Towards a Transgressive Mode of Being: Gender, Postcoloniality and Orality

Hasna Lebbady, Department of English, Mohammed V University, Rabat, Morocco

I would like to begin by sharing a problem with you, which has troubled me for many years. As a Moroccan teacher of English, was I simply doing the work of others for them? As a 'Europeanist by training' (Spivak 1993: 145), was I just submitting myself to the structures of a language that imposed its identity on me? Furthermore, how could I articulate myself through a predominantly imperialist and patriarchal medium that defined my ancestors as 'hideous Moor[s]' (quoted in Fiedler 1960: 40) and where, in Alice Walker's words: 'there are only Moors (defined as men) and no Moresses' (1987: 191). The effect of all this was to silence me, for although I had crossed cultures, crossed backgrounds even, while remaining very much at home, I could not find a space for myself within this language. Furthermore, how could I make English my subject without appearing to advocate Westernisation at the expense of my own cultural traditions?

Paradoxically, a possible answer to these questions was to be found in the very subject that appeared to bear such a controversial relationship to my self. The recent developments in English Studies, including Women's Studies, Postcolonial Studies and Cultural Studies have endowed the prospect of teaching English with exciting new possibilities for me. These theories have enabled me to perceive that I am not alone to face this type of dilemma and to begin to envisage some ways out of it. They have enabled me to realize that it is possible for those who have been marginalized to begin to forge a space for themselves within this alienating medium. I have now begun to appreciate the different shades involved in reading English, such as that suggested by Gayatri Spivak when she claims that:

the postcolonial as the outside/insider translates white theory as she reads, so that she can discriminate on the terrain of the original. (1993: 197)

The white theory she refers to is that informed by postmodernism and poststructuralism which she suggests that postcolonialists need to transform to their own ends.

In fact, there appear to me to be numerous similarities between what different theorists are attempting to do. They all question the centrality of the dominant discourses, which claim to be universal. Postmodernism, both in its theory and in its fiction, calls into question the norms of the center, and, in Linda Hutcheon's words: "challenge[s] their transparency" (1980: 53). Those master narratives are challenged by ex-centrics since they are perceived as: "tool[s] of ideological control" (Lee 1990: 27). Using a similar mode of thinking, but writing within a postcolonial context, Homi Bhabha advocates hybridity, which he describes as being: 'at once a mode of appropriation and of resistance' (1997: 120). What he upholds is a discourse that appears to mimic the one at the center, in this case colonial discourse, but which in fact serves to disrupt it. This is very similar to what Angela Carter proposes when she says that:

It is so enormously important for women to write fiction as women‹it is part of the process of de-colonizing our language and our basic habits of thoughtŠit is to do with the creation of a means of expression for an infinitely greater variety of experience than has been possible heretofore, to say things for which no language previously existed. (1983: 75)

What Carter recommends is a mode of writing which would enable women to represent themselves differently from the way they have been represented within patriarchal discourse. In her novel, The Passion of New Eve (1977), she depicts the way women have been viewed as castrated males by having Evelyn, the male protagonist and first person narrator, reduced at the hands of Mother and her woman's group into Eve. Mother and her group make use of the phallic symbolic‹a knife‹to construct this version of femininity. The being they produce is a 'biological woman' who can only think like a man, as she retains Evelyn's consciousness. In this way Carter foregrounds the extent to which women who conform to the constructs imposed on them by patriarchal norms are trapped within extreme versions of femininity and predominantly masculine views of the self. Such constructions of femininity rely on the binary logic either/or, which is not the one Carter advocates. What she upholds is a sense of gender identity, which acknowledges both masculine and feminine elements at once, without viewing them as extreme oppositions of each other.

Feminist theory has begun to enable some women to conceive of ways out of dilemmas similar to the one that faced me. It has now become a commonplace within this theory to perceive patriarchy as having reduced woman to the Other as Simone de Beauvoir (1949) has argued. This process of Othering, which is also dependent on the binary logic either/or, has been depicted by a number of women writers in terms of the physical reconstruction of women. For example, Fay Weldon in The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983) depicts this construction of femininity in terms of cosmetic surgery that her protagonist, Ruth, undergoes in her attempt to reduce her 'monstrous' body into the petite shape of her husband Bobbo's mistress, Mary Fisher. The pain involved in such a process is compared to that of

Hans Anderson's little mermaid [who] wanted legs instead of a tail, so that she could be properly loved by her Prince. She was given legs, and by inference the gap where they join at the top and after that every step she took was like stepping on knives. [1983: 173]

Only by thus reducing herself and confining her movement can Ruth begin to be valued within her predominantly patriarchal context.

