Hello class! Last week your Reading Responses were returned, and I have them if you did not pick them up at the end of our last class. If you did not complete this response, please remember it is a required assignment and your success in this class depends on your completion of this assignment. Late assignments are always accepted.
Although Shawn nor I were present this week, your attendance was recorded. I was unable to complete a visual lecture substitute as mentioned, but I am going to go over this weeks required reading to keep us on track as much as possible.
Week 10: This week, we only screened the film Kandahar in class. This is a required screening.
Here is a short review that is partially written by a fellow classmate, June, that she shared regarding this film:
Kandahar is an Iranian film set in Afghanistan which premiered in 2001. The director of the film, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, presents a story based on partly truths and partly fictional accounts of a successful female Afghan-Canadian journalist who returns to Afghanistan after receiving a letter from her sister that she plans on committing suicide on the last solar eclipse of the millennium in Kandahar. “The female journalist comes back home to the Middle East and see the atrocities that people undergo during war time in Afghanistan, Iran, and the [surrounding] areas. In reality this story tells many small stories about children, women, and men who are wounded and/or overwhelmed by the military complex of greed and money” (J. Cook, Review of Kandahar)
This film embodies cinematically many of the issues, such as oppression, that we have spoken about with our recent texts.
If you missed the film, please watch it! It is a required screening, and it will come up again.
Assia Djebar, born in 1936 as Fatima-Zohra Imalayen, in Cherchell, Algiers, is a novelist, feminist, professor, translator and filmmaker. Djebar is a prolific writer, and most of her work focuses upon the struggles for the social emancipation of women, as well as the Muslim women’s world and its complexities.
Djebar is a good complement to our assigned readings by El-Saadawi, as both work on similar topics, but Djebar has her own focus and presentation. Djebar writes more poetically, and she does not only use historical facts and events to support her analysis but rather art and the personal perceptions and narratives of others. She brings up the veil, colonization and independence in various ways, but with specific ideas in mind regarding post-colonialism and new nationalism in regards to women and oppression.
Before we dive into her text, let us first swim through her background.
Djebar’s father was a professor of French at the local French school, and she would be one of the first girls in her village to attend such a school. The reason there were French schools in Algeria is that this country was then a colony of France, and colonization would become something that would affect and continues to affect much of her work. Djebar would become a very accomplished scholar, and when she finished high school in Algeria, she was able to move to Paris for college with the blessing of her father. She later attended the École normale supérieure, a school for educators, in Paris. She was the first Algerian woman to be accepted.
In France, she become very active in the struggle for Algerian independence. She also began to write. Djebar published her first book in 1957, at 21 years old, and under her pen name. She didn’t tell anyone she published a book, as this would not have been approved by her father. One day her mother saw a French weekly paper with the headline about the first Algerian women to be published and recognized her daughter.
Djebar would continue to write, and she has completed various books, poems, critical essays, and films. All would focus on women, especially Arab, Islamic women. Because of her ideas and her feminism, she would be exiled from Algeria for many years, including having her works banned.
Although she would be considered threatening by those in her native country, she also deals with criticism of her own identity within her native country. All her books deal with colonialist Algerian subjects, but she wrote them all in French–the colonizer’s language. She is a French scholar and a product of its academic system. She grew up participating in the French system, and couldn’t write Arabic well. She was criticized for not writing in Arabic, particularly after Algeria’s liberation. This, including other factors, kept her from writing for awhile. She stopped writing for 10 years. This was very problematic, and it took her time to return to the pen.
In 1977, she released her first film La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua. This film allowed her to work through some of her issues with her identity. Then, in 1980, she came out with Women of Algiers in their Apartment. Her works throughout the 1970s allowed her to return to French while maintaining what she saw as her strong Algerian identity.
In the assigned text, the afterword of Women of Algiers in their Apartment, “Forbidden Gaze, Severed Head,” by Djebar, she looks specifically at art, at the representation of Arab women in their harems in a couple of famous paintings that share the name Women of Algiers in their Apartments. She uses two paintings by two very different painters, from two different times. The first painting is of French romantic painter Eugene Delacroix, and she deconstructs Delacroix’s work and the eroticized/exoticized female in art. It is Delacroix’ experience of Algiers, at the beginning of the era of French colonial rule. He is afforded a rare glimpse into the inner world of the harem. It is a place so exotic, he almost cannot believe it. Delacroix’s painting of 1832 features hree Algerian women, two of whom are seated in front of a hookah and the third one, in the foreground, leans her elbow against some cushions. According to Djebar, Delacroix’s painting is an artistic representation of his conservative image of woman, that is, woman as the traditional “housewife” without a profound consciousness of self, for the three women “remain absent to themselves, to their body, to their sensuality, to their happiness” (p 137 of original text).
