Feminism and Hybridity

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Sabina Sawhney

Feminism and Hybridity (v.1.0A - 28/06/97)
Sabrina Sawhney
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S U R F A C E S Vol. VII.113
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Feminism and Hybridity (v.1.0A - 28/06/97)
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I would like to discuss the nexus between feminism and
women. Probably the most restricting romance that feminism has
engaged in unquestioningly has been its coupling with "woman"—
both in its gendered and sexed manifestations. I would like to
suggest that if we introduce a third party to this romance, the
connection between women and feminism is no longer readily
apparent. And the third that I want to bring into this affair are the
hijras of India.
In response to: "What is a hijra?" asked by anthropologist,
Nanda, the hijras offered a double narrative. While some of them
tried to explain their being through various legends and myths from
the Hindu religion, the rest attempted to demonstrate their
existence by revealing their private parts. As Nanda recounts, "In
some cases, a hijra I was talking with would jump to her feet, lift up
her skirt, and, displaying her altered genitals, would say, 'See, we
are neither men nor women!'"1
These two responses seem analogous to the most frequently
expressed feeling of the hijras about themselves— "neither here nor
there." Various explanations offered by the experts suffer a similar
fate. Attempts to categorize the hijras— as transvestites or
transsexuals, as eunuches or castrated men, or even as providing
institutionalized support for homosexuality— all seem either
inappropriate or incomplete.2 The very existence of hijras seems to

1 Serena Nanda, Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India (Belmont:
California University Press, 1990), p.15.
2 See for instance G.M. Carstairs, The Twice Born (London: Hogarth Press,
1957) and M. Opler, "The Hijras of India and Indian National Culture,"
American Anthropologist, 62 (1960), pp. 505-511.
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be built around a number of disjunctions and paradoxes, all of
which defy any simple or singular understanding.
/pp. 4-5/
The term "hijra" does not offer any easy resolutions.
Derived from the Arabic, 'ijara,' which refers to eunuches or
castrated men, hijra in common Indian parlance is an umbrella name
referring to eunuches or men who have emasculated themselves,
intersexed people, men and women with genital malfunction,
hermaphrodites, persons with indeterminate sexual organs,
impotent men, male homosexuals, and even effeminate men who are
hijra imposters. The only common feature among them is their
mode of dressing: they all adopt feminine costumes and apparel.
They live in communes ranging from five to fifteen people and
traditionally earn their living by collecting alms and receiving
payment for performances at weddings, births, and festivals.
When individuals join a hijra community, they take female
names and use female kinship terms, such as "sister," "aunt," or
"grandmother" for each other. In public transport or other public
accommodations, hijras request the "ladies only" seating, and
periodically demand to be counted among the females in the census.
Despite all this, however, the hijras evince no interest in "passing,"
as do many Western transsexuals or transvestites. That is to say
there is no attempt to seriously imitate or to be considered
indistinguishable from the "normal" woman in Indian society. In
fact, it is not at all uncommon to see hijras wearing sarees and
sporting beards of several days' growth. Their gestures and dress
burlesque feminine behavior, and their performances and
mannerisms are exaggerated to the point of caricature. They also
use sexually explicit language and gestures in opposition to the
Indian ideal of demure and restrained femininity. The hijras seem to
engage in a deliberate parodic rendition of a culturally validated
model of feminine behavior.
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Straddling the boundaries between male and female, as well
as between masculinity and femininity, the hijras present an obvious
threat to any society which is based on these binary divisions. In
fact, due to their indeterminate genders, the hijras unsettle our
accepted modes of categorization and identification.
/pp. 5-6/
The apparently insurmountable problems that confront us as
we try to categorize the hijras bear, in some ways, a remarkable
similarity to the predicaments posed by the issue of identity within
: women and hijras have more than just their dress in
common. The group called "hijras" and the group named "women"
are analogous in being impossible to categorize. Just as it is not
practical to determine who, or even what, exactly constitutes the
"hijras"— impossible to label them in terms of their gender, their
sexual orientation, or profession— similarly the people collected
under the title of women are inaccesible to any single, overarching
identity. And herein lies the problem for feminism. The impetus
propelling the feminist movement has been the desire to see a
greater representation of women in a wide-ranging spectrum of
discourses ranging from the political to the legal to the socio-
cultural as well as the academic. This motivating force, however,
has foundered precisely due to the difficulty of categorizing women,
of defining or discovering their identity. That is to say, the demand
for greater representation must, after all, emerge in concert with a
definition of the subject on whose behalf this demand is being
expressed. But it is this foundational premise of definition, of a pure
and simple categorization, one that will enable us to recognize that
the signifier "woman" has an explicit, unambiguous, transparent,
and precise signified, that has always eluded the feminists.
The fact that there can be no single identity to which we can
attach the "woman" label poses a serious obstacle to feminism. If
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we accept that feminism as such is always defined in relation to
women, then feminism leads us into very puzzling situations. Since
the basis of feminism's self-definition— the category of women— is
inherently unstable and protean in its manifestations, feminism has
to engage in some tricky acrobatics in order to maintain itself and
not fall flat on its face. One could, perhaps, designate feminism
simply as a movement on behalf of women with the added rider that
the term "women" includes within it all the various differences and
diversities found within this group. This move, however,
presupposes that women have a common identity which overrides
their differences. Just as some hijras seem to think that their
authentic identity will be exposed once the camouflaging /pp. 6-7/
costume is discarded, similarly feminism seems to be relying on the
notion that the authentic identity of woman would be revealed once
the drag is removed. That is to say, when her various 'clothes'—
racial, ethnic, hetero/homosexual, class textured— are removed, the
real, genuine woman would appear whose identity would pose no
puzzles. But surely that is a dangerous assumption, for it not only
prioritizes certain forms of identity formation over others, but also
essentializes a sexual or gendered identity as already known in
advance. We not only need to interrogate the way in which the
concept of woman functions in the discourse of feminism but also
review the two coordinates— sex and gender— which formulate this
By bringing both "woman" and "female" under scrutiny, the
hijras enable us to examine the role and necessity of feminism. We
need to reconsider whether the opppositional strategies and the
revisionist re-readings of culture that feminism has produced must
be necessarily tethered to either gender or sexual determinations, or
whether such an association fosters a monolithic vision of feminism
that must maintain itself through repressions.
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The presumed universality of feminism— all women, all the
time— needs to be scrutinized more carefully, along with the
assumption that we know a woman when we see one. But neither
of the two suppositions can be held as absolute. If gender is a
cultural determination, then "woman" must remain questionable.
Let's look at the problem of feminism from another direction.
Whose concerns will feminism/s not address? Well, the answer,
obviously, is: men's. However, how do we define men? After all, a
number of studies have established that within the structures of a
patriarchal society one method of asserting hegemonic control by a
particular group is through the feminization of the rest of
the /pp. 7-8/ population.3 The arbitrary division of human qualities
as being either masculine or feminine, and the prioritizing of the
former over the latter, leads to the frequent assertions of the
dominant groups that the subjugated peoples possess feminine
qualities which require that they be ruled and controlled.4 That is, if
one is not born but made a woman, then men can be women just as
easily. This cultural feminization, as opposed to biological
determination, puts a new wrinkle in our considerations of the

