Literary representations of maternity

Narrative obstetrics: on literary representations of maternity

by Helen Charman, PhD Candidate at Trinity Hall and the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge.

In February— in case you needed reminding— Beyoncé announced that she was pregnant with twins via a heavily symbolic photoshoot that drew on everything from 15th century Flemish portraiture to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Queen Nefertiti. Announced on the first day of Black History Month in America, the pictures figure as a twofold celebration of historically marginalised and objectified physicalities. Amongst the inevitable media furore, the celebrations were countered by predictable complaints from the entire political spectrum of the media, backed up by censorious comments from members of the public. Readers all over the U.K. felt compelled to share that they ‘couldn’t care less’ about the announcement, urging the papers to ‘write about real news’ instead. In fact, many commenters professed to care so little about Beyoncé and her belly that they composed quite lengthy rants about it. Perhaps, as seems to have been the case for one visitor to The Sun online, the photographs were the final straw: ‘Yet another preggie publicly flaunting that ugly bump. Why cant these people wear sensible clothes and cover up, keep the naked pics for their own eyes.’

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A photo from Beyoncé’s photoshoot

The desire to censor the pregnant female body is nothing new, and it goes hand in hand with our inability to discuss things like the menstrual cycle without deferring to the delicate sensibilities of actual or imagined listeners, particularly male ones. Beyoncé’s photographs were accompanied by a poem by Warsan Shire, making the link to Venus— goddess of love— explicit, and reinforcing the sexual aspect of the images: ‘in the dream I am crowning / osun, / Nerfetiti, / and yemoja / pray around my bed’. The photograph that seemed to incense people the most was the one posed sitting on the roof of a car: a hyper-sexualised pose familiar to many from calendars and glamour magazines. Critics were also vocal about the ‘exploitative’ nature of the photographs, suggesting that there was something unseemly about Beyoncé— who, as of March 2017, has a net worth estimated by Forbes to be over $290 million — ‘using’ her pregnancy to contribute to her lucrative personal brand. The announcement illustrated a familiar truth: the intersection of female sexuality and economic power— and its mirror image, commodification— touches on deep-seated societal fears. Although the smattering of tight-lipped comment pieces framing their disapproval of the photograph’s lavish celebration of the pregnant body as concern for childless women were mostly disingenuous— this concern doesn’t usually seem to bother tabloid newspapers who mine ‘fertility’ dramas for exposure— they served to illuminate the paradox of maternity: censorship goes hand in hand with idealisation. Some of the positive responses to the announcement were deceptively conservative in their valourisation of motherhood as a woman’s ‘true’ purpose, something all too easily appropriated by exclusionary and harmful discussions about what ‘real’ womanhood is or should be.

My doctoral research evidences that these conflicting attitudes to motherhood are far from a new phenomenon. I am a PhD student in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, and my doctoral research uses the novels of the prolific Victorian author, translator and essayist George Eliot as a focus through which to explore the changing attitude towards maternity in the nineteenth century. In her seminal study of ‘motherhood as experience and institution’, Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich asks how have women given birth, who has helped them, and how, and why? These are not simply questions of the history of midwifery and obstetrics: they are political questions.’[1] My project contends that by the time Eliot published her last novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1876 the political aspects of these questions had become issues of economic and literary production, too: like the furore around Beyoncé’s baby bump, the response to pregnant bodies in the nineteenth century demonstrated subversive power they held over every aspect of society.

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George Eliot

In the Victorian period the mother was idealised as, in Coventry Patmore’s phrase, ‘the angel in the house’: the pressures of the new industrial age created a divide between the public, masculine workplace and the feminine, domestic domain of the home, which was seen as place of moral stability in a changing world. Yet the domestic idolisation of the mother was closely linked to the rapid economic and political advancements occurring in ‘masculine’ society. From the eighteenth century onwards, childbirth itself had become radically medicalized: rather than midwives attending to expectant mothers in their homes— in exclusively female spaces— lying-in hospitals, male obstetricians and the use of forceps became the norm. Wet-nursing turned mother’s milk— and the lactating breast— into a commodity. Throughout the nineteenth century, the effectiveness of these medical advancements was fiercely debated in publications like the British Medical Journal and The Lancet: these discussions were overwhelmingly dominated by men who linked the debates around childbirth to broader political and moral debates of the time. Ruth Perry, Valerie Fildes and other historians of motherhood have made a persuasive argument that this medicalization, alongside the charitable drives to save infant lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as the establishment of the London Foundling Hospital, links the construction and valourisation of bourgeois motherhood to the Victorian concern with Empire. As Perry puts it,

… motherhood was a colonial form—the domestic, familial counterpart to land enclosure at home and imperialism abroad. Motherhood as it was constructed in the early modern period is a production-geared phenomenon analogous to the capitalizing of agriculture, the industrializing of manufacture, and the institutionalizing of the nation state.[2]

In the nineteenth century, the emergence of the maternal ideal was, rather than a positive or empowering development for women, a means of co-opting the female reproductive body into the service of a patriarchal societal and economic system.

