Feminism, for me, has become an exhausting word. It’s not that I reject the label, I’m just getting tired of what the movement seems to mean to most people. I’m tired of the media stories always being about cis-white women’s middle class issues, tired of constantly defending myself and watering down my opinions to reassure people I’m not a ‘feminazi,’ and tired of the narrative reinforcing a gender binary that just doesn’t exist. What’s worse is that a lot of self-proclaimed feminists seem to categorize trans/non-binary issues as at least partially separate to feminist ones. How can a society achieve social equality (let alone legal) of all genders if most of the members of said society refuse to believe in the existence of the genders of some of the most vulnerable groups? Or in the case of many intersex and non-binary individuals, actively try and erase and, for lack of a less dramatic word, convert them into belonging to the binary.
Now before we go any further, the non-existence of the gender binary, as the inherent truth it is currently presented as, is, I’m sorry to inform you, not up for discussion. It’s simply wrong. Fake news! The fact is that, for the most part, the strict binary we currently adhere to is a product of western colonialism. A huge amount of indigenous people had and continue to have a variety of genders and divergent gender roles. Many of these were systematically oppressed and erased throughout colonialism as a method to dominate the indigenous societies with western (often British) culture. Let us look at just a couple of examples.
The term Hijra is applied throughout South Asia to intersex, transgender, and other-identifying people. In India, Hijra is recognised as a third gender and has been for at least 4,000 years on record. Due to important Hijra characters in the primary Hindu texts, they are thought to hold great religious authority and would often perform ceremonies and rituals, as well as give blessings or curses. Particularly in the Mongol-era (16th to 19th centuries) Hijras held important positions in court and administration. During the 19th century of course, India came under British colonisation, and the good ol’ Brits sought to criminalise and eradicate the Hijras as a symbol of Indian identity and society. While these laws were repealed after India gained its independence, the damage had undoubtedly been done. While Hijras are still revered in certain religious and spiritual circles, they are now a marginalised group in society, facing frequent hate crimes and abuse.
Now let’s leap to America. Long before Trump was making life hell for transgender and non-binary people, the European invaders were busy setting the scene for their own systematic oppression and erasion. Obviously the indigenous people of America are incredibly far from a homogeneous culture, and unfortunately I don’t have the time they deserve to delve into details about any particular tribe. Many tribes however, shared the notion of gender-fluidity, and certainly didn’t adhere to a strict binary even if they did keep unshakable gender roles within the tribe or clan. The term Two-Spirit was recently adopted as a pan-Native term, replacing more outdated bigoted terms such as Berdache. In many tribes, a Two-Spirited person’s wares (goods/products) would sell for more, simply because it was made by them as they were given great respect due to their spiritual enlightenment, being thought to be closer to the Spirit-world than others.
Already a pattern seems to emerge, that prior to European involvement indigenous people had both a broader understanding of anyone’s gender identity, and that they recognized and revered genders and sexes other than male and female, often closely linked to spirituality. Then blunders in British invaders or other colonists singing ‘God Save The Queen’ and trampling over ancient cultures. The entire continents of America and Africa, as diverse as they are, completely lost huge aspects of culture and history, much of which certainly would’ve taught us more about various understandings of gender identities and roles. Currently, both the Hijra and the Two-Spirit are making something of a comeback, no doubt partly due to more progressive understandings of gender in a post-colonial setting. Unfortunately, the gender binary has become so ingrained globally, that all people whose gender doesn’t conform to it are seen, highly ironically, as ‘new age-y.’
Okay, I’ve rambled on about cultural conflict long enough, but my point is that one of the biggest challenges to intersectional feminism is perpetuated by mainstream views of gender. The notion that there has always essentially been the two sexes living in what we understand as a patriarchy and that feminism is the struggle of women to gain equal footing is grossly inaccurate. The first cave man did not come home to his cave wife cooking his dinner in blissful savage domesticity. It has not ‘always been this way’ with men valued over women, whether you believe we’re past that or not, and the Millennials and Generation Z are not now making up new genders, left, right and centre. Of course new terms are made and any concept changes as society progresses (or perhaps regresses) but a fluid understanding of what gender actually is is far from new. Seriously, just read a history book that wasn’t written by a white dude.
Where do we go from here? Well, feminists, put down the Simone de Beauvoir (as much as I adore her) and listen to the trans/non-binary people in your life and communities. The reform to the Gender Recognition Act offers hope, but we’ve got a ridiculously long way to go. I want to see legal recognition, rights, and protection for the non-binary community, as well as education in schools, public bathrooms and safe spaces specifically for them, and that’s just the short-term goals. Eventually, I like to think we’ll engage not in a new, but an ever changing and developing conversation about gender.
Written by Jasmin Read