Sexual Globalization and Homonormativity: The Case of Suriname

In their joint article, Haritaworn and Bacchetta rightly ask: ‘Who is left behind when the North goes global?’ They focus primarily on the intersections of gay politics and nationalism. For me another issue came to mind, namely the sexual globalization that is going on in much of the Southern hemisphere at this moment. The emancipatory LGBT-movements are largely fashioned around homonormative, Euro-American discourses about same-sex sexuality. This is deeply problematic in the light of expressions of sexuality that do not fit in this narrative. The position of Surinamese WSW (women who have sex with women) in Suriname can serve as an interesting example of a North-South axis of dialogue, in which conceptions of diaspora, ethnicity and class play important roles.

Trough extensive anthropological field work, Wekker shows that a mati wroko (mati work) is deeply embedded within Suriname Creole culture. She describes the lives of mati (‘friends ), women who have sex with both women and men. In this context, men provide for children and (occasionally) money, but do not live with the woman and the children. Parallel on this, women engage in physical and emotional relationships with one another. They provide for their own livelihood and often raise children together. This practice finds its origin in West Africa and other forms of it can be found in other parts of the world, such as Ghana and the Caribbean islands. Mati work is a black working class practice and finds its roots in Winti religion, which is typical for this group of people in Suriname. Women who engage in mati work are believed to be carried by a masculine spirit who becomes jealous when the women fall in love with another man (Wekker 2006).

Mati work is profoundly different from the Western discourse on lesbian sexuality. In mainstream Western discourse gone global, sexuality is framed in an essentialist way: one ‘is’ gay or straight. In the case of gay sexuality, this is framed as a personal trait that one discovers at a certain age and that, often after personal struggle, is followed by a coming-out, so that the LGBT person can ‘be his/her true self’. In other expressions of same-sex sexuality, however, this is not the case. Mati is described in a verbal form: a woman ‘does’ mati work. In this way, mati work is unattached to identity.

In today’s Suriname, however, there is a growing tendency away from mati work and towards a more Euro-American discourse on female sexuality. This can be illustrated by the website of WomenSWay, a gay rights foundation that was founded in 2008 in Paramaribo. The members describe themselves not as mati, but as lesbian or bisexual. They make use of typical symbols of the global LGBT movement, such as rainbow flags and the coming-out narrative. It is also interesting that their site is written in Dutch and not in Sranantongo. In the light of these development, Wekker asks what will be the future of mati work:

If globalization continues to accelerate, will these [mati] practices continue to frame the ways in which Afro-Surinamese women both in Suriname and in the Netherlands think about themselves and shape their subjectivities, or will they eventually become black ‘lesbians’? Will they come to think of sexual activity as sexual identity? (Wekker 2006).

Another important factor is the role of the Dutch-Suriname diaspora. Some of the activists in Suriname are returnees who have lived in the Netherlands for a while. Also, in the Netherlands, there are now some Surinamese voices in mainstream LGBT politics. These factors complicate the multiplicity of Surinamese WSW identities and expressions even more. We could ask ourselves: Are these examples of neocolonization and erasure of indigenous practices, or is this a question of emancipation trough global means?

Bacchetta, Paola and Jin Haritaworn, ‘There Are Many Transatlantics: Homonationalism, Homotransnationalism and Feminist-Queer-Trans of Colour Theories and Practices’ in: Kathy Davis and Mary Evans, Transatlantic Conversations (Ashgate 2011) 127-143.

Wekker, Gloria, The Politics of Passion. Women’s Sexual Culture in the Afro-Surinamese Diaspora (New York 2006).

PS Artikel ZiZo Suriname april 2013Some time ago, I wrote an article about the position of Surinamese ‘women who love women’ for ZiZo Magazine, a Flemish magazine about LGBT-rights and culture. For this article, I spoke with different activists. It is written in Dutch and in a mainstream LGBT framework, but maybe you will find it interesting.

PS 2: Book tip! Zami, A New Spelling of My Name (1982) by Audre Lorde describes the coming of age of a young Caribbean-American woman, who discovers her love for women without molding herself into mainstream white gay politics and experience. The novel is an exciting read and a fascinating example of the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality.


3 thoughts on “Sexual Globalization and Homonormativity: The Case of Suriname

  1. Nice one Kirsten! I think this is more a question of a multitude-ness of diasporic identities and the dynamics through which these are formed. Dynamics such as environment (a Dutch-Surinamese woman living in the Netherlands), class (mati is foremostly under creole lower and working class women) and not to forget internal power relations within families are also differently structured here in the Netherlands. Institutional neocolonialism yes/perhaps, but in the private sphere different and more dynamics are at work.

  2. That is indeed a very valid point, I think! Also, I think it might have to do with generational differences. One of the Surinamese women I interviewed, and who were involved with the the lesbian/bisexual rights organizations WomenSWay, told me that mati work is now considered something for the older generation, ‘something from the olden days.’ It seems that lesbian/bi identity is ‘taking over’ in a sense, under the pressure of mainstream gay politics. I cannot help but find it a shame that such an old tradition is loosing ground (maybe that’s my historian’s heart speaking). Then again, everybody is free to choose their own identity of course.

  3. Gloria Wekker’s article on Mati work was excellent, I enjoyed it very much (even if I haven’t read it in a while). I think we can closely link Wekker’s work with Patricia Hill Collin’s article “Defining Black Feminist Thought” (1991) – although I won’t go into detail here -and broader disciplines beyond gender. Not wanting to repeat the sentiments already expressed by you and Wekker, I think it’s vital to determine how different feminisms (and their associates) critically engage with issues such as these. Of course, immediately we are confronted by diverse ideologies and paradigmatic relationships which denote conceptual frameworks. Wekker deals extensively with the Western/non-Western ideas surrounding sexual subjectivities and from her writings, we see how both influence Mati culture. Black feminist thought can be likened to many of the issues Wekker describes and those experienced by Mati women. Is it possible for us to use a different lens without distorting what we see? I ask this because for me, in class, I often felt as though we were discussing topics in a circle using repetitive theories and even methodologies in order to reiterate certain ideas and I believe it is vitally important to discuss topics from angles we haven’t thought of before, even going beyond mere feminist theories. Wekker’s article can serve as the perfect example on which multiple theories can be used. But I loved your post Kirsten!

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