The trial of Djamila Bouhired in the late 1950’s drew the world’s attention to the ordeal that Algeria had been enduring for over one century and a half. Her story became an inspiration to liberation movements across the world, and her name became synonymous with resistance, much as Rosa Parks’ story did. At that time, little did it matter what the ideological background that fathered Bouhired was, nor did her gender raise any misgivings from misogynists. The stories of women like Bouhired and Rosa Parks were beautiful and simple tales of resistance, a word that cannot be broken into social groupings tinted by gender, class or political ambition. Their actions were extensions to the fights of thousands of people – men and women – around the world.
But following the wave of liberation in the second half of the 20th century, and once the chapter of nation building was opened, female heroines disappeared, a disappearance that coincided with the gradual loss of faith in the capability of young people to create change. It became widely believed that the generation of Martin Luther King, Jamila Bouhired and Rosa Parks was now substituted by a flaccid generation whose love for shopping and music rose above the revolting spirit that characterised their predecessors and reached its most beautiful forms of expressions with the generation of the sixties.
But the generation of the iPad and of smart phones proved it could also offer heroes and heroines. In that part of the world where nobody thought that women could do nothing but take care of home and children, and under what the world hurriedly and felicitously called the “Arab Spring’, women started to shake the bars of invisibility, and like the ghostly figure of Charlotte Perkins Gilman in ‘the Yellow Wallpaper’, they emerged out of the shadows.
What followed however was very similar to what happened to their predecessors, the women who fought against colonisation in the beginning and the mid-twentieth century; they faded out against a background of multifarious political conflicts, and the heroism of revolutionary times was accredited to moustachioed, broad shouldered heroes whose statues and pictures decorated the squares of major towns and cities in their countries for decades.
So where did all these women go?
The explanation that is readily offered by most feminists is that women retire into the shadows of domestic life following big transitions, but to say that is to sideline the fact that these women are always present even in post-transitional times to my thinking, only they become less visible. Yielding to the fatal destiny of female activism, they often end up being sucked up into the pre-existing models of political expression that are originally designed to fit the ambitions of male politicians, but which often represent strait jackets for women.
When issues of national importance are posed, gender is readily frowned at. But in nearly all modern societies, gender inequality is but one side of a multisided prism of systems that support and feed injustices; equal pay, regulation of working hours, maternity holidays and birth control rights have never been separate from the deep core of human rights, an issue that the politics of right and left fail to acknowledge, either by giving gender a minor importance compared to other issues, or by feigning to give it importance while isolating it from other issues. This situation is visible in countries like Tunisia and Egypt which, following the overthrow of their dictators, were left to sort out whether to place the issue of gender under the agenda of the left or that of the right.
In her book The Deepening Darkness, Carol Gilligan and David A. J. Richards explain how patriarchy has developed out of suppression and violence not only against women, but also against all the differences that deviated from the normative prototype of the patriarchal model.
Patriarchy is an anthropological term denoting families or societies ruled by fathers. It sets up hierarchy – a rule of priests – in which the priest, the hieros, is a father, pater. As an order of living, it elevates some men over other men and all men over women.
Gender inequality developed hand in hand with its sister inequities, like racism and ethnic discrimination, resulting in large scale organised oppression inside different institutions, ranging from family to empire. Women have always been present in protest movements, but their burdens have been mistakenly isolated from those of the masses. One has to ask why gender protest becomes sharper in times of big transitions, and why more and more Saudi women for instance protested the ban on driving after the uprisings in the Arab world started.
Another reason why female activism hits against stumbling blocks is that left, right and other divisions tended to solidify the image of the woman fighter into stereotypes shaped by masculine standards. Perhaps the most emblematic image of the woman fighter is that of the Amazonian warrior, a woman who has to cut out one breast in order to carry the bow so that when she shoots, she should not miss. Women fighters know that once they miss, they are dismissed and they should leave the arena. Conservatives and liberals alike utilised discourses that made use of this image, though in different ways. Whereas conservatives tended to depict women fighters as wearing the iron pants of chastity and to be consistent with identity preservation and with moral and religious correctness, liberalism pushed women into the opposite direction, aligning their salvation with professional competitiveness and sexual liberation that became contingent with the immoderate consumption of pleasure.
The memory of the contemplative goddess holding her breasts in both hands and maintaining the balance of existence, became somehow strange to the taste of women fighters of modern society who define their achievement in terms of polarised stances. Out of the image of the bare-breasted goddess and that of the Amazon carrying a spear, transpired another hybrid image that galloped down the history of the antiquity into the modern imagination. Riding bare-breasted and dressing herself and her female warriors as amazons in the crusades, Eleanor de Aquitaine inspires both the exoticism of the goddess and the shrewdness of warrior. Her tale is a tale of success associated with blood and violence that the ‘femme fatale’ had somehow become consistent with, blurring the fact that her popularity and her heroism (although not always approved of) rested upon her contribution to one of the longest and most bloody wars in human history, interweaving otherworldly salvation to the ambitions of expansion in the here and now.
Perhaps more sympathetic among all those bare-breasted figures is Eugene Delacroix’s goddess-like Liberty, guiding the people over a pile of corpses, a reminder that the transcendental nature of the feminine is able to carry the torch of human aspirations. Beyond the prospects of the here and now and the otherworldly, art, which has always sought to go deep into the timelessness symbols, keeps successfully reminding us that women’s protest is part and parcel of the sweat and blood of toiling masses and freedom searchers.