“We must see our rituals for what they are: completely arbitrary things, tired of games and irony, it is good to be dirty and bearded, to have long hair, to look like a girl when one is a boy (and vice versa); one must put ‘in play’, show up, transform, and reverse the systems which quietly order us about.”
Michel Foucault, one of the most acclaimed thinkers of the 20th century, wrote those lines. I was reminded of them when I thought of yet another international women’s day that is going to be celebrated tomorrow. By the way, Foucault was serious about what he wrote. He went on to say that what he did in his own writings was just that.
Has the celebration of women’s day become yet another ritual? Or is it a “play” meant to transform and reverse systems which quietly order women about?
Perhaps it is a bit of both.
Women have travelled a long way from the days of Eve when the entire blame for the Fall of humanity was laid on the woman’s breast. Patriarchal systems that hitherto enforced their dominance on women have all but collapsed (in the sense they don’t exert that sort of dominance on women anymore) except in those societies where religion still holds a medieval hold on believers either by choice or by force.
Feminist movements played a great role in that collapse. Where feminism did not play any role, the women were mostly kept illiterate by the dominant, medieval, religious, patriarchal systems.
Feminism itself went through various phases. According to feminist Elaine Showalter’s classification, there was a feminine phase (1840-80) when women imitated the dominant tradition to become successful. In such a period a writer like Mary Ann Evans had to mask her feminine identity behind a masculine pseudonym, George Eliot, in order to circumvent patriarchal ‘sensibilities’. Then there was the feminist phase (1880-1920) during which women advocated minority rights and protested. The female identity did not hide itself behind masculine masks. Rather it could boldly assert itself. Finally there was the female phase (1920-present) during which there has been a rediscovery of women by women. Women redefined themselves.
The present woman, at least the one who has the time and inclination to celebrate the international women’s day, is one who has redefined herself, moulded herself in the image of her own ideal, vision or fantasy or whatever.
In plainer words, the present woman is a free individual. Free from the straitjackets imposed earlier by patriarchal systems.
She is not the coy mistress of Andrew Marvell (1621-78) who will be adored, pleaded with and implicitly intimidated – all for the man’s pleasure. She is also not the coy mistress who will remain ‘cold’ like a “marble vault” just to appear goddesslike – capricious, cruel, closed and unattainable.
She is more like Douglas Dunn’s (1942-)girls in The Musical Orchard. Let me give the whole Dunn poem below.
Girls on mopeds rode to Fecamp parties,
And as they passed the ripened orchard
Cheered an old man’s music,
Not knowing it was sad.
Those French tunes on the saxophone,
The music inside fruit.
Let the ritual go on. Celebrations are always good. Almost, at least. Tired of games and irony, let the women let their hair down [if it is not too short for that] and let the men – also tired of games and irony – watch [or ogle?].
And let the music wait inside the fruit.