After describing its attributes, many of which highlight the social and familial position of women in Algiers at the time (the lack of access to the space outside, the downcast eyes, the light), Djebar moves on from the painting to consider the sensory conditions of the harem and the veil (in its literal and abstract forms). She describes the connections of these material histories with those of Algerian colonial resistance and independence.
She writes of the women freedom fighters, the female rebels, and how their story is part of the national narrative of Algeria’s liberation. As a nation, Algeria moves from colonization, subjugation, to independence. Djebar wants to ensure women’s role and position in the new national narrative, to ensure their participation as full participants and not secondary aides or assistants. The new nation that these women have helped to make independent has a duty to recognize the issues and oppression that face these women.
The following is a scene from the film The Battle of Algiers (1966) that depicts three women participating in the actions towards independence. This struggle for independence was considered one of the most violent at the time. In these scenes, you see Algerian women de-veiling themselves from the Muslim veil and replacing it with the one that helps them pass as European (make up, hair bleach, Western dress). The removal of the veil for the Western-look allowed these women to pass freely and not be noticed by the French army, their own bodies becoming direct agents of the movement.
These women were themselves soldiers of the revolution. They not only faced arrest and torture if caught, but rape. Dejbar discusses rape as a banality of war, as it has always happened since wars existed, but also how much it hurt the Algerian nation to hear of such accounts on their female participants. She describes how when independence was won, the discussion of this once taboo subject was again veiled by taboo, and therefore demonstrates another example of how women’s place did not advance with independence (p. 150 of original text).
In order to reach independence, it took the participation of all who wanted it–both men and women. Once it was achieved, women were pushed into confined spaces, spaces which they had hoped to overcome when defeating the colonialists. They found themselves in a new kind of harem–a new enclosure, a new manifestation of what Delacroix witnessed. When the promised equality of the Algerian revolution is soon considered a faraway dream by the return of old Islamic practices, an intent to return to an indigenous society of the past, the narrator of “Forbidden Gaze, Severed Head” says:
“What words had uncovered in time of war is now being concealed again underneath a thick covering of taboo subjects, and, in that way, the meaning of a revelation is reversed” (p. 150-151 of original text)
Women, once the bomb carriers, not only the sister-companions of nationalist hero-brothers, must hide behind veils and walls, within these new harems.
Djebar discusses the veil in its various forms, and the relationship women and men have with it, to point to the potential power in the female body, as a space that holds knowledge, that threatens the power that patriarchy supplants. Djebar points to women’s subversion of the veil as a sign of patriarchal oppression, as the veil does not necessarily represent oppression. The veil has various functions, one of which is providing a space of invisibility where women can see without being seen. (page 138, 151 of original text) The veil, therefore, creates a space where women can look at, or look back at, men in public spaces, outside of the harems and neo-harems created after independence.
This look is the other eye, the female gaze, and it becomes a powerful tool to help break down the patriarchal walls. The veil become a site to protect and conceal the female (the forbidden) gaze, and is also a space women can have complete power over and from which can inspire a new, post-colonial female subject, to resist oppression and assumptions of oppression by the outsiders. It is the female gaze behind the veil that becomes threatening toward men. The mobile female eye is feared by men. even while colonizers were in their land. The threat of the female eye also incites fear of the “eye-that-is-sex.” The roaming female gaze empowers women and threatens a patriarchy that reserves the right to see and speak for itself. The veil can be a constructive space, and cannot be easily defined as oppressive. Even in the film Kandahar, the protagonist Nafas is able to record her impressions of Afghanistan onto a portable tape recorder hidden beneath her veils, moving freely through the public because of her dress, which is just another example of how the veil itself does not necessarily mean oppression. The eyes are still free behind it.
Djebar adopts Delacroix’s title of his painting for herself, but reverses its meaning by portraying women not as being in their apartment, implying physical imprisonment, confinement to domestic tasks, and enslavement to Muslim traditions, but as being outside their apartment. She implies freedom of expression and movement. It is a call to pursue the education and career of one’s choice, to engage in political struggles and to fight for one’s individual rights. It is like Picasso’s rendition of the painting, where women are full of movement, and freed, nude, and lively.
All this talk about oppression leads one to ponder what is oppression. Marilyn Frye‘s “Oppression” really focuses on the word itself, and its implications–be it by its proper or improper use as a word.
Frye is a feminist philosopher, feminist theorist. university distinguished professor and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University.
Marilyn Frye was born in 1941 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Marilyn Frye received her BA with honors in philosophy from Standford University in 1963. She received the PhD in Philosophy at Cornell University in 1969. She has been a professor of feminist philosophy, metaphysics, and philosophy of language at Michigan State University since 1974. Before coming to Michigan State, she taught in the Philosophy Department at the University of Pittsburgh. In 2008, she was the Phi Beta Kappa Romanell Lecturer.
