Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, a day that I have a somewhat complicated relationship to. For those who are unaware, I’m genderqueer but was assigned female at birth, so I have spent a significant part of my life moving through the world as if I were a woman. As a teenager, I spent a significant part of my time being involved in a feminist club at my high school (shout out to Femmetopia KG, keep up the good work). I remember spending the better part of a school break preparing for a campaign we were going to do for International Women’s Day, making posters with facts about women’s oppression throughout the world. Looking up economic inequality statistics, cursing under my breath at how immigrant women earn even less than Swedish-born women who of course earn less than Swedish-born men. Fuming at crime statistics about sexual violence, and how few cases lead to convictions. Reading reports about deadly violence toward black trans women and challenging my rage into educating my classmates about it all. In a way, things were simpler back then. Back when I still thought I was a woman, before I realised that I was genderqueer. It was easier to fight for women’s rights when I thought I fit into the category I had been assigned at birth, before I realised that while the world sees me as a woman, I’m not.
When I think about what the definition of being a woman is, I’m reminded of this quote by one of my favourite feminist scholars, Sara Ahmed:
Feminism requires supporting women in a struggle to exist in this world. What do I mean by woman here? I am referring to all those who travel under the sign woman. No feminism worthy of its name would use the sexist idea ‘women born women’ to create edges of feminist communities, to render trans women into ‘not women,’ or ‘not born women,’ or into men. No one is born a woman; it is an assignment (not just a sign, but also a task or an imperative, as I discuss in part I) that can shape us; make us; and break us. Many women who were assigned female at birth, let us remind ourselves, are deemed not women in the right way, or not women at all, perhaps because of how they do or do not express themselves (they are too good at sports, not feminine enough because of their bodily shape, comportment, or conduct, not heterosexual, not mothers, and so on). Part of the difficulty of the category of woman is what follows residing in that category, as well as what follows not residing in that category because of the body you acquire, the desires you have, the paths you follow or do not follow. There can be violence at stake in being recognizable as women; there can be violence at stake in not being recognizable as women. (Ahmed 2017, 14-15)
As Ahmed notes here, woman is an assignment that some of us are given or take up. That’s not to imply it’s a conscious choice, even if it sometimes is. We can choose to break free (deliberately and openly) from the assignment and refuse it. I have tried to. Yet, people try to insist that I should take it up. They keep assigning me this assignment of womanhood. So, in a way I’m still included in the category of women, because society insists on placing me there. That means that I know that, to a large degree, when people fight for women and women’s rights, that includes me. Abortion rights, fighting sexual violence, gender discrimination on the labour market… All of that applies to me too. Yet, the path I have followed through life has moved me away from womanhood too. And as Ahmed notes, there can be violence at stake both in being recognizable as a woman and in not being recognizable as a woman. There’s institutional violence in being forced into the gender binary by the state; that small marker on my passport labeling me as ”female”. There’s violence in the words that cut as knives; ”really a girl”, ”confused”, ”mentally ill.” There’s a price to pay when refusing the assignment of woman.
All the while I know I share a lot of struggles with women. Yet I’m not a woman. Sometimes this isn’t a problem, I can intellectually hold both these thoughts in my head at the same time. But sometimes, some so-called feminist will insist that people like me either don’t exist or that we’re really just women who have a lot of internalised misogyny. That makes it complicated. Then there’s days such as International Women’s Day. Where do I, someone who aren’t a woman, but who people try to assign as a woman, fit in during that day? I’m to a large part impacted by the fights for equality that people focus on during that day. But I’m not a woman, and I don’t want to remove focus from women on International Women’s Day (hence this essay being published the day before). I’m someone who has refused the assignment of woman, but who stand in solidarity with those who have taken up that assignment.
In a way this day was easier to handle when I was just an angry teenager who made posters for their high school and believed themselves to be a woman. Now it’s complicated. It forces me to confront my relationship to womanhood. It forces me to confront my place in the women’s movement and feminism. I don’t have any answers, but I will keep doing the work. While I refuse the assignment of woman, I do take up the assignment of feminist and will support women in their struggle to exist in this world.
Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.