So how does this link to the literature? By the end of the nineteenth century, the novel had become the most prominent literary form in Britain. The revival of serialisation increased accessibility and, combined with the dominance of social realism, meant prose fiction was a highly relevant and reactive art form. In the first half of the century, economists had reformulated traditional concepts of value according to the ability to generate financial returns. As the novel became increasingly concerned with an explicitly capitalist system of value, the figure of the mother became symbolic of these ongoing debates about worth: the commodification of care. The reproductive bodies of the female protagonists in George Eliot’s novels, as well as in the work of her contemporaries like Charles Dickens, are embedded in a complex value system in which their idealized virtue is directly related to their economic function as producers.

Maternal virtue, however, was inconveniently linked to sexuality. The female body was most acceptable when it could be rationalised as fulfilling the function of maternity, but the physical reality of pregnancy was a threat to repressive norms that governed Victorian society. As Carolyn Dever notes, novels of this period were struggling of an impossible reconciliation of ‘a maternal ideal with the representation of the embodied—and potentially eroticized—female subject.’[3] Consequently, the idealised mother loomed large in Victorian fiction, but more often than not these texts feature mothers who are absent, or dead: psychologically overwhelming, but physically absent. Although recent developments in historical thought suggest that the maternal mortality rate in the nineteenth century was not as high as was once assumed, it is true that the medicalization of childbirth brought with it an epidemic of puerperal fever, or ‘childbed fever’. Maternal death in nineteenth-century fiction, however, far exceeded the actual rates of childbed death, which consistently remained well below 1%. Dever and others have linked this trope to Freudian psychoanalysis, and the destabilising effect the idea of the sexual maternal body could have upon the identities of children raised in a culture that linked female sexuality with hysteria and disorder. In nineteenth-century narrative, the tragic death of the mother ensured her virtue: free of the troubling aspects of her embodied existence, she could fulfil the symbolic role society required of her.

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

In a letter of 1866, George Eliot referred to her fiction as an attempt to ‘make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh and not in the spirit’. This notion of ‘incarnation’ is undermined, however, by the fact that Eliot largely avoids any engagement with matters of the flesh. Indeed, Eliot seems to want to avoid biological maternity altogether. In her novels mothers either die young— often in childbirth— or are comically incompetent or grotesque and replaced by substitutionary maternal figures who are able to provide moral guidance uncomplicated by the problem of physical maternity. The few female protagonists in her work who do go on to have children have to sacrifice something of themselves in the process: Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch (1871-1872), lives happily with her husband and two children, but we learn in the novel’s final passage that although her husband is an active social reformer, Dorothea’s own ambitions remain unfulfilled. It could be argued that the reason for the dearth of maternal characters in Eliot’s novels is the narrative dead end the circumstances of maternity provided for so many nineteenth-century women. We’ve got a long way to go before we can honestly say that this isn’t still the case for many women today. In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich— writing in 1986— comments on the metaphorical resonance that death in childbirth retains:

Even in a place and time where maternal mortality is low, a woman’s fantasies of her own death in childbirth have the accuracy of metaphor. Typically, under patriarchy, the mother’s life is exchanged for the child; her autonomy as a separate being seems fated to conflict with the infant she will bear. The self-denying, self-annihilating role of the Good Mother (linked implicitly with suffering and with the repression of anger) will spell the “death” of the woman or girl who once has hopes, expectations, fantasies for herself—especially when those hopes and fantasies have never been acted on.[4]

The valourised, idealised Good Mother is a trope that works against women, not for them. If we want to change it, we need to understand where it came from, and how inherently linked it is to our economic and political systems, and we need more ‘preggies’ like Beyoncé to ‘flaunt’ their maternity in a way that includes, rather than denies, their autonomous, sexual identities.

[1] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (London: Virago, 1976, reissued with a new introduction by the author [1986], reprinted 1992), p.128.

[2] Ruth Perry, ‘Colonising the Breast: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England’, (Journal of the History of Sexuality,Vol. 2, No. 2, Special Issue, Part 1: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe (Oct., 1991), pp. 204-234), p. 205.

[3]Carolyn Dever, Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), p. 19.

[4] Rich, p.166.

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Gender and terror – woman first, fighter second?

Gender and terror – woman first, fighter second?

by Ashleigh McFeeters

As acts of political violence flood local and international news media outlets, it is imperative that academic study scrutinises, and if necessary, challenges, these news media representations. For the majority of people watching, listening to, or reading the news, these representations are the only information that they will receive. Hence, the content of these portrayals and how they are produced, have a significant impact on news consumers’ ideologies and understandings of political violence.

What is more, violence (and most threats to security) are deemed a primarily male domain. Women’s involvement in political violence jars with this ‘masculine endeavour. Women who commit acts of political violence are not depicted simply as combatants, freedom fighters or terrorists, but their representations in the news media are gendered. The terms female combatant/freedom fighter/terrorist are pregnant with gendering, as not only does the adjective ‘female’ come before combatant/freedom fighter/terrorist, which highlights her gender before her actions, but the fact that her gender must be qualified speaks volumes about the palatability of women engaging in political violence.

As the news media have a significant role in mirroring, creating and perpetuating social norms, the consequences of this is that the categories of representation can be adopted by news consumers and repeated and reiterated through dialogue and socialisation. The news media may be guilty of underpinning, rather than confronting, the dominant patriarchal culture and subsequently participating in women’s marginalisation in public life.

