Decoding the No-Word
Women’s transnational movements and protests are spreading via the Internet. They have already made a huge impact on societies.
What does the act of saying no imply for women? And how can the Classical myth of Electra inspire us today?
A rising movement
There are only a few days to go before the worldwide event One Billion Rising, a campaign launched by Eve Ensler, international gender activist and author of The Vagina Monologues. This event celebrates the 15th “V-Day” on the 14th of February 2013, a day when women around the world will be called upon to dance against gender-based violence.
As a young feminist, I am inspired by these transnational movements that have emerged to fight against gender based violence over the past few years, spread by the World Wide Web. Indeed, like many feminists embracing the social networking revolution, I have been carefully following these virtual and real campaigns that link individuals beyond nationality, ethnicity, class, gender, age and religion.
Across the globe, from North America to North Africa, women have been taking to the streets in ever more powerful protests.
SlutWalks, which began in April 2011 in Canada, was an early milestone of this spontaneous global feminist movement. Women are coming together by virtue of a shared feeling of vulnerability, injustice and inequality. In these SlutWalks, women – but not only women -scantily dressed or, as in India, conservatively dressed, marched to protest against women being victimized after a sexual assault. This recalls the Gulabi or Pink Sari Gang in India, a well publicised women’s movement that enforces vigilante justice upon abusive husbands and local despots, using bamboo sticks to administer beatings.
Another powerful example is the women’s movement in the Arab-Muslim world. Their circumstances and social strata differ greatly, from upper class Lebanese women to Tunisian women who marched against Ben Ali, or from privileged Saudis to Palestinian women. Many of them came together in the transnational campaign The Uprising of Women in the Arab World launched by the Lebanese activists Yalda Younès and Diala Haïdar, the Palestinian Farah Barqaoui and the Egyptian Sally Zohney. This web-based campaign was posted on Facebook, attracting women from each and every country of the Arab-Muslim world and their supporters, broadcasting their wishes and demands: “I am with the Uprising of Women in the Arab World because…”
In Asia, there is India, which recently witnessed unprecedented public outrage in reaction to the gang-rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi. Likewise in north-Pakistan, the young Malala Yousafzai, campaigning for girls’ right to education, who was shot in the head by the Taliban while on her way to school, has survived her attack and become an international symbol. Her portrait was recently on the cover of the US Time magazine. Women’s struggles for liberation are widely transmitted and appropriated in the North.
How can we in the North understand women’s revolts in the developing world? What can we understand about the women currently marching in Cairo? They loudly oppose harassment and sexual assault, and demanding that the revolution which continues to redefine the Egyptian political landscape cannot treat them as collateral damage.
A logos (a speech, a discourse, language) is rising up. And that’s a good thing. Because language differentiates us one from the other and brings from object status to subject status. Women, those whose voices we can hear, are going out, extra-muros, and are crying out a clear and resounding No. This No will undoubtedly spread into the legislative and political sphere, perhaps even more quickly than we expect. But struggle is going on.
Eve Ensler showed this in a straightforward and witty way in the Vagina Monologues, starting from the private sphere brings to the collective. As if by making your inside safe and knowing yourself, you are enabled to be better defined, better limited and better able to connect with others. The private is political. By drawing on the categories that others use to define us, we can deconstruct and free ourselves, finding resilience in order to create. Finally.
This impetus for liberation comes in waves, individually and collectively. It is a process that deserves to be watched closely.
Decoding the “No” –word
To consent or give in…
The process of freeing oneself from oppression gives amazing strength. It is an impulse of desire (in the meaning of a life force desire) that opens up new perspectives, blowing a great wind of innovation in one’s life, offering new opportunities for encounters and actions. This process also reverberates in our communities.
When the liberation process meets a receptive culture, the physical, psychological and behavioral leaps taken by the individual can become spectacular. The starting point of this liberation process becomes possible when the awakening resources are available, or at least not too far away, ready to be grabbed; when the surrounding culture allows an awareness of what dominates the individual; when the individual goes from a position of surrender, to the choice of consenting or saying no.
Feminists have analyzed this process. Several steps define the emancipation process. In the case of women, as a group that does not enjoy the same rights as the dominant members of society, one of the firsts steps of consciousness-raising can be described as a “renaturalization” of the self, a way back to a “feminine strength” that would be natural and engraved in the body, fed by matriarchal myths, celebrated by cycles: puberty, pregnancy, motherhood, menopause, etc.
To me, Islamic Feminism can be seen as part of this renaturalizing movement. Feminizing one’s world without being too radical, never “too much”. This step is often mandatory. It is defined by the moment when, after coming to an understanding of how much one has suffered, one looks desperately for a way out and a means to become the creator of one’s own destiny.
The following step could be the analysis and the deconstruction of the categories of differentiation. Or at least, a refusal to organize these categories into a hierarchy. These are the origins of gender theory, championed by feminists, inspired by culturalism and “French Theory”.
