Challenging Heteropatriarchy


Like any other popular movement, the radical message of feminist liberation is always at risk of being diluted by dominant ideologies. In the current conjuncture of neo-fascist resurgence, such dilution is taking place through the selective absorption of women’s rights into a religious worldview. At Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), for instance, local Islamists are carrying out a campaign of moral policing that targets the “indecency and vulgarity” caused by “cultural programs”. When confronted with criticism about the inherently patriarchal character of such campaigns, religious ideologues fly the banner of Islamic feminism. They claim to be committed to “promoting gender equality and justice” but only “within the framework of Islamic principles.” Islamic teachings are praised for providing “guidelines for harmonious coexistence based on mutual respect and understanding.” This coexistence is based upon “the physiological and psychological differences between men and women,” which don’t equate “with superiority or inferiority.” On the contrary, “both genders are regarded as complementary, each contributing to the betterment of society in their unique capacities.”

What needs to be demolished is the myth of “physiological and psychological differences between men and women”. As long as these differences are venerated, misogynists will always be able to restrict women from certain activities, all the while claiming that this contributes to “harmonious coexistence”. Women will be asked to dress modestly and veil themselves, while those who don’t do so are slut-shamed and harassed. Female bodies will be policed so that they confirm to the norms of femininity set by religion. This will keep happening as long as “men” and “women” are defined as fixed entities with their own forms of “physiological and psychological differences”. Anatomy becomes destiny, with the only difference being that a religious feminism paints this “destiny” in the propagandistic glory of “harmony”. Such a notion of harmony is synonymous with the regime of heterosexuality, in which romantic and sexual relationships are confined to opposite-sex attraction. Desire is located in a genitalized identity – penis and vagina become the sole foundations of life. The mere fact of being born with certain anatomical parts translates into a pre-established psychological makeup. This, then, justifies the blithe statement that we all possess “unique capacities”.

Against the heterosexual system, we have to insist on the fundamental fluidity of desire. We are not born as a definite man/woman with an exclusive desire for a person of the opposite sex. Such a conception supposes that we come into the world with fully formed notions of gender and sexuality. Consequently, the infant becomes a supra-social divine creation who already contains the essential qualities of humanity. However, there is no such inherent human essence. The infant learns everything through a process of socialization that includes political, cultural, and economic factors. Thus, we are born not as sovereign incarnations of a godly essence, but as weak, dependent organisms whose shape will emerge through a historical process. In terms of desire, this means that we are hardly the anatomically determined individual that we are made out to be. Rather, the meaning of genitals is constituted through the network of social relations in which we find ourselves. Anatomy is given the significance that it possesses through a heteropatriarchal society that thrives on the oppression of sexual subalterns. Given the irrelevance of genitals to desire, it becomes evident that our individuality lies not inside us – in our physiology – but outside us – in the impersonal sphere formed by countless others. Desire is not fixed in biological organs but is formed through the creation of social relations. Far from being an absolute form of identity, it is the very impossibility of absoluteness, since it is dependent upon socio-historic relations that have to maintained and can always to fail to work.

The impossibility of absoluteness frees desire from its heterosexist gender identity. Desire can be formed through anything – it is an impersonal dynamic that pushes human beings towards the experimental construction of diverse selves. Instead of freezing desire in the shackles of a heterosexualized self, we can unleash it in diverse directions that enrich us without binding us to any one identity. The complementary binary of men and women is replaced by the fabric of contingent relations that evolve through their own internal dynamism instead of being controlled by the harmony of a divine order. The imperative of a single, hegemonic identity exists only because we posit an external agency who guarantees the permanence and validity of all actions. This external agency ensures that we are born with “unique capacities”. To say that we are born with “unique capacities” is to say that we already are what are going to become. The future always-already resides in the present. My life is not in my hands; it is directed by physiological, genital markers.

Once we realize that our lives are constituted not through a higher authority but through the internal structuration of human beings, desire escapes from the boundaries of “unique potentials”. Any uniqueness, any potential, is established through an impersonal system wherein desire passes through multiple circuits of interaction in order to gain a particular form. In the words of Herbert Marcuse, desire manifests “itself in a reactivation of all erotogenic zones and, consequently, in a resurgence of pregenital polymorphous supremacy and in a decline in genital supremacy. The body in its entirety would become an object of cathexis, a thing to be enjoyed – an instrument of pleasure.” The harmonic complementary of a binary difference is replaced by the deepening of desire in all directions – one doesn’t need to follow a pre-determined gender identity in order to extend feelings of love. Instead, love explodes into the diversity of society – experimentation, passion, friendship, and sensitivity assume greater importance than manufactured differences.

The appeal of religious worldviews about gender lie in their promise of stability, a world in which each thing arrives at its fixed destination without any hassles. We are asked not to concern ourselves with our gender identity because it is something that is given by god, something that ensures the harmony of existence. The grandeur of harmony results in the complete impoverishment of life: we don’t have anything ourselves to contribute to the world, as our anatomy speaks in place of ourselves. By diligently subscribing to gender differences, we are supposed attain salvation and peace. The truth is that we can never attain salvation by submitting to dogmatic abstractions. Instead of allowing myself to be ruled by abstractions, I deprive them of their authority, I lose the social stability that I had earlier enjoyed. The consequent lack of stability is not solely privative. Quite the opposite, it is a productive lack – it is because I am incomplete that I can strive for completion. It is because I don’t come into the world with an in-built identity that I can actually engage with the world to create my identity. The absence of lack would mean that we would neither have the need to compensate for it nor the urge to create something new. Desire is the creation of something new, rather than the stasis of unchanging gender differences.

Heterosexual stasis is a brutal weapon that keeps killing the growth of newness. One cannot overlook the case of Ramchandra Siras, a poet and Professor of Marathi Literature at AMU, who faced murderous persecution due to his homosexuality. On February 8, 2010, two individuals broke into Siras’ home and filmed him in bed with another man. Following this incident, Siras was suspended from his position for “gross misconduct”. However, the courts ruled against the university. Tragically, on April 8 of the same year, Siras died under mysterious circumstances at his residence, just a day before he received the official letter cancelling his suspension. The social and institutional conditions that led to the death of Siras foreground the destructiveness of heterosexuality, a system which eliminates anything that stands in the dreary reproduction of the same. Sameness forms the core of the patriarchal engine of oppression that requires women to fit into a hegemonic definition of femininity. Men constitute the apex of this social arrangement: the entrenchment of a gender binary functions to enhance the power of masculinity. Whoever doesn’t confirm to masculinity is ruthlessly hounded. Religious ideology disguises this masculine power by saying that the gender binary is required by an overarching divine harmony. The history of heteropatriarchy repudiates this by revealing the large-scale damage that has been inflicted upon sexual subalterns in the name of ideological harmony. It is high time that we overturn this system. 

Yanis Iqbal is studying at Aligarh Muslim University, India. He has published more than 300 articles in different magazines and websites on imperialism, social movements, political theory, educational philosophy, and cultural criticism. He is the author of the forthcoming book Education in the Age of Neoliberal Dystopia.

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