In society, women are generally defined by traditional gender roles, and these narratives are picked up by the news media and bolstered by repeated depiction. In the news media, women are still depicted using a formula of gendered accounts, especially with a focus on appearance. For example, hits in Google for Amal Clooney are blogs dedicated to her fashion sense. Unfortunately, her impeccable style looms large over her career as a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. Moreover, Michelle Obama is as well-known for her clothes (Weaver, 2017) as she is for her campaign for female education. Although there is nothing fundamentally wrong with referring to someone’s clothes, when this becomes the be all and end all of a person’s characterisation this is where it is detrimental to women’s equality. If women’s news media portrayal is distilled down to an outfit, this constrains women’s roles to one-dimensional symbols of beauty rather than as figures of change.

This is particularly notable with regards to female combatants, as their acts of political violence are also framed by gender constructions. For example, the online New York Post’s headline ‘She’s Beautiful and She’s an Alleged ISIS Terrorist’ (Rosenbaum, 2015) gives the impression of puzzlement. Why would a beautiful woman choose to be a terrorist as surely her beauty could have been better spent elsewhere?! The currency (and commodity) of beauty is a valuable and looked-for bargaining chip in society, “[t]hey call her the ‘beautiful terrorist with a Mona Lisa smile’ and she’s as wanted as any work by Leonardo da Vinci”(Rosenbaum, 2015). The choice of the word “wanted” alludes to her being sought by authorities for terrorist offences, but also wanted as in desired sexually. The portrayal of her appearance and associated sexuality have overshadowed her political activism, and the fact that the allusion to her looks precedes her occupation underscores the notion that her appearance is more important than her political agency.

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Source: http://nypost.com/2015/10/26/turkish-police-hunt-for-smirking-female-isis-suspect/.

Furthermore, the interview of Viner (2001) and Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is saturated with gendered connotations: “international pin-up”; “the gun held in fragile hands, the shiny hair wrapped in a keffiah, the delicate Audrey Hepburn face refusing to meet your eye”; “Her cheekbones are still like knives; her eyes are gentle but flicker when moved”. This effusively gendered account of Khaled champions her appearance over her acts of political violence in 1960s and 70s. The oxymoron of the ‘beautiful terrorist’ suggests an uneasiness as beauty and terror are conflated. The paradoxes of sharp cheekbones as signifiers of attractiveness and knives as deadly weapons, and of delicate hands holding lethal arms, are difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, the female combatant is aesthetically pleasing by adhering to the accepted norms of beauty, however, on the other hand, her beauty is balanced with the ugly acts of terrorists. It is challenging to negotiate and navigate between the two notions in the news media. Therefore, in order to acquaint the female terrorist with the news consumer, familiar frameworks of understanding are utilised.

One such framework is the theme of hypersexuality. The Independent.ie calls Idoia Lopez Riano “the seductress ‘Tigresa’ lost her lust for killing” (Govan, 2011a) that alludes to her sexuality and female libidinousness which portrays her as a lascivious profligate. Frequently, female sexuality is referenced to undermine a woman’s credibility and ability. Moreover, an ‘oversexed’ woman is portrayed as having aberrant sexuality which has led her to murder, rather than a conscious and deliberate choice based on political acumen. The “green-eyed femme fatale”(Govan, 2011b) is a seductress rather than a political activist.

Another theme used to characterise female combatants is that of motherhood imagery. Kendall (2015) reports that Mairead Farrell, a member of the Provisional IRA, endeavoured to distance the female volunteers from the Mother Ireland image “because it didn’t reflect what we believed in…we’d moved on from that”. The iconic maternal figure wholly undercuts any form of agency within female combatants by reducing them to flat characters with meaning imbued upon them, rather than revolutionaries with their own agency.

The themes used in the news media categorise the female combatants/terrorists/freedom fighters in such a way as to undermine any form of agency or choice. The female combatant is difficult to articulate to a mass audience, thus short-hand stereotypes paint her with broad brush strokes and whitewash her political activism to present a less threatening woman, rather than a violent agent of change. A significant outcome of preserving the image of traditional feminine passivity in the news media, is that the imagery is internalised by news consumers and this affects how female combatants are seen. By manipulating gendered cultural norms to advance their cause, women have a vital role in paramilitary organisations where certain activities cannot be performed by men without attracting unwanted attention and detection. However, this further exemplifies and solidifies women’s secondary role in society by fostering gender inequality. Women’s emancipation is truncated because social values, expectations and assumptions about women are preserved.

Women are underestimated because of their presumed non-threatening nature; they are not important enough to warrant investigation. Due to this, women can infiltrate areas without detection or suspicion. In addition, the sensitivities to searching women’s bodies allow women to feign pregnancy in order to hide bombs (Bloom et al., 2011).

Therefore, when the news media keeps these gendered narratives alive it is misinforming the population about female combatants’ capabilities. Perhaps this is over-reading and over-stating the news media’s role – however, as news media accounts of female combatants (and women in general) still present them as sex objects, these representations must be analysed and confronted. It is important to examine gender as a category of experience and a social process, but it must not be overemphasised as a reason for actions. When political violence is reduced to gendered reasons, such as the Chechen Black Widows (Stack, 2011), this only allows the female actors to be understood through the prism of gender, which is a social construction. This is internalised in social cognition and can have devastating effects upon women’s equality, as it fosters the male as the norm and female as the other.

Not only do gender stereotypes in the news media harm gender equality, they also impede counter- and anti-terrorism security measures. Nacos’s advice is that in order to combat terrorism, the opportunities for the manipulation of gender prejudices by terrorists must be shut down. A suggested method is to allow and encourage gender reality to inform counter-terrorism policies by removing the gender stereotypes of female combatants in the news media, as these stereotypes “reflect and reinforce deep-seated societal attitudes”(2005: 448).

To finish, this analysis of the news media endeavours to be critical rather than pessimistic as the news media also have the power to defy pre-existing norms by refusing to use familiar gender stereotypes to represent female combatants and women in general.

 Sources

Bloom M, Gill P and Horgan J. (2011) Tiocfaidh ar Mna: Women in the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 4: 60-76.

Govan F. (2011a) How the Seductress ‘Tigresa’ Lost her Lust for Killing. Available at: http://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/how-the-seductress-tigresa-lost-her-lust-for-killing-26795118.html.

Govan F. (2011b) La Tigresa Kicked Out of ETA After Renouncing Violence. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/8910436/La-Tigresa-kicked-out-of-ETA-after-renouncing-violence.html.

Kendall B. (2015) What Drives Women to Extreme Acts? Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-33600267.

Nacos BL. (2005) The Portrayal of Female Terrorists in the Media: Similar Framing Patterns in the News Coverage of Women in Politics and Terrorism. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 28: 435-451.

Rosenbaum S. (2015) She’s Beautiful and She’s an Alleged ISIS Terrorist. Available at: http://nypost.com/2015/10/26/turkish-police-hunt-for-smirking-female-isis-suspect/.

Stack A. (2011) Zombies Versus Black Widows Women as Propaganda in the Chechen Conflict. In: Sjoberg L and Gentry CE (eds) Women, Gender, and Terrorism. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 83-95.

Viner K. (2001) ‘I made the ring from a bullet and the pin of a hand grenade’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/jan/26/israel.

Weaver H. (2017) The Significance of Michelle Obama’s Bold Red Dress During Her Final Speech as FLOTUS. Available at: http://www.vanityfair.com/style/2017/01/michelle-obama-final-speech-red-dress.

 

 

 

 

What She Means to Me: On Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Candidacy

by Anne Kauth.

The Patriarchy, every day

I refrain from blurting out the P word in my everyday life: for fear of being written off as a nasty feminist. For fear that you may stop reading, may stop listening. But any story about what she means to me must include mention of it. The Patriarchy is to us women as water is to fish: a system of external domination of which most of us spend our lives blithely unaware, even though we are constantly swimming against its undertow, or else trying to ignore it because that chronic awareness is so painfully debilitating once we begin to recognize it in every aspect of our daily lives.

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Anne (r) meets Hillary Rodham Clinton, then Secretary of State, in the U.S. Mission to the EU, Brussels, December 2012.

Who am I to talk about the Patriarchy, though? I’m a child of the nineties. I’m American, white, privileged, educated, cis-gendered, gainfully employed, and have a supportive network of mentors and advocates. I grew up with Girl Power and Sally Ride and Jane Goodall and Susan Rice and Madeleine Albright. Not only did I leave my native Minnesota for college on the East Coast, I was an athlete, a campus leader, I traveled nonstop, dated whomever I wanted, had killer internships, and knew I would be employed from the moment I graduated in a job that was engaging, well-compensated, and progressively responsible. I have had fabulous bosses, managers, and colleagues. I have had respectful, empowering, enlightened romantic partners. I have made a life for myself in nine cities on three continents. And here I am in San Francisco in my late 20s, enjoying a period of life that for women the world over is truly unprecedented. I do not yet have a family of my own, I’m not yet married, but I’m no longer living with the family that raised me. I’m living independently as a young professional with the support, love, and pride of my family, friends, and community. This is a chapter that my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers never experienced, and one that I endeavor to take advantage of to the fullest.

And yet the conversation comes up again and again, over brunch with friends who are similarly educated, gainfully employed, freely dating, living full lives in global hubs. That feeling. That question. Am I just imagining this uncomfortable power dynamic with the guy at work? Am I really overreacting to this imbalance in my relationship? Was that uncomfortable interaction with the stranger at the airport harmless? Is there anything to complain about, really, when for decades it was so much worse? When for women in most other parts of the world– and for many in our country who do not have the privileges, security and agency that my peers have– it is still so much worse?

The Patriarchy and the 2016 presidential campaign

Then the 2016 presidential campaign gained momentum, overtook the national consciousness. And as frustrating, embarrassing, terrifying as it is, it also has provided us with a platform to discuss the Patriarchy in a way that won’t, that can’t, be written off. Michelle Obama made the speech of the year in New Hampshire on October 13th, and it hit home in a way that has women of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds, talking about experiences with harassment, abuse, and assault, sometimes for the first time.

