do with practice, with the way we do gender in our lives, and what battles we chose, and what we leave alone, at least for now. It might be useful therefore to get even more nuanced in talking about gender, just as we are in doing gender.

5. I particularly like the critical understanding of language and identity, the very sharp remarks on how those who work with their gender identities use language – being neither bound by tradition entirely or by the buzz words of the NGO world. I am personally interested in how different languages work with issues to do with gender and identity, the subtle differences and so on. There is much work to be done here, and the authors have pointed to it, again an important contribution to our understanding of gender and sexuality politics, which often gets framed in extremely limited ways since it is made available mostly in English. I also think that the question of historical memory is important, and it might be interesting to work a little more on this –

6. The authors make it clear that female-born sexual and gender minorities may have common interests but they are also different. Likewise, they see feminism as something that inspires but also as something that needs to critically viewed. I don’t disagree. But I think we need to have a more detailed and specific understanding of Indian feminisms – what feminists say on their behalf and on behalf of other feminists is only a small part of the story. What feminists do, in different parts of India, and how they have worked with desire or pleasure, or understood gender and sexuality – we are yet to have rich sense of this. Often we end up taking publicly available English texts, interviews with ‘well-established’ feminists as representative – and they may not be. So here I think there’s lots of work to be done, and if you do rework your report at some point you may want to indicate that feminist views and ideas as they are publicly articulated is what you are criticising – a decade ago similar criticisms from the point of view of caste and religion were directed at the Indian women’s movement and feminism, and once again, regional histories, specific realities and practices were not part of the debate. What has been said – and available in English – became central to the argument.

This does not mean that feminism and the women’s movement have consistently engaged with the complex nature of genders that are assumed, chosen … but there may be details that are worth noting, and these are only going to be accessed if we pay attention to specific realities and not to what is attributed to and owned up by the spokespersons of the women’s movements alone.

7. On the question of violence: it would be very fruitful and productive to ask how may transpeople fighting violence benefit from and carry forward the work done by women’s groups with respect to the family, for one; violence in public spaces, for another, and sexual freedom and the freedom to remake oneself. For instance – and authors have indicated this – can we work on making natal families equally culpable under the domestic violence act; and how may we do this, both legally and in terms of social communication. In Tamil Nadu, for instance we have seen how in the case of inter-caste relationships, natal families can turn very violent; we know too from the so-called honour killings that parents and kin can and do murder women they claim they love. Would it be useful to therefore turn the spotlight on natal families as well, and ask a set of linked questions about how these families deal with female born persons who do not wish to conform to the social roles and desires considered appropriate for them –

There has been a lot of debate about the language of law with respect to sexual assault, and we have not been able to render the victim of assault ‘gender-neutral’ – an interesting paradox, since rape is a very gendered crime, however you look at it and we clearly need to think more on defining the victim, and here we might want to distinguish between defining the ‘victim’ in legal terms from defining violence in social and cultural terms. Currently at least with the latest criminal law amendment sexual assault is defined rather widely as well as in specific terms. What might help is to press for another amendment, on the model of the Prevention of Atrocities Act, which lists crimes in details – the current amendment does too, as with voyeurism etc – but this list needs to be expanded to include acts of abuse faced by sexual and gender minorities and as with the PoA act, the perptetrators may be classified as those who are acting contrary to the spirit of the Constitution – in any case this is a debate that has to continue.

8. On the question of caste discrimination and the discrimination faced by female born sexual and gender minorities: I am not sure you can keep these categories so apart. For one, caste violence is fundamentally gendered. Dalit men are routinely abused as being ‘faggots’; their masculinity is called into question by comparing them to ‘half-men’; dalit women are either considered whores or shameless women who are not feminine enough. Whatever caste-society considers to be sexually deviant, transgressive and ‘wrong’, it displaces onto dalits – both in terms of violence, as well as in denying dalits their dignity. Clearly the politics of caste and sexuality leaves its marks on dalits as well, and we need to also ask how dalit men and women process this violence, whether they seek to ‘conform’ to heteronormative realities, or are likely to be more accepting of differences, and of choices. But this needs to be studied further, understood better.

9. On the question of the State: starting from whether one is alright being an ‘other’ in a government form, the authors have initiated a rather important discussion, which they continue in your arguments about anti-discriminatory legislation; whether we can learn from and benefit from the reservation model. All very important questions: especially if female born sexual and gender minorities are also dalits or from minority ethnic and religious groups, then the question of reservation begins to look different. If they are not, and if they are considered ‘marginal’ and ‘stigmatised’ on account of their sexual or gender choices, then the idea of seeking reservation becomes less attractive – therefore we may not be able to work with one model of anti-discrimination.

10. I shall end by pointing to what I missed in the study, or rather something which is implicitly there, but not really worked through: the relationship between social rules with respect to gender and sexuality and the manner they map onto economic and social differences and contradictions. FTMs are feared, hated, reviled – differently than other gender minorities are – because a female born person wanting to be a man goes against the grain of all the regimes of property and family that we know of, pre-capitalist, capitalist and the mixed worlds in between. Here the authors want to pick up and take forward what they say in the beginning about FTMs not being ‘public’ persons, as male born persons and even hijras are – feminists have done a lot of work on this, the manner in which women feature in public spaces, of the economy, polity and so on, and the structures of discrimination and injustice they have to engage with. To place issues of invisibility and silent violence in this context would be useful – under what conditions are female born persons allowed to move out of the private, and access the public, and what status or authority does this give them? And by implication how may we understand the limitations under which FTMs and other minorities labour…

The question of being out there in the public is important, given how donor-driven funding has produced particular and limited public spaces, without challenging the mainstream’s discriminatory politics. And it may not be very long before capitalism is happy with these spaces and therefore coopts transpolitics – since in this stage of capitalist growth they want docile preferably unmarked bodies rather than any with identity claims – this is evident in all advertisements, where black, white or brown, everyone looks the same, wants the same and so on. In this context, we may want to consider how an anti-capitalist politics of gender would be like – especially when capitalism gets comfortable with gender transitions, as it well may… in Europe it has, to an extent, and in parts of the USA …

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