Another look at the sex-gender system. Its possibilities of subversion

Among other challenges, Cuban society must publicly identify and deconstruct the asymmetric relations between sexes and genders.

Introductory clarifications

Gender is a recent topic in Cuban academia, which continues being reluctant to accept this analytical focus. This academia has officially been aligned with a falsely monotonic view of reality, which is always rich in diversities, nuances and the complexities of both.

Following this alignment of unreal homogeneity there has been talk of “woman,” “women” and of “the feminine,” of “man,” “men” and of “the masculine,” as if it was done in the singular. The plural used has generally been homogenised, without incorporating the historic, cultural, sociological, political special characteristics that the plural involves.

Since the distorted and distorting views with which for so many difficult years we have seen the non-normalised (similar to saying “non-canonised”) expressions of sexuality and gender, the guidelines have been accordingly thought out and related policies have been concretised.

What has not been limited to the canon of sex and gender, of conception and historical and political reproduction but socially and hypocritically sanctioned, has been conceived as “dissidence” or “opposition” to be combated.

With its special characteristics, it has been like this in Cuba and in other cultural and geographical environments, without being limited to the plurality of western culture.

Sex-gender system

In its articulation with sex, gender is of the sociocultural, temporal and spatial construction, in relation to the sexual anatomy with which we are born.

We are educated according to the gender, when we are told that we must or must not be girls or boys, socially imposing limits to our opportunities.

According to the aforementioned, relating sex and gender as an analytical core opportunity is more pertinent than if we try to untangle such a complex and diverse phenomenon as sexuality.

That system is made more functional for us to permeate the social, political, economic and cultural structure that for centuries has coordinated social relations fundamentally in power.

This structure and power are directly connected with a unilateral vision of sexuality and gender. Sexuality and social, political, cultural and economic structuring established as individual and collective expressions.

However, the idea continuous of aiming to make us believe that sexuality is restricted to the private sphere, that the social, political and economic structure corresponds to the public spaces, and this, as if it came from God (don’t forget political power’s link to religious power), is not open to appeal.

It is significant that we women were limited to the private in western cultures. The public sphere was monopolised by men, who were the distributors of both spaces.

Opening and functionality of the sex-gender system

The sex-gender system is explained and complemented by categories connected to relations of power, which can also be explained through that system.

These include, among others: identity, alternativeness and otherness, stereotype, sexism, femininity, masculinity and feminism, social space, marginality, exclusion and discrimination, subordinateness, authority, colonialness and post colonialness, poverty and violence.

The historical analysis up to the family, education, health, nutrition and feminism, religion, philosophy, ethics and aesthetics, in a vastness of possibilities, explains this system.  

The deconstruction of the unidirectional makes it possible to visualise other (not necessarily new) ways of being a woman and a man. What is relevant is not its novelty (many have been always there; hidden, denied, censored, criminalised), but rather their visualisation.

Visualisation of travelling from femininities and masculinities along the paths of liberation, in a world moving toward positive radicalisations in many ways of thinking and doing.

Because identities do not have to behave as spaces of oppression or reasons for subordination; they can be spaces of freedom, parity, creative and enriching adaptability. If the essentialism of the identities is well cared for, these, more than risks, can represent opportunities.

Today there is an evident opposition to the totalising and absolutist western tendency that imposes the universality of “the masculine.” That “masculine” refers to the white, heterosexual, chronologically young, economically solvent, religiously Christian man or, in the socialist system, atheist and Marxist.

This gives gender-related studies a political content, having to incorporate the theoretical work and concrete actions of the individuals under study. This explains why many academicians related to the subject are also their activists, which links the sex-gender system to the levels of political consciousness and education, a link perceptible in the press and in art, not always with happy results. A negative western tradition of devaluating representation of the image of women damages the subjectivity of women and men.

Gender-sex-race- social class: Afro- feminism

The connection of the “sex,” “race,” “social class” and “gender” categories made it possible to emerge, coordinate, visualise and legitimise Afro-feminism, making the dissimilar voices of black women heard among the feminists and in macro-society.

In multi-ethnic and pluri-racial societies, the ethno-racial and gender identities have functioned simultaneously for these women, with histories, needs, challenges and risks differentiated among women and in the collective of black persons.

Their ethnic, gender and racial identities are not observed in the ethical, aesthetic and juridical regulations of their societies.

Macro-socially constructed as “the others,” exclusion forced on them, incorporated according to the needs of a sociocultural and economic structure imposed by the colonialists and postponed (though renovated) by their descendants, we Afro-American women were/are those whose voices don’t find an appropriate space of enunciation among white, bourgeois feminists or not.

