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Debotri Dhar
An Indian Abroad

Debotri Dhar is a visiting fellow and lecturer at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

As women challenge their ‘natural’ limits

Social conservatives are fuming about Bruce Jenner’s gender transition.

A stunning Vanity Fair cover featuring Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman who debuted with her new name and feminine pronoun self-descriptors, has taken the United States by storm this month. Formerly known as Bruce, Jenner had made the US proud in the 1976 Olympics by winning gold in the men's decathlon. Cross dressing, hormone replacement therapy, facial feminization surgery, social ostracism, panic attacks, pain...Jenner has been there, done that. Yet she decided to go ahead with her gender transition to be able to live what she described on Twitter as her "true self," for which she will receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award during the 2015 ESPY Awards next month.

Social conservatives are fuming about Jenner's gender transition, predictably ruing the attack on old-fashioned American values. Those of a more liberal mindset, on the other hand, see it as an excellent opportunity to create awareness about the widespread transphobia that forces many trans individuals, especially those from less privileged economic backgrounds, into lives of invisibility and abuse, in the US and across the world. Speaking of India, I was thrilled that the country has got its first transgender college principal, with Dr Manabí Bandopadhyay being appointed the head of a women's college in West Bengal. Earlier, the Indian Supreme Court had granted the transgender community legal "third gender" status, with minority rights and privileges. While much remains to be done for the community in the social and economic sphere, beyond abstract legal formalisms, acknowledging important landmarks does lend some much-needed dignity to their journey.

Some coincidence that it was recently Rituparno Ghosh's death anniversary (30 May). During his short but eventful life, the staggeringly talented Bengali film director and actor unpacked for us the multiple layers of gender, sexuality and social oppressions through exquisite films such as Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish, Arekti Premer Golpo (Another Love Story) and Memories in March. Chitrangada tells the story of a choreographer struggling with his gender identity, its plot masterfully juxtaposing the protagonist's personal struggle with the play his team is preparing to stage. That play is Rabindranath Tagore's Chitrangada. (In 1892, Tagore had expanded into a dance-drama an episode from the Mahabharata, on Chitrangada, the daughter and sole heir to the throne of the king of Manipur, who dresses like a man and trains as a warrior to protect her kingdom. She falls in love with Arjuna, who is impressed by her skills but believes her to be a man. Chitrangada manages to gain his love by transforming into an ultra-feminine woman with the help of a boon from Kamadeva, the Hindu God of desire. But she wants to be loved for who she is: a virangana, both woman and warrior. Ultimately, when her selfhood is revealed in all its fullness, Arjuna loves her for herself.) Rituparno Ghosh's Chitrangada is a creative play on Tagore's version, again demonstrating that gender, ultimately, is performance. Or, as the theorist Judith Butler would argue, "performativity": performance that becomes so ritualised and internalised over time, through a series of repetitive gestures, bodily and otherwise, that it presents as rigid and "natural" what is actually social, cultural, and fluid.

Ghosh's offerings drew from the rich annals of Indian culture, its myths and memories, often using its own ideas rather than those of the West to critique and inform its audiences. (The classical figure of the God Shiva as ardhanarishwara might serve as a case in point.) His cinematic depiction of heterosexual norms sensitively unravelled the complexities of gender identity, an example being Dahan, the story of a married woman's molestation on a Kolkata street, and a single woman who comes forward to help her and the law. Both women suffer victim-blaming in public and in private, discovering to their disillusionment the limits of law and society which rebukes them for transgressing boundaries. Again, gender as an act: enforced, internalised.

Hence it is a matter of pride that women worldwide are challenging their so-called "natural" limits. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a Muslim woman, biologist, and prolific author, has just been appointed the President of Mauritius. India has had female heads of state, as have other countries in Asia and Africa. One hopes the United States will get a female President now.

 
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