By Ananya Dasgupta
In an interview with UK’s Channel 4, which was broadcast on 10th March, acclaimed feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences. It’s not about how we wear our hair or whether we have a vagina or a penis. It’s about the way the world treats us, and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.” Adichie, who was promoting her new book Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, said, “When people talk about, ‘Are transwomen women?’ my feeling is transwomen are transwomen.”
Facing criticism for her comments, Adichie proceeded to offer an explanation on her Facebook profile. She said that she realised she could “occupy this strange position of being a ‘voice’ for gender rights and so there is an automatic import to my words”, and that she should have instead said, “transwomen are transwomen and cis women are cis women and all are women. Except that ‘cis’ is not an organic part of my vocabulary.” The comments then on her Facebook post ranged from those who supported her “100 percent” to those who simply wanted Adichie to “stop speaking for transwomen”.
A response to both these statements is imperative not only on the grounds of her original comments but because of her defence of herself as an LGBTQ activist, as also her position as a publicly visible figure and of course, a celebrated feminist.
It needs to be noted that the privileges of being male operate hand in hand with the policing of male bodies and minds. The privilege is the prize for performing the role of the male as society mandates it. A transwoman, born as man, refuses this role and is not only not offered the privilege of being male, but is also punished for it. Neither privilege nor the lack of it can then be understood merely in terms of the male-female gender binary or even the good male-bad male good female-bad female binaries.
The problem with Adichie’s statements is largely representational. She is speaking from the vantage point of a cis woman who admittedly does not find ‘cis’ a part of her ‘organic vocabulary’, while also feeling a need to highlight the ‘trans’ in a transwoman’s identity. The difference is thus between a transwoman and a woman, as she puts it. This coupled with her emphasis on gender assigned at birth echoes the normalising rhetoric used to discredit and exclude transwomen.
I’ll take her for her word and accept that her intention was not to be divisive or exclusive about her idea of being a woman, while also highlighting the valuable differences in the experience of being a cis woman and a transwoman. But her way of going about it, which was to say if you have been born a man you have not experienced womanhood for as long as (cis) women or that your assumed male privilege dilutes it, is quite literally exclusionary. She offers limited acknowledgement of the transwoman’s womanhood and relegates her to a ‘special’ category of women at best. A good intention is not an adequate excuse.
Further, this opens up questions like when did you transition, which will have different answers for different people. When did a transwoman stop being a man and start becoming a woman? These are difficult and often painful questions to ask and to ask them as if to say whether or not you wanted it, you have had male privilege, is not a particularly good one.
The conundrum that lies at the heart of Adichie’s comments is the central idea that the ‘whole problem of gender’ is about how the world treats us, which would render transition itself virtually impossible since transwomen continue to struggle to be treated as women by the world, even after asserting themselves as one. The assumption that a transwoman, after her transition, is treated as a woman, while before she was treated as a man is also ill-founded. Just as ill-founded would be the assumption that transmen, after their transition, are men with male privilege. It is true that transmen may get normalised as ‘tomboys’ or their gender identity can be read as a phase in their lives or merely a rejection of oppressed femininity. This has multiple reasons, not least of which has to do with male privilege.
That a man can give up his privilege to become a woman, if you choose to see it that way, is blasphemous for patriarchy, in a way that a woman aspiring to male privilege is not. So it is not to say that male privilege or the lack of it does not play a role and that we should completely bypass it. But that accessing ways of being any gender in non-normative ways that are not oppressive and do not perpetrate discrimination cannot be accessed by assuming that the transwoman used to be a man with male privilege.
Feminism, for me, has more often than not been defined in the negative: it is easier for me to say this is what feminism is not than to comprehensively and confidently say that this is what (all) feminism is. In that spirit, adding to Adichie’s now much popular assertion, ‘We should all be feminists’, I would like to add that we should all not be trans-exclusive in our feminism.