Gender Across Cultures: An Interview with Serena Nanda

Serena Nanda is the author of (among other books) Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India, a study of a social group of people born as men but who adopt female dress and mannerisms. Often castrated, hijras are considered to be a “third sex,” both by hijras themselves and by the larger culture. This interview first appeared in LiP: Informed Revolt, Summer 2006.

Erin Wiegand: What are some examples of third or fourth genders, or variances in traditional male/female gender expression in non-Western cultures?

Serena Nanda: There are many examples of gender variance/diversity from other cultures. Among different Native American societies there were a great many different roles; some males who take female roles, and [some] females who take male roles. Some of the most well described are among the Zuni and the Mohave. In many cases such roles were associated with the sacred powers of shamans that was specifically related to this gender “in-betweenness.” Alternative gender roles have existed in Tahiti (mahu); Thailand (kathoey); the Philippines (bakla); the Balkans (a female to male role called “sworn virgins”); and Oman, (xanith). Female to male roles occur much more infrequently than male to female roles.

Many of these traditional cultures that acknowledged and found a place for gender diverse people/roles have been strongly influenced by Western cultures and religion, some over several centuries. This has, generally speaking, meant a decline in the acceptance and/or positive attitudes toward such roles, and indeed, a decline in the roles themselves.

In Neither Man Nor Woman you studied the hijras, who, as you say, are both “man minus man,” (because they are castrated), but also “man plus woman” (through adoption of behavior and dress). What are some similarities and differences between hijras and MTF transgender people in Western cultures?

First, there is a differentiation between transsexual and transgendered. In my understanding, the term transsexual means a person who has “crossed over” (in various stages, mainly through altering physical aspects of the body) from either male to female or female to male. Thus, in this definition, a transsexual really reinforces the sex/gender binary of the West, i.e., male/female; man/woman. As I understand transgenderism, on the other hand, what I see is a broadening of the whole US/Western gender system; these folks don’t want to be one or the other and insist on an “in-between” category. This is gaining ground, I believe, in the West, and suggests our gender system may be moving away, albeit very slowly, from binaries.Hijras, and other similar gender variants in other cultures, do not cross sexes or gender within a binary gender system, but are viewed culturally (and view themselves) as autonomous, alternatives to this binary, whether described as “in-betweens,” third or fourth genders, or whatever. Thus, such roles exist as evidence and serve to further the idea that gender is not necessarily binary.

One has to keep in mind here that since there is so little really known about the internal/psychological/identity of many of the individuals who occupied these roles, how each individual views themselves may be different from the cultural perspective. And so much of what we can say about these roles is cultural, not individual. With regard to the hijras, there are a great variety of self-identities, some of which match the cultural “neither here nor there,” others of which don’t; many hijras do express the idea that have moved from male to female, though they recognize this transition cannot be complete.

As I recall from your book, some hijras want to be accepted as women; others don’t.

I would say that hijras identify more as female than as male, but they aren’t really perceived as females by the larger culture. Their female behavior is often an exaggeration—even a spoof—of traditional Indian femininity; many (though by no means all) hijras, physically appear masculine (from hardly to very), and Indian people “know” they are males who try to be like females, but are not. If [sex reassignment surgery] was available in India on an accessible scale, would some hijras become women (i.e., transsexuals)? Probably some would, but we need to keep in mind that being a recognized hijra also has some advantages—[as hijras, they have a] traditional performance role, they receive alms, etc, which would be lost if they became women. So I would say, their dominant identity is as an in-between or third gender, though as Gayatri Reddy has written, they have many other identities as well, [including] religious [ones]. Reddy has also written on hijras in (mostly local) contemporary political roles and points out, very interestingly, that they run on a platform that they are neither male nor female and thus do not have family or caste ties, and so will be less likely to practice nepotism (widespread in India)—and thereby will serve the public interest better.

What about people born as women, but adopting either a more masculine or alternative gender role, in other non-Western cultures?

