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Issue in Focus: Colouring Within the Lines

As children we are taught to colour within the lines. We are told that we must keep the colours within bounded spaces to see a coherent world emerge in our colouring books. A brown tree trunk emerges, holding together green foliage. Beneath the tree is also an expanse of green: grass. There is a house on this grass: with red walls, yellow windows and a brown door. Floating above this house are white clouds, and engulfing them is an expanse of blue: the sky. When colours spill across, when a little bit of the red house-paint spills into the blue sky, or the brown door seems to meld in with the green grass, we see ‘errors’ that must be corrected in another attempt to preserve the perfect order of that emergent world. If the child continues to colour outside the lines, she is simply not good enough. If she doesn’t care too much for the lines, and imagines over the landscape on the colouring book a landscape of her own making, we are tempted to punish her. I know children who have had their knuckles rapped for such ‘insolence’.

In this article, I explore this insolence – this spilling across the lines – as an act that invites thinking. After all, it is in these moments of transgression that we become aware of the boundaries. Some of us, of course, have become good at staying within these lines. We might even like them, find them comfortable. But some of us haven’t quite mastered the art. Try as we might, we find our hands taking that stroke a little too far. Before we know it, the yellow windows bleed into the red walls, and that into the blue sky, upsetting a sense of order and allowing a different world – a forbidden one – to emerge. This emergence, unwitting as it might have been, threatens the hegemony of everything we know to be ‘right’. And in these unintentional moments of transgression, two things become obvious: first that it is possible to colour beyond the lines, and secondly, that there is no real ‘wrong’ image – there are just different ones.

Of course, all this is easier said than done, considering there are raps on the knuckles waiting for those who transgress. Or worse.

Take Caster Semenya, an athlete from South Africa. In 2009, she won a gold in the women’s 800m at the International Association of Athletics Federation. Immediately, the IAAF began to get questions: curious people wanted to know if Caster really was a woman. Their argument was that she was too fast, too masculine to be one. In her case, it was her body that spilled across a boundary – a gender boundary that decides how manly a man should look, how feminine a woman, and what work their bodies are capable of doing (or not). Caster’s body crossed this line, and emerged on the wrong side to some spectators of the sport. The ruckus was enough to keep her from claiming her award – and perhaps from competing in the women’s category – until she could be made to emerge on the right side of the line. The IAAF never revealed what tests she was subjected to, and never released an official report on her gender, but leaks in the media offered details of what her many bodily transgressions might be: her testosterone levels were too high, she had no ovaries or uterus, she had both male and female organs. How would the IAAF make sense of this transgression? Was she man? Was she woman? What would be the ‘right’ category?

After being subjected to an ordeal – a series of medical tests and months of media scrutiny – Caster was ‘allowed’ to compete as a woman. However, it was not necessarily the same gendered category she had herself claimed many months ago. When Caster had registered herself as a woman, she had embodied a category of women who could run as fast as she did and could have a muscular, androgynous body like hers. But that notion of ‘woman’ had spilled across more popular normative borders and challenged more hegemonic imageries of ‘male’ and ‘female’. Caster’s body had not emerged on one side of this normative line: it had embodied traits on either side, and had emerged a little bit on each side, or perhaps even between them, occupying a space that neither category could fully define. So her body had to be denied the right to claim the category of ‘woman’ that she had used, and had to be tamed, studied, and re-classified – again as ‘woman’, but on someone else’s terms.

Months later, an article in the New York Times claimed that Caster had been found to be too fast and too masculine because Western standards of gender had been applied to her. While it is true that Western thinking is hegemonic, and that Western standards are applied to sporting events and athletes worldwide, I want to point out that this attempt to rationalise Caster’s ‘difference’ to the Times’ sympathetic readers in the West simply reifies the border between the West and ‘the rest’. This border is a colonial one – a racialising border which allows Caster’s black body to emerge only through the rhetoric of ‘difference’. That is, she is now deemed ‘normal’ for where she is from. But even as it seems to allow for ‘differences’, it does not permit individual differences within the West and within the ‘rest’ or border crossings where individuals combine traits of the ‘West’ and the ‘rest’ to come into their own. It simply places all of the West on one side of the border and all the rest on the other, still justifying and normalising gender binaries and gendered roles on each side.

So whether Caster was deemed ‘deviant’ or ‘normal but different’, her body was punished for not shading within the hegemonic lines or gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, etc. This is just one example. If we look at the news today, we will see many such attempts to identify these deviations, study the difference, and recategorise them so they comply with hegemonic thinking.

Sometimes, the terms used are the same as before, but their implications are quite modified. For example, take the recent ruling in Europe allowing companies to ban “religious symbols” in office spaces, forcing Muslim women to redefine themselves by giving up their garments. They are not being asked to give up their claim to being ‘women,’ but instead are being asked to redefine themselves to fit in with European ideals of ‘liberal’ ‘empowered’ women. This narrow definition of gender empowerment, draws a border between ‘conservative’ Islam and ‘liberal’ Islam, justifying Islamophobic practices in the West that force Muslims to identify as one or the other to fit in. In response, you see self-identified, ‘conservative’ political parties rearing their head in many places in the world, drawing borders between religions, and also between religious and non-religious people. Once again, gender gets entangled with these borders.

‘Conservative’ politics in the US for example, sees women’s reproductive agencies as a threat to Christian ideologies. In India, similar self-identified ‘conservatives’ police women’s mobility, sexuality, and reproduction, to draw boundaries between Hindus and others. All such boundaries render invisible people who believe in orthodox (what gets classified as ‘conservative’) practices, when it comes to some things, and still believe in women’s right to self-determination. In short, what it obscures is lives that are made along the borders and between them.

Gloria E. Anzaldúa studies the agency we do have when we cross these borders – intentionally or unintentionally – and bleed and then blend into one another. In her book, Borderlands/La Frontera, she writes:

“The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country – a border culture.

Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.”

It is in these borderlands and as “prohibited and forbidden… inhabitants” that we are most aware that the lines within which we learned to colour are only as hard and fast as we make them out to be. Here is where we realise that it is possible to become hybrid categories – androgynous, interracial, intercaste, interfaith, sometimes-conservative-sometimes-liberal – and that it is plausible to imagine landscapes that sustain and foster such hybrid formations. Here is where we learn to go beyond the patronising idea of ‘tolerance’ and learn instead to value, explore, embody variations and differences. In these borderlands, man and woman are not norms, they are also just other deviations; the West and the rest are not absolute differences, but historical abstractions; where the conservative and liberal ideologies are in a dialogic relationship with each other, not in a bloody conflict.

These borderlands where people bleed against the pressure of borders and into each other, to embrace and become something hybrid, already exists. We have wandered these borderlands already. All of us have leaked at least a little – knowingly or unknowingly – beyond the boxes where we are otherwise confined. In closing, I would say it is important we recognise these borderlands: places we inhabit and bodies we embody, irrespective of the rules that force us to express – and contain – ourselves in specific ways in order to belong.

Along with the need to recognise these borderlands, is the need to fight for the right to recognise that borders are porous. Especially now, as many violent, aggressive, right-wing powers across the world, confine us to corners, and disallow border crossings literally and figuratively. When we organise against them, let us remember that a call for the mere expansion of these borders will never be enough – what seems inclusive today will begin to seem confining tomorrow as we spill across those borders, and discover other possibilities. Maybe instead we should organise for a world where even as some children colour within the lines others don’t. Where it is okay to spill and explore the borderlands, without fearing the rap on the knuckles or worse.

Cover image by Mujahid Safodien (AFP)