Are transwomen real women?

The remarks of Nigerian writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche have created some controversy this week, as she appeared to state that trans women (where someone born biologically male identifies with a female gender identity and lives life as a woman), on account of biology, cannot be considered “women.”

“When people talk about, ‘are trans women women’ my feeling is that trans women are trans women,” Adichie shared with Channel 4. “If you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of changed, switched 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 in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

Feminists who take this side in the debate are sometimes known as TERF – trans exclusionary radical feminist. They believe that transgender women should not be considered the same as biologically born, or cisgender, women. Some merely state this as a position while others speak out against or actively work against the inclusion of transwomen in women- or female-centric activities, health services, communities, etc. The most famous example of this is Germaine Greer, who said that trans women can’t be “real” women and that they are “ghastly parodies” with “too much eyeshadow.”

My perspective on transgender people, and transgender women, has been shaped by my life and experience in Pakistan. The situation for trans folk in Pakistan is very well summed up by Mahwish Akhtar’s excellent report for CityNews Pakistan here. Everything she writes about is true, from the attitudes towards trans women as freaks and objects of ridicule, to the difficulties of finding education and employments, to the government’s allowing trans people to identify as “third gender” officially — which hasn’t translated to changes in attitude or anything concrete in their lives.

I urge you to take a minute to read her report, as it explains everything very clearly. Transgender people in Pakistan today are marginalized and often brutalized. They are one of the most vulnerable populations in Pakistan today, perhaps even more so than women born biologically female. Their numbers are very small; only perhaps 2% of the population. Transgender people have always been a part of Pakistani culture, but we have yet to actually respect them as valuable members of our society.

The good thing is that thanks to intersectional feminism, transgender people in Pakistan are starting to find their voice, and to organize, and advocate for their rights. Thanks to global links with trans organizations and advocates all over the world, they are beginning to gain courage and believe that they deserve more than they get in this country. Respect and safety – not too much to ask for, is it? And education and employment, so they don’t have to spend their lives dancing and clapping on the street?

The recent killing of two Pakistani transgender women in Saudi Arabia upset me a great deal, especially the manner of their death – violently, in police custody, alone and terrified. There will be no inquiry, no diplomat summoned to the Foreign Office and asked to explain why two Pakistani citizens were killed on foreign soil.

The question of whether transwomen are “real” women is also a disturbing one. It’s one that offends me, actually. It’s the same thing when someone asks you if you’re a “real” American just because you’re an immigrant. Certainly you didn’t grow up American, your experiences are different and not comparable to a born American, but does that make your passion or your love for the country any less? Did you dream of being an American all your life and go through tremendous sacrifices to get there? Doesn’t that count for anything? Should foreign-born Americans be excluded from all the rights and opportunities of those born on American soil?

Perhaps it isn’t a valid allegory, but it’s how I feel about trans women. Of course they weren’t born with a vagina or uterus, don’t have their periods, didn’t experience life as biologically born women. But their commitment to the idea of being a woman is sky-high. They’re willing to risk their lives for it. A biologically born woman is subjected to violence against women by default. Trans women undergo it because they can’t live their lives out of alignment with how they feel inside themselves.

If we as feminists don’t believe that possessing a penis should give you automatic privilege and status over women, then should we believe that possessing a vagina and ovaries and breasts gives us privilege and status over transgender women?

Is transgenderism a genetic issue, or a psychological one? Nature or nurture? Is it about sexual organs and hormones, or is it about soul and heart? There are certain biological facts that are inescapable: to deny them is foolish. But when transwomen transition from male to female, they are undergoing a spiritual as much as a physical transformation: we need to recognize that and respect it. To split hairs about their bodies seems unnecessarily cruel to me. And I come from a country where we’re downright cruel to transgender women.

I can’t do that to other women. It’s not part of my feminism.

2 thoughts on “Are transwomen real women?”

  1. I didn’t interpret Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comment as TERFish at all. From my reading, all Adichie is stating is that being a transwoman is not the same as being biologically female. That does not mean that transwomen should be denied womanhood, since not all women are the same (e.g. Pakistani women are not the same as American women with ethnic/cultural differences resulting in different patriarchies and different priorities for Pakistani and American feminists). However, I am even more interested in your application of western gender norms on the Pakistani khwajasera (Hijra) community. In European (and European inspired societies like North America, Australia and New Zealand), gender has historically been constructed as only man and woman. However, in South Asian societies, gender exists in three categories; man, woman and khwajasera ( a category inclusive of trans (historical MTF trans), intersex and cross-dressing people). I am unsure if in the Pakistani khwajasera community wants to merge into man or woman gender categories. From my conversations with khwajasera people, most don’t want to be included in the man or woman gender categories. Pakistani khwajasera want equal access to education, healthcare and employment as well as social acceptance. I am not sure if the murder of two Pakistani khwajasera should be described as that of two transwomen given that we don’t know if the victims identified as women Additionally, describing members of the khwajasera community as transwomen or transmen is extremely problematic because it not only erases intersex and cross-dressing people within these communities, but also denies the very existence of khwajasera gender itself and is a form of gender colonialism (whereby non-idigenous ideas of gender are used to reshape or erase indigenous gender identities).


    1. Hi Sarah: some want to be known as trans and others as khwajasira. Trans is definitely a new word, but it’s the one of choice for those who are activists and in contact with LGBTQ activists/orgs in other countries. However, legally the term for them is “third gender” – at least that’s how they’re identified on the NIC. But yes, it’s complicated and there are more nuances local to Pakistan/South Asia.


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