and heteronormativity disciplining spaces
“When he comes home, dinner is ready for him, and when he gets
up, Mom fixes him breakfast, kisses him, gives him his cup of coffee and his
lunch. And she’s waiting for him when he comes home. The discipline is all
handled by him, you know? He comes home, Mom says, “Quixote did this, Pancho
did that.” (Long, 2017)
Sounds too familiar? Understanding patriarchy and
heteronormativity through the roles played by fathers, brothers or any other
male member of a family or people in power in the government, schools,
military, etc, who are in-charge of ‘power’, highlights the broader
implications of the terms.
A woman’s journey to the life of oppression begins right from
the time she is in the womb. In countries like, India, Pakistan, China, where
female foeticide is rampant, the birth of the girl child depends upon the head,
i.e. man of the family, who is under a pressure from the society to produce
male heirs for his family.
If the child is given the right to birth, then this is just the
beginning of her journey to a world where men control women showing supremacy.
Spaces like home, educational institutions, religious places, shops, work
space, public transport, etc. are all male-dominated and does not welcome
women. Right from deciding what clothes she should wear, to how she must
sit/talk/eat/conduct herself in various public spaces, is all decided by the
heteronormative structure of our society.
During the second wave of feminism, patriarchy was called a
problematic discourse. Patriarchy designates power and structural dominance by
men over women and children and family is often considered “patriarchy’s main
paradigm” (Long, 2017)
“Patriarchy is defined as a system of social structures and
practices, in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women.” (Walby, 1990)
The patriarchal systems privileges masculinity and marginalises
critical feminist voices, says Cynthia Enloe (2004) “Home has its own spatial
So many power structures – inside households, within
institutions, in societies, international affairs are dependent on our lack of
curiosity. “Natural”, “tradition”, “always”: each has served as a cultural
pillar to prop up familial, community, national and international structures,
imbuing them with legitimacy, with timelessness, with inevitability. Any power
arrangement that is imagined to be legitimate, timeless and inevitable is pretty
Cynthia (2004) argues that all kinds of social systems can
become patriarchal. Patriarchal inclinations can be found in families, schools,
religious organisations, militaries, offices and most of the time it goes
unquestioned and is considered to be natural.
She makes an interesting point that patriarchal systems trick
women into it, making them feel protected and secure and in return, they
maintain the gendered hierarchies, to make the masculinised people look
powerful, rational and in control.
The long-standing assumption of home being a safe space and home
as a ‘social construct’ is just a bubble created by patriarchy. The dominant
social structures of patriarchy and heteronormativity is so deeply imbibed in
our society that it expects all its participants, especially women, to be
heterosexuals, marry, bear children and perform their ‘duties’ as assigned by
this system, without questioning it.
In societies, women either had minimum or no rights to inherit
money or property if their father or spouse had passed away; moreover it was
almost impossible for women to get a divorce, even if their spouse abused them
mentally or physically and also if he had an affair which was rather common in
Mary Holmes in her book Gender and Everyday life (2009), argues,
“We live within a patriarchy, a society largely controlled by men and in which
men usually have a greater share of the rewards both in terms of wealth and
status, which are available. Even if men are uncomfortable with this and would
like to change it, they still benefit from living within a male dominated
society. Sociologists have noted that gender is a major boundary around which
resources and prestige and power are divided, with the majority of women often
struggling to keep control over their lives.
Patriarchy, thus, has contributed to the oppression of women in
public and private spaces. Cultural norms in many societies are identified by
patriarchy, like men holding decision-making positions and controlling women,
which also leads to imply that the work done by men or the offices held by men
are more important and hold more value than the work done by the women. Even if
a woman becomes financially independent, it this system that stops them from
enjoying a equal status with men in the society.
Patriarchy is therefore an ideology which justifies the men
dominating over women in various walks of life, thus, making a larger share of
resources available to men at the cost of women. It all starts from home, and
travels beyond the familial boundaries, to the public life and workplace.
Thus, patriarchal structures characterise even the economic,
political and religious organizations, where men are the decision makers and at
the helm of affairs, while women are placed at the bottom of power hierarchy. For
example, in India, all the major political parties are patriarchal in the sense
that barring a handful of women, are headed by men. All religious organizations
are headed by men to an extent that at some places of worship, women are even
debarred from entering many places of worship as they may ‘pollute’ the sanctum
sanctorum of a ‘pure’ place.
