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Why Do You Believe You’re a Woman?

If you’ve read my book, Driving by Starlight, you probably know that I grew up in Saudi Arabia, possibly the most gender-segregated place on the planet. Men wore white thobes, women wore black abayas, and there was nothing but imprisonment or death in-between. You might also have guessed that Leena’s experiences of “passing” as a boy are based on my own.

Until I was fourteen (and intermittently after that) I passed as male whenever I felt it would be to my advantage, or would make me feel safer. I continued to do this occasionally as an adult, to the point where a male friend told me, as a compliment, that he saw me as one of the guys, not a girl at all (an experience I promptly fictionalized and wrote about).

Naturally, in a country like Saudi Arabia, a child is reminded early and often about their expected gender roles, and punished horribly for deviating from them in any way. I was lucky that in this untenable situation my parents allowed me the fullest freedom I could possibly have. I dressed as a girl for school as was required, and as a boy at all other times. The gym my family went to on evenings and weekends had a gender-divider, but it was meant mostly for adults, so my friends and I perched right in the middle, so we could go to either side, whichever had an empty court first.

Although the gender-binary permeated every aspect of my existence, I never took it seriously. I played men’s parts in school plays because they were more interesting. I grew up with a rich cultural mythology of gender-bending shapeshifting characters, from a woman who was reborn as a man to exact her vengeance, to a man who became third-gender for a year to hide from his enemies, to a god who took on avatars and switched genders on occasion. And so, even though I was told (usually at parties and weddings when I was forced to dress as one) that I was a girl, that I ought to act less tomboyish and more ladylike, I never quite accepted it.

As I grew older I started to think about another thing that permeated my life: religion. In Saudi Arabia it was everywhere, and the expectations of religion were often stronger and stranger than the expectations of gender. I was scientific, inquisitive, I wanted proof and got none; instead I got the same message I did about gender: just fake it while people are watching. I asked a Muslim friend at the time whether a truly omniscient God would not know that I was just following the rules but didn’t actually believe. She said, and it stuck with me, because a Christian friend in America told me the same thing years later, “If you practice without belief, belief will come to you.”

I thought about this a lot, about performing gender and religion, especially as we drove past street signs that said “Women not allowed” or “Non-Muslims take detour.” In the meantime I continued to study science, in particular physics and atomic theory. One night, I was staying over at a (male) friend’s house, and realized the next morning that I had not packed a uniform for school. My friend’s well-meaning mother, thinking that any uniform would be better than showing up in yesterday’s jeans and t-shirt, packed me off to school in her son’s uniform, which fit me perfectly. The science teacher thought to humiliate me in front of the class by asking loudly, “Are you a boy or a girl?” And because I was a smartass, I replied, “I’m an electron. Particle and wave.” I was promptly punished (this happened a lot).

It strikes me as strange now that even then I felt the inherent non-dualism at the heart of the universe and the fragility of the colonial dichotomies we imposed upon it. Back then I didn’t understand why women like my teachers found my masculinity (usually demonstrated through strength and athleticism) so offensive and threatening that they punished it at every turn. But recently I discovered this incredible video of a 1975 interview with Simone de Beauvoir, in which the following lines hit me hard:

Interviewer: “It’s women, mothers, who create this discrimination?”SdB: “Much of it, yes. Because as the daughters of women, they maintain the tradition… That feminine model is so deeply ingrained in them that they think that a woman who isn’t like them is a monster.”

The entire interview is fantastic, but the key thing is said at the start without hesitation or caveats:

One is not born a woman; one becomes one. Being a woman is not a natural fact… The more we study the psychology of children, the deeper we delve, the more evident it becomes that baby girls are manufactured to become women.” — Simone de Beauvoir.

In other words, practice and belief will come.

Feminist Mona Eltahawy has a project, Buzzkiller: Memoir in Hair and Revolution, where she talks about being called “ugly” for having short hair, and being pitied by her own family for being unmarriageable, and others respond with their own stories of bullying and outright harassment over passing as masculine, almost always at the hands of other women. And that’s not even getting into the ways in which lesbians’ and Black women’s femininity is constantly called into question, as if womanhood can only be defined in opposition to and in its use to white men.