She is the author of two books of essays in feminist theory: The Politics of Reality (1983) and Willful Virgin (1992). Frye is openly lesbian, and much of her work explores social categories—in particular, those based on race and gender. Most of the focus of her work has been to understand what the category “WOMEN” is, and why and how social categories exist and interact.
In Politics Of Reality, Frye argues that male heterosexual culture is fundamentally homoerotic:
“The people whom … [men] admire, respect, adore, honor, whom they imitate, idolize, and form profound attachments to, whom they are willing to teach and from whom they are willing to learn, and whose respect, admiration, recognition, honor, reverence and love they desire … those are, overwhelmingly, other men.”
In our assigned reading, Frye is analyzing the dangerous use of a broad definition of oppression. It is careless, and actually keeps one from really understanding and considering oppression. These bad definitions make it so the word can become “meaningless.”
The root of the word “oppression” is the element “press.” The press of the crowd; pressed into military service; to press a pair of pants; printing press; press the button.Presses are used to mold things or flatten them or reduce them in bulk, sometimes to reduce them by squeezing out the gases or liquids in them. Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility. Mold. Immobilize. Reduce. (Frye)
Oppression does not equal suffering or limitation, per se. Its synonym is not to be suffering. We all suffer, but not as groups oppressed.
Frye also discusses the “double bind.” The double bind is described as situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one penalty, censure or deprivation. When in the double bind, there are various systematic pressures and obstacles that keep one oppressed. For woman, there is not only the bind of being a woman, but also one for being a citizen of a nation or ethnic group. There are reduced choices because of the oppressed position and each choice can harm/expose you. To be able to understand the double bind–or even the triple bind, as we will learn of later in the semester–is to consider an intersectional approach to the issues aroundwomen and gender.
The way that Frye breaks this presents this issue to us is through the bird cage metaphor. To better understand the picture she paints, I have this picture of a bird cage.
Frye tells us that if you look at just one wire of the cage, even if you examine it very carefully, by only looking up close, at one element of the cage, this will mean that you are ignoring all the other wires and elements of the cage. By using a myopic focus, one may just wonder why on the bird in the cage does not just fly around that wire and escape. By looking u p close you can’t see each barrier, you only see one wire. But, if you step back you see the systematic barriers that are there (the wires of the cage) and then you see the cage itself. You understand that it is in fact a whole system that is keeping one in and keeping the outside out.
It is only when you step back and stop looking at the wires one by one, that you can take a macroscopic view of the whole cage and understand why the bird does not go anywhere. It becomes obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, not any one of which alone could hinder its flight, but that together makes them as confining as the solid walls of a prison.
Women are caught like this, too, by networks of forces and barriers that expose one to penalty, loss or contempt whether one works outside the home or not, is on welfare or not, bears children or not, raises children or not, marries or not, stays married or not, is heterosexual, lesbian, both or neither. Economic necessity; confinement to racial and/or sexual job ghettos; sexual harassment; sex discrimination; pressures of competing expectations and judgements about women, wives and mothers (in the society at large, in racial and ethnic subcultures and in one’s own mind); dependence (full or partial) on husbands, parents or the state; commitment to political ideas; loyalties to racial or ethnic or other “minority” groups; the demands of the self-respect and responsibilities to others. Each of these factors exists in complex tension with every other, penalizing or prohibiting all of the apparently available options. And nipping at one’s heels, always, is the endless pack of little things. If one dresses one way, one is subject to the assumption that one is advertising one’s sexual availability; if one dresses another way, one appears to “not care about oneself” or to be “unfeminine.” If one uses “strong language,” one invites categorization as a “lady” – one too delicately constituted to cope with robust speech or the realities to which it presumably refers.
The experience of oppression is the experience of living a life that is shaped by barriers that are not accidental or occasional. These barriers are systematically related to one another in such a way that they work together to keep one in an oppressed position. In another way to say it, there is no escape! Well, at least not a very easy one. (Not trying to seem too pessimistic.)
And then there is the discussion of what seems a benign occurrence that in fact has serious repercussions. That is the ritual of a man opening a door for a woman. The door-opening ritual between men and women has hidden connotations, men aren’t helping women at all, according to Frye. It is, in fact, demonstrating the patriarchal ways engrained within us and our society. The opening of door for women is helpful and polite, but in the greater scheme of things, only supports the idea that women need to be helped and it is the man who will help her. No one is helping woman at all.
Next Week: Next week is Spring Break! Enjoy! For the week we come back, please read Gloria Anzaldua‘s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” and “Towards a New Consciousness” and Trinh Minh-ha‘s “Grandma’s Story.” Trinh’s text is not in the reader, so I will be emailing a copy to all of you; however, I am not sure we will be covering this in class if not all of you have read.
Midterms should be all graded by Wednesday! If not, they will be available the following week. Take care!