Last year, Pakistan started issuing passports with a third gender category marked by an “X”. In March, the country took things a step further and passed legislation allowing people to change their sex on legal documents, based on self-identification. Now, people can officially self-identify as male, female, or neither on government-issued ID documents, meaning an individual born male can now be issued a female passport. Al Jazeera reports:
“The law guarantees citizens the right to express their gender as they wish, and to a gender identity that is defined as ‘a person’s innermost and individual sense of self as male, female or a blend of both, or neither; that can correspond or not to the sex assigned at birth.'”
The law has been celebrated by many as a progressive victory. Amnesty International’s Pakistan researcher Rabia Mehmood told Al Jazeera that the implementation of the bill “is crucial to ensure [trans-identified people] can live their lives with dignity and respect.” While this might indeed seem like a step forward to some, an important detail brings up questions: despite Pakistan’s apparent embrace of trans-identified people, homosexuality remains criminalized in the country. What liberals and progressives who support this kind of legislation have failed to ask themselves is why transgender politics are being embraced by conservative and regressive regimes like those in Pakistan and Iran.
Trans activists claim that transgenderism has existed throughout history. To prove that “gender identity” is not a modern invention, they point to non-Western societies where, historically, more than two genders have been culturally accepted. This claim is rarely subjected to critical analysis. A feminist analysis is ignored in favour of a superficial analysis of race and colonialism that goes as follows: if a third gender exists in non-Western, non-white societies, the “sex binary” must be a colonialist Western concept that has been imposed on all of us.
But while a third gender really does exist in some societies, that doesn’t necessarily mean that these non-Western views of sex and gender roles are anti-sexist, nor does it mean the application of this idea to Western societies is automatically progressive.
If you compare India’s transgender population to Pakistan’s, you’ll notice an interesting similarity: an overwhelming majority are males. Hijra, as they are called in India, are men or boys pressured to become women on misogynistic grounds: these males love hanging out with women, help women with domestic work, have features that are considered “feminine,” or are suspected of being homosexual. They are often castrated and aren’t allowed to marry or own property. While they may be called upon to bless newborns and celebrate marriages, society generally shuns them and they are rejected by their ashamed families. Seen as accursed, they are given a ritual, religious purpose to counterbalance their ungodly condition. They often become dancers and prostitutes and, like in Pakistan, have to seek the guardianship of a guru (who essentially functions as their pimp) in order to avoid homelessness.
One Pakistani man named Zara tells The Guardian:
“I was born with a very small male organ. Inside, my feelings are female… I want to live like a woman, cook and do domestic work.”
The implication is that a small penis and a preference for “woman’s work” mean that Zara is not sufficiently masculine, and therefore not male.
A homosexual male born as Iman but calling himself Marie featured in a BBC documentary, Iran’s sex change solution, consulted several psychotherapists, some of whom “worked underground.” One suggested pills (of an unspecified nature), another electric shock treatment. Eventually, one doctor told Iman that he could “change [his] gender” and said he needed to start hormone therapy. After a while, another doctor encouraged him to take a step further and undergo surgery. “The doctor told me that with the surgery he could change the two per cent male features but he said he could not change the 98 per cent female features to be male,” Iman says. It is very probable that the surgery included removal of his genitals. As a boy, Iman was bullied for having soft features and was frequently told he looked “like a girl.” After being pressured to start hormones to emphasize his “feminine” features, Iman noticed that he started to grow breasts and that his body hair was thinning. There is little doubt as to what the doctor referred to when he mentioned his remaining “two per cent male features”… Iman says he felt “damaged,” physically. “What I saw was frightening and abnormal,” he adds.
Iran doesn’t traditionally have any concept of a third gender, but the arguments towards the acceptance of transgenderism are the same as in India or Pakistan: when men don’t conform to gender roles related to masculinity and heterosexuality, they are told they are not men at all. In countries like India or Pakistan, religious beliefs about the “balance” between male and female play a role in how women and men are treated. There are many stories about “hermaphrodites” or tales about eunuchs. Men who fail to conform are told they have a female soul and hold a special spiritual position. But in Iran, the religious explanation is non-existent: instead, men like Iman are told that they need medical treatment.
