Gender and sexuality in the classroom
by Mahendran Thiruvarangan
The classroom is believed to be a site that nourishes scholarship, diversity, creativity and dissent. It should facilitate students and teachers of diverse genders and sexual preferences to live out their identities, if they wish to, without hindrance. However, in reality, the classroom, in Sri Lanka, remains a microcosm of the larger society and often re-produces the social hierarchies of gender and sexuality. One’s body, expressions and desires are policed heavily in this space through unwritten codes of conduct entrenched in discourses of gender and sexual normativity. Today’s Kuppi Talk explores how the classroom in the Sri Lankan context remains a space that marginalizes women and LGBTIQ+ persons and what needs to be done to make this space more inclusive.
Teachers and students, who belong to privileged groups and classes, view the classroom as a neutral space. Many of us tend to assume that interactions that happen in the classroom are unaffected by gender-based hierarchies. In academic institutions, heterosexuality is normativized and desires and relationships that fall outside heterosexuality are stigmatized as abnormal, abusive, Western and anti-social. In these spaces, expectations, related to attire, appearance and behaviour, stem from the understanding that there are only two genders – male and female. These expectations imply that the boundaries that separate the two genders are inviolable, and that masculinity and femininity are homogenous expressions unmediated by personal preferences, culture, ethnicity, religion and class.
While physical infrastructure, such as gender-specific staff rooms and bathrooms sometimes provide comfort and security for female students and teachers, such divisions are naturalized and result in the binaristic reification of gender and exclusion of transgenders. Many schools in Sri Lanka still remain uninitiated to conversations about sexual and gender diversity. As a result, adolescents who experience sexual preferences that do not align with cis-hetero norms go through immense agony, their struggles remaining hidden and unrecognized in policy-making.
The cis-heteronormative structures that operate within the classroom prevent LGBTIQ+ persons from expressing their identities openly. They fear facing stigma and isolation, if they openly discuss their identities, desires and preferences.
Thanks to efforts taken in the public sphere to combat homophobia and transphobia, there is an increased number of students and teachers, within our institutions, who openly identify as LGBTIQ persons today. While this is a welcome change, the flipside of such liberating articulations of sexuality is that the rest of the classroom is assumed to be heterosexual and cis-gender. Even as we strive for inclusivity, we have to keep in mind that all genders/sexual orientations are not equally visible. Teachers and students tend to assume that there are no or only a few LGBTIQ+ persons in their classrooms or institutions, whereas the actual numbers can be higher.
Even in the absence of any open signs of LGBTIQ+ presence then, we need to re-create the classroom as a safe and inclusive place for LGBTIQ+ persons. There is a need to assume that there is always someone waiting for safety, solidarity, comfort and acceptance in the classroom, even if that person does not want to express their sexual preferences, or gender, openly.
The curriculum is an arena where questioning of cis-hetero normativity can be encouraged. An LGBTIQ-friendly curriculum has the potential to make LGBTIQ+ students find acceptance in the classroom and encourage them to engage in academic conversations about their identities, lives, experiences and struggles without any inhibition. The empowerment that happens via an inclusive curriculum may help these students navigate and resist the heteronormative structures that they encounter in their everyday lives, outside the academia.
The curriculum taught as part of different academic programmes, at our universities today, include one or two courses that focus on gender and sexuality. Sometimes these courses frame gender in narrow terms placing the cis-heterosexual woman as the only figure that merits academic attention. They do not give adequate room for discussions on how gender and sexuality are intertwined. Sometimes they are offered as elective courses and only those interested in the theme of gender (and sexuality) sign up for those courses. As a result, majority of our students may graduate without sufficient exposure to academic conversations related to gender and sexuality. Even these elective courses are sometimes not thought through well, and introduced in a haphazard manner merely to satisfy the diversity requirement included in policy frameworks.
Under neoliberalization of education, the inclusion of gender in the curriculum is reduced to a process of representing different gendered experiences. While representation is important, it cannot be isolated from the contexts associated with the gendered student, the economic and political systems that the gendered student is part of, and the systems of gendering and power that are at play. Neoliberalism has co-opted the discourse of gender diversity to achieve its own ends. It is now actively involved in producing marketable female graduates and possibly marketable LGBTIQ+ graduates, too. This is why gender and cultural diversity in the curriculum should be sutured to questions about political economy, class relations and material inequalities. An intersectional approach that questions and goes beyond notions of employable female graduates and women entrepreneurs should shape the larger social vision offered via the curriculum.
