With all the furore that has happened in the last week around Chimamanda’s comments about trans-women, Nigerians home and abroad who were only starting to contend with the idea that comfortable in skin (cis) women deserve equity with men and sexual minorities (the gay and lesbian communities exist) are suddenly thrust into a whole new minority, separate from all three groups but also intrinsically a part of each. The furore has also forced many Nigerians to question gender itself as more than a metaphorical concept, to be accepted and not examined. We are forced to ask what gender means, when its interpretation can mean the difference between life and death.
What is ‘Gender’ and how is it any different from race or sex?
Gender, Race and Sex are markers used to categorize people. As humans, being able to put everything and anything into categories. Without categories, humans can easily become overwhelmed by the diversity that exists in the world. So we categorize and compartmentalize, helping us find order in our chaotic world. To properly understand our compulsion with categorization, a good start would be this NPR podcast called Invisibilia, specifically the episode ‘The Power of Categories.
Some of the categories we ascribe to other humans are based on physical attributes given by internal biology, and the biggest determiner of biology is race. Sex is another biological determiner. When a child is born, they either present male or female genitalia, (which in human serve primarily as reproductive and excretory organs) or mix of both, or none. These are four distinct categories; male, female, intersex and ‘abnormal’.
Here is where we will apply some tangential association. Most plants and some lower animals exist with both male and female genitalia. A tree is not male or female, a tree is a tree and becomes what ‘gender’ it’s biology tells it is necessary to procreate. A tree/flatworm/snail’s sexual organs are not the primary determiner of its functions, they are merely part of its biology. Their gender is irrelevant to their ability to perform functions like photosynthesis.
If we take this scenario and apply it to humans, we see how biology doesn’t and shouldn’t determine gender.
Gender, unlike biology is assigned to humans as category, based on the kind of sexual genitalia they present at birth. Because humans are higher organisms who survive through ‘compartmentalized functions’ (every person is assigned a role and has to perform it for the group to survive), we use gender as a tool for assigning function, based on a set of preconceived (and usually false or inaccurate metrics). For gender to exist, the person assigned a gender has to perform the roles associated with said gender.
Race like sex is ‘fixed’, genetically, you cannot ‘perform’ race, because there is nothing to perform. Like genitalia (the term for anatomical sex), it is there and functions independent of your personal input. Our race provides a biological function, shape of nose, tolerance to weather, etc.
Gender on the other hand is a social construct because the roles we give to certain groups because of their sex is often social, rather than biological. Gender roles, ascribed because of sex vary vastly between cultures, contemporary and ancient. These roles often accompanied with a dress code and political and social entitlements, are often changed by internal strife and external influence.
The most contemporary example of how gender roles can be completely at odds with common sense and tested science is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s decrees involving women driving. Women are banned from driving cars in the country because, in the words of the country’s clergy (the driving force behind government policy) driving cars give women fatigue and damage their wombs. Science and a hundred years of women driving has proven this pseudo science false, yet it persists, enforced on all Saudi women regardless of physical health and personal skill simply because they were categorized as female because of their genitalia.
Quite simply, gender is performed. Without performance (performance includes dress codes, conforming physical appearance to suit a certain aesthetic and imbibing physical mannerisms of said category) it is often impossible to tell what gender a person is.
Why then do we continue to enforce gender as an infallible way to categorize people?