The Conquest of the Body

veilAtenea Acevedo is a gifted writer and translator, and also Machetera’s friend.  I meant to translate this in time for International Women’s Day, a day for which I’ve never received the slightest acknowledgment in my own country, but a day that I remember fondly from the various times I’ve been lucky enough to spend it in Cuba – showered with heartfelt (and for me, completely unexpected) greetings from dawn to dusk.

The Conquest of the Body

Atenea Acevedo

English Translation: Machetera

The news about the return (or re-affirmation) of the practice of force-feeding 5 and 6 year old rural girls in fattening farms in Mauritania since the coup and imposition of a military junta last August, awakens at the least, a sense of alarm and international urgency.  Furthermore, it calls for reflection on the great pending issue of women’s rights as human beings: ownership of the body.

The main axes of feminine liberation have been organized along the distinction between public and private space.  The participation of women in public spaces is perhaps where the achievements of the feminist movement are most evident, although what tends to be ignored (often deliberately) is the complex and lengthy history that has led to a growing number of paid female workers; most still in precarious jobs, and some in powerful, decision-making positions.  In the history books we handled in school, those with pages full of pictures of uniformed heroes on horseback who brought and carried war throughout the planet, Marie Gouze and her Declaration of the Rights of Woman is missing.  In the classroom, no-one spoke of the suffragettes nor of the feminine workforce as a contradiction to the family and good manners, as long as it fed the machinery of war in times of crisis.  Besides the nationalist iconography that portrays the nation as a luxuriant and courageous mother, with the same three or four faces, official history leaves women in anonymity and oblivion.  Women’s taking of public space has to do with a marginal history; it’s something of which one only becomes aware if one is interested in the study of feminism.  But here we are, some with a consciousness of gender and others denied all ideology, working in exchange for a salary, developing ideas, holding workshops, forums and offices.  Yet, public space is not a finished issue, as far as feminist, democratic and equitable reflection is concerned.  Poverty, labor exploitation, hounding and harassment still primarily affect women.  Unpaid domestic work continues to sustain capitalism in that it provides a basic infrastructure of free labor,  indispensable because of its social function.

Indeed, there are unresolved issues in respect to the participation of women in public life.  Nevertheless, the crux of the feminine question is found in the private space, specifically that of the body.  If on the one hand, vast terrain has been won in terms of sexual and reproductive rights, thanks to the engine of feminist struggle, women’s bodies remain in the hands of the State, the temple, private initiative, sentimental partners and customs.  The case of the rural Mauritanian girls, battered in order to procure a husband and be a worthy symbol of opulence, is not terribly different from other rites and beliefs, perhaps a bit less brutal, but which follow or perpetuate analogous principles.  It’s impossible to think of those girls, without the mind leading us to the anorexics and bulimics that live on or off the big screen, just as it’s impossible to think of the bound and numbed feet of Chinese girls without also thinking of the bunions on the models and daughters of their Western neighbors, wearing heels since puberty.  Or, to consider feminine mutilation without reflecting on the total absence of the clitoris in our anatomy books, the talks with our mothers, or worse still, with our male sexual partners.  In effect, the barbarism that characterizes the violation of human rights in other cultures ought to motivate us to outrage and denunciation, but it also ought to mean an opportunity to burnish a gaze that shouldn’t lack for self-criticism.

Women in every latitude grow up with the conviction that it’s essential to modify our bodies to make them desirable, to please another.  There’s always an overabundance of something unwanted (in my culture: hair, fat, wrinkles, cellulite…) and something lacking (in my culture: generous, firm breasts, delicate scent, makeup, fashionable clothing…). And the underlying message changes according to geography: no-one’s going to want you the way you are, no-one’s going to want to marry you.  In this discourse, a discourse that unfortunately is taking on a universal character, love and well-being, under the tricky guise of life as a couple, remains conditioned by the image.  Increasingly, men are falling into a similar trap, but women have centuries of experience and know inside-out the double standard that makes our anatomy the best gift and the worst punishment.  The body and its image are a free pass or a condemnation during the different life stages: to be thin or fat, shy or flirtatious, modest or promiscuous, discreet or loose.  The body and its biology mark us in society’s eyes, through the filter of sexuality: our mood, temperament and character, it’s supposed, can be explained by pure physiology and never escape pointed comments.  From the marginalized young girl who arrives at the Mexican maquilladora or the Philippine sweatshop, and must submit to monthly pregnancy tests under threat of losing her job if she refuses or finds herself pregnant, to the Spanish minister or Argentine president who’s measured first and foremost for her outfit or how well or poorly she fulfills her role as wife or mother, the criteria for qualifying any woman goes, sooner or later, by the body.  In a double perversion, we’re made to believe that we’re a body and little else, but we’re not taught to take ownership of this body, to inhabit it, to live in it freely.  Free to choose when, how, and for whom to dress it, to enjoy it, to disrobe it, to care for it, to share it, and to love it as a vehicle with which to move about and communicate with the world.

The left has not fully understood that we are not collective property either.  How many revolutions have claimed the right to recover and use their lands, resources and women?  How many comrades refer to their companions as my wife?  Words are not innocent: they reflect worldviews, beliefs, assumptions.  The most solid argument, apparently, that feminism is passé is based on women’s public participation, but the road is long and ideas still have their place.  How we miss the fury of seventies feminism: those women who the majority continue to unfairly brand as crazy because the only image the media offers is the burning of the bras, without acknowledging that every social movement needs a radical push to get what’s important and urgent on the table.  What’s needed today are those women who had the vision to raise the body itself as the root of patriarchal control, and consequently, its conquest as a path toward genuine liberation.

Machetera is a member of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, and translator are cited.

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