3 In this context see Frantz Fanon's Black Skin White Masks, tr. Charles Lam
Markmann (New York: Grove, 1967) and Ashis Nandy's The Intimate Enemy:
Loss and Recovery of Self under
Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press,
4 I am referring to the Gramscian concept which states that hegemony
functions by making the subjected peoples acquiesce to their subjugation
through the force of opinion and persuasion. According to Gramsci: "the
supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as 'domination' and as
'intellectual and moral leadership'....It seems clear... that there can, and indeed
must be hegemonic activity even before the rise to power, and that one should
not count only on the material force which power gives in order to exercise an
effective leadership." Selections From the Prison Notebooks, eds. Quintin
Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971),
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manifold subjects of feminisms. But a recourse to culture and a
denial of nature still does not satisfactorily answer all our questions.
To understand this fully, we must return to the hijras.
The more we learn from the hijras the harder it is for us to
accept feminism the way it has hitherto been defined. For the hijras
insistently call into question the parameters that delimit feminism
and its scope. In fact, by refusing to accede to demands that they
announce their identity in terms of a binary, the hijras create a
wedge between the signifier— feminism, and its signified-woman.
The sign no longer functions as significant. The very idea of
feminism when allied to women assumes the existence of a binary
opposition between men and women. We have already seen how
that opposition cannot be maintained in terms of a gender divide.
The hijras, however, tell us that it cannot be maintained even in
terms of a sexual divide.
/pp. 8-9/
It is by now a veritable commonplace of cultural criticism
that sex and gender do not have a natural or innate bond. In other
words, the old argument about nature and culture is replayed in
terms of a biological sex and a culturally inscribed notion of
gender.5 What this means for most of us is that while biology or

5 Judith Shapiro defines the relationship between sex and gender as "at once a
motivated and an arbitrary one. It is motivated insofar as there must be reasons
for the crossculturally universal use of sex as a principle in systems of social
differentiation; it is arbitrary, or conventional, insofar as gender differences are
not directly derivative of natural, biological facts, but rather vary from one
culture to another in a way in which they order experience and action. In any
society the meaning of gender is constituted in the context of variety of
domains— political, economic, etc.— that extend beyond what we think of
gender per se." In "Transsexualism: Reflections on the Persistence of Gender
and the Mutability of Sex," Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender
, eds. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub (New York: Routledge,
1991), p. 271.
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anatomy may be destiny, gender (or how we deal with a biology of
sex) lies within the realm of free will.6 On the one hand, the hijras
certainly seem to validate the truth of this formulation. By
parodying and exaggerating feminine gestures, the hijras
demonstrate the manner in which a female body is culturally
constructed to articulate its gender. By splitting sex from its gender,
they seem to deconstruct the way in which culture inscribes the
relationship between sex and gender as natural. For most of the
hijras (and transsexuals), gender is destiny, while anatomy may be
subject to change. That is to say, the hijras actually indicate a basic
flaw in this formulation, which seems to regard biology as being
/pp. 9-10/ somehow outside the domain of culture. It is not only
one's gender that belongs in the domain of culture but also one's
I want to clarify that I am not denying that the linkage
between sex and gender is artificial and culturally constructed.
What I want to emphasize is that the division between the two is
equally artificial: not that gender necessarily follows from sex but
that both are unnaturally constructed. In other words, while most
of us are perfectly willing to accept Beauvoir's formulation: "One is

6 Free will in this context is merely used in opposition to biological or
anatomical determinations. I do not mean to imply that choosing a gender is
covered by, say, the Freedom of Choice Act. Currently, biology seems
inaccessible to human intervention, determining whether we are born with a
vagina or a penis. But what we do with these organs is, to a limited extent, up
to us. What the possession of these organs means is determined by culture; the
only 'free will' we possess is in nuancing those meanings slightly, not in
overthrowing the bounds of gender.
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