Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Rising above the oppression of colonial notions of gender

By Trevor York

Gender and sexuality are concepts we create; they are socially constructed. Why should I not be in control of how I define my own individual gender and sexual identity? Why let someone else tell you what it means to be a man or woman? For many people around the world, colonialism imported new and limited ideas about gender and sexuality.

Many world religions have different ideas about gender which challenge the western perspective of androgyny and gender fluidity. Hinduism has the idea that the god Sri Shiva has another form known as Ardhanarishvara. This form of Sri Shiva is a union between the male Sri Shiva and his consort Sri Parvati. Some argue that Ardhanarishvara symbolizes how the male and female principals are inseparable. In the wider context of Hinduism, however it really symbolizes the creation of the universe. This understanding of Hinduism suggests that having the qualities of both genders is empowering, rather than something to be derided as, for instance, "effeminate" or "gay."

 Arddhanarishvara, bazaar art, 1940's.
Image via Bazara Art and has been distributed under the terms of this license. It has not been modified.

Studying the legends of Hinduism, one finds that what we consider gender-fluidity and androgyny are valued as a strategic approach to success. In one legend, a demon chases after Sri Parvati, prompting her to reveal her Ardhanarishvara form to him. Seeing the half-male, half-female form, the demon loses interest in her and leaves. Such legends can be interpreted in many empowering ways. In this case, we have a woman transcending the polarity of her perceived dualism by exploring masculine traits in order to overcome a challenge.

The legends of ancient Greece also challenge modern western notions of gender identity. Celebrations and festivals held for Aphroditus amounted to parties in which everyone wore clothes of the opposite sex. One of the main reasons for the festival was for women to perform the roles of men, and men to perform the roles of women.

When one reviews this history, it begins to become apparent that gender and sexuality are actually far more fluid across time and space than we are wont to imagine.

In fact, fixed hegemonic masculine and feminine identities are unrealistic because the true nature of subjective experience allows for a wide array of gender and sexual identities that are influenced by factors of time, space, culture, ethnicity, religion, class, and more. This is impossible to ignore in a multicultural and free society such as Canada. We must allow for the freedom and liberty to freely express self-chosen gender and sexual identity consistent with a Canadian society that values human rights. We must not just recognize and legislate definitions of transsexualism, transgender people, we have to be actively defining the new realms of androgyny, the non-gendered, pangenderism, gender-fluidity, and everything else. At the same time we have to consider the social relativity where these things may mean something else to another culture. Considering the plurality of gender and sexual identities, it's very difficult to ignore the inherently subjective nature of gender and sexual identities.

So why even subscribe to the mainstream western hegemonic genders and sexualities? A lot of western ideas are still deeply inflected by patriarchal and heteronormative assumptions about gender and sexuality. We should always know that the individual has power to subjectively define different identities in terms of gender and sexuality consistent with human rights. Regardless of biology, our ideas, our thoughts, our identities are something that should always belong to us. That is something worth fighting for.

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