Nearly a month after the first Yuva, Yaunikta aur Adhikar Course and we are still riding the wave of excitement and stimulation. The hang-over, endless questions, with the struggle to find an answer, and the itch to write about it, is an over-whelming feeling. The first session in the course was on Gender. The common understanding with which we started the session was that the word gender and woman are not synonyms to each other, that it is a social construct which is maintaining the power relations and patriarchy at a structural level. Additionally, it was made clear that gender is a structure with its own set of norms that if broken are met with punishments and if followed are met with rewards of respect and social standing.
After this, we went a little deeper and closer to ourselves to talk about gender identity.To do this, we introduced ourselves with our names, our gender identity and the pronoun we want to be used for ourselves. Shals, the facilitator for this session, talked about how one assumes the gender identity and pronoun of the person by looking at certain indicators on their body—be it their facial structure, clothing, length of hair, amount of facial hair, muscle mass, distribution or fat. These assumptions are made very unconsciously—we don’t even realize when we do it, as a result of which, we end up alienating a huge section of our population—the trans* community, aka, people who may not want she/her used just because they have been assigned female at birth. In the round of introductions most people said they want pronouns used that technically ‘match’ their genitalia. However, there were some people in the room who were assigned male at birth who wanted she/her used and some people who were assigned female at birth who want gender neutral pronouns (ze, they) or typically male pronouns (he, his) used. After the basic round of introductions, Shals pushed us to think deeper:
Why is your gender identity, what it is? Why are you a woman? What makes you a man/woman? What is the structural understanding of that gender? Why did you make that as your gender identity?
Some of the responses included:
– Shuruat se society ne de di, humara control nahi, jis direction mein bheja gaya, vaha chal diye, yoni hai, samaaj ne banaya hai yoni hone par ladki, rehan-sehan mera vaise hua, khud bhi lagta hai ladki hun, naam se hi lagta hai. (From the starting, society gave it to us, we didn’t have any control over it. We went to whatever direction we were sent. I have vagina, society has constructed that if you have vagina, you’ll be called a woman. I was socialized in that way, I myself feel that I am a woman, my name also tells).
– Sab kuch mil kar lagta hai ki ladka hun, maloom hai ki system hai jaha division of labour hai according to division of identity, system needs it, patriarchy needs it, tab bhi lagta hai ki ladka hun. (With everything around, I feel I’m a man. I know in this system division of labour exists according to division of identity, patriarchy needs this division, but still I feel I’m a man).
– When I hadn’t reached my puberty, before 12, I was always treated as a boy of the family. But after my puberty, I was asked to wear feminine dresses, my father didn’t treat me in the same way. Now I think men are abhorrent, I don’t like their lifestyle, their way of living. That’s why I think fortunately/unfortunately being a woman is the only option I have, so I choose it.
There were endless questions that we were all posed with about our gender. It was discomforting at one level to acknowledge that half an hour ago we were all talking about gender transgression and sharing our struggles, to realize that there are/were very many things which most of us without questioning accepted, conformed to. When I thought that why I think I’m a woman, my instinctive thought was, “how do explain it?”. Then the counter thought also was, “…but we’re saying gender is a social construct, then there has to be something behind this construction.” But as it came out in the above quotes also, nobody had anything to say about why their gender identity is what it is, except for, “mujhe aisa lagta hai” (I feel that way). Rituparna said, “Being born as a person assigned gender female at birth, it is a privilege to look like a woman and identify as a woman. At one level, in the patriarchal construct I feel marginalized for my identity of a woman, there are so many struggles that I have to do to live my life my way, but I know as a cis-woman, I have more power”. Surely, all feminist friends know what the fights mean, with family members, friends and strangers, to give them explanations, to answer their questions on breaking the gender norms. At the same time, there was a realization that there are struggles which I didn’t have to do. From what we were told by trans* people, it is an everyday struggle for them, to face harassment in using washrooms, traveling in both reserved and general train coaches, purchasing clothes in the highly gendered shopping complexes, how to explain the pronoun you use doesn’t match with my identity and I feel that I’m not of the gender identity that you’re forcing on me. It is like you’re posed with that question everyday.
I tried thinking what makes one a woman, surely not one body part, not uterus, not breast. If any of these body parts are removed, I think I’d still identify as a woman. On the other hand, I also happily invest my time, energy and money on my gender and feel attached to it, perform it, be it in clothes, changes in the body, getting body hair removed/not removed, fear to get a hair-cut too short and what not. But is it only about one’s own identity, about a personal choice? As Shals quoted, “gender jitna humare bahar hai utna humare andar bhi hai”. (Gender is as much inside us, as it is outside). There are structural issues of a gender identity, and so the question arises, what gives one their gender identity, body, thoughts or that structure? A structure which hierarchize cis-men, cis-women and trans* and only looks at world as binary.