In all unambiguously patriarchal societies—that is, in most societies of documented history and of the present1—binary models of gender dominate ideology and practice, leading to repressive and oppressive consequences for women and all individuals who don’t identify with a strictly masculine or feminine gender archetype.
While the persistence of patriarchal social structures throughout human history might be difficult to understand in terms of a single analytical framework, it is safe to argue that no patriarchal society could develop and survive without the construction and continual operation of a binary model of gender (from here on, I will refer to this model through the shorthand form binary gender). As a patriarchal society, Kuwait is no exception to this ground rule. The fact that binary gender remains the only acceptable model of gender in the country’s popular discourses and official policies has led to various oppressive consequences, including but not limited to the marginalization of women in the public sphere, the popular and official policing and persecution of transgender people for their non-binary expressions of gender identity, and gender segregation in public education.
Gender, along with other basic determinants of social identity such as sexuality, ethnicity, and class, can and does determine whether or not one gets perceived and treated by others as a legitimate member of the particular society s/he was born into, and of the general human race to which s/he biologically belongs. In order for all of its members to feel welcome and valued; to be able to express and realize their specific voices, personalities, and ambitions; to make meaningful social and cultural contributions; and to be equal in the eyes of the law, Kuwaiti society needs to move beyond the limitations of binarism and develop a fluid and versatile approach to gender.
Before going further, I must define what I mean by binary gender, and clarify the harmful ways in which it distorts reality. In simple terms, binary gender is an epistemic model that treats sexual difference as smoothly aligned pairs of essential and complementary opposites. The most basic of binary gender’s oppositions are male/female and masculine/ feminine, but these are aligned with a wide range of other oppositions such as active/passive, aggressive/gentle, and rational/emotional, to name only a few. Binary gender overlays its oppositions onto each other, blurring the distinctions between them and making their terms mutually conflatable. Moreover, binary gender presents itself as objective reality by tethering its constitutive oppositions to biology. Thus, among many other illusions, binary gender produces the “reality” that men lean toward rational thinking because they’re biologically male, and women tend to be hyper-emotional because they’re biologically female. Here, the question inevitably arises, “How can the rigid schemas of binary gender remain ideologically dominant in spite of the many contradictions that confront them in actual social practices?”
The post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault developed a theory in which the convoluted relationship between ideology and practice grows out of the power of discourse to mold reality. In his seminal work The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault describes his task as “A task that consists of not—of no longer—treating discourses as groups of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” (49, my emphasis). Foucault proposes an epistemology in which a knowledge/power network emerges out of “discursive formations” and “rules of formation”:
"Whenever one can describe, between a number of statements, such a system of dispersion, whenever, between objects, types of statement, concepts, or thematic choices, one can define a regularity . . . we will say, for the sake of convenience, that we are dealing with a discursive formation . . . The conditions to which the elements of this division . . . are subjected we shall call the rules of formation. The rules of formation are conditions of existence . . . in a given discursive division." (38)
Applying Foucault’s approach to binary gender, we could identify as “discursive formations” all the neat discursive oppositions—e.g. men are aggressive, women are passive—that turn gender into a binary reality. We could also identify, as the “rule of formation” governing these oppositions, complementary opposition as an abstract conceptual imperative. The latter point is inseparable from the structure known as hetero-normativity: the constellation of hegemonic norms that define “man” and “woman” as sexually distinct and opposite creatures, while tethering a culture’s survival to their union, ideally through marriage. Being essential to the maintenance of binary gender—a model in which masculinity occupies the privileged position—hetero-normativity, in one form or another, undergirds all forms of patriarchy.
Foucault’s theoretical model offers an explanation as to why, in patriarchal societies, certain behaviors are labeled “masculine,” while others are labeled “feminine”: the prevailing direction of discourses dealing with gender determines the epistemological organization of these behaviors. However, to better understand the effects of discourse as envisioned by Foucault—who treats discourse not simply as organized linguistic patterns determined by convention, but as regular and regulated linguistic practices that actually create the realities they seem to name—it is necessary for us to supplement his theory of discursive formations with Judith Butler’s theory of performativity.