Private patriarchy is based upon household production, with a
patriarch controlling women individually and directly in the relatively private
sphere of the home. Public patriarchy is based on structures other than
household, although this may still be a significant patriarchal site. Rather,
institutions conventionally regarded as a part of the public domain are central
in the maintenance of patriarchy (Walby, 1990)
Heteronormativity is a term used to keep patriarchy and
heterosexuality in place and also ideologies like casteism, racism, religious
fundamentalism and so on. The institutions, structures of understanding and
practical orientations make heterosexuality seem not only coherent – that is,
organised as a sexuality – but also privileged.
Heteronormativity establishes a heterosexual/ homosexual
hierarchy and creates hierarchies among heterosexualities’ resulting in
‘hegemonic and subordinate forms of heterosexuality’.
From private to public spaces, heteronormativity and patriarchy
dominate each action and practice by the participants present in those spaces.
They always emphasise on doing and practicing things that are ‘normal’.
As Mama (2001) argues in her essay, domestication of women is
the “benevolent” side of patriarchy.
Girls from the very childhood are taught to internalizing the
feminine traits, e.g. submissiveness, emotiveness, tenderness, modesty,
patience and the like, whereas boys are encouraged to be assertive, dominating,
aggressive, competitive and ambitious. Thus, a boy acquires masculinity while a
girl acquires femininity in the process of socialization.
In countries like India, patriarchy is so deeply-rooted in the
society that it has given birth to evil practices like female foeticide, honour
killings, domestic violence and dowry deaths.
Men from the Indian city of Haryana travel across the country to
find a bride for themselves. The reason behind this: there are no women left in
their villages. No, the women did not vanish overnight. Years of sex
determination tests and female foeticide has resulted in this situation.
The decline in the sex ratio in the country is alarming. A
report by Huffington post says that the ratio of young women in India will
drastically decrease by 2031.
A country where the girl child is considered a burden on the
society, because women do not contribute to the income of the households and
are considered economically dependent. Also, the dowry practice, still
prevalent in India, means that more money will be required to fulfil the needs
of dowry if there are more girls in the household. This has also given rise to
the cases of child marriages, where parents get their daughters married at a
very young age to get rid of the economic burden. (Chatterji, 2017)
In many cases, when the mother cannot abort the girl child, to
escape the shame and torture at the hands of husband and the in-laws, she
abandons the girl-child. This is yet another ugly face of the patriarchy system
which controls a women’s body and controls the existence of a girl child.
A well-planned sex-selective abortion racket is thriving in the
country. There are heart-rendering stories when one searches for the topic
female foeticide online. The recent one being the 19 female foetuses found
discarded in plastic bags outside a hospital. (DW, 2017)
A girl child in the Indian society does not even have the right
to life if she does not have the consent of the male members of the family.
This has also impacted the maternal mortality rate in the country.
These domestic abusers, who are all men, justify their actions
by talking about the patriarchal notions of male ownership. The thought that
they have ‘right’ over the woman and they need to control them. It is basically
an ‘issue of sexism’ (Redfern and Aune, 2010)
Marriages in India, is mostly seen as being given away (like a
property). Wives are expected to change their names, but the man is never asked
to do the same, is just one of the examples how patriarchy rules our lives.
Honour killing is another horror introduced by the patriarchal
society where the family ‘has the right’ to kill the woman if she brings shame
to the family by breaking any principles of the community or religion, usually
for not marrying the person of their choice, getting into a love marriage,
wearing clothes not considered appropriate by the society or engaging in
India has registered an almost 800 percent rise in the number of
killings in the name of “honour” reported last year, according to figures
presented in parliament. Indian police registered 251 cases of honour killings in 2015,
compared with 28 cases reported in 2014 when the government began counting them
separately from murder. (Al Jazeera, 2016)
Control over gay, lesbian spaces
Searching for our place in homes, neighbourhood, city, country
or world, we, humans are always looking for safety and comfort. Dominated by
the heteronormative system, these spaces in our cities, countries and buildings
are gender, class or race-based. (Cottrill, 2006)
As Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner define
Heteronormativity is more than an ideology, or prejudice, or
phobia against gays and lesbians and queers; it is produced in almost every
aspect of the forms and arrangements of social life: nationality, the state,
and the law; commerce; medicine; and education; as well as in the conventions
and affects of narrativity, romance, and other protected spaces of culture.
