Thursday, December 08, 2005

What is the first question one asks about a newborn baby? Closer home this may be rephrased as the first question after the ultrasound scan of the fetus. Is gender the one aspect of our identity that defines us more than anything else? Take the gender away and you are not you. Scary thought, huh !!!

Can gender be wished away? More than a century ago, the Bengali writer and feminist Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain had in her thought experiment Sultana's dreams designed Ladyland, a paradise where women after secluding their menfolk in purdah, made use of society's resources to enrich their own lives. Armed with education, science and technology they worked toward a peaceful world. Gender existed, but Sakhawat Hossein relegated the dominant and aggressor sex into the nether world.

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness however is another gedanken experiment that approaches the gender issue from a refreshingly new angle. Rather than plan elaborate plots of gender equality Le Guin does away with the concept altogether. Individuals in her dreamland are not men or women but become so only during a small part of the year to reproduce. This switching back and forth is pretty random so that this month's Tom Cruise could be next month's Catherine Zeta-Jones. Or better still, Rock Hudson.

The plot is set in the planet of Winter where Genly Ai, an agent for the federation of Eukemen is on a trip. His assignment on Winter (also called Gethen in the language of its own people) is to convince Gethenians to join Eukemen, a collective federation of many worlds. Two dualities are missing on Winter or Gethen. First, Gethen is a planet of one season, that of extreme perpetual cold. Second these citizens have no defined gender so that they are neither male or female. Except when they need to reproduce.

Gethenian sexual physiology is strange. It works in active and inactive cycles. An individual is inactive or somer for 21 or 22 days. On the 22nd day hormonal changes initiated earlier by the pituitary kick in and the individual enters kemmer or active form. If she or he (let's for convenience sake call it IT) finds a partner also in kemmer, hormonal secretion peaks till a male or female physiology is established. It can now either give birth or be the sperm donating parent.

The fact that everyone between 17 and 35 or so is liable to be tied to childbearing implies that no one is quite throughly tied down here as women elsewhere are likely to be. What does this mean? Since a person can have either sexual role in all the kemmers of its lifetime "nobody is quite so free as a male anywhere"

The pluses are many. Because there are no preassigned genders there are no gender roles. Men don't have to work on being macho and women don't need to practice the delicate eye fluttering manoeuvres. Lack of gender means that there are no defined social roles either. No expectations that women have to be the caregivers and men providers. And since everyone can get to be a "mother", childcare is not the job of one gender. There is no gender oppression or subjugation and everyone is free to develop themselves as individuals. Above all one toilet can serve all. As if this is not enough, Gethenian society has no wars or conflicts. The compromised masculine role makes men (when they are men that is) toothless tigers. But it could be the cold too. A tour guide in Canada once told me that his country has had very few wars. "When you're freezing you tend to talk more sense," he had said.

Now the downside. Everyone needs two wardrobes (er....oops make that three namely male, female and neuter). Atleast until Gethen gets its Chairman Mao equivalent. Add to that cosmetics, lotions and the whole shebang. That is until the metrosexual equivalent arrives and both genders share the same make-up kit.

A thought provoking novel The Left Hand of Darkness covers new ground as it shows how evolutionary and social systems can interact in unique ways. It makes us pause and consider what could have been.

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