In her pathbreaking article “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” gender theorist Judith Butler attributes the coherence of gender as a binary reality to the corporeal performance of gender, a performance that follows a binary script dictated by a hetero-normative, patriarchal social order:
". . . gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed [sic]; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of a constituted social temporality." (519-20, emphasis in original)
While the regular utterance of regulated discourses limits the imagination of gender to a binary frame of reference, the regular performance of stylized bodily acts renders gender an essential and natural identity, rather than the product of a social script. Moreover, insofar as body language is connected to other modes of self-presentation, the theory of constitutive performativity extends to many codified social behaviors besides “masculine” and “feminine” ways of displaying the body. These include the use of gender-specific lexicons, gender-specific modes of self-expression, gender-specific patterns of socializing, gender-specific hobbies, and gender-specific career inclinations. Understandably, not all women and men conform in practice to such stark behavioral dichotomies, but the dichotomies are reified and endorsed in hegemonic discourses.
On the most basic level, Butler’s argument that gender is performative is supported by the fact that sex and gender are distinct domains: a female child is simply female at the time of birth; she doesn’t come out of the womb in any dress, pink or otherwise. However, the theory of performative gender finds additional support in the scientific research that has been done on biological sex. Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor of biology and gender studies, cites the research of psychologist John Money to demonstrate that sexual differentiation up to the moment of birth is a process that occurs in at least five distinct stages, sometimes leading to results that contradict a binary conception of gender.
After pointing out that chromosomal sex isn’t always binary—“an egg or sperm may lack a sex chromosome or have an extra one. The resultant embryo has an uncommon chromosomal sex—say, XXY, XYY or XO. So even considering only the first layer of sex, there are more than two categories”—Fausto-Sterling lists the other four stages of sexual differentiation: the gonadal stage, during which the testes and ovaries get produced; the hormonal stage that sees the emergence of hormones that direct further male and female development; the internal reproductive organs stage, during which sex hormones produce internal sex organs such as the uterus and the prostate; and the genital stage, when external sex organs like the penis and vagina emerge. Crucial, Fausto-Sterling alerts us to the fact that at none of these stages is the end result necessarily aligned in a binary schema with the results of the other stages:
". . . as with chromosomal sex, each subsequent layer does not always become strictly binary. Furthermore, the layers can conflict with one another, with one being binary and another not: An XX baby can be born with a penis, an XY person may have a vagina, and so on. These kinds of inconsistencies throw a monkey wrench into any plan to assign sex as male or female, categorically and in perpetuity, just by looking at a newborn’s private parts."
Being based on tangible biological reality, Fausto-Sterling’s intervention delivers a powerful critique of binary gender. If biological sex can’t be fit into a binary mold, neither can gender; binary gender becomes reality only when its construction through discourse and performance conforms to a hetero-normative social script.
What is the best way to describe the operation of binary gender in Kuwait? The fact that most societies remain predominantly patriarchal in character doesn’t mean that binary gender assumes the same form or produces the same effects in all of them. In many countries, such as the United States and the countries of West and Northern Europe, significant progress has been made in the understanding and treatment of gender identity and gender relations, in spite of the persistence of some hostile attitudes and restrictive laws pertaining to people of non-hetero-normative genders and sexualities. Thanks to the sustained momentum of norm-breaking academic, scientific, and political discourses and activism, many open discursive and social spaces have emerged in which queer (non-binary) people can live their genders and sexualities without the fear of imminent physical or psychological reprisal. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Kuwait and other countries in the GCC, where safe queer spaces remain limited and confined.2
The consideration of the legal status of transgender practices in Kuwait is particularly relevant as a reflection of the predominance of the binary model of gender. In a study of the social and legal situation of transgender people in Kuwait, Belkis Wille of Human Rights Watch notes that official harassment and abuse of transgender people in Kuwait have been enabled and escalated by a 2007 amendment to Article 198 of the country’s Penal Code, according to which “impersonating” the other gender is an offense against public morality.3 More important, Wille reveals that the criminalization of transgender practices reflects and reinforces conventional, binary understandings of gender that circulate in popular discourses:
"Kuwaiti authorities have cited local attitudes toward transgender women as an excuse for repressive laws and policies. Transgender women have reported that ordinary citizens report them to police, encouraged by an unrelenting vilification campaign in Kuwaiti media that portrays transgendered individuals as a destructive force and a threat to the fabric of Kuwaiti society."
