“Whats Identity Got to Do with It?” Rethinking Identity in Light of the Mati Work

Th following has been pulled from Gloria Wekker’s piece, “Whats Identity Got to Do With It?”, published in the anthology, female desires.

“In the course of this century, several studies-mostly by men, occasionally by white women- have dealt with the ‘unusual relationships between women.’ In the course of my sexually coming-of-age in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, during the seventies, I noticed that there were at least two models available to me on how to be a woman who loved other women. There was a dominant model, mostly engaged in by white, middle-class women, in which the rhetoric of ‘political choice,’ feminist chauvinism , conformity between partners along a number of dimensions , including socioeconomic status and age, and predominantly childlessness, played central parts. And there was a subjugated model, of which I discerned merely the contours at the time but which I learned later learned to identify as the mati work.”(121)

“My periodically returning structural malaise in applying Western sexual labels (hetero-, homo-, and bisexuality) to myself while failing to ‘identify’ with them was a major impetus to engage in this particular research.. in feminist research ‘the problem’ frequently is a blend of intellectual question and personal trouble.”

“Although it is, of course, impossible to obtain reliable qualitative data on the occurrence of the mati work in Paramaribo in the past or today, it is clear for those who have eyes to see (the symbolic behaviors) and ears to hear (the powerful metaphorical language mati speak to each other) that it is widespread in the working class. I have suggested that three out of four working class Creole women will be engaged in it at some point in their lives. There is no specific stigma attatched to mati work in a working-class environment.”
“Women’s relationships with women mostly take the form of visiting relationships, although a minority of female partners, with their children, share a household. These varied arrangements are made possible by the circumstance that most Creole working-class women own or rent their own houses and are single heads of households. Mati thus form part of and actually continually ‘cross over’ in a dual sex system, which comprises an opposite-gendered and a same-gendered arena.” (122-123)

Wekker hopes “to have made a case for the critical investigation and bracketing of the concept “homosexual identity.” The deeply essentialist strand of it often unwittingly introduces hampers rather than facilitates our understanding of the behavior we are trying to understand cross-culturally.”
“In the second place, emic constructions and explanations of same-gender sexual behavior need to be taken seriously. There is no reason to assume that the Western folk knowledge about sex, which has been elevated into academic knowledge, should have been more validity than folk knowledge anywhere else.”
“Third, the cross-cultural study of same-gender sexual behavior should proceed from the realization that ‘homosexualities’ are multiple and manifold, realized in different contexts and charged with different meanings”
“Finally, if in participant observation it is the person of the researcher that serves that serves as the most central and sensitive instrument of research, it behooves those of us who do (cross-cultural) sex research to be transparent, accountable, and reflective about our own sexualities.” (134)

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