Liberal Dilemmas

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 26 June 2021

I have always seen myself as a liberal. However, increasingly I feel confused when I am faced with competing liberal values and I am not sure, which one should be chosen and why. Most of the times, the more I try to read and understand about a subject, the more complex it seems to become, and in the end, it leaves me frustrated because I can’t make any decision.

Guwahati LGBT Pride Parade 2015 - Image by Sunil Deepak

So, lately I am not very sure, what kind of liberal I am or if I am really a liberal! One thing is sure, compared to some people’s certainties, I am a sand-castle whose walls fly off in all directions at the first sign of the wind.

Liberal Struggles in the Past

The identity struggles in the past were simpler. For example, fighting for the LGBT rights use to mean that countries had to accept persons who identified themselves as LGBT, that they were citizens like everyone else. Those struggles are still not over in many parts of the world. For example, in some countries, to be gay or lesbian can lead to blackmail, rape, prison, torture and even death. In addition to the specific anti-LGBT laws, in some countries, it is socially accepted that families and communities can force them into marriages, undergo conversion therapies, get raped or even be killed.

Countries which accept the individuals with different sexual orientations, might have other struggles. For example, their right to live with or to get married to the person of their choice.

Often, most of the liberal struggles were for limiting the role of religions and traditions, for example, when these impacted the lives of women and other marginalised groups such as "lower" castes.

New Directions of the Liberal Struggles

Over the past couple of decades, those fights for the rights have gone into new directions. Often, in these fights, the rights of one group of persons start competing with another, and we have to decide which rights are more important.

One big arena of fight is about the words we use to talk about things, especially in English. Thus, it is no longer about the intention of the persons, or their histories of work in challenging the oppression and marginalisation of people – the moment they use “undesirable” words, they can be attacked viciously, even to the point of destroying their reputations, jobs and lives. Every time this happens, it leaves me dismayed. However, this article is not about use of politically correct language.

Instead, in this post I want to share some of my doubts about some other liberal values - gender identities, religious/cultural identities, women’s rights and the rights of the persons with disabilities. Let me start with the dilemmas about gender identities in sport.

Identities and Sports

In the coming Olympics to be held in Tokyo, the New Zealand’s women’s weight-lifting team is going to include Laurel Hubbard, who is now a transgender woman. 43 years old Laurel had transitioned to become a woman in 2013. In the past, she had participated in other Olympic games as a man. Many women weight-lifter teams from other countries are protesting against her inclusion since they feel that she will have unfair advantage.

Another story is that of Santhi Soundarajan, a middle-distance runner from Tamil Nadu in India. In 2006, when she was 25 years old, her silver medal in the Asian Games was revoked because her DNA test had shown that instead of the “XX” chromosomes of women, she had “XXY” chromosomes. It didn't matter that Santhi had grown up as a woman and had no idea about being genetically an intersexual person.

How do you feel about the stories of Laurel and Santhi?

We have separate sports competitions for men and women, because men and women have different bones and muscles because of their hormones. Somewhat similar logic is used for the participation of persons with disabilities in sports – separate sport events are organised for them and they are asked to compete against other persons with disabilities, for example in Paralympics.

So, a person who has grown up with male hormones with a certain kind of bones, muscles and bodies, and who decides to transition to become a woman, should compete against other women or men? Women protesting against Laurel’s inclusion should be seen as persons’ fighting for women’s rights or as trans-phobic?

I have not seen similar discussions around trans-men's participation in sports. Many of them take the male hormone (testosterone) as part of their transitioning while its use is prohibited among male athletes. So, would trans-men be automatically disqualified from participation in Olympics and Paralympics?

Defining the identity

There are many on-going debates around issues of gender and sexual identities. For example, in some countries, transgender persons when they transition, can ask to be legally recognised as a man or as a woman.

In many countries, women transitioning to become a man must get operated to remove their uterus before they can be legally recognised as a man, while men transitioning to become a woman must get their testicles removed before they are legally recognised as a woman. This is done to avoid that a legally recognised man can become pregnant or a legally recognised woman can father a child.

However, many transgender persons feel that they have a right over their bodies and being transgender is about how they feel in their hearts and not about compulsory removing of their body parts. Thus, there are trans-men who have their uterus and trans-women with male genitals, and both these groups are fighting for the right to be legally recognised as men and women. On the other hand, some other trans-men and women, who have been through operations and have got legal recognition, feel that it is problematic if for being recognised as a trans person it is enough only to declare that you are.

There are also debates about “real woman” versus “transgender woman”. Last year, in June 2020, a huge controversy had erupted about an essay written by the writer J. K. Rollings, who was called trans-phobic for differentiating between women and trans-women. Some weeks ago, Nigerian author Adichie Chimamanda has also been criticised for the same reason.