Despite the debated and debateable “essentialism” of the identities, this can function as a useful transitional stage. This is contemplated today by the postcolonial critical thinking, be it ethno-racial and Afro-feminist or not.

The identity search can reveal needs (psychological and emotional), expressed in the search for referents (individual and collective) for the construction of self-esteem  as self-affirmation in the face of a system of domination and to situate itself as a socio-political subject (individual and collective).

The undervaluation of black women increases for the lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and transsexuals, a reality shared with black gays, bisexuals, transgenders and transsexuals.

Faced by the emergence of new social movements, in a world in need of alternatives to the institutions and organisational logics, the Afro-feminists seemed to not have spaces in the so-called “waves,” through which it is aimed to systematise, chronologically, the study of international feminism (understood as “western”).

In contradiction with the “need for creating solidarities in the political struggle and knowing they are similar to others alike, the need for self-affirmation in the face of the white cultural domination…of re-symbolising what the racist system considers negative in positive…, of creating solidarities in the political struggle and knowing they are similar to others alike,”  the lesbian, bisexual, transgender and transsexual Afro-feminists have not become organised, since they are individuals of similar marginalisation and exclusions, with the gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual men of African descent.

This lack of organisation could be thought of among individuals objectified by similar discriminations like a reproduction of the excluding and hierarchical, dominating and restrictive patriarchal paradigm according to sex, gender and race. A paradigm that facilitates the fragmenting of the marginalised and the excluded, among the men and women forced to practice interiorisation and subordination.

That is why the practical mechanism of the sex-gender-race-social class categories, despite being a part of the structure of violence, could favour alternative dynamics of thinking and liberating relations.

Awakening of Afro-feminism organised in “revolutionary” Cuba: statements

In “socialist” Cuba there has been a late visible presence of feminism. With no extensive knowledge of society, with no understanding and institutional recognition, this makes it difficult to project ourselves, independently, as feminists.

Cuban society is one in which the logic of the patriarchal system has deep roots, not revived.

An official policy toward Cuban women has existed that incorporates their histories according to their ethno-racial belongings. That is something that almost exclusively is pointed out by us Afro-feminists.

 “We Cuban black women have our own history,”  Afro-feminist expert and narrator Inés María Martiatu affirmed. Many women coincide with this.

At more than 70 years old, Martiatu was immersed in dissimilar projects. With her colleague Daysi Rubiera, also an Afro-feminist, she compiled the volume Afrocubanas (Afro-Cuban women) . They summarised for the first time speeches and narratives constructed by Cuban experts, fundamentally Afro-Cuban women, from the end of the 19th century to the present.

Despite the lack of understanding suffered in a socio-political space in which anti-black racism was not completely accepted, there were women among the Cuban Afro-feminists who try to begin approaching it.

The year 2013 started with the news that there would be a monthly gathering-workshop in Havana about gender and race. The idea was to discuss in depth the training on gender and feminism based on the racial focus.

In general, we Cuban African descendant women expressed feminism in the professional discourse and in life itself in an independent way.

The fact that women and men, heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and transsexuals suffer racism in different ways, though they can have common elements, is not something accepted and understood by all of Cuban society or by the Cuban black population.

This awakens suspicions based on mutual lack of knowledge that come from the distances with which we have treated ourselves in our plurality of ethnic positions in the interior of the community of African descendants; suspicions that create all types of lack of understanding.

Sensibilities are triggered in the face of the possibility of any connection.

A lack of understanding of this type took place recently when an Afro-feminist journalist included in her blog her observations and assessments about a meeting focused on the subject of the Abakuás.

Identity-sex-gender-race- social class. The Abakuá Society

The Abakuá Society is made up by men who have to be heterosexual. Coming from western Africa, this society was only reproduced in Cuba in the cities of Matanzas and Havana. Its public activities can have the presence of women. Since it is a male group, the activities of its members exclusively correspond to men.

It is risky to affirm that its members are more or less sexists (male chauvinists) and misogynist than the rest of their fellow countrymen.

But an old and colonialist association between sex, gender, race and social class, together with the reproduction in the visualisation of the stereotype, entraps the Abakuás in the collective image as “tough men,” violent, murderers, extremely male chauvinists.

The extreme violence that was committed against its members could gravitate in the image we socially receive of the Abakuás and in the stereotyped image that some of them have decided to project.  

They were African men, brought by force to the island, as slaves or legally free blacks but submitted to the harshest jobs, to ethnic-racial discrimination and socioeconomic, cultural and political marginalisation. Later they would be reduced, like all of the African diaspora, to the condition of subordinates and this false dependence with their racial characteristic and Afro-cultural idiosyncrasy would be established.

