After the Indian Supreme Court’s historic ruling to recognize the legal and constitutional rights of transgender citizens, I noticed many people express surprise at the fact that this comes not too long after the same court upheld a colonial-era law making homosexuality a crime. In the United States, at least, social acceptance of the L, G, and B in ‘LGBT’ has generally preceded that of trans individuals, and we take it for granted that justice progresses in this order (and that such justice is linear). I think that underneath the surprise at witnessing the inverse in India lies an assumption that Western gender structures are universal; besides this basic misunderstanding, a knowledge of colonization’s pervasive impact on regimes of gender and sexuality in colonized lands could also lead one to believe that such structures in the Indian subcontinent would more closely follow Western ones (the anti-gay law was an artifact of the British colonial system, after all). However, non-binary gender has already been recognized by the governments of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal as well, while homosexuality is illegal in all but the last. Although ideals enshrined in law do not necessarily always reflect the views of society or the reality of marginalized groups’ experiences, from these facts we can sense that gender and sexuality may be approached quite differently throughout South Asia as compared to Western societies.
When I heard about the ruling in India and how these rights would not be extended to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, I was reminded of something I learned not long ago about another country we know to be regressive on the issue—Iran.
While our country’s all-too-frequent mass shootings over the past few years have invigorated discussion about guns and self-defense, the perspective of those affirming Second Amendment rights has often been scrutinized. Some critique raced and classed fantasies about defending one’s home from specific kinds of invaders; others question what need those who dominate this discourse truly have to defend themselves against state oppression. The latter is particularly intriguing as it is of course those with the least societal power in this country—people of color, the poor—who are the most susceptible to violence, with more to fear from the state and from their fellow citizens. What does the right to arm oneself mean for a black man, so often stereotyped as a threat—like Jonathan Ferrell, shot dead by police after knocking on a woman’s door for help after a car crash, or Jordan Davis with his “loud music” and Trayvon Martin with his infamous hoodie and bag of skittles? And what does the freedom to buy a gun mean for a Muslim, the association of whom with destructive weaponry continues to this day, fueling hate crimes and the NYPD’s socially erosive mass surveillance of Muslim communities? Meanwhile, the same city’s stop-and-frisk program harasses and humiliates these very people while groping them for weapons (blacks and Latinos comprise 84% of stops although the NYPD’s own data reveals that whites have been twice as likely to carry drugs and guns).
But there’s more. Have you heard of Marissa Alexander?
I just finished this excellent article by post-colonial (among other attributes) theorist Sara Ahmed; it’s rather long but worth reading, and the introduction is particularly touching—but I just wanted to quote here some parts that I found especially important and which really spoke to certain things I’ve encountered.
Disclaimer: I wrote this over a year ago now; thus, it is not exactly my best writing, and the connections to feminist theory (as well as the remarks on securing evidence of objectification) could certainly benefit from deeper analysis of which I am now more capable.
Originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of the Hopkins Undergraduate Research Journal (HURJ).
Everyone knows that sex sells—but is capitalizing on this actually problematic? For many years, feminists have stirred up a storm regarding the way that women are portrayed by the mass media—especially in commercial advertising. Women, exponentially more often than men, are sexualized and objectified, becoming not just objects of desire and affection, but products that can be sold and bought. Consequently, when presented this way, females are looked at in terms of their body parts rather than their personalities—an essentially dehumanizing process. Many assert that objectifying women in order to sell products can impact the way that women are perceived outside of the commercial arena. It is argued that the practice contributes to a wide array of problems including not only personal struggles with self-esteem and psychological illness, but also social traumas like sexual violence. Jean Kilbourne, a pioneer of the movement to raise awareness of objectifying processes in advertising, asserts that “turning a human being into a ‘thing’ is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person.”1
Kilbourne’s allegations are not without consequences; thus, it is important to ask whether her assumptions have any factual basis. Are sexualized women actually perceived as objects?
Quickly glancing at other students’ responses to this article, my critique differs quite a bit, as it does not focus on the strength of Coleman’s argument for women’s progress as promoting economic development, nor does it focus on the depth of Coleman’s analysis of how Islamization has hurt Pakistani women. Rather, I was compelled to evaluate the entire framing of the argument and the goals it seeks to promote.
The oppression of women in Pakistan is a terrible problem which, like patriarchy in all parts of the world, deeply concerns me. However, Coleman’s article sheds little light on the problem because it admittedly “focuses narrowly on the potential economic consequences of Islamization’s impact on women.”