My Body is My Instrument

I have two eyes, a tongue, a nose, and a pair of lips –
Uncircumcised –
I see ethnicities, speak of my own, taste the soils and whimper
My womb is an oven – for cookies, bread, rice and lentils
It doesn’t need
semen wisdom to fire it;
a wooden match stick would do – for 15 men
and 10 women –
but a Zippo lighter is welcome too.

My Urdu tones do not
forsake the law of my mother,
my androgyny does not
fail the instructions
of my father.
The colourful chords (on my cunt, limbs and breasts)
are           bruises –
I got them while rescuing myself
from vaudeville entertainers and thieves
who did not know

I grew old escaping them
climbing over that steel fence          again and again
reaching out for that manual
to teach myself the art of music again –
On this package, read:
“Fragile – handle with care, fuckers
The bruises are still purple.”

Ins Kromminga: A Conversation

Below are excerpts from an interview I did in November, 2009, with a fascinating artist and activist, Ins Kromminga, who initiated a process in me, simple and obvious, and yet complicated and hardly ever embarked upon vis-à-vis the politics of gender and sexuality. Ins has challenged the routine of the politics we engage in and the worldview we sometimes unintentionally take for granted and thus make static.

Ins Kromminga was the guest artist at the Nigah Queer fest ’09. The fest, which has partially collaborated with the Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, for the past two years has invited one artist from Germany each year. Ins Kromminga is an artist and activist who works on a range of issues concerning intersex persons. He/She is the German spokesperson for the Organisation of Intersex International. I whisked him/her away for a while during the Nigah picnic, at Nehru Park in Delhi, the closing event of the fest this year. Below are Kromminga’s opinions on intersex persons’ issues and the role of art in the same.

Ponni Arasu: What is “intersex”?

Ins Kromminga: I will try and explain this complex aspect in as simple a form as possible. It is a form of bodily reality where a person’s body integrates parts that are usually considered to be “female” and “male”. This can be at multiple levels. It can be in the genitalia, chromosomes, and the genetic system on the whole and so on. There are many variations in this continuum. Medical science has identified eight categories to determine any human being’s sex and all persons have to fit within these to make a clear-cut call on a person’s gender. Continue reading “Ins Kromminga: A Conversation”

Elle Woods: On the Other Side of Oppression

As a pro-feminist queer who whole-heartedly endorses radical feminism, I took myself to task for admiring the ‘post-feminist’ film Legally Blonde when I saw it the other day. Is Elle Woods, a bubbly ultra-pink sorority girl who survives the rigors of Harvard Law while being true to herself, an icon of liberation? Or is she just a pop-culture fantasy of a woman who ‘has it all’ – unrealistic, not to mention, anti-feminist, in how she represents an ideal of empowerment that ultimately only caters to male desire?

Both, I would argue. But let’s first bring those readers up to speed who don’t know the radical from the postmodern in their feminism: while the former position holds that femininity and masculinity are effects of structural oppression and privilege respectively, the latter, valorizing agency over structure, recognizes the plurality of ways in which we can be feminine or masculine, none belonging exclusively on one side of any dichotomy that we can think of. While radfems think of femininity as a handicap to self-actualization, post-feminists do not want to fix the meaning of femininity, positing it instead as an unstable, shifting construct.

Of course it’s difficult to endorse Elle Woods as some ground-breaking icon of anti-establishmentarian feminist ideals given that alpha-femmes like her have always been the favorites of the American entertainment industry. Only now, the trope of feminine-charms comes combined with the trope of empowerment, so much the worse for how that is an even more unattainable ideal for women than traditional femininity. So, nothing liberating about that. But central to the plot is Elle’s struggle as a lawyer who won’t divest herself of her identity, even though she is competing at a game whose rules have been defined by men. She is no Lady Macbeth who needs spirits to ‘unsex’ her and ‘make thick [her] blood’. The male Professor Callahan who hires her for an internship on an actual courtroom case will not only have to accept her pink, scented resume, but also deal with her rejection of his ‘reason’ which required her to reveal the defendant’s alibi against their wishes. Values of sympathy and sisterhood trumped the courtroom reason, and she won the case without having to resort to the alibi which would have destroyed the defendant’s professional life.

And this, dear cynic, is where I see the potential of liberation in this narrative: the liberation of femininity from associations of dependence and weakness.

The bit of theory I shared above can make sense now. While historically, femininity might have been a tool of oppression in patriarchal culture, it is possible to envision a world beyond oppression, and by extension, one where femininity is not a handicap. When oppression is out, what’s left behind is people’s sense of selves. And isn’t it progressive to encourage people to build an authentic sense of self on their own terms free from undue social pressures? Wasn’t this the principle at the heart of all twentieth-century social movements? So why not extend it to a feminine sense of self? If you’re effeminate, you’re dismissed as frivolous, and your expressiveness and grace are called displays of ‘weakness’ and ‘excessive refinement’. Now how objective is that judgment? And don’t get me wrong: there is no fighting oppression by dolling oneself up and playing nice all the time if that’s all you do. Women lack the agency to be assertive, and changing that should be a goal for feminism to work for. But can’t one be assertive while wearing a lipstick? Obviously it’s more than just about self-presentation: a feminine sense of self can engender an ethos that affirms community, embraces difference, celebrates personal affection and sensitizes rational judgment through emotion.

Lest I be accused of ‘essentialism’, I want to make it clear that these values are ‘feminine’ only in the sense that they are labeled as signs of ’emasculation’ or ‘effeminacy’ in a culture that ennobles the ethos of control and repression of emotion, and privileges competition over cooperation. It’s also telling how the words ‘effeminate’ and ’emasculate’ are used to denote a lack of virility, or manly vigor, while the word for womanly vigor, ‘muliebrity’ is much too obscure, and there is none to denote it’s lack. Such labeling is also used more for gender-nonconforming men. ‘Effeminate’ and ’emasculated’ are almost never used for those born and raised as women: it is reserved for males who shun ideals of virility. So there is a systematic devaluation of femininity in which not only women, but also ‘the sissies’, ‘the fags’ and the ‘queens’, not to mention transsexuals, become degraded. Noteworthy among the various ways in which this plays out is the medicalization of femininity: because of the stereotype of woman-as-week, doctors are twice as likely to be diagnose women with depression, even when they have similar scores on standardized measures of depression or present with identical symptoms.1 Similarly, the referral rates of ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ (now called ‘Gender Incongruence’) have a sex-ratio of 6.6:1 of boys to girls – in other words, if there’s a mismatch between your assigned gender role and your sense of self, you’re more easily pathologized if you identify as feminine.2

For this queer guy, ‘masculine privilege’, in the final analysis, is just a prerogative to be selfish and sloppy. Radical feminism might be able to win that prerogative for women, but those of us who reject virility, irrespective of our assigned genders, let us aim higher: for a different world in which, no longer imbued with a sense of shame and lack, femininity can become an ideal for self-realization, beyond the matrix of oppression and privilege.



1. Callahan, E.J. et al. (1997). “Depression in primary care: patient factors that influence recognition.” Family Medicine, 29: 172-176.

2. Kenneth et al. (1997). “Sex Differences in Referral Rates of Children with Gender Identity Disorder.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 25/3: 217-227.



Being Belindas

The mirror hangs before me
The mirror hangs before me
My long face stares back at me
a pointed chin
whose rounding I dread
A tiny forehead
gleaned from the thick mass
of black hair surrounding it.
At the black hair
now streaked with red
I oscillate between
fascination and nostalgia
The hair, mostly helter-skelter
sometimes, precise in a bun
A glazed eyeball
with its bit of plastic-glas lens
A newly pierced nose–
a shade too large
showing off that li’l bit of green
My ears trying to seek attention
with their multiple studs and rings
which I regard as pets
And a moody mouth.
but on the whole, a face
I can live with.
My skin the colour
of burnt caramel
a thin, supple body
I am unashamedly
in love with.

Bottles and vials lined
in an array on the slab beside me
the daily ritual
of cleansing, toning, conditioning
the creams and the perfumes
the chief kohl that lines my eyes
the earrings in their silver box
the cupboard with its
greater assortment of clothes
than i could ever wear
the occupational hazards
of being a young girl.

Oh Pope, and other misogynists!
We love being Belindas
and Belindas we shall remain
with our bottles and our vials
our bibles and our billet doux
and we rebel against rapes
of our locks and otherwise.
our bodies and their vagaries
and tricks we play with them
are ours.
And not playthings or objects
for your phallus
or that inglorious phallic symbol
your pen.