Why do women, themselves prisoners of the cage, uphold its bars so firmly? Is it jealousy over seeing someone who “passes” having freedoms not accorded to them? I know some of my girl-friends struggled with this, particularly if their own parents didn’t allow them to learn how to climb fences or take kickboxing classes. But then surely such jealousy should pass as we become adults, free to do as we please? It doesn’t, though. It’s almost as if as adults the betrayal becomes more evident: these women spent their entire lives fitting into the mold of womanhood that would allow them to increase their safety or their freedom without discomfiting those in power, and are now watching as those hard-won rights are being taken away from all women to punish those who broke the contract of respectability.

And so the questions, “When are you getting settled down? When will you get married? When will you have children?” only get more personal and insistent, and occasionally vicious, as women police each other back into more familiar roles. I have had stressed out new mothers tell me I must be glad I’m “so free of responsibilities” I’m “basically a man” and women struggling with infertility tell me I “must struggle to find purpose in life.”

Age, financial freedom and creative success have allowed me to look past such remarks, but they do make me wonder if they see the stuff of their nightmares in my masculine leanings and child-free existence. Menopause will eventually give us moustaches and take away what’s left of the fertility so many women hang onto as the true marker of femininity, the way software engineers hold onto years-stale Computer Science degrees as the marker of their prowess. Perhaps that loss and terror is behind the intensity with which certain older women feel, in the idea of expanding the notion of womanhood to include women unlike themselves, the “erasure of the lived reality of women globally.” (yes, I can be vicious too).

We are at a moment in time when science has made the barrier between the sexes wholly permeable, so perhaps we can raise the next generation on Ursula Le Guin instead, who told us all the way back in 1969:

“Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter. … Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?” — Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

As we divide into various forms of us/them, as women are sterilized in camps and the skies in California burn orange because of a fire that started at a gender-reveal party, I wonder what further signs people need to see that binary thinking is killing us.

And yet it is often women who stand most firm against further dissolution of the gender-binary. “But have you experienced a lifetime of abuse and trauma?” they ask, “and if not, how can you suddenly call yourself one of us?” This persists further binary thinking, rooting womanhood in, of all things, trauma. Yes, women are discriminated against, are raped and murdered every day… and thus, the English language permits an equivalent (but incorrect) reading that being a woman is defined, first and foremost, by an assaulter seeing them as such. It’s no surprise people make an equivalence between womanhood and trauma. After all, who among us who is seen as a woman has not been attacked for it at one point in time or another? And, uncomfortable as it may be to admit it, was it not such an attack that reminded us or finally made us believe we were women?

But, you say… what about periods? Surely that will remain as the Great Differentiator. I can refute all your abstract intellectualism with this bloody tampon.

I’m sure science will find a way to deal with periods (and already has to a great extent). And where science falls short, nature laughs in amusement. Some girls turn into men at puberty instead of getting periods. What is nature if not rapidly adaptable to the needs of the moment, where people wish for nothing more than self-transformation? Transformation is at the heart of so many stories, particularly women’s stories:

“Women transform because we are hungry. We transform because we’re restless, and because we’re dangerous. Women transform seeking liberation from domesticity, obscurity, prescribed roles, our own bodies. We transform for fun.”

I am reminded of another myth, the one of King Ila, who spent one month as a man and the next as a woman. Ila bore some children as a woman and fathered others as a man, giving rise to the Ailas line, shapeshifters, known as lunar children. Why lunar children? I don’t know, but for some reason most shapeshifter lore across cultures has to do with the moon that changes its appearance over time and reflects the light cast upon it. By the way, if you’ve been reading The Night Wolves, a whole lot of stuff should be falling into place right about now.

The color of the moon, or of any thing, is not an intrinsic property of the object; it is the result of interaction with the light that falls upon it. This smartass learned the difference between phenomena (observed experiences) and noumena (the intrinsic properties of reality) long before the Matrix came out, and in response to intrusive questions from family and friends about how much I weighed, I’d respond, “Where? Here or in space?” Observed properties like weight and color have no meaning without context.

I look forward to a day when we no longer have to practice a certain gender to appease family, friends or doctors who withhold treatment, when women are women because they believe themselves to be and not because of how they are “seen,” when children don’t come of age in a litany of blood, marginalization and sexual assault, and when the correct response to “What is your gender?” is not a list of radio buttons but either a blank stare or at least, “When? And in what context?”

Article taken from here

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