“We thought all of that was ancient history, didn’t we? And so many have worked for so many years to end this kind of violence and abuse and disrespect, but here we are, in 2016, and we’re hearing these exact same things every day on the campaign trail. We are drowning in it. And all of us are doing what women have always done: We’re trying to keep our heads above water, just trying to get through it, trying to pretend like this doesn’t really bother us maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak.

Maybe we’re afraid to be that vulnerable. Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet, because we’ve seen that people often won’t take our word over his. Or maybe we don’t want to believe that there are still people out there who think so little of us as women. Too many are treating this as just another day’s headline, as if our outrage is overblown or unwarranted, as if this is normal, just politics as usual.”

It is not normal. It is not politics as usual.

This is the election of our time, mostly for reasons that mar the face of the American political landscape, save for one. 

What she means to me

Her. Our candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton. A female nominee for president representing one of the major political parties for the first time in history. A candidate who is, as the sitting President remarked, the most qualified candidate ever for the highest office in the land. She’s ours. She is us. It was her voice that was finally heard when she confirmed that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights. And she has contended with what every woman in America breaking through personal and professional barriers has had to confront.

She is vilified for being inauthentic, but women who know her and know American politics also know that she has been misunderstood because she has spent so much time and energy responding to every negative experience any one of us has had thrown our way in the workplace, in our relationships, in our daily lives. She, however, has done all that in parallel with, and within the confines of, the rise of the 24 hour news cycle. Having her appearance, her accent, her cookie baking skills, her motherhood, her energy, her warmth or lack thereof, her stamina, her unacceptable pattern of continually asking for a promotion by running for office continually mocked, questioned, and denigrated by a male-dominated opposition punditry.

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Anne (r) and Secretary Clinton, U.S. Mission to the EU, Brussels, December 2012

How we could ever know the “real her” is unfathomable under these conditions. What we do know is that she has spent all four challenging, painful, and still triumphant decades of her professional life as a tireless public servant. I won’t rattle off her resume again here, but do love restating that she is the most-traveled Secretary of State in history: she visited 112 countries during her four-year tenure, traversing 956,733 miles — enough to span the globe more than 38 times. And it is she whom I have looked up to for many years as the ultimate example of leadership.

I take nothing for granted one week from election day in America. I can’t tell you what will happen for sure, sadly, not even Nate Silver can. What I can tell you is that while I have never been more concerned about the state of American politics, I also have never been more hopeful about the possibilities for American women who collectively are owning their experiences with the Patriarchy and naming them for what they are– the most essential step to bring about change.

So, thank you Hillary. I am with you. Here’s to November 9th.

With thanks to Joanna Pinto-Coelho, Jules Shell, Gunnar Kauth, and Antonia Kerle

A note on the WomenAreBoring Blog:

Women Are Boring is dedicated to disseminating interesting research and writing by interesting women.  As with all things worth doing, we are aware that research and opinion is debatable and worthy of contestation. This is something we encourage. As such, the opinions and views shared are those of each individual article’s author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Women Are Boring team.

CHILD SOLDIERS: Where are the girls?

CHILD SOLDIERS: Where are the girls?  Kids, guns and the Patriarchy

By Marie Penicaut

Much has been written lately about African child soldiers.[1] We, in the West, are all familiar with the image of an eight or ten year old boy, holding an AK-47 too big for him, in a pseudo-military uniform, his eyes crying for help. We see him in newspapers and on television. We hear his horrifying story in documentaries, interviews, and sometimes self-written memoirs. Since Blood Diamond[2], we also see him in fiction films, poignant and stereotypical representations of these kids’ tragic lives that we too readily take for granted. And, as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wonderfully puts it in an inspiring TedTalk, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make the single story become the only story”.[3]

 

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The ‘typical’ child soldier

But where are the girls in all of that? Why don’t we see pictures of little girls carrying AK-47s? Why is there virtually no girl – not a single one – in Netflix’s critically acclaimed Beasts of No Nation[4], while many studies have proven that they constitute up to 40% of all child soldiers in some African contexts? Why are they so often completely ignored by academic literature, governments, international organisations and NGOs alike?

 

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Agu’s all-boys unit marching towards combat. Screenshot from Beasts of No Nation.

The answer should not come as a surprise. Once again, the Patriarchy strikes: society puts us in two clear-cut categories, where according to our biological sex – male or female[5] – we are expected to behave in a certain way. Girls will naturally be peaceful, pacifist, and passive; boys will be inherently violent, aggressive, and impulsive. Hence the common belief that on one side, ‘girls don’t fight’, while on the other, ‘boys will be boys’ – which inevitably leads to the idea that war is the realm of men, and of men uniquely.

No wonder, then, that girl child soldiers are invisible, even when confronted with evidence that 10 to 30% of child soldiers worldwide are female, and 30 to 40% in recent African conflicts.[6]

When – and if – mentioned, it is only as simple camp followers. As the ‘good little women’ they are, they cook, do the laundry and take care of the youngest. But in reality, many receive military training and fight just like the boys.[7] During the Mozambican War of Independence (1964-74), which opposed the Portuguese government and FREMILO (The Mozambique Liberation Front), the rebels had mixed and female-only military units where girls and young women fought for the liberation of their country.[8] War was an opportunity for them to escape their gender roles. They were treated just the same as men. But once the country became independent in 1975, it was not long before they were sent back to the kitchen, and the crucial role they played was progressively forgotten.

