Patriarchy’s Play

Muhammad Aqeel Awan explains the concept of hetero-normativity

Patriarchy’s Play
"I did not like going out and playing with boys, I enjoyed being at home and loved playing with dolls. I still have my dolls,’ said a transgender woman when I asked about her childhood memories, and her journey of the realisation of the fact that their gender was non-conforming. Many other respondents also gave similar responses; taking an interest in household chores, cooking, cleaning, and washing dishes were stated as indicators of their ‘feminine souls.’

If household activities are what feminine souls naturally inclined towards, then they should not be able to let go of these activities throughout their lives. However, as adults, staying at home and washing dishes did not seem to be the main priority of many among the same transgenders. That does not mean they were not non-conforming anymore; their feminine souls was still there, perhaps blossoming more than ever before. So, then how does one explain the contrast in the way the notion of ‘feminine soul’ is described and experienced?

If the tables were turned and I was asked to talk about how I know of my gender, perhaps I would also have looked for similar indicators from my life. The problem is not in what my respondents told me, the problem is in what the society told them as to what it means to be a male and what it means to be a female. It works in the following manner:

Our lives are trapped within a theatrical play called ‘hetero-normativity.’ The play begins with an assumption that divides all bodies into two types, and assigns one type of body a (hypothetical) label of ‘male’, and the other, ‘female.’ Once all individuals are divided into this binary system, each type of person is then staged with a set of structural constraints by the play’s director, called Patriarchy. With the division of bodies, the possible intelligibility and performativity is also divided into a binary system. Thus, the male body operates within particular constraints of intelligibility and together with the structural constraints, the intelligibility constraints are expected to lead to a particular type of bodily performance, labelled as ‘masculinity.’ Similarly, the female body is also allowed a constricted intelligibility and bodily performance, which is labelled as ‘femininity.’ Patriarchy assigns the male body and masculinity superiority over the female body and femininity. Though it may seem that lately, deviation from the norm by the play’s actors has become acceptable since transgenders have gained legal acceptance, still the assumption of binaries stands afoot, and therefore the so-called aberration is also bound to fall prey to the discourses of binaries.

In simpler words, the world that we live in divides our bodies under hypothetical notions, and then creates structural constraints for our intelligibility and performativity. A normatively-labelled male bodied person not being able to perform the society’s expected masculine gender performance, when tries to find an explanation for their identity, ends up looking at the only other category allowed by the director of the play. Even in defying the play of hetero-normativity, they are left with no option but to somewhat play it.

To understand it better, consider the following example: our Khawajasiras often talk about having a natural desire to dance. Boys dance too. But the normatively considered boy-dances tend to be very different than that of girls. One Khawajasira explained it to me in the following words: “When we watch say, Shahrukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit dance, while you as a boy may wish to spread your arms out like Shahrukh, I naturally feel the urge to follow the dance moves of Madhuri.”

Clearly, there are only two options: the masculine performance of Shahrukh and or the feminine performance of Madhuri. That is how hetero-normativity is played. I wonder of a scenario where Madhuri’s only dance move is to spread her arms out and Shahrukh does the normatively feminine dancing, or a scenario where both have exactly the same dance or both can switch their dance roles any time during the song.

The problem is not just in how the bounded intelligibility limits our access to indicators that explain an identity, these indicators also negatively impact our intelligibility, making it even narrower and inflexible. I wonder if any of my respondents had wanted to be a leader like Benazir Bhutto, or a lawyer of the oppressed like Asma Jehangir, or wished wish to stand for human rights, peace and prosperity like Malala Yousafzai.

The problem is that leadership, lawyering, fighting for rights and many more such traits are not considered ‘feminine’ in our normative society, so how could these be idealised by those with a feminine soul? Even if they do idealise these women and such traits privately, in public spaces, to ‘prove’ to the society that their claim of a feminine soul inside a male body is true, they have to adhere to and idealise the normative extremes of femininity. They are allowed to idealise only those bodies that perform extremely ‘feminine.’ Thus, despite transgenders’ subversion of the play of hetero-normativity, the director, patriarchy does not give them room to live truly non-heteronormative lives.

Moving forward, let us imagine a different play. Let us imagine our bodies varying on a spectrum instead of just between the supposed binary of male and female. Let us imagine those bodies not becoming a predictor of our intelligibility and performativity but rather leaving open room for equal opportunities and freedoms. Let us imagine while we still can. Let us imagine!

The writer is a researcher of gender and development. He can be reached at: