The Readings: Monstrous Mothers

Yasmina Sarhrouny, Mohamed V University, Rabat, Morocco

[Part 12 of the author's "Gendering Tales: A Feminist Reading of Seven Wonder Tales"]

Edgar Weber is convinced in Imaginaire arabe et contes érotiques of the importance of the mother figure in wonder tales . The mother, according to this research, is an initiatory presence who helps the hero reach adulthood, in addition to a discursive device that enables him to challenge the authority of the father. Indeed, Weber uses Kristeva's concept of the semiotic to assert that tales are 'matriciels', run by the pre-oedipal mother language, which is beyond the law of the father and outside of the symbolic order, embodied by the Holy Koran. Hence the wonder tale's snubbing of logic, tolerance of the irrational and the paranormal, and peculiar form that defies linear narratives.

It seems Edgar Weber, a specialist of The One Thousand and One Nights, seldom encountered tales about female heroines. The One Thousand and One Nights is actually dominated by male heroes, in whose quests the mother is surely a much loved figure of protection and empowerment, while heroines, such as those in this study's collection, have rather strong matrophobic tendencies. Moreover, Weber's thesis is questionable, for he establishes a connection between the female and the irrational, reinforcing the prevalent stereotypes that associate men with reason and women with emotions, while Kristeva's development of the semiotic links the pre-oedipal 'mother' stage with extensive possibilities unlimited by the symbolic order, possibilities that express difference, and not irrationality, and potentials, exhausted by avant-garde literature, used to contest the rigidity of the text under the guidance of 'reason'.

In these terms, the tale might be referred to as 'matriciel', as a manifestation of the semiotic language, while in its management of the mother figure, it reveals a hatred of the mother, drawn from both Oedipal hostilities and pre-oedipal fears associated with the oral stage, which concord to sketch some monstrous mother figures, since a good mother, in a fairy tale or in a wonder tale worldwide, is most of the time a dead one. Indeed, a taxonomy of the mother figure in this collection exposes the predominance of negative characters: in addition to the mother per se, the tales present the stepmother, the Oumme'egouz and the Maghoula, while some mother figures, like the Afreet in "Rabia Bent El Qadi", are situated at the limit of gender.

As a general rule, mothers are noticeable by their absence; most heroines are orphans, and their status of orphans allows their surrounding environment to victimize and abuse them. So, basically, the mother stands for a nurturing power whose absence deprives the daughter from protection, as in the case of "The Seven Sisters". Motherly love in this tale actually outwits magic spells and survives death, and the mother's remains become sources of nourishment for her daughters. However, even as love prevails in this relationship, the daughters are unable to save their mother, and the mother is powerless before her daughters' exclusion. In "The Boy with Rubies" as well, the daughters do not contest their father's desertion of their mother on the eve of her deliverance, neither do they save her from humiliation as she is condemned to the hut. even when the mother is loving, she is powerless, and her daughters as well; only the son holds the power to save her and recuperate, at the same time, the centrality in the narrative. parallel with this failing mother-daughter relationship emerges the sister figure in "The Seven Sisters"; the bond tying the sisters is one of support and protection, as they back up each other and manage to save the youngest from abuse. Sisterhood is, therefore, more empowering than motherhood, largely characterized by impotence.

The other type of mother is the stepmother, usually evil, if not duplicated, since polygamy further complicates the situation for orphans by multiplying their nightmare. It is indeed significant to note that in Moroccan culture in general, including all ethnic groups, the stepmother is always synonymous with the tormentor for the orphan, as numerous tales, proverbs and parables testify. In European cultures as well, as illustrated in "Cinderella" or "Snow-White", the stepmother stands for the persecutor of the young girl. This most hated mother figure is interpreted by psychoanalysts as the incarnation of the mother, for whom the female child feels jealousy and hostility during the Oedipal stage. Because hating one's mother is culturally intolerable, the child projects her negative feelings on the mother to legitimate her aversion and her desire to make her disappear. Through the same process, the tale condenses negative attributes and attitudes in the stepmother, instead of the mother, mainly because the mother is supposed to be beyond criticism according to both religion and tradition in Arabo-Muslim communities. Nevertheless, some tales strip the mother figure off the disguise of the stepmother and expose cruel mothers forsaking their daughters out of jealousy, revealing without metaphors the deep conflicts disturbing mother-daughter relationships that legitimate the construction of the character of the stepmother.

The Oumme'egouz, literally meaning: old mother, is another mother figure found in almost all the tales encountered. Her character combines the role of the midwife with that of the witch. In many regards, she reflects society's view of woman once her reproductive capacities are gone, she becomes the personification of the mysterious other that woman is, devoid of her seductive and generative powers, wholly undesirable and evil, despised and feared. It is also interesting to note that the Oumme'egouz serves the purposes of patriarchy; she victimizes young women, taking away their children or taking them back to the community once they run away from it, like in the case of Zazia. Her presence is found most of the time in tales dealing with polygamy-related misfortunes, as a discursive device employed to highlight the limitations of the system. Actually, these tales comprise a profound critique of polygamy; nevertheless, it is not directed towards the system itself, as the latter is drawn from religion, or towards the man of the house, men and religion being both the untouchable pillars of the community in the logic of the tale. Rather, blame is laid upon the jealousy of co-wives and the wickedness of old women, who fail in enduring their faith and fight against each other. The praise of monogamy is thus brought out through the closure of polygamy-related tales, which all end up with the formation of a monogamous couple and the disintegration of the polygamous group. Such criticism is therefore in no way subversive of the status quo, for it further valorises the centrality of the male and legitimises female rivalry.