Those who claim transgenderism is universal will also bring up Indigenous societies to show that “male” and “female” are simply rigid inventions of Western, colonial culture, offering “third genders” and “two spirit” people as proof of this. “Native cultures” are glamourized as gender-fluid utopias that European, Christian, colonial conquest destroyed, imposing a rigid two-gender system instead. It is true that as part of the Christianization and colonization process, missionaries profoundly changed the social dynamics between men and women. Children were uprooted from their cultural and social spheres and sent to residential schools, where they were taught Victorian values and morality regarding men and women’s place in North American societies. Indigenous people were subjected to different social codes than those they’d grown up with. Their appearance, for instance, was refashioned: boys couldn’t have long hair because it was considered feminine — they had to wear suits, while girls needed to keep their hair tied at all times and wear dresses. But it would be false to presume that Indigenous societies — which are not at all homogenous — regarded gender (in its contemporary definition) as an instrument for self-expression. This assumes all of these cultures accepted the liberal notion of individual choice and freedom popularized in the aftermath of the American Revolution. But modern notions of individualism, self-expression, and self-realization were were not likely present in pre-colonial Indigenous societies.
The Navajo, for example, have a traditional third gender class called “nadleeh.” While, today, the term is applied to both trans-identified males and females, it originally referred exclusively to males. According to an essay by Wesley Thomas in the book, Two-Spirit People, “Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality,” men who showed proclivities for traditionally female activities such as weaving, cooking, and raising children, became nadleeh.
Thomas writes, “From the Navajo view, until the turn of the century, males who demonstrated characteristics of the opposite gender were known to fulfill their roles as nadleeh.” He argues that the Navajo recognized “gender diversity” pre-colonization:
“Multiple genders were part of the norm in the Navajo culture before the 1890s. From the 1890s until the 1930s dramatic changes took place in the lives of Navajos because of exposure to, and constant pressures from, Western culture — not the least of which was the imposition of Christianity…
… Due to the influence of Western culture and Christianity, which attempt to eradicate gender diversity, the pressure still exists.”
However, he also points out that gender roles still existed in Navajo society:
“The traditional social gender system, although based initially on biological sex, divides people into categories based on several criteria: sex-linked occupation, behaviors, and roles. ‘Sex-linked occupation’ refers to expected work specializations associated with being female or male. ‘Sex-linked behaviors’ include body language, speech style and voice pitch, clothing and other adornment, and those aspects of ceremonial activities that are sex-linked (e.g., women wear shawls in dancing and men do not; men use gourd rattles during dances and women do not). Women’s sex-linked activities include those associated with childrearing, cooking and serving meals, making pottery and baskets, and doing or overseeing other work associated with everyday aspects of the domestic sphere. For men, getting wood, preparing cooking fires, building homes, hunting, planting and harvesting various vegetables, and doing or overseeing work associated with the ceremonial aspects of everyday life are appropriate. A nadleeh mixes various aspects of the behaviors, activities, and occupations of both females and males.”
Traditionally, the Navajo believed that the power of creation belonged to women. It is safe to say that they never believed that nadleeh — “feminine males” — were actually women, because they didn’t have the ability to bear children. They were regarded as feminine on the basis of social occupations but were not called women — azdaa — in the Navajo language. Society was organized on the principle of collective work divided by men and women on account of their physiological differences — women’s activities, for example, were based on their reproductive capacity and status as life-givers.
In this case, the concept of nadleeh cannot be understood as “gender identity” or gender/sex dysphoria, as it was related to social occupations and behaviors connected to sex. While the Navajo are one of the most documented Indigenous cultures, many others are not so well-documented and it therefore seems inappropriate to impose modern notions of “gender diversity,” “gender identity,” or, generally, our own concepts of gender, as we understand it today, in Western cultures.
It also is misguided to assume that non-Western, non-white “third genders” necessarily shatter the gender binary. The existence of other “gender” castes shouldn’t be assumed to challenge the “sex/gender binary” — they need to be examined within their own cultural and political contexts, from a feminist perspective.
The fact that those placed in this “third” gender category are usually males raises another red flag. It suggests that, while men can be downgraded to the status of females, women cannot rise up to the status of men. Being associated with femininity is such a disgrace that men are socially emasculated and physically mutilated. This is pure misogyny. The media remain blind to the evidence, claiming to be puzzled that these supposedly “progressive” gender identity politics are being adopted by otherwise conservative societies that are hostile and violent to women and gay people.
In The Guardian, Memphis Barker writes:
“One reason for the growing acceptance of the trans community springs from an unlikely source — Pakistan’s mullahs. The Council of Islamic Ideology, a government body that has deemed nine-year-old girls old enough to marry and approves the right of men to ‘lightly’ beat their wives, has offered some support to trans rights.”
Of course, in reality, this “support” is only for misogyny.
So blinded by our own Western views on transgender politics — certain we are on “the right side of history” — we can’t see how these ideas could be harmful. Our critical minds have been paralyzed, and fear of backlash has caused us to avoid asking questions. Despite what so many would like to believe, transgender ideology, no matter how and where it is promoted, has put women and gay people in danger all around the world.
Cécilia Lépine is French feminist writing from both a radical and socialist perspective on her website Racine Rouge. Follow her on Twitter @cecilia_lepine.