One process which combines both the idea of castration and reduction in size, and which has been practiced on an inordinate number of women, is genital mutilation. Alice Walker, in Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), portrays the construction of femininity in terms of this mutilation. It is what her African American protagonist, Tashi, undergoes in her efforts to return to her roots and become a woman in her tribe:

The operation she'd had done to herself joined her, she felt, to these women, whom she envisaged as strong, invincible. Completely woman, Completely African. Completely Olinka . . . It was only when she at last was told by M'Lissa, who one day unbound her legs, that she might sit up and walk a few steps that she noticed her proud walk had become a shuffle. [61]

Both Weldon and Walker depict the literal construction of femininity and point out the extreme pain with which it is associated. What is of particular relevance to my argument here is the fact that Tashi's wound is the result of her desire to return to the roots, a desire to form an integral part of her African culture. This process is greatly sanctioned by the culture she aspires to form part of, but it is also the process which has led to her sister Dura's death and which Walker reveals as involving even more confinement within the exceedingly patriarchal structures of that culture. It is revelations of this kind which have led Walker to claim, within a different context, that there is a:

connection between mutilation and enslavement that is at the heart of the domination of women in the world. [1992: 131]

Nawal El Saadawi would corroborate this statement as she makes numerous references to genital mutilation in her novels. In Two Women in One (1975), the protagonist Bahiah takes note of what has happened to her sister.

The cries of Fawziah still rang in her ears; there was a red pool of blood under her. Every day she waited for her turn. The door would open and Umm Mohammed would enter with the sharp razor in her hand, ready to cut that small thing between her thighs. [97]

p>In El Saadawi's writing, genital mutilation is revealed to be the threat that serves to ensure women's submission. Its aim is to reduce them to what patriarchy dictates that women should be, about which Bahiah wonders:

And what do you consider a normal woman? One with beaten eyes who walks with closely-bound feet, obedient and submissive, with amputated sexual organs? [1975: 112]

In The Circling Song (1989), El Saadawi carries her argument a step further when she refers to Hamida's genital mutilation as 'a hard metal belt' (67), which she claims is the original chastity belt. However, it is only in The Hidden Face of Eve (1980) that El Saadawi describes her sister's and her own genital mutilation. And it is in that book that she spells out some of the significances of that barbaric act.

In the final analysis we can safely say that female circumcision, the chastity belt and other savage practices applied to women are basically the result of the economic interests that govern society. The continued existence of such practices in our society today signifies that these economic interests are still operative. [41]

Female genital mutilation, like foot binding in ancient China, is what some women feel they must submit to in order to truly belong to their societies, but it is also one way in which women are effectively reduced to the Other, in order, among other things, to ensure the economic aims of their societies. What these women writers foreground is the extent to which patriarchal culture colonizes female sexuality, ensuring that women's bodies are transformed to conform to patriarchal and capitalist aims.

The way patriarchy reduces women to the Other is similar to how colonial discourse reduces people of different races and cultures to Others, as Edward Said (1978) has argued. This process is quite effectively symbolized in J.M. Coetzee's Foe (1986) by the fact that Friday has had his tongue cut off by a knife. This method of Othering is another illustration of the connection made by Walker between mutilation and enslavement. The knife is furthermore reminiscent of the one Evelyn is submitted to in Carter's The Passion of New Eve. In Foe too it is representative of the symbolic order, which serves to maintain the slave dealer in power by effectively silencing the Other, or rendering him incapable of speech.

The fact that his tongue has been removed spurs the female narrator, Susan, to wonder if they have not cut off more than the tongue, suggesting that this too is a form of castration. Friday is castrated within this colonial context to the extent that he is effectively prevented from taking part in the symbolic order in which, according to Lacan, the phallus is 'le signifiant privilégié' (1971: 111). That Friday's oral capacity has been denied further suggests that the oral tradition that may form part of his cultural heritage has been effectively suppressed so that he is reduced to the position of being represented by a European woman narrator who continuously seeks the authority of a male writer in an attempt to accomplish her task. The fact that the Other has been deprived of the possibility of representing himself, and has to be represented through a predominantly imperial and capitalist medium, further suggests the extent to which writing is valorised within this context. Unlike traditional cultures, based on orality, in which narratives belong to society at large, within cultures based on literacy, narratives‹and ideas in general‹become capital assets. In this way orality and literacy come to form another binary opposition, which needs to be subverted.

Subversion is what Friday becomes capable of in the novel. Significantly, despite the slave dealers' efforts, he never becomes reduced to impotence. The way he manages this is by never attempting to make use of the authoritative English at all. Although only he can provide Susan with the closure she seeks in order to represent him, he continuously fails to comply with her wishes. It is, in fact, his refusal to partake in her desired mode of narrativity, which becomes indicative of Friday's power. He mocks Susan's efforts at representation and her desire to become a writer. Furthermore, he succeeds in signifying in ways other than through the use of language. By doing so, Friday defies the capacity of English to impose an identity on him and becomes endowed with a sense of empowerment and potency, which are not dependent on the structures of that language.