Guwahati LGBT Pride Parade 2015 - Image by Sunil Deepak

These discussions about trans-women and biological women have implications for another liberal value – the respect for diversity. When we ask for trans-women to be seen as women, are we asking for negating the diversity of their experiences? The struggle for recognition of diversities has become very complex over the years. For example, many groups feel that the term “LGBT” is restrictive. Some ask that we should use the acronym LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans-sexual, Queer, Inter-sexual and Asexual), others prefer LGBTQ+. Some persons do not feel comfortable in any of these labels, they feel that they are somewhere in between. Some feel that their gender identity is fluid and can change, so occasionally they might fit one label, but not always.

So, which liberal value is more important - equality or diversity?

Religions, Traditions and Modernity

I grew up surrounded by discussions about patriarchy and women’s rights. In those discussions, the traditional Hindu wife, her face covered with her sari or a scarf, walking two steps behind her husband, was a symbol of women’s oppression under the guise of traditions. We agreed that women have a right to dress as they wish, choose the profession or work they like and marry the person they wish to. In those discussions, fights against the traditions were not seen as fights against the religions and in my mind, those discussions applied to all the religions. Thus, the fight for a common civil code, a uniform law that applies to all the persons of different religions in multi-religious societies, was seen as an important liberal value.

Over the past couple of decades, such discussions have become more problematic. For example, the ban on wearing of full veil covering the face among Muslim women in some countries of Europe. The liberal position has sided mostly with the more orthodox groups by insisting that “Hijab and veils are cultural symbols and a free choice of Muslim women”. However, discussions with the cultural mediators working in immigrant communities show that peer, family and community pressures and expectations play a large role in use of veils and hijabs, and sometimes, young girls face violence for rebelling against those pressures.

For example, Italy has a large Pakistani immigrant community. A couple of weeks ago, a young girl of Pakistani origin went missing while she was rebelling against family pressures. Police suspects that she was killed while the rest of the family went back to Pakistan. Debates among the Pakistani community on this theme underline the difficulties of talking about women's attempts to escape the social control on how they dress and the persons they wish to marry. Some girls insist that modest dressing including hijab is their free choice; others, usually men, at best talk of "not washing our dirty laundry in public because there is already so much discrimination against us" and at worst, threaten the few dissenting voices about the perils of not obeying the "fundamental values of our religion/culture".

Similar dilemmas face immigrants from Africa. Black persons in Europe are often stereotyped as drug peddlers and criminals. At the same time, many black women face domestic violence. Liberals often refuse to raise the issue of violence experienced by black women for not reinforcing negative stereotypes against the black communities.

Thus, how do we talk about the negative stereotyping faced by Muslims or blacks in Europe, without closing our eyes to rise in conservative Muslim forces which increasingly force women and LGBT persons into silence or the black women victims of domestic violence? Is there a way to talk about one without negating the other?

The Right of Choice and the Right to Life

The women’s right of choice to say no to unwanted pregnancies and to have safe spaces for abortion was another of the progressive struggle with which I had grown up with. When I read about conservative groups, which oppose women’s right to have safe abortion, because their church says so or because Bible says so, I have no doubts about which side I am on – I support women’s right to make the choice.

However, over the past decade, increasingly there are groups of persons with disabilities, which fight for the right of children with disabilities to be born and not be aborted. For example, one of the common reasons for abortion is when tests show that the child will be born with a disability such as Down’s Syndrome.

So, should we continue to support women’s right over their bodies and their wombs and only they can choose if they wish to go ahead with a pregnancy or should we be on the side of persons with disabilities asking for life for children with disabilities?

In the End

There are no easy or blanket answers to these dilemmas. At the same time, I feel that it is important that we continue to talk about them, without being trolled or called names by those who feel that they already have the answers.

Guwahati LGBT Pride Parade 2015 - Image by Sunil Deepak

Let me conclude with a couple of additional issues, which I believe are important liberal values – (1) not labelling people, and accepting nuances and complexities of peoples’ beliefs and affiliations; and (2) freedom of expression.

The moment we say something, there are people waiting to stick labels to our foreheads – right wing, left wing, fascist, communist, follower of this or that. I find this extremely tiring. I refuse to label people and I try to have a dialogue with everyone - when I find that I don’t like some of their positions or opinions, I can always ignore them. My motto is "the world is big and there is enough place here for people who don't think like me."

Finally, I believe in freedom of expression, even of people with whom I do not agree, as long as they are not actively inciting violence. I believe in people’s right to raise questions about every thing including religions, gods, and prophets. I do not agree with trolls and fundamentalists who want to cancel all the voices they don’t like.

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Note 01: The images used in this essay are from the Guwahati (Assam, India) LGBT Pride Parade in 2015. I agree that this article is not just about LGBT groups and is more focused on Europe than on India. Still, as I have some very fond memories of my stay in Guwahati and a few interactions I had with the LGBT groups there, I have decided to mix the two. The images have been transformed in sketches through the free online Lunapic editor.

Note 02: This blog does not have the possibility of commenting on the posts. This is not because I do not like interacting with my readers - I do. However, not having comments on this website, makes it easier for me to manage it. You can Comment through the Facebook Page or send me an email or have a dialogue with me on Twitter. You can also follow me on Instagram.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
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Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com