Whipping girl

August 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

An essay by Urvashi Butalia, one of India’s most prominent feminists, was making the rounds on Twitter awhile back. Written for Granta’s F-Word issue, it was about Butalia’s friendship with an Indian transwoman, Mona.  It was an honest essay, and it deserves commendation for its willingness to engage with gender issues without pretension or obfuscation – indeed, one would hardly expect less from Butalia. But there were elements of Butalia’s essay that troubled me. This, despite my fervent wish to simply ignore the gnawing at the back of my mind and fall at Butalia’s intelligent and knowledgeable and formidably-feminist feet.

But alas, the gnawing must be stopped somehow.

I began reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl when I read the Butalia essay and the Granta interview. There needs to be more voices of feminism from the global South, and there are not nearly enough. Butalia’s is especially necessary, particularly when she says something like this:

The Indian women’s movement has a long history, although if you were to read some of the early books on the history of feminism published in the West, you would think feminist activism never existed in countries like ours. I find that infuriating – the lack of knowledge, or desire for it, and the assumption that the West is the centre of the world and the rest of us just poor cousins. The Indian women’s movement is rooted in our political realities, in the history of colonialism and social reform, in the coming-into-its-own of an independent democracy with all sorts of guarantees for women and in the state’s failure to deliver on many of these. Our activism arose out of that. Because of where we are located and the history of India, there is no way the feminist movement can divorce itself, say, from issues of poverty, development, women’s health, education, religious identity … and this is where our specificity lies.

But feminism in its various incarnations has also had trouble with the marginalised of the marginalised – and sex workers and transwomen and transmen are the ones who fall between the cracks and relegated to a space of absence, trotted out when feminism wants to display its progressive, liberal tendencies, and forgotten when it comes to the actual fight for ‘rights’.  (I’ve been thinking a lot about the language of ‘rights’ recently but haven’t read enough to actually articulate an argument or even understand what my own discomfort indicates – hence the quotation marks.) As Kathy Newnam writes in ‘Fighting for an inclusive feminist movement’,

Jeffreys and her “radical feminist” supporters cry foul about their increasing isolation within the feminist movement. But the reality is that they are not socially isolated; in fact it is their anti-trans* and anti-sex worker campaigns that get them the most coverage. It is very difficult to argue that Jeffreys – a tenured professor and published author – is hard done by. It’s not hard to get a hearing when you are backing the exclusion of the already oppressed and marginalised.

Similar strains of discomfort are felt when Butalia explains her reasons for writing Mona’s story:

It’s raised many questions for me. I speak about some of them in the essay. I’m fascinated by her desire for motherhood for example. As a feminist, I have grown up convinced that motherhood is not only biological; but to think of a man (and Mona was a man when she knew she wanted to be a mother) wanting to be a mother was still an education for me. My identity as a woman has always been something very precious, very enabling, very empowering – despite the fact that women have to face violence and discrimination – but I have never thought of travel between identities, of switching from one to the other. And yes, gender too, for of course as a feminist, I know gender is not about biology but about socialization, but again, I had never thought of the kinds of issues Mona raises for me. Is she a man or a woman? She assumes both roles; is this exciting or manipulative? Some years ago we had a women’s conference in Kolkata, and at these conferences, which are unfunded and organised by activists within the movement, everyone sleeps in the same place. One of the big questions was whether we should have hijras sleep in the same place as the women, for were they really women or men?

This sentiment is reflected in Butalia’s essay:

What was it with all these men wanting to be women, I wondered. Here I was, a woman who thinks of herself as empathetic and quite open, surrounded by men who were doing their best to switch over to ‘my’ side, and I felt out of place, as if I did not belong. I was reminded of a conversation I’d once had with an Australian friend of mine, a lesbian and a feminist, as she and I stood and watched some hijras dance at a women’s conference. ‘I hate all this,’ she’d said to me. ‘We’ve fought so long and hard to carve out a little space for ourselves in society, to be able to make our voices heard, and here are these men pretending to be women, and they’ve come and taken it over.’ Until she said it in so many words, I hadn’t actually thought of it like that. Instead, I’d been wondering about what the experience of maleness and femaleness meant for the Monas of this world and how someone like me could understand it. Typically, Mona had the answer. ‘Arrey,’ she said, ‘why do you worry so much about this? What is there to think? I’m human, you’re human, I’m a woman but sometimes I can be a man – I don’t like being one, but sometimes it’s useful. And anyway, we have something more in common and that is that both you and I, we’re bachelors.’