Significantly, Susan is prevented from obtaining a similar form of transcendence. By bestowing on her the task of representation, which he himself steers clear of, Coetzee in fact bestows on her a futile task. Although her tongue remains intact, she too has problems taking part in the symbolic. In a novel where writing in general and representation in particular are viewed as authoritative processes, her efforts appear to be particularly useless. What is stressed is her complete impotence in view of the task facing her. Susan, for Coetzee, becomes not so much a narrating character as a way of characterizing the narrative‹a way of feminising it. By making her the narrator, Coetzee's aim is not to empower women but to re-inscribe them into the inferior position to which they have always been relegated. And, in a way, this too is a form of castration, revealing the female narrator to be lacking in the phallic potency, which she aspires to by continuously seeking the authority of the male writer. Whereas Friday is depicted as capable of signifying outside the structures of language, Susan is trapped within the compulsion to conform to the authoritative mode of the male writer, be it Foe or Coetzee himself. Women, even English women, have never had their own tongues. It is such realizations, which have prompted Helen Cixous to point out that:

If woman has always functioned 'within' the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds, it is time for her to disclose this 'within', to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it into her own mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside it. [1980: 275]

In this way, Cixous encourages women to take hold of language and make it their own, without having to rely on the authority of male writing.

The way the writers I've mentioned depict different constructions of identity imposed on those in the margins by the various discourses at the center raises numerous questions. Can women escape from their confinement only by aspiring to male positions? Must postcolonials, like Moors, be conceived of only as males? In order to avoid being subsumed under rampant Westernisation, must one necessarily resort to extreme forms of traditionalism? Is it necessary to continue to valorise literacy at the expense of our rich oral traditions? Should we continue to operate within the binary logic, which is at the heart of these different oppositions?

One could begin to deal with the issues raised in these questions by advocating a refusal to conform to the logic either/or. This is neither a matter of androgyny as advocated by some feminists, nor is it a matter of multiculturalism. It is neither a return to the roots, as Tashi attempts to do in Possessing the Secret of Joy, nor integration into the culture of imperialism. It does not even imply having to make a choice between literacy and orality. What is involved is a whole new process that must be undertaken and a whole new identity that must be arrived at. It is more a matter of taking hold of language, as Cixous advocates, and transforming it from within. We should force it to truly articulate us and not simply enable it to speak us. We must refuse to be confined by its meanings and creatively transform it so that it no longer conforms to the logic either/or. This new space should enable women to be women without feeling any compulsion either to conform to extreme norms of femininity or to ape the norms of male authority. Within this space, postcolonials need not feel compelled to adhere either to extreme forms of traditionalism or to those of Westernisation. Such a space could enable female Fridays to signify and to conceive of themselves differently from the Other to which they have been reduced within the patriarchal colonial discourse. It could even enable Moroccan English teachers to teach the texts of their culture which have not been written before and which have hitherto been marginalized. What is involved, in fact, is not a matter of conforming to a predefined category whether it be that of gender, race, or nation, but of taking the process of construction into one's own hands in an effort to go beyond those categories and creatively come to terms with a new identity that transgresses the boundaries set by those in the center. This would require dismantling the logic either/or and adhering to a different logic; it could involve conforming to the logic neither/both.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. 1949. The Second Sex. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1988.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge

Carter, Angela. 1977. The Passion of New Eve. London: Virago, 1990.

__________. 1983. 'Notes from the Front Line'. In Michelene Wandor, ed. On Gender and Writing. London: Pandora Press: 69-77.

Cixous, Hélène. 1980. 'The Laugh of the Medusa'. In Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms: An Anthology. Amherst: University of Massachusettes Press: 245-264.

El Saadawi, Nawal. 1975. Two Women in One. London: Al Saqi Books, 1985.

__________. 1980. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. London and New Jersey: Zed Books.

__________. 1989. The Circling Song. London and New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd.

Fiedler, Leslie. 1960. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Doubleday, 1992

Hutcheon, Linda. 1988. A Poetics of Postmodernism. London and New York: Routledge.

Lacan, Jacques. 1971. Ecrits 2. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Lee, Alison. 1990. Realism and Power: Postmodern British Fiction. London and New York: Routledge.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1993. Outside in the Teaching Machine. London and New York: Routledge.

Walker, Alice. 1989. The Temple of My Familiar. London: The Women's Press.

__________. 1992. Possessing the Secret of Joy. London: The Women's Press.

Weldon, Fay. 1983. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1987.


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Last modified: 2 June 2001