There is such a role in India, called the sadhin, and one, mentioned above, in the Balkans called the sworn virgin, as well as such roles among Native American societies, where they perhaps occur most frequently. But for various reasons, female to male roles are much fewer in number than the reverse, are more invisible where they might have occurred (ie, Polynesia), or are no longer viable where they once existed historically (ie, Thailand). And certainly [they] are much less described in the anthropological literature. Where female to male roles have existed/exist in other cultures, there is a special kind of cultural situation that calls them forth, and a special kind of behavior they are associated with.

What can the existence of gender-variant people in other cultures offer to queer/trans movements in the West?

I think that the very fact of such diversity of cultural systems and attitudes cannot help but be useful to groups trying to broaden understanding in their own (our own) culture. I hope that my work (and those of other anthropologists like Gil Herdt, Gayatri Reddy, Will Roscoe, [and others] who work in the area of gender diversity) will further the awareness and acceptance of trans and intersex people. Because our work is such strong evidence of the role of culture in the construction of gender, it has applications to more general gender issues as well, and has been used in this way.

It is part of the creed of humanist anthropology, I think, to believe that however specific a cultural situation is, if one allows the individuals within the system to have a voice, or to describe things that seem different to us in an empathic way, people will respond and overcome previous ignorance and prejudice. Not quickly, not all at once, but hopefully, eventually. My students always start out hostile toward hijras and the like, but by the end of the book and [after] some discussion, one does see movement toward understanding, even acceptance. So I just keep on trucking.

Paracinema Magazine (and the Fate of Indie Publishing)

I’ve recently published a few articles in Paracinema, a new magazine devoted to cult and horror films.The magazine’s editors are currently pursuing a DIY distribution method to a handful of independent stores, which means you can’t pick it up in your local Borders or Barnes & Noble. I think this is a fantastic idea. As someone who witnessed the collapse of what seemed to be a very successful magazine (great sell-through rates, even in the chains), I know first-hand the disaster of getting too big too quickly — and how the mainstream magazine publishing industry is designed to simply crush any independent magazines that are trying to compete with glossy, advertising-driven ones. Simply put: if you’re a small magazine, and you don’t have a built-in income from high-paying niche advertisers, you’re eventually not going to be able to cover the cost of printing an issue because the newsstand money doesn’t trickle in until many months after the last issue’s been taken off the shelf. Once your popularity increases, and the bookstores start demanding your magazine in higher numbers, you’ll very quickly realize that the money you’re getting from the 2,000 copies you sold of the last issue isn’t going to make a dent in the cost of printing the 6,000 copies your distributors are now asking for. (And forget about paying anyone; once you start trying to make money to pay writers, editors, publishers, and designers, rather than just trying to break even on your printer bill, it becomes exponentially difficult.)Here’s a list of independent magazines that have gone under in the last few years.Instead, buy issues from Paracinema directly, whether in one of the few stores that carry them or online, or better yet, subscribe. Subscriptions are what keep indie magazines like this running, because it provides the money up front to print upcoming issues.

LiP Anthology Reviews

I hadn’t been paying much attention to media coverage of the LiP anthology, but then came across this article in In These Times:

Tipping the Sacred Cow is a savvy and well-curated collection of the comics, illustrations, articles and interviews featured in LiP’s myriad print and online incarnations from 1996-2007. Capturing the magazine’s cheeky nature, it reads like a super-special edition of LiP—complete with illustrations by cartoonist Eric Drooker, a “theft ethics” quiz, a glossary of culture-jamming lingo and other useful appendices—including some exclusive, behind-the-scenes, previously unpublished material…. Tipping the Sacred Cow serves as a worthy headstone for a publication that died before its time.

A quick search turned up two more great reviews that I’d like to share: the first is from the Feminist Review, written by Kerri Kanelos.

Every single article in this anthology forced me to shift my thinking about issues near and dear to my heart (feminism, the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., eco-friendly policies—even the fine art of using the toilet).

