For the longest period of time, gender theory and feminist theory have maintained a significant distinction between gender and sex—sex is ‘biological’ whereas gender is culturally constructed by various factors. This idea was popularised by second wave feminist Simone De Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex where she very famously says, “One is not born but becomes a woman.” The primary reason why such a division was constructed was to propagate the idea that one born as a female might not exhibit ‘feminine’ characteristics or vice versa. As Ruth Wodak points out,
“Such an understanding implies that sex/gender concept operates on the principle that, while the binarity of the sexes is an immutable fact, the traits assigned to a sex by a culture are cultural constructions, that they are socially determined and therefore alterable.“
However, the dichotomy of sex versus gender enables heteronormativity instead of contesting it. Let’s take an example to understand why such a dichotomy is problematic. There are socially accepted or constructed ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ attributes. A masculine attribute could be, to put it very stereotypically, being efficient on cutting wood or screaming at the television during a football game and a feminine activity could be sewing or painting nails (based on a website called Glamour).
However, all these activities could be performed by any gender individual; then why do we still keep using attributes such as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’?
According to Mathieu, the idea that gender is performed on the basis of one’s sex is what he calls ‘ideological fiction’: the organisation of all people into two sexes is historical as it was used for social organisation. Michael Foucault also talks on similar lines in his book History of Sexuality (Volume 1) where he says that knowledge was created and reproduced in such a way so that heterosexuality, or being straight, could be understood as the norm. This was to ensure that in a society of industrialisation, there was enough procreation, leading to more labour for the capitalists to employ.
To simplify the idea, a far-fetched poor analogy would be the way caste was the social and historical organisation of individuals of the Indian subcontinent: even though it is assumed that caste was biological or rather hereditary, these divisions were created to ensure subjugation and exploitation of certain groups so that these people left without these resources are forced to go to work for the more privileged on disadvantageous terms.
This is not to deny that most human beings have either XX or XY chromosomes, but had the social organisation of gender not been so important economically, politically and socially, the category of sex would not have gained as much relevance as it did today. In the book The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche introduces an idea known as ‘sign chain’ (as qtd. By Butler in Bodies That Matter): the entire history of a substance or thing is heavily dependent on vivid interpretations and adaptations that sometimes might not be related to the substance itself, sometimes the interpretations actually take the position of the sign chain.
To elaborate, it is believed scientifically that most human beings are born with either XX or XY chromosomes, these chromosomes then determine what kind of bodily aspects an individual would have. However, the aspect of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ were attributed culturally to chromosomes: if an individual has XY chromosomes it does not essentially mean he has to have ‘masculine’ performative attributes such as to put it stereotypically again playing sports or cutting wood.
The primary problem with such an organisation of gender and sex is that it negates the possibility of other ‘biologically’ gendered identities; even if it is identified, it is mostly identified as an imperfection, a flaw or even a disorder. To look at a specific case study, the recently passed Transgender Bill mandates the use of a gender certificate that declares that they belong to the category of transgender or that they identify by a certain gender category. The screening committee would comprise of the Chief medical officer, district social welfare officer, one representative of the transgender community, a psychiatrist and an officer of the state government.
Based on the recommendations of the District Magistrate, the gender of the person would be declared as transgender. Once the individual has obtained the transgender certificate, he or she can apply for other citizenship documents such as Aadhar, PAN, Passport where the gender identity would be specified based on the certificate (The Transgender Persons Bill), an individual has the right to self-identify himself as male, female or inter-sex after they have been medically screened according to the government procedure.
However, if an individual would want to change their gender identity again, they will have to produce a sex-change certificate which then has to be acceptable to the government officer in order for it to be approved. The question that here arises if sex is ‘biological’ and gender is ‘cultural’, or societally constructed, then why does an individual need to produce sex-change certificate in order to change their gender? Why is there a need for stability of gender identity in order for public participation, and basic human rights? These are very complex questions that might take lots of time to unravel.
To conclude, finding a purely biological basis for sex is a complicated task, as no two identities are the same, no two gendered individuals are the same. As Anne Faust-Sterling would say, whatever bodily functions we attribute as masculine or feminine is already entangled in our ideas about gender.
Anisha Maitra is currently a Masters Student at Christ (Deemed to be) University. Over the last four years she has spent time reading and negotiating with ideas of gender, cultures and post-coloniality. In her free time, she enjoys watching animated shows, reading and listening to soundtracks. She currently lives in Bangalore. You can find her on Facebook.
Featured Image Source: The Tempest