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Heteronormativity in the African Women's Movement


By Bernedette Muthien

The 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.

Many 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".

Ideology, 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.

Since 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.

A 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?

This 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.

One 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, regarding sexualities.

So what's with all this heteronormativity? And homosexuality as a taboo in Africa?

I am because I am not

Conventional 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??

Sex 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" form.

In 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" and "sensitivity".

The 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.

If 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!

While 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.

So why all this fuss about polarising sex and gender? Who benefits from this?

Gender 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.

With 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 reproduction.

"If 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.

Women 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).

Since 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.

Modern 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.

Beyond the binary?

We 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.

As 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.

Galland 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:

Nowhere can I find what is male,
nowhere can I find what is female.
These are simply forms,
no more separate from one another
than a wave is from water.
But since most buddhas have chosen to come
[to earth] as a man,
perhaps it would be more helpful
if I became enlightened
in a woman's body.

Bernedette Muthien is an activist and researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa.

Original version commissioned by the Women's Global Reproductive Rights Newsletter, 79, 2003 #2.
An edited version published in FITO, feminist e-zine

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