…and the second, from the Utne Reader:

The spunky indie rag LiP was never afraid to dissent from lefty rallying cries, always challenging its readers to scrutinize the structures and institutions underlying their pet causes. Tipping the Sacred Cow captures a cross section of the now-defunct magazine’s wares, with essays and interviews challenging so-called radical perceptions of feminism, gay rights, and political correctness.

Why Green Capitalism Will Beat Oil Scarcity

Written in collaboration with Rodney Foxworth; originally published in LiP: Informed Revolt, Summer 2006

It’s good business. The economy of the future will be a low-carbon economy. —Vivienne Cox, Chief Executive of BP’s Gas, Power, and Renewables Division.

Many environmentalists find themselves at philosophical odds when the discussion turns to green capitalism; that is, whether or not sustainable energy development and environmental protection are able to coexist with capitalism. One camp suggests that capitalism and transnational corporations are ill-equipped to safeguard our environment and resources, while another supposes that sustainable development is capable and probable within the current capitalistic socio-economic model (albeit with a few modifications).

While CEOs and environmentalists might agree that renewable energy is a necessary resource to develop, it’s the only the latter group that recognizes it won’t be enough; it’s decreasing our overall energy usage, not simply replacing one type with another, that will be the key to any kind of real strategy for sustainability in the twenty-first century. And it’s not too hard to see the inherent conflict that notion has with the capitalist reliance on ever-increasing consumption.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, then, to find that the motivation driving big business toward the development of alternative fuels has little to do with environmental concern. So why are the very same companies that maintain something in the neighborhood of 25 percent of the worldÍs wealth, and which have been complicit in the destruction of our environment and overconsumption of our resources, subscribing to and investing in “green technologies?” Because at its root, capitalism has only one motive—profit—and it has become clear that over the next century, relying on oil revenues will become very, very unprofitable.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the shift in advertising stsrategy by several major oil companies. The leader of the pack is British Petroleum (BP)—the world’s second largest oil company, after ExxonMobile—which began its “green” shift in 1996, when the company resigned from the anti-Kyoto and anti-climate science Global Climate Coalition. A year later, BP executive Lord John Browne publicly acknowledged climate change as a reality (and one that must be addressed), the first oil exec to speak on the subject.

The real milestone for BP—and for greenwashing everywhere—came in 2000 with the unveiling of its new $200 million rebranding campaign, “Beyond Petroleum.” The campaign boasted of BP’s “green” commitment, primarily focusing on their investments in alternative energy research: BP intends to invest $8 billion over the next ten years in alternative energy development, directed towards solar energy, as well as wind, hydrogen, and gas-fired power systems. In the first year after their rebranding, BP faced backlash both from environmentalists (especially because of BP’s prominence in Arctic oil drilling) and from within the company—after all, no other oil company at the time was even talking about peak oil, let alone investing in alternative energy.

Some six years later, BP now leads the pack of oil companies when it comes to alternative energy research—and is profiting from it. BP Solar is now the world’s third-largest solar company; they’ve announced plans to build the world’s first commercial hydrogen fuel project in Scotland; they have two existing wind farms in the Netherlands, and have their eyes on numerous potential US sites. And the profit margins stand to be high. In November 2005, BP told Reuters that the newly-created BP Alternative Energy unit “had the potential to deliver sales around $6 billion a year” within the next decade. According to BP Chief Executive Browne, BP is “now at a point where we have sufficient new technologies and sound commercial opportunities within our reach to build a significant and sustainable business in alternative and renewable energy.”

Shell, the third largest oil company, is intent on catching up to BP. In a February 2006 press release, Shell announced it had now invested over $1 billion in alternative energies, making it one of the worldÍs leading companies in the sector. At the top of their list are biofuels, which are derived from plant crops and biomass (like wood chips). Shell is also, according to company rhetoric, “one of the largest wind energy developers,” with stakes across the US as well as in the Netherlands. Shell owns half of the Mount Storm wind park in West Virginia, one of the largest projects under development in the US. Hydrogen is on their radar as well: Shell plans to open at least two hydrogen stations in 2006.

