Slipping Out Of Gendered Spaces
Earlier this week I was discussing Wuthering Heights with my class of 11th graders. We were talking about how demarcations, borders and outlines of the Body are continuously challenged in the text, in such a way that the Body becomes a hybrid of human and beast. At one point Catherine exclaims, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He is always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being”, here the Body possesses masculine and feminine spaces simultaneously, which by extension ‘queers’ love, as well as allows the Body to dislocate itself from chronic heteronormativity. I was about to explain how the text polices this ‘abnormal’ body when one student asked me to stop. He couldn’t reconcile the idea that a woman’s body can embody and imprint from her lover’s body and identity. He didn’t like that she remained autonomous of her identity while slipping into Heathcliff’s body (figuratively speaking) at will. The way he put it, “Why isn’t she happy with the space she’s given?”. As trans-phobic his statement was, I could understand where it stemmed from. Even when all I wanted to do was stop the class right there and start discussing transphobia, probably also whack him on the head¹ with Gender Trouble till he saw how pungent his assumption was and all I could do was try to not start ranting and fuming, I could see why he thought this way. As a culture, we’re told to see transsexuals and intersex people as the Other, we’re encouraged when we participate in erasing people who identify as trans; so my student’s reaction was hardly out of the ordinary. What stuck with me is how ‘natural’ it was for my student to say what he said, without even pausing to consider that androgyny or ‘gender bending’ may go beyond people who are ‘born that way’.
I don’t really remember how I finished the class, I do remember mulling over what my student said even as I was waiting on the platform for my train to come. Before I knew it, I’m standing in front of the ‘Ladies Compartment’ marked with blue stripes and for a second I couldn’t move. We gender our spaces wherever and whenever possible, and this differently ‘marked’ compartment proved just that. The reason behind keeping separate train compartments for Ladies and Dudes is to keep groping and sexual harassment to the minimum — by employing the Cure The Disease And Spare The Symptom Method — but the boundaries are clear. If I look like a Lady, I must travel in the space alloted to me or I shouldn’t complain when I get assaulted when I travel by the ‘general’ compartment; questions whether I identify as a Lady are quite easily ignored. At social gatherings and dinner parties, somehow unanimously women use separate rooms or tables, where even the talk is gendered. The Dudes sit sipping alcohol and talking of ‘dudely’ things finance, architecture, politics — I don’t even know what else as I’m generally in the opposite section — whereas Ladies talk about children, husbands, cooking, chores and ungrateful relatives. As a child I used to think that men must speak a different language altogether as they seldom talked to girls or women. This isn’t to say the two genders never interact socially — we’re one of the biggest populations on the planet, so some social intercourse is happening somewhere — but that in the presence of these different spaces, we don’t step out of our boundaries. I am often uncomfortable in such gendered tables or rooms as the manufactured differences always get to me; not because I’m uneasy in my prescribed gender but because there is no scope for me to transgress if I ever wanted to. Media and social traditions foster the idea that a person who identifies as queer or trans is a laughing-stock. In fact most encounters with hijras leave people giggling, because opinions like “can you imagine being a man down there! It’s so sad and funny!” are too commonplace. In fact, “Bobby Darling” is used as a slur to discourage boys from showing their effeminacy, effectively silencing the woman behind this slur as a body who independently chose her trans identity.
Under feminist discourse, the Body is a site of production and consumption of knowledge, power and desire; but the question that concerns us today is which Body is allowed this power. As Butler beautifully points out in Bodies That Matter, often there is a selective politics involved in normalising cis, White and thin bodies over any other Body. Which is precisely why trans and intersex bodies are seen as strangely asexual or overtly promiscuous – pick one according to the ruling party’s policy as well as your mood! — the goal is to render them ‘alien’, Other, ‘different’, to ‘expose their limitations’. This way, passing invasive laws, abusing trans people, trafficking trans bodies becomes quite easy. Earlier this month the Indian government passed a bill that offers hijras a monthly pension as a way of ‘helping’ them, since “most eunuchs live in misery” as Jagdish Mamgain of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi is quoted by the Belfast Telegraph as saying. While there is no denying that most hijras and trans people of other lesser known communities do live in abject poverty, that they are often discriminated against because of their ‘ill-fitting body’ or that they belong to an ‘inferior caste’, I don’t see how this bill is any way beneficial to them. My problem with this bill doesn’t lie in the idea that ‘those filthy hijras get money for being deformed!’ like many right-winged arseholes do, but rather how even here the trans body is under scrutiny and policing. According to this bill, “a eunuch must submit a medical certificate from a government hospital as proof of no longer having male genitalia, as well as an affidavit proclaiming they are not married and proof of age” to qualify for this meager pension. So hijras whose male appendages have been forcibly castrated — to keep the fine tradition of the hijra community alive — in other words, people who identify as transwomen are allowed this pension. What about transmen? Or people who aren’t born intersex, but choose to transition or identify as trans? Apparently, their bodies don’t matter under the Law’s consideration. We’re again ensnared into normalising and preferring one type of trans body over another.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of such a law or any gendered space is how any category — hijra, woman, man — are placed in a metonymic process where people who fall under specified categories — transwomen, heterosexual woman and man — become interchangeable till the point that any individual who deviates from this norm is punished and coloured invisible. While I am indeed happy for people who will benefit from this bill I can’t ignore the Othered Bodies, left to be oppressed and disposed as the stronger hegemonic narrative wills them to be. And out from these policed and controlled laws comes yet another gendered space where the Body is yet again sculpted, chained and punished till it mutates to socially sanctioned norms while the metaphorical body within it is long dead.
1. Not really, as I oppose any kind of violence — especially the violent kind — but I did get furious for a few minutes.