Wille’s report reveals that the “repressive laws and policies” against transgender people don’t get imposed in a simple, top-down fashion; rather, the fear fueling the hostility against these individuals is part of “the fabric of Kuwaiti society.” This unfortunate situation attests to the power of binary gender in popular ideology, a power that is also evident in the frequent use of the term jins thālith (“third gender”) as a policing insult against individuals who perform gender in a visibly non-binary fashion.
Another way in which binary gender gets reinforced in Kuwait is gender segregation in public education.4 Those in support of this policy presume that a powerful sexual attraction always exists between males and females due to their distinct yet complementary genders and sexualities, and that the gravity of this attraction would pull oversexed young students toward extramarital sexual relations, thus leading them to violate social and religious codes. Not surprisingly, more than one study has shown that this binary treatment of gender, defended through religious discourse, harms students’ academic performance, hinders their intellectual growth, lowers their self-esteem, and perpetuates unegalitarian relations between males and females. Rania Al-Nakib, professor of humanities and social sciences at Gulf University, offers a vital assessment of the impact of gender segregation on gender equality:
"With schools segregated from primary to university levels, Kuwaiti men are able more easily to ignore the realities of women’s experiences, and it becomes increasingly difficult for women to access the people and structures necessary to attain full recognition. The various additional layers of separation across schools [for example, badu vs. ḥaḍar, Sunni vs. Shia] make change even more elusive, as they continue to hinder the formation of a female solidarity movement."5 (7)
Thus, while trans manifestations of gender blur the lines between masculinity and femininity, threatening the privileged position of the former, gender segregation enables males to remain oblivious or indifferent to masculinity’s oppression of women. For a way out of the straitjacket of binary gender, we need to return to Judith Butler’s theory of performativity. Butler argues that once gender is understood as a scripted set of discontinuous actions that gain the appearance of a continuous, essential reality through repetition over time, different performances—and, consequently, different constructions—of gender identity become imaginable and possible:
"If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style." (520)
The possibility of “a different sort of repeating” is, I would argue, the first stepping-stone on the road toward change. Butler argues that daily body language can be “stylized” in ways that undermine the coherence of binary gender as both a cognitive framework and a corporeal reality. If we interpret subversive behavior as encompassing all non-hetero-normative actions repeated in public spaces, a great variety of possibilities emerge for unraveling binary gender: men who navigate public spaces in “feminine” clothes or accessories; men who walk and talk “like women”; women who pursue “masculine” activities such as smoking or professional sports; women who force their way into spaces marked as masculine and express themselves in an assertive language and tone, “like men.” To the degree that bodies use their freedom to perform gender in a non-binary spirit of spontaneous improvisation, binary gender loses its power to draw bodies into its magnetic, hetero-normative force-field. The fixed, binary mold of gender would crack, and gender conformism would give way to fluid, liberating patterns of gendered self-expression and self-realization.
1. For thought-provoking hypotheses concerning the historical origins of patriarchy, see Ananthaswamy. To examine the possibility that “patriarchal” might not be an accurate descriptor for a limited number of contemporary societies, see Garrison.
2. Oman joins Kuwait in expressly outlawing gender “impersonation,” while the UAE prohibits men from cross-dressing for the purpose of entering female-only spaces, and Saudi Arabia punishes trans expressions of gender in a pseudo-legal fashion, justifying punishment by referring in a general manner to Sharia law. Homosexual activity is criminalized in one form or another in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and the Emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah. See “#Outlawed.”