At the individual level, it is the amazement of the world’s reversal. Suddenly, the categories in which one once felt so imprisoned explode and new meanings are born. Finally, this works for the individual and the group, the “gender trouble” step (Butler, 1991), that of agency and choice, comes next. And this step can only come when one holds enough social, economic and cultural capital…the empowerment step.
Let us not forget feminists’ warnings and the concept of backlash. And let us not forget that each and every step of liberation brings with it the threat of punishment. This backlash is not the product of societies and dominants alone, but of the individual psyche as well. Internalized norms of violence. This small voice inside that makes you doubt and makes you consent.
What solution is possible when a backlash happens? When a child is shot for asking for rights, when women are raped as a punishment for going to public places? When Facebook censors the picture of a Syrian woman posing without a veil on the Uprising web-page? We must remember that we have to keep saying No. That the No-word transforms relations between genders and allows women to go from object to subject. Endlessly.
The ancient, mythological figure of Electra can be particularly inspiring for today’s feminists. Let us examine what Electra has to tell us about the No-word.
Have we overcome Electra ?
Feminist or feminicide?
Electra, the main character of the beautiful tragedy from Sophocles is the second daughter of King Agamemnon and Clytemnestra his wife. In order to go to war in Troy, and lacking wind in his sails, Agamemnon orders that his first-born daughter, Iphigenia, be killed. Coming back from Troy, ten years later, the king is murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus in his palace.
Electra wants vengeance for the death of her father. She is a rebel and tries to push her younger sister Chrysothemis into the killing with her. She ends up allying with her brother Orestes, back from exile, to execute their mother and her accomplice. Orestes kills them both and runs away, followed by the Erinyes, goddesses of revenge. Electra remains alone.
The revenge is accomplished, the order is broken. Electra, a tragic figure of chaos that she participated in creating, stands, by herself, carrying one word: No. No, the crime will not remain unpunished, no, the murderers will not reign over the city, no I will not stay in my place. Whatever the price might be.
What kind of inspiration can Electra give us today, in this political landscape where a new language is rising up, horizontal, transnational, what we may dare to call a Women’s International…?
At first sight, the feminist of the story is her mother: Clytemnestra. If we look at her name, we can read it, even if it is not the proper etymology, but just take a look: Clyt like clitoris, Mnestra, like menstrual. It is her, Clytemnestra, who claims the right to sleep with whomever she wants, who kills her husband as a punishment for the murder of her daughter, who wants to continue reigning over the city. Electra has often been accused of sticking up for the men of the family. She avenges the father, loves the brother. Indeed, in psychoanalysis, the Electra complex is the feminine counterpart of the Oedipus complex. It is the woman destroying the feminine to choose the masculine. This critical position appears to me as abstruse. It implies that we could analyze the myth in the light of post-modernity. Electra gives us light when we look at her as a principle and not a character. To me, Electra is the principle of No.
One may object that Antigone is the archetype of feminine courage, who opposes the illegitimate Law. But to me, Electra is more powerful. Antigone is a housekeeper. She wants to put order into chaos. Electra invents a new order. She is creative.
Leaving the old to create the new
With the No-word, Electra doesn’t betray her sex as her opponents declared. I assure you that on the contrary she overcomes it by refusing to accept what she is offered: consensus, silence, oblivion, denial. I will go so far as to say that she transcends gender. Being not a representative of femininity or masculinity, she is an impulse that is destructive of the old order. She is revenge or justice but above all questioning, obstinacy, desire. It is the impetus that moves her that can be inspiring for us. And not the context she is living in. Because this refusal impulse meets with violent opponents.
When the Chorus warns her: “Thou hast greatly aggravated thy troubles, ever breeding wars with thy sullen soul; but such strife should not be pushed to a conflict with the strong”, or when her obedient little sister, Chrysothemis tells her: “bend before the strong”, she answers that it is not even order that she is seeking. It is the end of an Era. With no need to qualify what will be coming next.
Electra is beyond her sex. She is the desire for the No. This No that rises up and brings women from sex to gender and further, to invention. From object to subject. From the ancient order to pure creativity, despite the traps, the Chorus’s threats, the backlash and the little internal
Women who raise their voices today, worldwide, against the violence and inequalities forced upon them are Electra’s granddaughters. Like her, these women confront societies that want to force their consent, sisters who play the dominant’s game, small internal voices that pull the carpet from under their feet. But just like Electra, with talent and creativity, despite the losses suffered and to come, women are rising up, connecting, saying No and inventing something completely new that no one had seen coming.
Additional Works Referenced: Butler, J. (2000) Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death. New York: Columbia University Press.
Adriane is a thirty-two year-old feminist, French national with an Afghan and Lebanese family background. She holds a Masters degree in Political Science from the Sorbonne University and works in the field of gender and development. In her spare time, she is a poet and a writer. She currently lives in Brussels, Belgium. Special thanks go to Christienne Provonchee and Stephanie Amar-Flood for their assistance with translation.