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By Leila Gautham
Note: I am a final year undergraduate student at St Stephen’s College at Delhi University. I was involved in a student movement against sexual discrimination in college spaces. I have never written for a formal space before (though we wrote and published a great number of pamphlets within college). We have started a feminist theory reading group among the students, and hold regular discussions. This essay is an attempt to think – and theorize – about my own location, and link my struggle to the broader context of feminism.
I live on a co-ed college campus in Delhi. The hostel blocks are six in number – three for men, three for women – symmetrically placed, symmetric in the way they neatly and conveniently cut the student population into two easy categories, but then enforce very different rules for each (as I will detail later). The women’s blocks are hermetically sealed – all windows that open out to public view (four years ago, these were boy’s blocks, and the clean air might have once wafted in), are systematically nailed shut. A pretty brickwork conceals the verandahs. Tall walls around the three of the six disturb the original architectural symmetry of what was once a boys’ college. Those were big struggles – first to get the women in as students, then to make accommodations on campus (you can read about the history here and here).
It is difficult to approach the argument for sex-specific living quarters. There is so much resistance from virtually every quarter. We don’t want horny adolescents having sex, they say. This is not America. This is not where girls lose their virginity at the age of fourteen. This is not where they get pregnant. This is not where men are diverted by the opposite sex from what they are supposed to be doing.
Let me leave the question of sexuality alone and approach the idea of sex – physical sexual difference as a category. We make one big leap (as most feminists have pointed out) when we conflate sex with gender. We make an even bigger leap when we jump from the category of sex to sexual acts.
What makes a man, what makes a woman? Why do we stubbornly cling to such hierarchical categorizations? The most liberal among us are quite willing to say that women possess equal capabilities and deserve equality – why then are most of us incapable of comprehending that sex itself is a social category? We cite anatomical sexual difference as if it is the most natural thing in the world. No. It is the basis for heirarchy.
Some things to be noted here – anatomical sexual differences are symbolic in nature – they are important because they serve to mark bodies – to show which ones are to be dominated, and which ones will dominate. They are an easy way for society to stamp your identity and they form the basis of all future domination or oppression. Moreover, the binary of the male and female sex isn’t as natural as it seems – nature hasn’t cleanly endowed you with bright singular indicators shining forth to proclaim your sexual identity. You are not a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ the moment you are born.
Why do you dress with such care – a boy taking care to not appear too ‘girly’, a girl carefully plucking thick eyebrows and a hair-dusted upperlip? Why so much work going into maintaining such differences? Why this emphatic recourse to ‘science’ – to the biology we studied in school – the two diagrams of a ‘man’ with a penis and a ‘woman’ with breasts? If you think about it, most of the factors which mark you as man or woman are of a continuous sort, rather than reflecting any binary.
Hormone levels are continuous. And can we really peer into people’s chromosomes and see the “XX” or the “XY” and be reassured, the way the biology textbooks tell us? A penis (or lack thereof) you would say triumphantly clinches the issue. But what does it mark? The (non)-ability to bear offspring? But sterility or age can do the same. I think these are uncomfortable questions to ask. Our identity rests solidly upon our sex – “I am a powerful man,” you tell yourself, or “I am an attractive girl,” you say. Perhaps your sex matters to you even more than your socio-economic class.
One, it means that your identity as a member of particular sex is reinforced. Two, the idea of heterosexual intercourse is planted firmly in your mind – paradoxically, by being banned, it is made to be the only kind of desire that is legitimate. So the idea behind the specific arrangement we have in college – of girls being locked up after ten, of the high walls around the blocks, of the screens and locks on any window that opens out, of the CCTV cameras – is not that they want to prohibit sexual activity among students.
For a while, I thought the arrangement was about “Victorian” repressiveness – that the college didn’t want its students to have sex at all. But then puzzling questions kept coming up – like a friend of mine once asked: Why aren’t they concerned about same sex relations? In the present framework of segregated blocks, gay or lesbian sex would be perfectly workable. This stops being puzzling once you realize the aim isn’t to prohibit sex per se. Instead, everything is invested in the binary of sex difference and the heteropatriarchal sexual norm.
Last year we protested against the college administration about the ten o’clock curfew for women, and the other rigid controls on all aspects of their life on campus (for example, women in the hostels have to bring permissions in writing from their parents in order to be allowed to leave the hostel – boys have no such requirement). We were protesting against what we thought were traditional conservative values meant to control ‘female’ sexuality. There are problems with such an approach, as I have just – very sketchily – tried to talk about.
The jump from sexuality to sex isn’t helpful. We were angry about how the mingling of ‘sexes’ has been innately problematized, the normalizing of pre-marital heterosexual, and the locking-in of the womens’ blocks after a ten o’clock curfew. We do not appreciate the gendering of spaces – especially university spaces that are supposed to be liberal and free.
But what about sex-specific living quarters? Or sex-specific bathrooms? Or heterosexual sex as it is portrayed in popular culture itself? We need to ask these questions first – what is the basis of our identity as men or women? What has gone into the constitution of our desire for the ‘opposite’ sex? Why do we want to have sex categories, and is this way of defining bodies ‘good’ at all?
Questioning the idea of sex — as a determinant for gender identity — as a category is not trivial or whimsical. It is crucially important. Feminists have been fighting for very long to delegitimize gender as a category. Gender is socially constructed, they say. In an equal world, we’ll still be ‘men’ and we’ll still be ‘women’ – our bodies are what they are ‘naturally’ – they say. Or, in an equal society, all women will be like men, or these ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits will be equally distributed – a happy hybrid –they say.
All of this misses what is important – why are we still so keen in preserving the idea of men and women as immutable categories? If sex has lost its function of establishing hierarchies why do we still give it so much importance? The very fact that we do (in popular culture, in harmless ‘romance’ narratives, in books, in magazines, and in popular imagination) points to something disquieting – patriarchal society is deeply invested in maintaining sex as a category in order to reproduce the oppressive framework.
This is an idea that is deeply personal – when I was fifteen, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS: I notice that acronym is far more often used, almost as if we are uncomfortable spelling it out). For me, beyond an increased susceptibility to diabetes, the condition did not really entail any serious health consequences. It was not, medically speaking, a debilitating disease. Tied in to the condition, however, is hirsutism (hair growth on the body and the face), reduced fertility and perhaps the inability to conceive. I felt so awfully miserable – as if I were somehow less of a human being because I was “less of a woman” – and would never live a happy life because my so-called unattractiveness had been confirmed “biologically.” I now feel that this wasn’t just the twisted logic of an angsty teenager (which it certainly was), it was something more. And perhaps it is the reason why I am fascinated by the idea of deconstructing sex, and continue to find it deeply liberating.