in the African Women's Movement
By Bernedette Muthien
Amanitare conference between 4 - 7 February 2003 coincided with my birthday
on the 3rd, and I had a dear Nigerian sisterfriend gift me with the
most magnificent traditional dress I have ever seen. I received many
other gifts from wonderful African sisters, one of the most memorable
being Patricia McFadden's keynote discussion on the need to question
heteronormativity in the African women's movement.
of my friends and relatives are homosexual or bisexual, and I emphatically
support their right to exercise their choices around their sexuality,
as I do my own celibacy. But I am often struck by how many of my continental
siblings, including those who strongly advocate the rights of socially
marginalised groups, assert that "homosexuality is a taboo in Africa",
is indeed "un-African".
socialisation and consciousness reproduce heteronormative relations
and attitudes in complicated ways not easily reducible to material circumstances.
But the explanations of heteronormativity offered by historical materialists
are very persuasive. It's been argued that heteronormativity is critical
to ensure an unequal division of labour. Capitalism, it has been said,
relies on heterosexuality for the many who are poor and underdeveloped,
while the "new non-normative" (and commodified) sexualities
are reserved for the affluent minority in developed regions. These "non-normative
sexualities" are critical to capitalism's ethos of consumption,
where bisexuality or androgyny in the form of, for example, perfumes
(CK1) and clothing is marketed to new generations of consumers.
the market for "non-normative" sexualities is miniscule or
non-existent in developing regions, heteronormativity is more actively
promoted in undeveloped contexts like Africa. The extent to which norms
around sexuality in Africa have been determined by capitalism leads
us to rethink what Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko have postulated: that
the colonised often internalise and efficiently reproduce their own
oppression. The fact that sexual norms are set by social circumstances
also raises the dark secret that the most heteronormative and homophobic
often have the most to hide: closeted homosexual desires.
norm in itself is not a bad thing. We could, for example, take equality
among all people as a norm. A norm becomes problematic when it is intolerant
of difference - as is currently the case with "heteronormativity".
Heterosexual relations as a norm is not surprising, given statistics
that show that 90% of people are heterosexual at any one time. Heterosexuality,
as far as the majority of people are concerned, is "normal"
or conventional behaviour. But does that mean it is the only behaviour?
Does it mean that it is the only acceptable behaviour? And to what extent
is the "norm" socially engineered and contextual, rather than
natural and universal?
last question becomes especially important when we consider the ancient
practice of woman-to-woman marriage in large parts of Africa, a practice
that Ifi Amadiume and others have written much about, and which the
colonial regimes tried to destroy because it did not accord with their
ideology of male control over every realm, including the household.
of my Ugandan sisterfriends is a descendant of a grandmother who married
a woman. During the height of the mining era in South Africa, male miners
in single-sex hostels practiced sexual relations with each other as
a norm while living in these hostels. And studies in Lesotho, for example,
show Basotho women engaging in lesbian relationships in the absence
of the males in their communities who migrated to the mines. Various
studies, the earliest European record dating to the 18th century, document
the Khoisan of Southern Africa as being normatively fluid, i.e. non-normative,
what's with all this heteronormativity? And homosexuality as a taboo
am because I am not
identities are premised on an understanding of "I am because I
am not", thus leading to self-definition along the lines of, for
example, "I am female because I am not male"; "I am black
because I am not white"; "I am African because I am not European",
"I am normal because you are not". This construction of Self
needs an Other against which to measure itself. If the Self is to be
defined, it needs to devalue the "Other". All forms of colonisation
and slavery are by their very nature premised on Othering. So what does
this say about heteronormativity??
is generally agreed to be biology, nature. Microphysiology speaks of
chromosomes and hormones, where men are believed to possess XY chromosomes
and testosterone, while women have XX chromosomes and oestrogen. In
fact, both types of chromosomes and hormones occur in all humans in
various mixtures, so women and men have various combinations of XXY
chromosomes and different concentrations of oestrogen and testosterone,
on a continuum, with no single human having either "pure"
the same way that we do not have biologically "pure" females
or males, the idea of an "essential" feminine or masculine
gender is fundamentally flawed. We are socialised from before birth
into these constructs, with pregnant mothers being asked what sex/gender
the unborn child is, and gender-specific names being assigned, together
with the associated colours of pink and blue. We end up locating ourselves
in the appropriate gender categories, sometimes shifting within the
spectrum according to, for girls and women "tomboyishness"
and "feistiness" or, for boys and men, "gentleness"
social need to fix identity according to sex and gender becomes evident
when we consider that the statistically significant number of babies
born visibly intersexed ('hermaphrodites'), are immediately surgically
re-assigned, usually as female, irrespective of how their adolescent
bodies later develop, their chromosomal variations at birth, and hormonal
concentrations during puberty. The intersexed child's permission is
very rarely sought, and the parents' views often not respected by a
medical profession that cannot tolerate anything that does not neatly
fit its rigidly polar sex/gender norms.
