Women’s Prize for Fiction rewards women writers across the globe for writing fiction in English. It was previously known as the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction and Orange prize. And, for the last 25 years has remained a prestigious recognition for female authors. In a recent tweet, where they clarify the eligibility for awards, it states that a woman includes someone who is “legally defined as a woman or of the female sex”.
The eligibility criteria has been slammed as transphobic as the category of “legally defined” has been hailed as problematic. Women’s Prize for Fiction set up as protest because women were excluded from the Man Booker’s prize in 1991. It is ironic that a prize set up for women excludes women who are not cisgender.
A statement regarding eligibility for the Women's Prize for Fiction. pic.twitter.com/WRGBtQmSCf
— Women's Prize (@WomensPrize) October 5, 2020
Why is there a Need for Eligibility Criteria?
The sudden introduction of the eligibility category comes after Freshwater written by non-binary transwomen Akwaeke Emezi was nominated for the 2019 prize. It was hailed to be a groundbreaking moment of inclusion as they were the first non-binary transgender author to have been longlisted for the prize. One of the judges for that year also wrote an op-ed about the inclusion of Freshwater and went to say that it is the books and not the authors who are judged. It was also noted by the judges that they did not google any of the authors while reading the book. Hence, they were not even aware of Emezi’s non-binary trans identity during the nomination.
Soon after the euphoria of the moment passed, the news comes in that the Women’s Prize for Fiction is reconsidering their criteria for eligibility. For the 2020 nominations, first the eligibility criteria was introduced. Following this, when Emezi’s publisher wanted to submit their latest novel The Death of Vivek Oji the committee informed their publisher that they would be required to submit information regarding Emezi’s sex as defined by law.
It is ironic that the statement ends with ” we are firmly opposed to any form of discrimination or prejudice on the basis of race, sexuality or gender identity”. The narrow category of “woman” that has been created only allows women who have been assigned female at birth to be eligible. It excludes individuals who may have been assigned male at birth or intersex but identify as a woman. This entire row once again brings to the forefront the internalised transphobia, the compulsive need to define gender within the binary of male/female. It sheds light upon societal discomfort with self-determination of one’s identity.
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Beyond the Binary and its Discomforts
In contemporary gender and sexuality studies, we have come to the recognition that gender identity and sexual orientations are a spectrum. Hence, identities and orientations are fluid and a matter of self-determination. Self-determination of one’s identity is identifying with any of the identities within the spectrum which is in alignment with one’s inner self. The act of self-determination of one’s identity is an internal process and not subjected to external validation. If we were to extend this definition to Emezi’s case of their self-determined identity of a non-binary trans person, they are just exercising their right to self-determine their gender.
Women’s Prize for Fiction by the very act of asking Emezi to furnish legal proof of her identity violates the tenet of self-determination of one’s gender identity. According to the “legally defined category” of eligibility of prize, either Emezi has to furnish proof of gender affirmative surgery or they need documents from State authorities which recognise their identity in official papers such as birth certificate and other identity documents. This again violates the right to self-determine one’s gender. In fact, asking Emezi to furnish legal proof is transphobia. It is also discriminatory in nature as it creates roadblocks to keep gender non-binary people out of the system by creating categories such legal recognition. Does this imply that every other identity that is not legally recognised is illegal? Does this then again imply that an act of self-determining one’s identity is against the law and not valid?
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Gender Identity and Self Determination
The term transgender is an umbrella term which means an individual’s gender identity is different from that which they were assigned at birth. Non-binary refers to an identity where individuals identify as neither male nor female. They may have or display masculine or feminine traits but they identify as neither. None of these definitions requires an external body to come and validate these identities. Creating bylaws such as eligibility criteria based on a legal definition is a way of keeping self-identified genderqueer people out of institutions and disallowing them to access and participate on the basis of their gender.
The very act of gatekeeping prizes on the basis of categories is discriminatory. It is an act rooted in biological essentialism where individuals are reduced to biological attributes that come along with gender assigned at birth. Male and female are legally defined categories because the law and society only recognise these two categories, all other identities are self-determined. As a society, we are hesitant to accept any identity that does not prescribe to our rigid notions of male and female.
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Exclusion and Its Implications
What does such exclusion mean? Such categories are not only a sign of systemic exclusion designed to keep non-binary people out, there have substantial implications. All of these prizes come with a hefty cash reward as well. So when categories such as these exclude individuals, they are also excluding them from accessing resources. As a group, gender non-conforming people have been historically marginalised for their gender non-conformity. They have been kept out medical institutions, welfare schemes and something as basic as safe housing has not been extended to them. When a category of an award that comes with a cash prize also excludes gender non-binary people, they are simply perpetuating this historic form of exclusion in present times.
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Priyanka Chakrabarty is an intern with SheThePeople.Tv The views expressed are the author’s own.