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Illustration by Liene Magdalēna

Feminism: Breaking the Binary

Viewing social issues through a gendered lens inadvertently perpetuates the gender binary in a world which increasingly acknowledges the existence of non-binary identities.

Dec 7, 2019

On a global scale, we see issues being framed through a gendered lens: how climate change affects women, why minimum wage is a women’s issue, the water crisis and women’s stakes in it, the gendered politics of the democratic debate. This trend underpins women’s stakes in a range of urgent global issues as they demand that their concerns be considered before devising solutions for these crises. This is important if we hope to combat and undo the systematic and structural invisibility afforded to women as a group historically. In the same way, it is important to acknowledge that there exists gendered divisions across social institutions, in whatever capacity that may be.
But in a world increasingly acknowledging the existence of non-binary gender identities, gendering how we understand contemporary issues is only a preliminary step towards a more nuanced approach to deconstruct gender norms as a whole. Binary approaches are important in confronting and challenging gender stereotypes and in moving ahead from simplified images of masculinity and femininity to a more complex illustration of how these play out in the real world. But we must follow this up with the understanding that it is not simply women, or those who identify as female, as a group but all people across the gender spectrum who are benefited by feminism.
Taking a class based on feminism this semester gave me interesting insights into the implications of how we understand gender, and how our understanding plays into improving accessibility and visibility for all. I came into the class from a place where the cultural milieu largely equated feminism to women’s rights, a narrative that I often had a hard time aligning with. For me, the mainstream movement seemed a bit too exclusionary in fighting for women’s issues in particular, which it does fiercely, but without including and allying with other communities and groups, especially the significantly marginalised transgender and non-binary populations. This is a world where gender relations are still understood primarily in terms of binaries of male and female, and institutions are structured on the power dynamics deriving from these binaries.
Feminism is for all genders. It would be unfair to trivialise the inclusionary measures that the movement has sought to take on, but it goes without saying that the focus of the movement has remained the structural and smaller scale social inequalities women and female-identifying individuals continue to face. Feminism should not be a movement that fights only for women’s rights. To describe it as such is putting feminism itself in a box. It is important for feminist movements around the globe to provide a platform to voice concerns for individuals and groups across the gender spectrum. Furthermore, increasing visibility and accessibility of gender non-conforming individuals and groups also means that our understanding of contemporary issues need to be examined in light of this, such as the gender wage gap. Pakistan, for instance, just recently featured its first transgender news broadcaster on a mainstream television network. Celebrating this feat is important, but it is also vital to recognise that even in the workspace, challenges exist. For example, estimates show that “the average earnings of female-to-male transgender workers will increase slightly following their transitions, while average earnings of male-to-female transgender workers fall by nearly ⅓”.
That said, when movements around the world work to bring forth a female-centric narrative to further demands for rights and emancipation, and homogenize global issues to emphasize women specifically, they aren’t necessarily regressing to a non-intersectional, non-progressive form of feminism. Rather, they are laying bare that in large parts of the world, the gender roles constructed around binaries of male and female continue to dictate and direct many of the issues faced by people of all genders. But increasingly, we need to expand our conception of feminism to incorporate the struggles of non-binary individuals.
Feminism isn’t necessarily exclusionary when it addresses women’s issues, but in doing so, it emphasizes the continued need to re-evaluate operative terms like the patriarchy and the gender binary without understanding the implications of what these structures lead to in terms of the lived experiences of individuals. It isn’t a black and white world anymore; in fact, it never really was.
Huma Umar is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email her at
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