Their being obligated to live in the fringes of society would force them to adopt codes of survival.

Afro-Cuban experts Tato Quiñones and Ramón Torres (the latter an Abakuá) coincide that the Abakuás did not impose their codes on the barrio. The barrio, with its logic of survival in the material poverty influenced by violence, would end up imposing its codes on the Abakuás.

This was a society founded when Africa was going through social relations of a certain symmetry in the sexes, at that tragic historic moment common to all of humanity, starting which the men began their economic, political and cultural imposition.

The founding myth of the Abakuá Society, excellently represented and deconstructed in visual arts by the Afro-Cuban Belkis Ayón – a myth that has as an underlying element the discovery of the so-called Abakuá “secret” by the young African woman Sikan and her sacrifice because of knowledge exclusive to men –, reveals that moment.

Installed in our historic present, the violence of the conclusion of that male conclave is horrifying.

Dispassionately and without the aim of justifying them, resorting to history, we will see similar acts of cruelty in all the cultures. It is natural that, we, who coexist in a natural way with today’s Cuban Abakuás, because they are our brothers in race and culture, got and are still horrified by the founding myth of that group and that we scarcely know of others, equally terrifying.

Returning to the origin of the Abakuás and deconstructing it is so justifiable for us women experts, all the Cuban women, as if gauging the society in which they originated and ours, in which they live on. A colonial society in which the dissimilitude of ethnic groups and African ethnic groups, brought  over by force and coexisting by force, must have secured existential resources to survive without fateful emotional and psychological breakdowns.

The elements that provided stability would come from their cultures, the only African aspect they would treasure. The continuity and discontinuities that came up in them express the will of Africans and African descendants. Moreover, they express the manners of exercising the colonial political power, the characteristics of the sociological environment in the making and the social structure that was being created.

The Abakuá Society is part of those elements of stability. Its masculine character came from Africa, where masculine and feminine, religious and secular societies coexist and subsist, by age groups and professions, a form of reaffirming institutionalisation of social segments recurrent in many societies.

The fact that the early confrontation of the Abakuás against the colonial order gained for them the propagandised assertion, by the protagonists of power, of the alleged “violent character” of those men, about whom it has been said that they must have committed “violent crimes,” is not the responsibility of the members of that society; moreover it victimises them, securing their illegitimacy as socio-political individuals.

This doesn’t mean that, like all mistreated social beings forced into exclusion, the Abakuás did not appropriate the stereotype created for them in order to, if they did not have respectability and legitimacy in their macro-social environment, impose an alleged temerity. This is a survival resource used by many sectors that are discriminated against.

At this historic moment of the Cuban nation in construction that we are, it is the social responsibility that corresponds or not to the Abakuás, to everyone of us, of deconstructing the criminal stereotype created of the Abakuás and the African descendants, which has been joined by many, more or less young people, socially maladjusted, be they members of the Abakuá Society or not.

The “revolutionary male chauvinism” has no religion, race or social class

It is everyone’s social responsibility to identify publicly the asymmetric relationship between sexes and genders in our society, in which what I call “revolutionary male chauvinism” is teeming and extending, be it religious or not, no matter the cultural belonging and ethno-racial consciousness.

That is a social dynamic in which we participate, whether we are Abakuás and African descendants or not, whether we have a greater or lesser level of education, whether we inhabit any socioeconomic, political or physical space.  

It is everyone’s duty to struggle to channel our efforts in the process of the deconstruction of our discriminating reality.

The academia, established in the collective imaging as a positive space in resources for analysis, understanding and behaviour, relationally also tends toward male chauvinism. That is a reality generally obviated.

Among Cuban women and men of any skin colour and cultural experience, we are airing power relations that go beyond the limits of our cultural, economic, residential macro-societies; power relations that transverse all our levels and traits of self-assuredness; relations that are going through (though not exclusively) the race-sex-gender-social class articulations and that are being expressed in our multiplicity of identities.  

As a consequence, the current challenge of Cuban society is that of the deconstruction of the “inferiorities”-“superiorities” logical dichotomy. The challenge is the empowering of all women and men. This would germinate in the organisation of new and symmetric accommodations in relations.

The dynamics of deconstructions-constructions that Cuban society is currently living should and could be established in possible means for the deconstructing of the utopian universalities of any type. This would corner the presumptuousness that being a white Cuban is a condition of superiority and that being a black Cuban is that of inferiority.

