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.

The Female Artist and the Muse

The importance of the muse in the male artist’s life has been well documented over the ages, from the Greek classical poets all the way up until today. Female artists, not so much. For a male artist (painter, writer, poet, musician) the muse is often a young, beautiful woman. Who is it for a female artist? A beautiful young man? Or an older one? A beautiful woman? Someone unattainable, or someone within reach?

Here is a wonderful quote from Germaine Greer about the psychological necessity of the muse:

A muse is anything but a paid model. The muse in her purest aspect is the feminine part of the male artist, with which he must have intercourse if he is to bring into being a new work. She is the anima to his animus, the yin to his yang, except that, in a reversal of gender roles, she penetrates or inspires him and he gestates and brings forth, from the womb of the mind.

Does this mean that for the female artist, the muse is the masculine part of the female artist? And if female artists have women’s bodies, that already can gestate and bring forth life from their physical wombs, what role does the male muse have for the female artist? Are we as “penetrated” by our muses as male artists are by theirs, or, because that is our role biologically in real life, do we penetrate our male muses instead, in order to be the progenitors instead of the bearers of life?

We know a lot about the muses of famous male artists. Many times, the muse was also a talented artist in her own right, but subsumed by the ego of the male artist, who couldn’t compete: Camille Claudel, Rodin’s muse, who was a sculptor but ended up locked away in a madhouse is the best example of this. Male artists have needed women in their lives, not just as inspiration, but in the roles of caretaker, companion, nursemaid.

Some of the female artists have also had muses well recorded in history. For example, the French writer Colette had her Cheri.  But she’s the only one I could think of that immortalised her muse, a younger man, in her work; I searched the Internet to find more examples, but could only come up with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, or Yoko Ono and John Lennon: both men served as mutual muse and lover to the woman artist, and neither gave up his career in order to take care of or pose, figuratively speaking, for the woman.

Is this because we are uncomfortable with the idea that a woman, too, can actively desire, instead of being the passive object of desire? Or are we more uncomfortable with the idea of a man taking up that passive role?

In my own work, I have never consciously picked someone — male or female — to be my muse. But in tandem to my work, I have always had someone or the other in my life who I have liked or loved, but who was largely unattainable. The yearning for that person somehow gets sublimated into the writing, lends it urgency, energy and passion. Sometimes that person gets written into the work, as a character. Other times, the work is addressed to that person indirectly – I write to evoke feelings in that person’s heart. Sometimes the person knows who they are, and what they mean to me, and many times, they don’t.

I could certainly write without that muse, but I think the writing would be flatter and less interesting without him. The muse gives my work its life. How I wish, though, that the process was a little less torturous, and a little easier on my heart.

Jeanne Hebuterne, Modigliani’s mistress and muse