In framing Mona’s response as a sort of breezy devil-may-care attitude (and perhaps it was, but we will not know beyond what Butalia chose to tell us), transgenderism and transsexualism can almost be seen as something freeing, something light and pure and unburdened, the ease with which male-to-female transsexuals can switch from being men to being women in order to co-opt this gender-switching as a form of privilege and power, as a right to exist in a dual gender-space and claim the benefits of both. Supposedly, that’s what Butalia is trying to convey, or that’s what I read when I read that paragraph. Butalia’s reference to her feminist friend’s words, “men pretending to be women” strikes me as all sorts of wrong even with the barest hint of awareness of trans issues. If men only want to pretend to be women, and women want to pretend to be men, then transgender and transsexual people don’t even have to be considered real. And the extreme repugnance that I feel when feminists, who should know better than anyone how invocations of sexuality and gender can be used as a weapon to discount and or elevate a person’s status as human, do the same to others who don’t immediately appear “female”. The very subject of “man-pretending-to-be-woman” is produced through this cognitive framing.

This framing, as Serano explains in Whipping Girl, arises out of “oppositional sexism”. I feel the need to quote Serano at length because it seems to speak directly to the kind of feminism displayed by Butalia, in her piece:

While often different in practice, cissexism, transphobia, and homophobia are all rooted in oppositional sexism, which is the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires.

[…]

Examining the society-wide disdain for trans women also brings to light an important yet often overlooked aspect of traditional sexism: that it targets people not only for their femaleness, but also for their expressions of femininity.

This also speaks of a feminism that is innately suspicious of external claims to femininity; where the idea of enjoying the “feminine experience” (say, for example, in sartorial style and beauty labour) and enjoying the attention that comes with it (whether the gaze is male or female) is seen as somehow weakening the position of feminism.

But of course, when expressions of femininity are taken into consideration, transwomen are made to permanently reside in the realm of awkward, which in Mona’s case Butalia eloquently describes:

‘From the moment I became conscious of myself as a person,’ she says, ‘I felt I was a misfit. I was convinced I had been born in the wrong body. I really wanted to be a girl.’ It wasn’t only the physical fact of her maleness that made her uncomfortable, but also the cultural baggage that accompanied it. She liked dolls and ‘feminine’ things, preferred girls as friends. This made her the butt of many jokes at school, as well as a source of anxiety for her parents. She was a lonely child, an outcast among boys who saw her as effeminate yet unable to join the girls because the society in which she lived was conservative: there was no space for girls and boys to play together. Often, she would leave home for school but instead spend the day sitting in the park, alone. It was not until much later in life that she would find what she believed was a place for herself.

This is a tangible sense of displacement born out of feeling “a misfit”, the kind that comes from knowing you’re out of sync with the supposedly normal manifestations of individuals in society. Serano takes this further, in talking about her experience as a transwomen, to explain how misogyny operates intricately with transphobia to render the male-to-female trans person in a double bind: “If they act feminine they are perceived as being a parody, but if they act masculine it is seen as a sign of their true male identity,” she writes, which is certainly true of a wider strain of feminism that implicitly distrusts transwomen because of their inner male-ness, as though any minute the “man inside” will break out and ruin the rah-rah coven of sisterhood. Which flies in the face of feminism, which is that gender/sex shouldn’t really matter.

It’s impossible to read Serano without thinking about your relationship to sex and gender, and small ways in which we give ourselves away – like when we look at transwomen and say “They are prettier than some of my prettiest female friends!” or some such bullshit. The underlying assumption that seems almost imprinted in the subconscious is that transgender people are always merely performing or playing at their chosen gender, and never actually being their chosen gender. Serano refers to this as gender entitlement, which she says often

leads to gender anxiety, the act of becoming irrationally upset by or being made uncomfortable by the existence of those people who challenge or bring into question one’s gender entitlement.

Butalia’s essay proves that a significant portion of feminism – even radical feminism – is still extricated in what she terms cisgenderism – that all women should display some form of femininity and all men some form of masculinity. Otherwise, there is something suspect about them. This is not the case, of course, if people are cisgendered, in which case ‘proving’ their gender is never a burden, even if they may deal with the consequences and societal pressures/condemnation of not living up to their gender in normative, prescribed ways.

I don’t mean to pick on Butalia as an example of trans-unfriendly feminism, but it reflected a lot of the questions and concerns that Serano assiduously excavates through her analysis of transphobic culture. This also brings to mind the recent profile of Bradley Manning in New York magazine by Steve Fishman, which seemed to encourage its readers to draw obvious parallels between’s Manning’s turbulent inner landscape and his gender identity with Manning’s subsequent actions in leaking the documents. The first time I read Fishman’s profile I was disturbed, but what bothered me more was the speed in which the profile was retweeted and passed around as an example of a ‘searing portrait of a troubled soul’ or whatever, and no one none the wiser about the troubling context in which the profile was situated. Not many seemed to find it a problem that Manning’s sexual identity was posited as a relevant source or root of his subsequent ‘aberrant’ behaviour to leak the documents, the subtext which seemed to say, “Of course he’s fucked up, he’s trans, and yeah, poor thing, and so yeah, he did that crazy thing, that poor thing.” I realise I’m not being fair to Fishman’s profile, which essentially evoked a sympathetic tone in relation to Manning’s “troubled past” and family history. I realise I’m not being fair to Fishman’s no doubt noble and good intentions or whatever, intentions that effectively rendered Manning a troubled soul with “gender identity issues” and individual problems, gently guiding the reader to think that Manning couldn’t handle life in the army because he was trans, not the fact that life in the army has to break every single person before it can absorb it into its war-making apparatus. A sharp, clear-eyed response to this comes from Emily Manuel, who cites also Glen Greenwald’s essential piece on ‘The motives of Bradley Manning’.