While the inclusion of courses with specific focus on gender diversifies the curriculum, such courses sometimes curtail our understanding of the way gender operates in society and within the workings of various academic disciplines. While these courses bring questions related to gender and sexuality to the front and centre, they may simultaneously create the false picture that the other courses are gender-neutral or gender inclusive. Therefore, one must ask to what extent the courses, which are not specifically about gender, shift emphasis towards women and LGBITQ+ persons. It is important that we understand gender and sexuality as concerns that run throughout what we teach. For example, a course with a focus on class relations should discuss how class relations are gendered and the ways in which gender and sexuality inflect political economy and material-based social relations. It is important to frame the entire curriculum as a site where a struggle for justice for the historical exclusion that women and LGBTIQ+ communities have suffered can be mounted. Given the historical dominance of heteronormativity within the academia, the curriculum as a whole should be revamped and re-vitalized from the vantagepoint of women and LGBTIQ+ persons.
Teaching against cis-heteronormativity faces resistance, not just from institutional policies and restrictions imposed by the curriculum, but also from students. When I taught an English translation of Ismat Chugtai’s “Lihaaf”, a text that reveals how power operating along lines of socio-economic status produces relations and intimacy between women as a messy terrain of dominance, subversion, resistance and manipulation, a section of the students denounced the text as one that promotes ‘lesbianism’. On such occasions, it is incumbent upon the teacher to trigger processes of self-introspection so that the cis-straight student is encouraged to question the privileges and comforts that the student has taken for granted under a heteronormative social order.
On the other hand, the discussion, as in the case of Chugtai’s text, should orient the student to the understanding that sexual relations, regardless of whether they are straight or gay, are often inflected by power manifesting itself through the axes of class, ethnicity and caste and that non-heterosexual relations are not free of control and manipulation. This is why an emancipating pedagogy should give a central place to not just empathy and solidarity but also critical interrogation of power in gendered relations of all kinds.
While the Sri Lankan classroom has a long way to go to become a place that embraces gender and sexual diversity, we have seen moments of hope as well. In many academic departments, undergraduates, who do their research on LGBTIQ+ issues, find increased encouragement and support from academics. Some of our universities have provided their venues for discussions, cultural festivals and awareness raising events focusing on LGBTIQ+ communities. There have been instances where students came together to support and stand in solidarity with students of marginalized genders and sexual orientations when the latter faced hostilities in hostels and classrooms. It is important that we sustain, strengthen and build on these changes.
The classroom should not remain isolated from the larger struggles around gender and LGBTIQ issues. The favourable Supreme Court decision on the recent Bill to repeal Article 365, the Pride events that took place in Jaffna and Colombo last year, and the gains made by the LGBITQ communities in their various struggles for equality should encourage the academic community to take forward, with more enthusiasm, the task of making our free education sector more inclusive and democratic. This task also requires our willingness to de-centre the academia and learn from how working women and LGBTIQ+ persons from subaltern, minority, peripheral, oppressed caste communities resist male chauvinism and cis-heteronormativity alongside their everyday struggles against capitalist exploitation and ethnic and caste-based oppression.
(Mahendran Thiruvarangan is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of Linguistics and English at the University of Jaffna)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
Enduring nexus between poverty and violent identity politics
The enduring nexus between poverty or economic deprivation and violent identity politics could not be stressed enough. The lingering identity-based violence in some parts of India’s North-East, to consider one example, graphically bears out this causative link.
At first blush the continuing violence in India’s Manipur state is traceable to inter-tribal hostilities but when the observer penetrates below surface appearances she would find that the root causes of the violence are economic in nature. On the face of it, plans by the state authorities to go ahead with extended economic quotas for the majority Meitei tribal group, for instance, who are considered the economic underdogs in Manipur, have intensified hostilities between the rest of the tribal groups and the Meitei.
It is plain that perceptions among the rest of the tribal communities that they are being unfairly treated by the state are accounting in considerable measure for the continuing ethnic tensions in Manipur. That is, the fear of being deprived of their life-chances on the part of the rest of the communities as a consequence of the new economic empowerment measures being initiated for the Meitei is to a considerable degree driving the ethnic violence in Manipur. It would be reasonable to take the position that economics, in the main, are driving politics in the state.
Sri Lanka, of course, is no exception to the rule. There is no doubt that identity issues propelled to some extent the LTTE’s war against the Sri Lankan state and its armed forces over three long decades.
However, it was perceived economic deprivation on the part of sections of the Tamil community, particularly among its youthful sections, that prompted the relevant disaffected sections to interpret the conflict in ethnic identity terms. In the final analysis, economic issues drove the conflict. If Lankan governments had, from the inception, ensured economic equity and justice in all parts of the country the possibility of ethnic tensions taking root in Sri Lanka could have been guarded against.
