Conformity or the Highway

I remember being about two years old and angry, my initiation into heteronormativity in the family yard. An uncle or neighbour calling me his wife to laughter and encouragement from those around. I was too young to understand why this upset me so much. I did not have the words to express my emotions or to articulate my discomfort. How does a two-year-old say when she is being wrongly conditioned? How does she deal with the doubt she does not even know she has?

As I got older the norms and rules of the system that came to dominate my life would continue to stalk me with instructions on how to conduct myself as one who is assigned female at birth ought to: I shouldn’t climb trees; nor whistle; I should not sit in a manner that was not ladylike; or walk like a boy; I should not wear clothes that drew attention to my adolescent body; or talk back to a brother; I should learn to cook for a future husband and conduct myself in such a way that I would attract one, and so on and so forth. For me, these rules and norms were mostly just a nuisance I ignored and even went out of my way to rebel against. Often, I did the exact opposite of what I was told not to do because I intrinsically did not trust that such a doctrine that strayed so far from who I was could offer me anything meaningful. Nonetheless, the doctrine was present and restrictive and for those less inclined to rebellion and less able to rebel, it stuck and even shaped worldviews and frames within which to self-identify and self-express. It shaped hopes and dreams, desires and ambitions at a very core and intimate level.

In this “natural” heterosexual union the foundation for broader socioeconomic and power dynamics based on an already accepted order in which men dominate women, is laid

Schippers argues that the gender binary that distinctly splits women and men into masculine and feminine and that is reproduced and reinforced in the heterosexual couple is central to the construction of a gender hierarchy. The gender binary becomes the basis for the sexuality binary with the expectation that the dominant masculine and submissive feminine are two complementary halves whose union forms a complete whole. In this “natural” heterosexual union the foundation for broader socioeconomic and power dynamics based on an already accepted order in which men dominate women, is laid. This was clear in the innate value attached to maleness that subliminally underpinned every tradition, rule, and norm in the doctrine I grew up under. Everything was in service of the male and the masculine even as those individuals who fell under this category seemed to unravel under the worship. The unravelling is because in this construction of the masculine conditioning this worship requires one to lose certain parts of themselves to be accepted. In subtle and unsubtle ways, the terms and conditions of this acceptance are communicated, just as mine were communicated in my indoctrination. It’s a gilded cage constructed out of the debris from the demolition of the natural balance of feminine and masculine forces holistically contained in the individual. 

Transgressions against this tightly controlled system manifest in various ways: the inability to carry oneself in a manner fitting of one’s gender for instance – A man who walks with a swing in his step and a sway to his hips earns himself some well-intentioned derision. A beating, or worse might also be considered appropriate because he is clearly an abomination. A woman who leans too far on the masculine side becomes the subject of gossip and innuendo and is often not rewarded with the ultimate prize: marriage. Eventually, such a woman finds herself caught in a war of belonging since her home was never really hers. The delicate social balance is held together when women grow up, marry, and become the charge of husbands while brothers inherit whatever family fortune is left. A woman who doesn’t marry makes demands on resources that would naturally belong to her male relatives. As Tamale contends, such women are “… viewed by society as half-baked, even half-human. Thus, the domestic roles of mother, wife and homemaker become the key constructions of women’s identity in Africa.” 

What became clear is that group generational trauma tends to manifest itself as culture… A woman’s capacity for punishment is glorified, becoming core to her identity and femininity.

I read a message on an extended family WhatsApp group chat recently that brought this reality home very strongly. It went along the lines of, “A woman leaves her home and her people, marries a man, takes his name and has his children under great strain to her own body. The children go on to take the man’s name, she toils and struggles to feed them and keep them alive…” it continued ad nauseam with the last bit of wisdom concluding: “Be proud you are a woman, Happy Women’s Day!”. Several of the women in the group showed support for the message and appeared to endorse it. I was left completely dumbfounded. What became clear is that group generational trauma tends to manifest itself as culture. Any injustice that resides in the binary then becomes a source of pride for those it affects. A woman’s capacity for punishment is glorified, becoming core to her identity and femininity. This is manifested in the glorification and reward with praise of unpaid labour in service of the patriarchy making the process of indoctrination self-perpetuating.