The term queer has been omitted from this definition. The terms
gay and lesbian are used instead of ‘queer’ to define heteronormativity.
However, heteronormativity places itself in opposition of all queer people.
Talking about workplaces, the ways in which work ‘spaces’ are
disciplined is by controlling the physical appearance of gays and lesbians through
A short story written by Psychologist Catherine Butler, was
eventually produced as a film, called ‘homoworld’. This is a story which
focuses on how our society would look like if heteronormativity is revered. If
being gay and lesbian is seen as ‘normal’ and heterosexuality is something see
as strange and peculiar. The story highlights the emotions and the struggle one
has to go through when they are not accepted as the part of the ‘normal’
society. The stress that a homosexual person goes through about coming out or
to live with a fake identity. The trauma that they go through thinking about
the rejection and shame they might have to face, has been reversed in the film.
It is an interesting watch for people who fail to understand the struggle faced
Lesbian space disassociates itself with sex and sexuality.
Hutchison sees sex as limiting, allowing heternormatives to associate queers
only with sex. This association leads to marginalization and not empowerment. It is empowerment, through claiming
territory, that creates lesbian pace. (Cottrill, 2006)
“Gender is not what culture created out of my body’s sex;
rather; sex is what culture makes when it genders my body.”
transgender activist, quoted in Surya Monro 2005, Gender Politics: Citizenship,
Activism and Sexual Diversity, London: Pluto Press, p30
“It is argued that lesbians can feel ‘out of place’ in
environments such as the workplace or hotels, because these spaces are
organised and appropriated by heterosexuals and so express and reproduce
asymmetrical socio-sexual relations. Consideration is also given to the way
heterosexual hegemony is reproduced and expressed in space through antigay discrimination
and violence. In the conclusion, the author explores the way in which fear of
disclosure and antigay abuse inhibit the expression of lesbian and gay
sexualities in everyday spaces and so feed the spatial supremacy of
heterosexuality. (Valentine, 2017)
position of women in the patriarchal society can be compared to that of a
commodity. As mothers, wives, virgins and prostitutes, women are the objects of
physical and metaphorical exchange among men. (Fyfe, 1998)
The underrepresentation of women’s body and experience in the
spatial structures, creates a possible setting for subordination and
exploitation. This spatial marginalisation of women in the architectural
appropriation of space sustains the unquestioned operation of patriarchal power
in the process of framing human activities, movement, bodily practice and
gendered relation. (Lico, 2001)
Ann Oakley (1972) a pioneer in exposing the social construction
of gender in light of the huge cross cultural variations across the world,
argues that people learn the normal ways to act feminine or
masculine in their society through socialization processes. She borrowed the
term gender from the 1960s work of Robert Stoller, a psychiatrist.
Oakley argues that early socialization of children within the family is
especially important in teaching people to act in ways thought appropriate for
their gender. As soon as a baby is born people treat it differently and expect
it to act differently depending on whether it is a boy or a girl. Girls tend to
be treated as more delicate and dependent, while boys are treated as more
robust and independent. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1t88xpn)
Getting rid of sexual constraints on women and LGBT community can
be seen as an improvement in women’s rights. The countries which are considered
most unsafe are usually the ones with no sexual freedom. When someone’s
sexuality is controlled, it is assumed that she can be harassed, disrespected or
raped. Also, it is high time that the definition of ‘normal’ is changed and
respecting spaces of people of different sexualities should be made normal.
Groped, grabbed, catcalled, slut-shamed, avoided quiet streets,
downloaded various women safety apps that claim to reach out to you just at the
tap of a button, kept family members updated about my whereabouts, shared
locations via mobile with my parents, carried pepper spray in my bag while
commuting to work, ‘covered myself properly’ to avoid any unwanted attention on
the streets or at work, I have been through all of this, and many other women I
know have done this too. The question is not just occupying or sharing a public
space, but occupying it on our own terms. The patriarchal stigma forbids us from
doing so. Doing it means, get ready to face harassment and discrimination.
Yes, we are living in a post-feminist world.