Even in contemporary Sudan, the seeming power struggle between two army generals, which has sowed destruction in the country, is showing signs of taking on an ethnic complexion. Reports indicate that the years-long confrontation between the Arab and black African communities over land and water rights is resurfacing amid the main power contest. Economic issues, that is, are coming to the fore. Equitable resource-sharing among the main communities could have perhaps minimized the destructive nature of the current crisis in the Sudan.
Sections of the international community have, over years, seen the majority of conflicts and wars in the post-Cold War decades as being triggered in the main by identity questions. Identity politics are also seen as bound up with an upswing in terrorism. In order to understand the totality of the reasons behind this substantive change one may need to factor in the destabilizing consequences of economic globalization.
The gradual dissolving of barriers to international economic interactions that came in the wake of globalization in the eighties and nineties brought numerous material benefits to countries but in the case of the more traditional societies of the South, there were deeply destabilizing and disorienting results. This was particularly so in those societies where the clergy of particularly theistic religions, such as Islam, held sway over communities.
In these comparatively insulated societies of the South, unprecedented exposure to Western culture, which came in the wake of globalization, was seen as mainly inimical. Besides, perceived alien Western cultural and religious influences were seen by the more conservative Southern clergy as undermining their influence among their communities.
A Southern country that reacted quite early against the above forces of perceived decadence was Iran. Iran’s problems were compounded by the fact that the Shah of the times was following a staunchly pro-US foreign policy. It was only a matter of time before there was an eruption of militant religious fervour in the country, which ultimately helped in ushering an Islamic theocracy in the country. Needless to say, this revolutionary change in Iran impacted drastically the politics of the Middle East and beyond.
Militant Islam was showing signs of spreading in Central Asia when the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan occurred in 1979. This military incursion could have been seen as an attempt by the Soviet authorities to prevent the spread of militant Islam to Afghanistan, a state which was seen as playing a principal role in the USSR’s security.
However, radical Islamic opposition to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan came in the form of the Mujahedin, who eventually morphed into the present day Taliban. However, as could be seen, the Taliban presence has led to the spread militant religious sentiment in South and South-West Asia.
Fortunately, there is substantive political science scholarship in South Asia currently which helps the observer to understand better the role poverty and material backwardness play in sowing the seeds of religious fundamentalism, or identity politics, among the youth of the region in particular. A collection of papers which would prove helpful in this regard is titled, ‘Civil Wars in South Asia – State, Sovereignty, Development’, edited by Aparna Sundar and Nandini Sundar, (SAGE Publications India Pvt. Ltd.) In some of its papers are outlined, among other things, the role religious institutions of the region play in enticing impoverished youth to radical identity-based violent politics.
While there is no questioning the lead role domestic poverty plays in the heightening and spread of identity politics and the violence that goes hand-in-hand with it, one’s analysis of these questions would not be complete without factoring into the situation external military interventions, such as those of the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have aggravated the economic miseries of the ordinary people of those countries. There is an urgent need for in-depth impartial studies of this kind, going forward.
Russian ambassador’s comments
The Russian ambassador to Sri Lanka in a response to my column of May 18th , 2023 titled, ‘Containment Theory returns to West’s ties with East’, takes up the position that the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, beginning 1979, was not an invasion but an operation that was undertaken by the Soviets on the invitation of the then government of Afghanistan. This amounts to contradicting the well-founded position of the majority of international authorities on the subject that the Soviet push into Afghanistan was indeed a military invasion of the country. This is the position that I have taken over the years and I do not have any reason to back down from it.
The subsequent comments made by the ambassador on my column are quite irrelevant to its thematic substance and do not warrant any replies by me.
Man of the Globe International …branching out
Kalum Samarathunga came into the spotlight when he won the title Man of the Globe International (Charity Ambassador) 2022, held in Malaysia, last year, and also Mr. Sri Lanka 2022.
A former sales and marketing co-coordinator, in Kuwait, Kalum is now into modelling (stepping into the local modelling world in 2021, when he returned to Sri Lanka), and is also focusing on becoming a professional presenter, and an actor, as well.
Kalum made his debut, as a presenter, at the ‘Ramp Comes’ Alive’ fashion show, held in April.
He also mentioned that he has been involved in music, since he was a kid…and this is how our chit-chat went:
1. How would you describe yourself?
I’m just an ordinary guy on the road to achieve my humongous dreams.
2. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
There was a time where I was very insecure about myself, but everything is fine with me now, so I wouldn’t consider making any changes.
3. If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
Nothing at all, because I’m blessed with an amazing family.
Indian Public School, in Kuwait, where I was the leader of the school band, playing the keyboards, and a member of the school dance team, as well. In sports – under 19 long distance runner (800m, 1500m and 5000m), and came second in the inter-school Kuwait clusters, in 2012,
5. Happiest moment?
My happiest moment is that moment when my parents teared up with joy after I called them, from Malaysia, after winning Man Of The Globe International Charity 2022. Seeing my parents crying out of joy was the happiest moment, more than winning the title.
6. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
It doesn’t matter what you do in life as long as it makes you happy. For example, I was born in Kuwait, living a lavish life, a great job and an awesome salary, but I was still unhappy and that’s because I wasn’t doing what I wanted to.
7. Are you religious?
Let’s just say that I’m a God loving person and I live my life according to that. I believe that I’m nothing without God and I have experienced God’s blessings in my life
8. Are you superstitious?
No, because I have never experienced luck in my life. All that I have achieved, in my life, is purely out of hard work.
9. Your ideal girl?
There no points looking beautiful if you can’t keep up a conversation, so “communication” comes first for me; a woman who respects and loves my parents; loyalty and understanding; her voice should be attractive, and she doesn’t have to be someone in the same field I’m in, as long as she trusts me and respects the work I do.
10. Which living person do you most admire?
My mom and dad are my role models, because the man I’m today is because of them. They went through a lot in life to raise me and my siblings.
11. Which is your most treasured possession?
My piano, my first and only friend that was there for me, to make my day. I was a bullied kid in school, until Grade 10, so playing the piano was the only thing that kept me going, and made me happy.
12. If you were marooned on a desert island, who would you like as your companion?
Sri Lankan actress Rashiprabha Sandeepani. I admire her qualities and principles. And, most of all, she was unknowingly there for me during a bad storm in my life.
13. Your most embarrassing moment?
My ex-girlfriend’s mother catching us kissing, and I also got slapped.
14. Done anything daring?
Taking a major risk, during Covid (2021), by leaving everything behind, in Kuwait, and travelling to Sri Lanka, for good, to finally follow my dreams .
15. Your ideal vacation?
I’ve actually forgotten what a vacation feels like because I’ve been so focused on my goals, back-to-back, since 2020.
16. What kind of music are you into?
I don’t stick to a single genre…it depends on my mood.
17. Favourite radio station?
No special liking for any station in particular.
18. Favourite TV station?
I do not watch TV but I do watch TV series, and movies, on my laptop, whenever I can. And, thanks to Sinhala teledramas, on YouTube, I’m able to brush up my Sinhala.
19 What would you like to be born as in your next life?
If this ‘next life’ is actually true, I wouldn’t mind being born as anything, but, most importantly, with “Luck” on my side.
20. Any major plans for the future?
I am planning to invade and destroy Earth…just kidding! I don’t want a top seat in my industry – just the seat I deserve, would be fine.
Anti-ageing foods for younger-looking skin
It is a rich source of quercetin, a powerful antioxidant, which helps in the removal of harmful free radicals from your system. Broccoli is also a natural anti-inflammatory agent, and hence, it prevents your skin from looking tired and dull. So, do not forget to pick some broccolis the next time you go grocery shopping.
Rich in vitamins A and C, spinach keeps your skin healthy and also helps to repair damaged skin cells. It is also rich in lutein, a biomolecule that improves the hydration, as well as elasticity of the skin. So, add this super-food in your diet for a healthy and soft skin.
It is rich source of omega-3 fatty acids that help in improving the elasticity of the skin and in providing wrinkle-free skin. It also add natural glow to your skin and make you look vibrant.
This super-food is loaded with an age-defying ingredient called lycopene. Lycopene shields your skin from environmental damage, prevents wrinkle formation by neutralising free radicals, and also improves its texture. So, consume tomatoes in the form of salad, juice, soup, or anything else. Just do not forget to make them an essential part of your diet.
These tiny powerhouses are rich source of selenium, which protects newly-formed skin cells from damage, caused by pollutants, as well as harsh UV radiation. Selenium is also believed to be helpful in preventing skin cancer. Furthermore, mushrooms are also packed with vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, and B6. All these vitamins facilitate the growth of new skin cells. Also, our body requires copper to produce collagen and elastin, which are important for maintaining the strength of skin. And, mushrooms are one of the best sources of it. So, to have a youthful skin, make sure you add this plain-looking food in your colourful diet.
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