Boserup (1996) traces the shift from female worship in human development to a time when agricultural production managed by women and central to a society’s survival was replaced by wars of expansion which resulted in greater accumulation. With the creation of the warrior class, women were displaced to the lowest rank of the social hierarchy and contained in the home. From then onwards, masculinity was prized and valued over femininity with the latter perpetually in service of the former. Under the new social order, those who actually did the work became less and less important while those who plundered and those who administered the plunder rose to the top of the social hierarchy. This social order and the value system it created today finds expression in imperialist capitalist accumulation at the expense of the planet.

Consequently, the struggle for bodily autonomy and freedom to love outside the parameters of heterosexuality is interconnected with the struggle for space, time, and resources.

The binary is thus intricately intertwined with gender inequality which is similarly closely linked to resource control and power. And so, the violence of the binary feeds other social injustices such as poverty and all the impediments to human expression that it carries along with it, and the violent cycle continues. This in itself bears testament to the present manifestation of this binary system, that it is more about the exertion of power over those, like me, whose bodies continue to be battle grounds for genetic wars and those whose non-conformity threatens these power structures.

Consequently, the struggle for bodily autonomy and freedom to love outside the parameters of heterosexuality is interconnected with the struggle for space, time, and resources.

My journey began in the family kitchen, tagging at my mother’s skirt as she made Sunday lunch. Through inquisition, I came to the realisation that she and I were fundamentally different and there my confusion was born. I was eager to learn but quickly discovered that life was not as welcoming of my curiosity and the information I received would mostly be casually unjust. This was the world, and my job was to accept it and live long enough to have a daughter to train to be as compliant in her oppression. I remember rebellion at the norms I was expected to take as the gospel truth. Why live up to expectations that were not accepting of me? Why add value to a system to which I would never be valuable? My mother told me things like “I am not your people, your father is,” because as a woman the children she grew in her body, nurtured, and loved still did not belong to her. And if they were women, they did not belong to themselves either but would go on to marry someone, have his children and live in his world. They would be people-less, landless, and identity-less. A woman’s pride is in finding a man whose identity to assume; whose name to take.

Nonconformity can be isolating, particularly so for those whose developmental years were spent on the wrong side of the internet or where access to information continues to limit escape. I remember this isolation and detachment as a teenager with no information to guide me. I remember wanting to fit in, wondering if I was some kind of freak, questioning if there were others like me. All because I existed outside the binary of sexuality and consequently gender. Now I am not quite sure, most days I only want to be called by my first name: lesbian. That is what has been constant on my journey. It rings true to what I hold most core to my identity. It has also become quite clear to me that my biggest fight was with the binary, this system which intended to make me a wife to a husband. To make me the smaller, submissive, less smart, less vocal, half of a husband. A system which sought to weaponise my biology against me in service of maleness.

While the system at its core tends to be skewed in favour of men, conformity undermines the autonomous expression and identity of everyone under it. Those who rebel against it are relegated to the margins and face excommunication, violation, and death. They are denied access to social and economic resources.  And yet, while women who comply with the system get access to resources through male relatives, payment for this allowance is in unpaid labour and missed opportunities. They keep the peace, or attempt to, with their bodies.

But even when the battle is won at an individual level, the war continues because the system permeates every nook and cranny of social relations right down to how we feed, clothe, and house ourselves.

Male boundary keepers maintain gendered access to the public realm with violence that manifests as sexual harassment designed to communicate to those assigned female at birth that the public realm is only open to them as objects of desire. These gatekeepers, often at the bottom of the food chain themselves, are relied upon by top feeders to maintain a system that promises riches yet delivers death. They literally man the gates of the binary with their bodies. Payment is in access to patrilineal customs in which they assert ownership over children and women.

While nonconformity is isolating it gets easier when one finds a tribe of people with whom to journey with. I was lucky to find love and a chosen family with whom to continue the struggle of creating space and making sense of these processes of indoctrination. But even when the battle is won at an individual level, the war continues because the system permeates every nook and cranny of social relations right down to how we feed, clothe, and house ourselves. The biggest challenge and the journey on which I continue is that of contributing, in any way possible, towards dismantling this system so that we can all access freedom regardless of the sex we are/were assigned at birth. This starts by acknowledging the interconnectedness of all struggles – for land, for a living wage, for housing, for Palestinian freedom, for bodily autonomy, and for food sovereignty, to mention a few.

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