Those are dynamics that today battle, with reluctances and oppositions, to become established in the assessment of the differences like enrichment and of equality without egalitarianism as a concept of justice. They must be dynamics that generate intra, extra and intercommunity solidarities, whose principle of social structuring is authority and not power, always forcer by oppressor, dominator.

Those dynamics have to cross areas of silence and negations, of which the controversies and the multiplicity of spaces conceived from resilience or renovation form part; spaces in which we will and are expressing our sensibilities, fears, anxieties, needs and frustrations.

That is what today, individually or collectively, we Afro-feminists are trying to do without questioning power, the macro-social institutionalism, the academia, etc., as well as questioning ourselves among ourselves.

Positioning in new and conciliatory ways of relating, the Afro-feminists would become aware that it is as important to demand our rights from the symmetry of gender and sex as it is to demand the asymmetries of plurality of expressions of ideological policies manifested among us.

We must become aware that it is as important to make visible the Afro-Cuban women founders of the nation as it is to demand equal treatment for the Afro-Cuban women of today, as dissident individuals, opponents of the political system or anti-establishment, are contemptuously and publicly described by their male and female detractors as “black monkeys.”

But that is the ethno-racial and political violence that currently is presently causing the notorious social alarm.

The new performances must start happening to the extent that we revisit the narratives that have been set for us as “national,” while we disarticulate them, if necessary, and rearticulate others.

Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak describes as “strategic essentialism”  the circumstantial solidarity between subjects with different ways of thinking in favour of an action imposed on them.

It could happen that the essay of articulation among men and women, among heterosexuals, bisexuals, gays, lesbians, transsexuals and transgenders, among feminists, Afro-feminists, among experts on the Cuban ethno-racial subject, taking as the main aspect the diversity of generic identities based on the “strategic essentialism,” contributes to the mobility of subjectivities and consciences; of that that solely corresponds to each one, but which we construct socially and express articulating the word and the gesture.

The challenge of subverting discourses and institutionalism based on gender

Those who usurp causes for their benefit become paradigms of negativities who receive the disapproval of their fellow nationals with an ethical conscience. But they manipulate those who, having good intentions, lack Independence of thought or are pusillanimous.

In this way the lack of communication can survive.

The challenge consists in persevering, trying to arm ourselves with the appropriate resources to issue and receive messages, making an effort so that both actions are appropriate to achieve effectiveness.

Persevering contains the challenge of being aware “that one’s authentic space does not have words.”  We have to find the ones that are appropriate to mean it and explain it or we would be left at the mercy of the designated “spokespersons.”

We would fall in the hands of false leaders, of any sex, gender, culture, race and class. Unscrupulous figures designated or self-designated as “leaders” who, for their benefit, make a profit from the causes of those turned into subordinates.

Currently the effort being made is in the challenge of perseverance with the dominating discourses, including the discourses that sustain the patriarchal power.

A Cuban woman university professor, an expert on the disproportion in employment between women and men in an agricultural cooperative in the province of Matanzas, recently affirmed: “Neither can we feminise power.”

The professor said that 20 women worked in that agricultural cooperative in service jobs (elaboration of food and cleaning). The figure paled as compared to the 162 men linked to production and administration.

It stands out that the professor was not aware that the identity essentialism is a natural stage present in the empowerment of any group discriminated against.  

That position expresses her victimisation by the patriarchal prejudices. What she specifies in her disturbing affirmation, that women in the studied area continue having a high index as housewives, is “because that is what they want to do, and we cannot get involved in this.”

It is disconcerting that an expert on the asymmetries between sexes and genders does not consider whether those women have had options before “choosing” to be non-remunerated servants of their families. It is disturbing that the expert does not consider, or does not highlight, the patriarchal education that conditions women for the non-criticised reproduction of the stereotype of the docile laboriously and familiarly sacrificed woman that, for us women, was constructed by male power.

But…“it takes all shorts to make the world”….

The expressions in the discourses of those who play a leading role in power, of traditional and radical contents or of re-updating and liberal appearances, go hand in hand with the discourses that supposedly are subverting that power: from the radicals who project a parallel institutional reality for women, to those who aim to articulate themselves in the reality existing in the system of domination to try to weaken and deconstruct it.

In their actions for the visualisation of other masculinities and the construction of new masculinities, men and women immersed in the studies on traditional masculinities make discourses constructed for the sake of the deconstruction of the patriarchal power.

Actions aimed at assessing other masculinities in the midst of the diversity of genders and new and symmetric masculinities with respect to femininities, are included in the studies of Cuban historian Julio Cesar Pagés. His work has started placing emphasis on masculinities in some circles of the island’s academia. The Oscar Arnulfo Romero Reflection Group, of Catholic origin and of macro-ecumenical currency, has inserted itself in the subject with workshops, lectures and seminars.