 

 

Johnny Mad Dog or the stereotypical child soldier narrative

We should not underestimate the power of the media and of pop-culture. They both represent and influence the way we make sense of the world. The first thing I did when I started researching child soldiering in Africa (for my master’s dissertation) was to try to find as many fiction films and documentaries on the topic I could. Before entering the more nuanced and detailed academic discussion, I wanted to have the exact same perception of the phenomenon as everyone else.

I was shocked when I watched Johnny Mad Dog[9], the ultraviolent and ultra-clichéd adaptation of the eponymous novel by Emmanuel Dongala[10]. It tells Johnny’s story, abducted at 9 by rebels, now 15, in yet another unnamed African country torn by a senseless conflict – the Western discourse on African child soldiers is also profoundly racist: most movies are entirely decontextualized, as if the story could take place anywhere on the continent, negating the vast diversity of its 54 countries and the complex reasons that lead to armed conflict.

In the book, there are two narrators: Johnny and Laokolé, a strong and smart girl, who manages her way through a world of violence and chaos. But Sauvaire completely silences her to put Johnny at the centre of the story. She becomes a character of secondary importance. Even worse: while in the book she cold-bloodedly plans to kill Johnny, and does it, as she knows he intends to rape and kill her, the film ends on her indecision whether to shoot at him in self-defence. Her originally strong agency is simply erased.

Dongala’s resistant discourse is violated and distorted to conform to the expectations of a public for which violence is the monopoly of males.

 

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Johnny Mad Dog’s last image: Laokolé pointing a gun towards Johnny, breathing heavily, undecided.

 

Girl soldiers, the “ultimate victim[s] in need of rescue”[11]

If you are active on social media, there is a good chance that you have heard of the Kony2012[12] phenomenon. The 30-minute video posted on YouTube by Invisible Children, an NGO built by three American missionaries, was created with the aim of fighting the child-soldiering the three “discovered” in Uganda. The viral video – which gained 100 million views in less than a week – sums up pretty well all the stereotypes on child combatants. It also illustrates the difference of treatment between girls and boys in the global discourse: “the girls are turned into sex slaves, and the boys into child soldiers”. Things are simple. Girls do all the chores and are sex slaves. Boys are forced to fight and to commit atrocities. Girls don’t fight and boys don’t get raped. Even more than their male counterparts, girls are voiceless victims in need of rescue by the West.

 

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Kony and his ‘army of children’. Source: Screenshot of Kony2012

Many girls and women are victims of sexual violence, especially in the climate of conflict and instability that has affected a number of African countries in the past decades. But stories of rape and abuse too often eclipse other stories of bravery, resilience and survival.

Even more than boys, girls are denied any agency, any voice; they are denied the possibility to speak out and tell their story as they experienced it and not as we want to hear it.

In some contexts, becoming a soldier can be empowering for them. They can gain power, a surrogate family where they had none, and escape their traditional gender roles.[13] Their experience is too often reduced to the sexual violence they may or may not have undergone. In virtually every documentary I have watched for my dissertation project, girls are interviewed uniquely to talk about their experience of sexual violence, and often asked to provide gruesome details to satisfy the journalist’s, and the public’s, morbid curiosity.

It is not the first and certainly not the last time that women have been misunderstood and misrepresented because of sexist stereotypes. But the tragedy lies in the consequences this has on the ground, for real girls that have served weeks, months, and sometimes years in militias. Because ‘girls don’t fight’, many demobilisation, disintegration and rehabilitation programmes[14] exclude them. Only 5% benefit from them.[15] And when they do, their special needs are rarely addressed: no female clothing in the aid packages, no tampons or pads, no reproductive healthcare, etc. Skills training and camp activities are often biased towards males – learning masonry, carpentry, mechanics etc.[16] When going back to civilian life, because they are labelled as sexual victims, they are affected by a stigma of sexual activity. Whether real or not, this stigma leads to social exclusion. Many girls hide their rebel lives from their family and community and decide not to register for demobilisation because they are too afraid of the consequences – of being seen as monsters, as dangerous rebels, as ‘bush wives’[17] that can no longer marry.

More than anything else, girl child soldiers are victims of the Patriarchy. In the West, which ignores and silences them; and in their own societies that stigmatise and exclude them both as rebels and as trespassers of their gender roles. The child soldier phenomenon is a complex one. Its gender dimension is only one aspect of the issue, but one that deserves much more attention than it gets now.

Movies like Beasts of No Nation, Blood Diamond and Johnny Mad Dog, with a large audience and good critiques, are missed opportunities to challenge a simplistic, essentialist and dangerous understanding of child soldiers.

They perpetuate many harmful ideas and are representative of the status quo on the place of women in war: none.  “Just as these films were made mostly by whites and thus show a white bias, so were they made mostly by men and show a male bias.”[18]

 

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[1] Understood as “any person below 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used a fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies, or for sexual purposes” (The Paris Principles, 2007).

[2] Blood Diamond, 2006. Directed by Edward Zwick.

[3] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg.