If Bradley Manning was a straight white male would there have been an equal amount of time spent cataloguing his sexual anxieties or “gender confusion”? Or do we merely assume that heterosexual, cisgender people never experience these anxieties and confusion, particularly a straight white man in a straight white man’s world?

Closer to home, the recent death of a Malaysian transwoman, Aleesha Farhana, brings to light the severe repercussions of state-sanctioned discrimination of transpeople. Aleesha’s attempt to change her name and gender after undergoing transition surgery in Thailand was rejected by the Malaysian High Court. She died very suddenly on July 30 of reported heart failure. The coverage in the media was largely abysmal, referring to her as the ‘Sex-change man’ or by her birth name, bringing into sharp focus the ways in which we are all complicit in erasing the right to selfhood and self-identification among transpeople. Seen through the lens of law and biology, the issue of gender transformation is quite literally seen as an aberration, and a trivial one, at that. The media coverage seems to begin from the premise that Aleesha is legally male because she was born male, and thus her wish to be a woman is merely wishful thinking or a superficial desire, the equivalent perhaps of wanting to be thinner or prettier or taller. In the midst of their grief, her family chose to bury her “as a man”, because as her father put it:

He was born a male and, therefore, it is only right for us to bury him that way.

Even Shahrizat Jalil, Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, referred to Aleesha by her birth name and maintained the male pronoun.  This is a significant cause for concern – because issues of gender discrimination and transrights should ostensibly fall under this Ministry’s purview. But this is Malaysia, and so it’s no big shock – none of our Ministries are meant to do whatever they’re supposed to do. It’s just another life loss, grief expressed through a pretty sound-bite for the media, and life as normal.

The only media (that I know of) to refer to her by her chosen name and gender identity was Free Malaysia Today, who also did a good job including a valuable statement by the local trans community:

The community said they believe that Aleesha died from severe depression after her application was rejected and urged the court to give her the justice she sought.

“It is still not too late for the court to allow Aleesha to change her name and gender,” they said.

“Her rights and the court’s duty must not be held hostage by the sensitivites of those who are ignorant about trangenderism.

“By denying her right, the court is perpetuating an environment of discrimination within which she will never find the justice due her,” she* added.

The trans community also said that they held both the government and media responsible for the extreme levels of stigma and discrimination against them.

Among the abuses they faced include being barred from accessing health services, housing, education and employment opportunities.

“The discrimination is often perpetuated by biased, negative reporting from the media and endorsed by state mouthpieces,” they said.

“Unwillingness of the government to recognise trans people as equal before the law facilitate this ugly persistence in violating us,” the statement read.

“The sensitivities of those who are ignorant about transgenderism” is searing critique, and alarmingly it’s been with us throughout the formation of mainstream Western feminism, as Serano points out when she quotes Germaine Greer:

No one ever asked women if they recognised sex-change males as belonging to their sex or considered whether being obliged to accept MTF transsexuals as women was at all damaging to their identity or self-esteem.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the words of Butalia’s “Australian friend” (quoted above) echoes Greer’s.

Serano’s comments the Greer quote:

The immediate sense that one gets after reading this quote (besides nausea) is Greer’s severe sense of gender entitlement. Despite the fact that she knows that transsexual woman identify as female, Greer refers to us instead as “sex-change males”, demonstrating that she feels entitled to gender us in whatever way she feels is appropriate.

If the phrase “sex-change males” sounds familiar, it’s because “sex-change man” was the phrase used in The Star in its report on Aleesha’s death (linked to above).

There is plenty more to think about in Whipping Girl (particularly Serano’s critique of Foucault and Butler) and I’ve only scratched the surface in considering some of Serano’s words in light of some recent reading. I’m not sure I agree with everything she writes, although I’m also pretty certain that agreeing or disagreeing is not the point – it’s a matter of rethinking conceptions of gender and sexuality and unlearning what has been normalised and socialised and starting again from scratch. The significant problems feminism has with transgender issues, the fluidity with which it seems to incorporate transphobic perceptions in order to emphasise what is and is not dangerous for women, as outlined by some of the remarks made by Butalia and friend, as well as Greer’s comments, proves that feminism’s starting point – as Serano outlines it – needs to begin here:

At some point, all of us who identify as female have to come face-to-face with our own internalized misogyny.

*This appears to be an error in the news report.

(Image by Jillian Tamaki, via)

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