Tom Cruise is one archetypal symbol of Hollywood masculinity, his personal
struggle with breast cancer, due to an "excess" of oestrogen,
(not uncommon in many men) confounds the same ideal of masculinity that
his films celebrate. In a similar paradox associated with essentialising
"femininity", women have been advised by male partners and
the medical profession to take testosterone supplements to increase
their sex drives!
sex and gender are dichotomised, in reality we are all somewhere inbetween.
Sexuality is correspondingly polarised between heterosex on the one
end and homosex on the other, with little thought being given to the
inbetweenities of various degrees of bisexuality, and even celibacy
as a valid sexual choice. In this way, sexuality is viewed as primordial
and static. As the mineworkers in South Africa and the women in Lesotho
have evinced, and the ancient non-normative Khoisan and women who marry
other women in Africa have proven throughout time, sexuality is in fact
fluid and dynamic; it constantly changes with circumstances and time.
why all this fuss about polarising sex and gender? Who benefits from
difference, like all exaggerated differences, is essential to oppression
and domination. It fundamentally concerns power, control and Othering.
For patriarchy, it concerns control over the reproductive and productive
powers of women, reproductive because women birth new generations of
reproducers and producers, productive because women's productive powers
are common knowledge, from unpaid agricultural and other labour to gathering
wood-for-fuel and water.
post-1950s urban capitalism, women are both consumers themselves, and
reproducers of future generations of consumers. Hence the significance
of gaining control of women's critical social powers of production and
you want a society of apples only, then crossing apples with pears or
other fruit will not be tolerated, and apples only are desirable".
Women's biological reproductive functions are critical to the physical
reproduction of patriarchy and to ensuring its replication. Heterosexuality
is the cornerstone of this reproduction, with heteronormativity being
its ideological expression. So people who choose to not have sex, choose
to not couple, choose to not have families, or flout or refuse to "fit
into" heteronormative culture directly contradict the principles
underlying a patriarchal consumer society.
also play a critical social function - ensuring that other women comply
with the rigid regime which sees mothers socialise their children, and
women socialise each other into conformity. We all do this variously
and for different reasons at different times: to belong, to benefit,
to be accepted and acceptable, due to fear, or for survival (as some
women in Rwanda did when they held down other women to be raped by men).
patriarchy is founded on the binary of Self-Other, heterosexuality cannot
exist without its (demonised) other, homosexuality. And neither can
tolerate the possibility of inbetweenity, bisexuality.
society is also premised on consumerised sexuality, from the mega-industry
of Valentine's Day to the marketisation of weddings, and items for homes
and families. Even in developed countries, where homosexuality is more
openly practiced, affluent homosexual couples are specifically targeted
for consumer products, due to their combined income and perceived lack
of children who could deplete their income. The targeting of specifically
homosexual markets is to some extent ironic, since this undermines heteronormative
notions of the family, and contradicts the need to produce more consumers
(since homosexual couples do not produce children as frequently as heterosexuals).
What is often interesting is the way homosexual couples may somehow
be defined within the capitalist heteronormorative framework, one that
assumes, for example, the normalcy of the nuclear family, assigned gendered
roles, behaviour and hierarchies in couples, and a general acceptance
of and conformity with mainstream heteronormative culture.
need to re-examine the basic philosophies underlying so much of our
thinking, especially since these philosophies often cloud our attempts
at radical thinking. Existing ways of thinking are too often premised
on polarity, leading to ideas and activism that reinforce the status
quo and inhibit efforts to find really transformative solutions.
the previously cited examples of living beyond binaries indicates, many
challenges to the polarised thinking associated with heteronormaivity
are offered in non-Western and pre-colonial societies and thought. China
Galland cites a wise Tibetan: "'Our confusion lies in believing
something to be separate from ourselves'", he begins, explaining
the Buddhist view that sees mind and matter as one continuum, continually
arising and falling back into itself, like waves into water.
also recounts the words of Wisdom Moon, the Mother of all
Buddhas - known as Drolma or Mother in Tibet, Kwan Yin in Chinese,
Tara (Liberator or Saviour) in Sanskrit, Wisdom or Sophia in the
Old Testament, and the Goddess of Compassion everywhere:
can I find what is male,
nowhere can I find what is female.
are simply forms,
separate from one another
than a wave is from water.
most buddhas have chosen to come
[to earth] as a man,
perhaps it would be more helpful
if I became
in a woman's body.
Muthien is an activist and researcher based in Cape Town, South
version commissioned by the Women's Global
Reproductive Rights Newsletter, 79, 2003 #2.
An edited version published in FITO,
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