[4] Beasts of No Nation, 2015. Directed by Cary J. Fukunaga.

[5] Many do not identify with these two categories.

[6] Denov, 2010, p. 13.

[7] Keairns, 2002, p. 13; Annan et al., 2009, p. 9.

[8] West, 2005.

[9] Johnny Mad Dog, 2008. Directed by Jean-Sébastien Sauvaire.

[10] Dongala, E. (2002) Johnny Chién Méchant. Paris: Le Serpent à Plumes.

[11] Macdonald, 2008, p. 136.

[12] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc.

[13] Valder, 2014, p. 44.

[14] UN-led child-specific programmes whose goal is to facilitate their return to civilian life. NGOs often intervene and collaborate at different steps of the process (UNDDR Resource Centre).

[15] Taylor-Jones, 2016, p. 185.

[16] Coutler, 2009, p. 64.

[17] Girls and women forced to ‘marry’ within the rebel group.

[18] Cameron, 1994, p. 188.

“It puts you in a place like a bottle”: Stigma, shame, and gender based violence

By Carol Ballantine

I’m fascinated by stigma. It’s the way that social judgements, seemingly innocuous and even random in themselves, can determine the whole lives of individuals. Stigma increases HIV infections, it isolates people who need human support, it results in cruel discrimination. One Kenyan woman put it powerfully, in a conversation with researchers for the NGO Trócaire:

Stigma … it puts you in a place like in a bottle. You don’t know how you can get out of it… It’s like something that kills you slowly. It follows you everywhere you go ‘til it finishes you.”[1]

We all do it. We all stigmatise without even realising it. Identifying stigma is the first step to taking away its power.

Stigma

Stigma refers to the social judgement that particular characteristics or attributes are undesirable. The first theorist of the subject, Erving Goffman, referred to stigma as a “spoiled social identity”. This captures the sense that, owing to public judgement, one’s entire identity can be devalued – in the eyes of others, and even in one’s own eyes.

Stigmas attach to all sorts of attributes: behaviours; conditions; diseases and beliefs. The subject most closely associated with stigma in the popular mind, particularly in countries like Ireland, is mental health and mental illness. Certain diseases are also heavily stigmatised, such as HIV, leprosy and TB.

My research is beginning to look at how we can understand the impact of gender based violence by understanding the stigma that goes along with it.

In recent decades, the importance of stigma has been well established in the field of public health. Epidemiologists aim to understand how human interactions and behaviours affect health and disease conditions. Stigma is a crucial piece of this puzzle. Stigma prevents people from accessing the medical and psycho-social services that they need to overcome their afflictions. For example, estimates indicate that nearly two thirds of all Americans with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek help. This is particularly problematic when it comes to infectious diseases. In the case of HIV, not only does pervasive stigma prevent people from seeking medical care, it also prevents people from disclosing their HIV status to others, or discussing HIV with others. This tendency to conceal and avoid mention of the virus enables new infections and confounds attempts to control transmission.

silence-please

If we are ever to address large-scale public health issues like mental illness and HIV (among many others), the importance of tackling stigma is well established. But that’s not the only – nor even the most important – reason to address stigma. Because stigma has a corrosive effect on individual lives. It causes isolation and exclusion, the loss of family and friends at the very time when they’re most needed. It can cause self-doubt, self-blame, self-hatred. In the course of my work, I’ve spent time with lots of people who are (among other things) HIV positive, in Ireland and Honduras, Kenya and Ethiopia. When they’ve talked about their diagnosis, they’ve unfailingly talked about the stigma that goes with it. Sometimes it sounds like stigma is a symptom of the disease. Sometimes it sounds like stigma is worse than the disease.

Stigma and Gender Based Violence

I am working on a research project investigating the social impacts of gender based violence (GBV) against women. The term GBV refers to violence directed against a person on the basis of gender or sex[2]. While women, men, boys and girls can be the victims of gender-based violence, women and girls are the main victims. Like mental illness or HIV, violence against women is a global public health concern, since it is the cause of both morbidity and mortality in women of all ages. It’s also a global human rights concern: women worldwide can’t live their lives to the fullness of their potential because of physical, sexual, financial and emotional insecurity and trauma.

Womenareboring

Stigma is relevant when it comes to understanding gender based violence: both how the violence continues to be perpetrated, and how it impacts people.

Recent analysis of data across thirty low income countries showed that on average, only 6% of women exposed to intimate partner violence approached formal services such as health care or police.

While there are many reasons for women to avoid formal services, one of these is definitely a sense of judgement, of blame, and anticipation of gossip and social rejection. In one study, twenty so-called battered women from Israel discussed their feelings of self-stigma. Here is one woman speaking:

“In fact, why doesn’t a woman complain? She is ashamed that people would find out that she is beaten. She is ashamed to go to the police. This shame is one of the reasons that she doesn’t complain.” [3]

And another woman who was assaulted, from the same Kenya study as before:

“I fear that I will tell them [neighbours and friends] and they will start talking about me and laughing. I do not like that because they will know what is happening in my home and they will go around telling everyone about it.”[4]

We are living in a moment where this stigma is beginning to be recognised and named: that’s why concepts like rape culture and victim blaming are becoming commonplace in some communities and spaces. But stigma is a sticky phenomenon, and shifting it means seeing its many differing dimensions.

