Occupying the Third Space: Beyond the Binaries of Male & Female

One cannot help but take the bait when Awate Team smartly presents eclectic viewpoints in that classical battle of the sexes, the never ending binaries that we human types so easily fall prey towards. At the outset, however, it is worth taking heed what literary study cautions against; the two ostensible fallacies that readers will commit are worth considering: (1) “intentional fallacy” – erroneously attributing “the source of meaning in the writer’s intention. (2) “Affective fallacy” – the feeling evoked by the work in the reader is erroneously attributed to that of the writer. So, beware, hold at bay, and dispense such benighted urge. Allow me to start with a rhetorical question that may trigger the emergence of penetrating idea. One such rhetorical question is this: What if the way we humans feel inside was depicted on our faces? Imagine dispossession, agony, despair, and the grotesque, all shown in the face of humans as they go about their daily lives (Cioran, 12). Masks would have been in great demand. Nobody would dare walk with their faces bare for the public to see. Men and women would have readily worn veils and burkas to conceal their identities. To speak of men and women in any context necessitates delving into issues of feminism.

Although the term feminism and its conceptions can be traced back to several decades, the history of women challenging men’s superiority goes way back to the 1400s (Freedman). Freedman’s definition of feminism alludes to “women [having] the same capacities as men” (xi). This seemingly non- confrontational claim begins the quest for women in different capacities to assert and demand equal capacities from their respective societies, which is dominated by men. Patriarchy, the need men feel to be in charge of women’s own lives, reigns supreme because of the erroneous conceptions men have of women as “[physically, morally, and intellectually inferior] beings (Freedman, xi). Thus, the quest for women to rebut these deeply ingrained socio-political and religious beliefs has been an ongoing upheaval, which seems to metastasize, evolve, and change its form based on the norms of the day.

Therefore, women had to be the driving force that would fight these fundamentally flawed conceptions men have. The brain elasticity women must exhibit as they confront, this seemingly ever evolving and ever elusive masculine superiority that comes under different socio-political and religious guises must remain proactively vigilant. Some women, for example, married powerful men, thereby gaining access to power as in Queen Victoria’s case, who married Prince Albert thus to become a ruler of England between 1837 and 1901 – this was a time when England was the most powerful nation on the earth (Norton Anthology, 2006). Religiously, women used “Buddhist and Catholic religions convents in Asia, Europe, and the Americas” which “provided an alternative to marriage and opportunities for women to claim spiritual authority” (Freedman, xi). Similarly, when women were “denied formal education, women still created poetry, music, and art” to challenge the prevailing masculine power by using any means at their disposal to crash the power structure, if need be (Freedman, xi-xii).

The intention of individual women challenging the status quo may have emanated from the desire to have access to power, to thrive, and to gain social status, the effect, however clearly has been an incessant and stubborn challenges to the binary gender roles. During the Civil War in the United States, for example, 400 young women who disguised themselves as young men and joined the military, most of whom were never discovered (Burgess, 2). Much like their Foremothers had to contend with, different women from different generations and in different fields have challenged and continue to challenge the fundamental binary gender structures and gender roles as they push the societal envelope toward the occupying of the third or more spaces, chief among which are intermediate sex, inter-sex, and androgyny, and transgender. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble notion of gender as performance theory, which will help shed light for the need of going beyond the traditional gender binaries is well suited to address at this junction. Butler state:

A genealogical critique refuses to search for the origins of gender, the innertruth of female desire, a genuine or authentic sexual identity that repressionhas kept from view; rather, genealogy investigates the political stakes indesignating as an origin and cause those identity categories that in factthe effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin. The task of this inquiry is to center on-and decenter-suchdefining institutions: phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality (viii-ix).

The long history of gender biases and discriminations that have exhausted, in perpetuity, the natural female gender from emerging need reconsidering. Without such fundamental reassessment of gender, without troubling the central assumption of binary gender roles, it would be an impossible task to move towards occupying the third or more spaces. Here, Butler takes a language angle that she believes is limiting the scope and spectrum of gender identities from emerging.

It is not enough to inquire into how women might become more fully represented in language and politics. Feminist critique ought also to understand how the category of “women,” the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structure of power through which emancipation is sought (5).

The deconstruction of any deeply held belief requires an uprooting at the core, at the very language by which it is identified. Thus, Butler wants a new conception of the term woman/women without such deconstruction the binary gender role will not have room for accommodating other occupying spaces. Butler resumes the deconstruction process by stating: “Rather than a stable signifier that commands the assent of those whom it purports to describe and represent, women even in the plural, has become a troublesome term, a site of contest, a cause for anxiety” (6). Clearly, Butler is not just wishing the occupying of the third space superficially; she wants a multipronged approach in order to once and for all eliminate gender biases. Part of that multifaceted approach that Butler undertakes is to address across all humanly possible lines. She asserts that “[…] because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities. As a result, it becomes impossible to separate out “gender” from the political and cultural intersections in which it is invisibly produced and maintained” (6). Therefore, nipping it in the bud and by not leaving any tree unshaken seems to be the only way to march toward the new gender identity that allows room for variation. After all, one in 250 individuals is born inter-sexed just as many as those who are born with red-hair-of-head (“Sex, Lies, and Gender” DVD ). We don’t think twice in accepting red heads but we seem to have trouble in accepting inter-sexed individuals, why?

The Puritan mindset which seems to have trouble opening up to the realms of sexuality due to the religious connotation it has long harbored; seeing anything of sexual nature as a taboo subject, prohibiting any sensible discussions from ensuing. The Puritan mindset is not the only challenge to the occupying of the third space, it also comes from feminists, feminists who are in the privileged positions, who do not want to up the ante, because they have found their comfort zones, and do not want to deal beyond what they have gained so far. Butler lucidly brings the issue to the fore:

[…] A paradoxical opposition to feminism from “women” whom feminism claims to represent suggest the necessary limits of identity politics […] Within feminist political practice, a radical rethinking of the ontological constructions of identity appears to be necessary in order to formulate a representational politics that might revive femin- ism on other grounds. On the other hand, it may be time to entertain a radical critique that seeks to free feminist theory from the necessity of having to construct a single or abiding ground which is invariably contested by those identity positions or anti-identity positions that it invariably excludes (7-8).

Just like the Puritan conception allows no room for change due to its rigid notions of right and wrong when it comes to gender, sex, and sexuality, mainstream feminism has developed similar blind spots; albeit the blind spots from erroneous emancipatory notions that are embedded in binary gender roles at its core. This core principle of right and wrong that attributes anything beyond male and female identifications as transgressions of human being’s innate construction may stem from Puritans and Churches; but it also-inadvertently- traps conventional feminists to become subservient to the traditional masculinity. Essentially, by default, mainstream feminists are in league with the Puritan mindset that man is the patriarch in the hierarchy and women are there to support him. The long held assumption is now being questioned, thanks to Butler who is comprehensively and conceptually showing traditional feminists their core belief having a hole at its center, patching and gluing will not do either – only reconstructing and deconstructing. Resistance to reconstructing and deconstructing gender binaries face enormous obstacles through, pretty much, every era in literary world. What does this have to do with Eritreans, well, it is very easy, just remove wherever you see Puritan with traditional Eritrean man, there you will have your answer.


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