3. For Article 198 of the Penal Code of Kuwait, see Kuwait, Qānūn al-Jazāʾ 61.
4. While gender segregation in public schools developed spontaneously through social consensus, gender segregation in public institutions of higher education is legally enforced through Article 1 of Law 24, which was issued by Kuwait’s National Assembly in 1996. See Kuwait, “Qānūn Raqam 24.”
5. See as well AlMatrouk and Tfaily for more insights concerning the harmful impact of gender segregation on education and other dimensions of young adults’ lives in Kuwait.
AlMatrouk, Lujain. “The relationship between gender segregation in schools, self-esteem, spiritual values/religion, and peer relations in Kuwait.” Near and Middle Eastern Journal of Research in Education, vol. 2016, no. 3, 2016. QSCIENCE, doi.org/10.5339/nmejre.2016.3/. Accessed 10 July 2019.
Al-Nakib, Rania. “Education and Democratic Development in Kuwait: Citizens in Waiting.” Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, Mar. 2015, www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/field/field_document/20150408Kuwait.pdf. Accessed 10 July 2011.
Ananthaswamy, Anil, and Kate Douglas. “The origins of sexism: How men came to rule 12,000 years ago.” New Scientist, 18 Apr. 2018, www.newscientist.com/article/mg23831740-400-the-origins-of-sexism-how-men-came-to-rule-12000-years-ago/. Accessed 2 July 2019.Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Studies, vol. 40, no. 4, 1988, pp. 519-31. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3207893/. Accessed 1 July 2019.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. “Why Sex Is Not Binary.” The New York Times, 25 Oct. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/opinion/sex-biology-binary.html. Accessed 1 July 2019.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Translated by A. M. Sheridan, Pantheon Books, 1972. Monoskop, monoskop.org/images/9/90/Foucault_Michel_Archaeology_of_Knowledge.pdf. Accessed 1 July 2019.
Garrison, Laura Turner. “6 Modern Societies Where Women Rule.” Mental Floss, Minute Media, 3 Mar. 2017, mentalfloss.com/article/31274/6-modern-societies-where-women-literally-rule/. Accessed 1 July 2019.
Kuwait, National Assembly. Qānūn al-Jazā‘ wa-al-Qawānīn al-Mukammilah la-Hu. Ministry of Justice, 2011, www.e.gov.kw/sites/kgoArabic/Forms/QanoonAlJajaa.pdf. Accessed 10 July 2019.
Kuwait, National Assembly. “Qānūn Raqam 24 li-Sanat 1996 bi-Shaʾn Tanẓīm al-Taʿlīm al-ʿĀlī fī Jāmiʿat al-Kuwayt wa-al-Hayʾah al-ʿĀmmah lil-Taʿlīm al-Taṭbīqī wa-al-Tadrīb wa-al-Taʿlīm fī al-Madāris al-Khāṣṣah.” Shabakat al-Maʿlūmāt al-Qānūnīyah li-Duwal Majlis al Taʿāwun al-Khalījī, www.gcc-legal.org/LawAsPDF.aspx?opt&country=0&LawID=3682/. Accessed 10 July 2019.
“#Outlawed: ‘The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.’” Human Rights Watch: LGBT Rights, Human Rights Watch, 2019, internap.hrw.org/features/features/ lgbt_laws/. Accessed 10 July 2019.
Tfaily, Fatima and Amal Samarah. “The Effect of Female Fender Segregation in Schools on Academic Performance, Self-confidence, and Peer Relations: A Case of Colleges and Universities in Kuwait.” International Journal of Education and Research, vol. 6, no. 3, 2018, pp. 211-34, www.ijern.com/journal/2018/March-2018/22.pdf. Accessed 10 July 2019.
Wille, Belkis. “Being Transgender in Kuwait: ‘My Biggest Fear Is a Flat Tire.’” Human Rights Watch, 15 July 2013, www.hrw.org/news/2013/07/15/being-transgender-kuwait-my-biggest-fear-flat-tire/. Accessed 1 July 2019.
A version of this article was featured in Khaleejesque’s September 2019 issue.
Words: Dr. Khalid Hadeed, PhD
Illustrations: Ruqaiya Abdullah Ali Al Balushi