Other views on sexual diversity and gender are offered of activists and anti-establishment persons, as well as those openly opposed to the political regime.

Art: possible space for destroying sex and gender discriminatory discourses  

Societies need autonomous, alternative spaces in which and through which the rise and fall of knowledge, intellectual experiences and practices are reflected. They are spaces for collective learning to complement the differences.

They can be spaces of resistance, rejection and struggle against the manifestations of misogyny. Constantly present without being identified, they are excluded from criticism.
The artistic manifestations are part of those alternative spaces, but should not be the only ones. The concurrence in them is not massive, nor does art per se deconstruct subjectivities. Its role of mobilising consciences on occasions is exaggerated.   

Art can carry and strengthen stereotypes. On a par and with other educational means, it can lead to its imbalance. It should be taken into account that art does not always mobilise images that are popularised and that transcend, its possibilities of social influence being restricted.  

How many persons in Cuba know the visual art work of Afro-Cuban artist Belkis Ayón?

But the result of her work is artistically and socially important. It has a profound ethno-social and gender content. It is a re-meaning of the images so that they impose themselves on the patterns of male power in Afro-religious cults like the Abakuás, of a deep masculine conception.

The aim of her work is not the feminisation of the Abakuás. It does visualise women in that space, thought of and cultivated as masculine. Thus her work, which far from attacking the foundation of that Society, symbolically leads to the socially naturalised and legitimised misogynic thinking when it travels along the paths that discover other logics, in terms of parity and of autonomy more than of power and sexism.

How many persons in Cuba know the work of the national rappers who transgress the discourse that supports the social structure?

Magia, Las Krudas Kubensi and other women rappers, recreating in terms of language the content that the white, ethnic, racist and sexist power considers the category of “black women,” are a scarcely visualised reality in present-day Cuban society. They have been denied their transcendence by the political-cultural structure that does not conceive spaces for the creation of a new positive meaning of the stereotyped patterns.

Here lies the contradiction in the exaggerated visualisation of the reguetón, with its corresponding negative and reproducing representations of asymmetric relations between the sexes, in the face of the quasi censorship imposed on rap, especially rap with a more revolutionary content, subverter, for example, of the stereotype of persons of African descent and black women.

Need for spaces to deconstruct colonial discourses

There is a pressing need to expand and diversify the spaces for the construction and deconstruction of knowledge, of its issuing, of its socialisation and of opinions.  

Even though so many experts on the island reject the role of the catharsis, the new and already existing spaces must not evade their psychosocial role. It is an instrument of social stability, an agent for the channelling of contained angers that, if they do not have an appropriate outlet, would culminate in violence.

Cuban society, full of uncared for wounds, has to care for them to the extent that, pressed by time and material and moral shortages, it continues toward other stages of its development.  

There is a pressing need for public scenarios to relate in, from and among differences. Scenarios of applied pedagogy where individuals grow based on their self-recognition, the identification with persons similar to them and the interrelation with the ones who are (more or less) different.

Centres like El Mejunje, in Santa Clara, where independently of their sexes and gender expressions, everyone finds a place based on respect, are going in that direction, but with exceptions.

Discussion forums are fundamental at all social levels, articulated in a diversity of themes that could concern everyone and serve as connection because of their macro- and micro-social meanings.

The few (marginal and/or excluding) that exist must take care of their perseverance. Make sure that they function as spaces in which honest and unbiased exchanges are truly cultivated. Socially and politically they must have decisive interventions and gain in independence in order to achieve the socialisation of their results.

This would have a bearing on their liberation from politically imposed censorships and self-censorships that weigh down the academia, all of society. It is necessary to make people listen, the decision makers, the heterogeneous voices that in those spaces are projected.

That is almost the only possibility of fulfilling their mission as social individuals in our closed societies, those of us who devote ourselves to social sciences, as auxiliary participants or activists of the deconstruction of realities of all type of social asymmetries.

The systematic work of the media is of capital importance. Present in those spaces only by exception, they also have very few trained personnel to be interested and give follow up to that problem.

I close this epilogue thinking out loud. Modupue(let it be so), I think/repeat/write.

I join, generally with the written word more than with speech, the critical exercise of the colleagues participating in some forums that continue being held quasi underground; those of us who, exceptionally, are invited, because the reflection spaces in Cuba are eternalised as closed reserves and monopolised by the voices of the discursive unilateralism of the moment. (2013)

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