Dismantling the Binary: Gender as a Colonial Weapon

Source: Albert Eckhout, Series of Eight Figures

Content warning: the following article contains discussions of transphobia, transphobic violence, racism, racist violence, and discriminatory rhetoric.

Conservative, anti-LGBTQ+ views claim that gender-fluidity and transness are simply unnatural and unscientific; that transgender people are mentally ill and that the difference between a man and a woman is biologically significant. They mock progressive views that gender is a social construct, dismissing them as frivolous and ignorant. They maintain that there are only two sexes and that boys act “boyish” and girls act “girlish.” Many believe that one’s sex is important and that it is an informative truth of their character and personality. Thus, those who challenge gender norms are frequently dismissed as foolish and sensitive, caught up in ideology.

However, reality dictates that the notion of gender as a relatively recent and primarily Western development. According to Societies throughout the world have developed while completely omitting the structure of gender as a whole. Historically, biological determinism has been extremely important to Western societies — in the West, biological differences are a fundamental principle of societal organization. Not surprisingly, the concept of the gender binary did not translate as well onto some non-Western parts of the world. Gender was used as a weapon by European colonial powers, splitting societies into male and female as a way to divide and conquer

In observing prehistoric art in the Middle East, art historians have observed a distinct lack of gender differentiation in anthropomorphic figures. Sculptures from Göbekli Tepe, one of the world’s oldest uncovered civilizations, revealed that artists clearly had the skills to depict specific gendered characteristics, but rather chose to keep their steles ambiguous. Women and men in Çatalhöyuk were not depicted any differently, and also spent similar periods of time performing labor and leaving the house. Excavations from the “Death Pit” at another site, Domuztepe, revealed no difference between the treatment of the binary genders as well. Many depictions in ancient art are difficult to categorize, perhaps suggesting an ambiguous and fluid relationship to gender. Archaeological evidence fully supports the concept that gender is a recent, artificial construction, and not an intrinsic part of human biology. 

Anthropomorphic monolith, Göbekli Tepe. Courtesy of Klaus Schmidt, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut.

Nigerian scholar Oyèrónké Oyèwùmí explores the lack of gender organization in Yoruba society in precolonial Nigeria in her book The Invention of Women. She explains that before colonization by Europeans, Yoruba society did not distinguish between men and women. There was no structure of sex or gender, and age was regarded as the primary organizing factor for hierarchy. Yoruba people recognized the existence of two reproductive roles, but they were not used to establish social order. When missionaries arrived in Nigeria, they imposed the category of “woman” onto Yoruba society and used it as a tool to oppress. They began by establishing intertwined categories of sex and gender within their schools, and soon, the categories of male and female divided Yoruba society. 

Gender-neutral and female gods and deities in Yoruba religion were replaced with male ones. Colonial authorities only recognized male leaders, despite men and women participating in politics at equal rates. Yoruba people, who lived in an efficient society free of gender hierarchy, were forcefully assimilated into the colonial binary. The newly imposed Western patriarchy began to regulate aspects of women’s lives and enforce the notion that they were now second-class citizens.

Ere Ibeji carvings, Yoruba peoples, 19th-20th Century. (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Biological distinctions are included, but they are not an instrumental part of the representations.

Women were denied entrance into education, and as a result, men dominated the rapidly changing society. The colonial state created public spheres that were made solely for men, and once Yoruba society was damaged and imbalanced, it constructed a false narrative to absolve guilt. Colonial powers began to claim that their presence in Africa was justified as they had to protect African women from African men. The establishment of a gender binary in Yoruba culture was instrumental to the submission of African territory to Europeans.

The reality created and enforced was the inferiority of Africans and inferiority of females.

Oyèrónké Oyèwùmí, The Invention of Women

Oyèwùmi criticizes the West for clasping onto the fiction that gender is a universal, organizing concept. She firmly denies the notion that there has always been a biological and societal category of “woman,” along with the idea that “women” have always existed as a complement to “men.” The Invention of Women denies that a gender binary is inherent: it is a fictitious concept that has been used to divide and oppress. Most social scientists agree that gender is a social structure, not a biological one. Indigenous studies professor Dr. Rain Prud’homme-Cranford remarked in an interview with the UCalgary Press that many Indigenous societies have had fluid conceptions of gender, but these more open-minded ideas were obscured and shamed by colonizers.

Historical drawing of Yoruba village. Men and women were equally encouraged to participate in civic events.

In Colonial Africa, western gender classifications were designed specifically to embody white men and women, and thus further used to oppress. In his book The Sexual Demon of Colonial Power, Dr. Greg Thomas claims that “there is no universal man socialized in opposition to a universal woman; there is a white man and a white woman specified over and against Black Africans.” Black and Indigenous people were defined as sexually ambiguous savages who existed outside of the rigid white gender binary. Black women were denied purity and subservience, and then dehumanized. Western colonists brought the gender binary into Africa in order to “civilize” it, and shaped its rules to dehumanize Africans. 

Creating a gender binary allowed for the settler colonial processes wherein Indigenous women were used as a commodity to gain access to land and have been sexualized, raped and exploited.

Dr. Rain Prud’homme-Cranford

Unfortunately, the gender binary is still used to divide and oppress today under capitalism. Women are treated as second-class citizens, and men are ultimately the ones in power. High-stakes decisions regarding women’s bodies and lives are largely made by men, and women are often stereotyped and pigeonholed. On top of those atrocities, there is the endless terror and sexual exploitation women endure at the hands of men; all of which is facilitated by the existence of a gender binary. As societal refoundation established men and women as two innately different breeds, it was extremely easy for men to push women into submission.

Not to mention the oppression of transgender people, or any gender non-conforming individual — this is not a defect of capitalism, but rather a key feature of it. The gender binary allows for the concept of the nuclear family, which maximizes use of labor, and non-conforming identities are then marginalized. The otherization of transgender people is then carried over into professional and public spaces, where they are alienated and pushed into precarious, unregulated forms of labor such as sex work. The social stigma and harmful myths around trans people leads to them being persecuted and pushed into suicide at alarming rates, and completely neglected by healthcare systems. The gender binary is necessary to divide the working class under capitalism, and tragically, hundreds of people die to maintain its order every year.

Victims of the gender binary: activists at a rally in New York hold up signs of black trans women who were killed in 2019. (Demetrius Freeman, Reuters)

The truth is that gender is not grounded in biology nor is it universal: it is a fairly recent concept that is located in very specific contexts. Even though most people find it fairly easy to accept normative gender roles, there will always be people who are alienated by them. And even though many argue that sex, not gender, is biologically important and binary, scientists have reached the consensus that this is not true. Despite what many biological determinists may believe, sex is not linked to gender, and neither are binary.

Transgender humans represent the complexity and diversity that are fundamental features of life, evolution and nature itself.

Simón(e) D. Sun, Scientific American

Gender is not something we can quantify or measure like light or sound. It is not an important, intrinsic part of Earth or our biological systems. It is performative in nature: dictated by what society deems fit, not by a biological imperative. We, as a culture, continuously redefine gender and make it subjectively what it is. The culture surrounding the gender binary is imposed into us, and then manipulated in order to maintain the status quo. If trans people are suffering and constantly exposed to violence because of an idea, we should fight against it. 

If we have the power to construct and enforce the gender binary, then we have the power to discard it.

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