Complicating the public stigma that attaches to GBV is the shame that is an almost constant state for many women. Shame is not the same thing as stigma: it is a painful emotion involving a negative self-judgement that affects the whole self. Stigma produces shame, and this can be the most insidious impact of stigma, as it turns a person against herself. And there is good evidence that shame affects women more than men, and differently to men. For Freud, shame was “the feminine emotion par excellence”. Sandra Bartky argues that for many women it may be “the pervasive affective taste of a life”. Triggered by stigmatising public attitudes and gendered emotional dispositions (that is, emotional dispositions that are patriarchally constructed and shaped), shame can take hold on women. It silences them. It makes them complicit in their own victimisation. It enables the abuse and the violence to continue.

As with all other stigmatised conditions, stigma related to GBV is important for at least two reasons. First, for the undeniable impact that it has on individuals: the limitations that it places on their own physical and mental health (through failing to seek help, and loss of self-esteem) and through the isolation and mistreatment it often provokes, the gossip, cruelty and exclusion. And second, for the insidious role that stigma plays in enabling violence to continue. Stigma keeps women in abusive situations, blaming themselves for the violence, or fearing the judgement of others if they leave. It tells perpetrators that they are less than fully responsible, that the victim bears at least some, if not all of the blame. Of course stigma is not the only thing that holds gender based violence in place – but it’s a powerful contributor.

Stigma is a profoundly conservative force, policing the norms that are open to discussion. Because it operates internally in the psyche of stigmatised individuals, it often militates against solidarity, organising and collective action. And yet it works the other way too.

At times, the best reaction to having a label applied to you without your consent is to embrace the label, claim it, and use it as the basis of new forms of solidarity. This has happened to good effect with HIV – though nobody could say that the stigma has evaporated as a result. Stigmatised identities are often reactive and defensive (who would choose to define themselves as a survivor of domestic violence unless they felt they had to?). The support that develops within the community can stand in marked contrast to the continuing derision outside it. The responsibility for shifting the norms, attitudes and beliefs that inform stigma can’t be left to the victims of stigma alone.

Researching GBV stigma

My PhD research is looking at the impacts of gender-based violence, and the role of stigma and shame in amplifying and multiplying these impacts. One element of stigma is that, while it attaches to GBV almost everywhere, the dynamic is very different depending on the norms that prevail, the ways that people interact, and people’s material conditions and values. In my research, I’m focusing on migrant women living in Ireland. They already confront stigma and shame related to their migrant status, and often their status as women in their own communities. I want to know about how gender based violence has affected their lives, and the role stigma has played in this.

enjoy_the_silence

In spite of a critical absence of comprehensive data on experiences of violence, small studies emerge and shed light on this situation, as I hope my research will. This year Wezesha, an African diaspora organisation, released a damning report on the experiences of migrant women affected by conflict living in Ireland. The report is full of disturbing detail about migrant lives in Ireland, and the layers of trauma, victimisation and strength that emerge don’t fit in any easy frameworks. Nonetheless, the ring of stigma and shame sounds clearly through the noise:

“Women have even expressed how they are fearful of speaking with their doctor about their past experience of trauma, depression and stress saying that once it is entered into hospital records it will impact on their possibility of accessing jobs in the future. They indicated that all they want is to move on with their lives.” The threat of social opprobrium, holding people down.

I plan to investigate lifetime experiences of GBV among a small group of migrants in Ireland. I want to examine the ways that GBV has affected their lives and their communities, and the part that stigma and shame have played.

Implications

Spending four years on a research study feels a bit like self- indulgence. Like any apprenticeship, the deepest implications are personal. I am meeting myself in new ways, and of course encountering the ways in which this line of enquiry was prompted by my own extreme proclivity to shame.

I see the insidious power of stigma everywhere – and the dazzling strength of shamelessness.

While activists have done an excellent job of popularising the idea of victim-blaming, using a public health model to understand the patterns and effects of stigma enables us to view it clearly as a policy issue. This study will contribute to an understanding of how violence is experienced by marginalised individuals and the interventions that can help promote prevention, protection and punishment. Here in Ireland, we don’t have detailed knowledge about gender based violence (who is most affected, where and when?) – largely because of savage cuts to all but frontline services (the last comprehensive study on sexual violence in Ireland, for example, was conducted in 2002, when levels of migration into Ireland were far lower than they currently are, and migrants were not even included among the marginalised groups identified). This qualitative study will give an insight into one largely under-served group in the population, their experiences and the barriers they face to seeking help.

Beyond my small study cohort, I hope to show that stigma has an impact of its own on people’s lives, an impact that is additional to and separate from the violence itself. In as much as violence prevents people from taking part in community life, I want to examine the role that stigma plays. This has implications for the priority that we give to eliminating gender based violence – and for the ways in which we do so. I’m hoping that I can also shed more light on the seemingly intractable persistence of gender based violence, in every society in the world.

…..

[1] From an unpublished research study by Jessica Penwell Barnett and Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale, 2013

[2] This definition is drawn from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

[3] Buchbinder and Eisikovits, 2003

[4] Barnett and Matcika-Tyndale, 2013