The most recent oil company to “go green” is Chevron, which launched a $50 million global ad campaign in July 2005, supposedly seeking to “raise awareness and ecnorage discussion about important issues facing the energy industry, including supply and demand, the role of alternative and renewable energy sources and the promise of technology.” According to their PR, Chevron plans to invest over $300 million every year on “clean and renewable energies.”

The crux of the cam,paign, called “Will You Join Us,” is peak oil, which Chevron has jumped on as a reality that consumers need to be concerned about. As one ad states, “The world consumes two barrels of oil for every barrel discovered. So it this something you should be worried about?” The ad goes on to argue, “The energy industry needs to get more from existing fields while continuing to search for new reserves…. Consumers must demand, and be willing to pay for, some of these solutions.”

Where BP and Shell have both jumped on the green bandwagon to make alternative energy profitable for them, Cheveron has put their own twist on “greening” the oil business. By focusing on peak oil rather than global warming, they can continue to push for the loosening of drilling restrictions and emissions standards. After all, sustainablitiy “requires us to use all resources at our disposal,” and “the challenge for the energy secotr is to optimize the development and use of all sources of energy.”

As environmental website the Green Life points out, “Peak oil deals the energy industry a strong card in the game of greenhouse gas emissions management, meant to trump regulation. Chevron is the first company to play it publicly. The card suggests that oil will solve its own environmental problems simply by disappearing. In the meantime, we need cheap, unconstrained carbon to supply the demand of development worldwide.”

But what is truly remarkable is Chevron’s explanation for why we need to create more energy, whether through oil alternatives or better (more thorough) exploitation of the crude we’ve got. According to their PR copy, “Because of surging economies in the developing world and continued growth among the industrialized nations, global energy use is soaring. Better economies mean better lives—and more demand for energy. As a result, supplies are tight. Prices are rising. And energy users are calling for viable alternatives.”

Or in other words: Over-consumption of energy isnÍt a problem—it’s the natural outcome of the steady improvement of the lives of those in “developing” nations; and just as capitalism and “economy growth” improves their lives, so too will it find new ways to supply the energy to fuel it.

Interestingly, the company at the top of the oil game—ExxonMobil, which set an all-time high profit record in 2005 (more than $36 billion) for any publicly traded company—has taken a different approach to the problem of peak oil and climate change. It simply denies that they exist. Where BP, Shell, and now Chevron have all poured money into the alternative energy sector (and into ad campaigns convincing consumers of their green values), ExxonMobil has spent more than $8 billion on think tanks, media, and consumer groups to promote the idea that climate change is a lot of bunk. They have actively campaigned to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (where BP, in contrast, hems and haws over whether or not it will drill “if the refuge is opened”), and have fought the Kyoto Protocol.

But as it becomes clearer to increasingly larger segments of the population that climate change is real and the oil is going to run out, it is likely that ExxonMobil, too, will eventually dip their hand into the alternative energy pot—or just buy out the companies that are currently making it a profitable venture.

Matching supply with demand is textbook Econ 101: that’s just sound business sense. But business acumen might not be best thing for our environment. Our demand for energy will increase exponentially in a world with finite resources; that is, our supply will never match our hunger for more. As one resource (oil) dwindles, we can expect to see others (solar; wind; water; hydrogen) take its place—and the energy barons that presided over our oil drain and carbon dioxide emissions revolution will be the same people that will promote consumption, increase production, and expand markets. Just as with everything else, alternative energies—in whatever form that they might take—are at the mercy of the free market and those who worship it with the same religious fervor of fundamentalists.

Rather than curtail our demands for energy, big business will only encourage it, and to whose disadvantage? Ours—and the environment’s, of course.

New Books

Two books I’ve contributed to, In the Beginning and Tipping the Sacred Cow, are now available!