The most monstrous mother figure remains the Maghoula, the ogress omnipresent in tales worldwide. I include the ogress with mother figures because her name betrays her status of mother: Maghoula is actually a combination of 'mamma' and 'ghoula', the first meaning 'mother', or actually 'mommy', its childish synonym, and the last signifying 'ogress', the fabulous human creature feeding on children's flesh and haunting children's stories. According to Bettelheim, her presence in tales implies residual oral stage fears ; at the very dawn of the child's development, especially during breast-feeding periods, the child is supposed to feel both desire for and fear of the mother, particularly the fear of being swallowed by the mother. Such apprehensions survive in the unconscious and are released through myths, tales and currently sci-fi literature, which abound with monstrous mothers gulping down their progeny. The mother ogress is also characterised by the cornucopia of food surrounding her, for she always begins by providing for the children, a bit like the breastfeeding mother. In "Hansel and Gretel" , for instance, the ogress lives in a gingerbread house, while our Maghoula cooks bread loaves and has jars of nuts and almonds.

However, monstrous mother figures are not all spawns from children's minds. Actually, some of them have direct connections with female-related phobias, mostly anguish associated with maternity. The whole business of procreation and childbirth is linked with the supernatural, to the extent that even the midwife is a witch. The association of the act of giving birth with mystery and the occult is indeed deeply anchored in the collective imaginary, reinforced by the interference of death in the cycle of reproduction; mothers and children die in the act of giving life, and the midwife's role becomes almost sacred; moreover she holds the power to save or to damn the mother, to revere or to disgrace her, as seen in the texts. The introduction of the Houris in "The Boy with Rubies" is noteworthy, because they transform the moment of giving birth into a replica of the Last Judgement, for they weigh the mother up in terms of her worldly deeds. So women's terror before the moment of childbirth that is so crucial to their destinies is illustrated in multifaceted ways in mother-related tales. For instance, in "Rabia Bent El Qadi", the mother is said to have given birth to puppies, while in "The Boy with Rubies", she is supposed to have eaten her wondrous baby. Both incidents are followed by long periods of abuse and humiliation that come to an end after the mother's recovery of her children, followed by the formulaic closure of the text, the happy ending, supposed to erase the memory of the long-lasting suffering of the dishonoured mother. These graphic descriptions of the degradation of the mother right after the act of childbirth might be manifestations of postnatal depressions, representations of the complex and contradictory emotions that sway the female mind after the advent of the child, especially when it is undesirable. Considering the absence of contraceptive techniques and society's censure of anti-maternal discourses, tales might be the only space left for depressed mothers to express the melancholy following pregnancy, a space they fill up with 'hideous progenies' and monstrous mothers to exorcise their inner discomfort.

So women-centred tales depreciate the traditionally idealised role and status of motherhood. More than that, some texts even envisage other possibilities of mothering beyond gender limitations, such as the case of the Afreet in "Rabia Bent El Qadi"; basically male, he grows breasts to breastfeed the forsaken babies, while breastfeeding is a fundamentally female gesture. Furthermore, the symbol of the breast in Arabo-Muslim exceeds its erotic dimension and stands for a life-giving organ, since a woman who breastfeeds a child becomes a virtual mother to the latter, according to the Koranic dogma, and her own children become his or her brothers and sisters. Milk ties are thus as valuable and as determining of identity as blood ties in Islam. So the performance of the Afreet, translated in the light of these beliefs, is the appropriation of the female-exclusive roles of nurturing and creation, an act that might signify either the Frankenstein-like male desire to take over the forbidden world of creation, or a female fantasy about the possibility of sharing the straining duty of reproduction beyond biological constraints.

In fact, the texts undermine the prevalent construction of motherhood at different levels. First, they display an evident matrophobia. Women's uneasiness and disappointment about their situation convert into a hostility directed towards the mother, instead of the system, even if the mother is herself subjected to the same powers that construct the daughter. This matrophobia permeates even metaphors; critics usually find in male-centred tales presences of mothers in images and symbols like the cave or water bodies that connote a return to the womb and pre-natal warmth , while in female-centred texts like "Fatna Bent El Hadj", the metaphor is reversed and a male figure, the lion, dwells in the cave where her quest leads her. Water bodies, like the source and the river in "Zazia", are also deprived of regenerative or purifying powers, they are scenes of violence and abuse. The absence of strong mother figures and reliable mother-daughter relationships further emphasises the rejection of the status of motherhood, defined as a blissful condition by both religion and tradition. This rejection is contained in most narratives, however, since all the tried mothers recuperate their place inside of the family at the end of the tale. Yet mothers in these tales remain either monsters or victims of monstrous mothers, portraits of women who expose the other facet of maternity in a voice other than their own, that of the father, but succeed in transmitting the message anyway.

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Last modified: 14 December 2001