The feminist cauldron

Ejaz Haider

http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=story_25-4-2004_pg3_5

It looks like Peter Cottontail (‘Hippity Hoppity’; Daily Times, April 18) has stirred not one but two bees in two bonnets (oops, is that PC?). The decision to respond to the letters (‘EH down the (man)hole,’ by Faiza Khan on April 21 and ‘Insidious leap’, by Mahim Maher on April 22) has been a difficult one. But now that it has been made, let them piggyback me to stardom! So here goes.

Both ladies got the drift of my column wrong. It’s supposed to lightly brush at things, not make judgements, though there are no holy cows in the ‘twelve inches’ of this, as Mahim referred to it. It’s hard to seriously defend a self-indulgent piece. But a couple of points need relatively serious treatment.

Faiza says Shakespeare ‘created some of the strongest and most liberated women in history’. I beg to differ. Critics through the centuries have differed on this point and the scales are tipped in favour of the contention that he did not. Even Lady Macbeth — please note that nowhere in the play we are given her name — expressed the sense of power and resolve by transitioning to the man’s world: Come, you spirits… unsex me here,…/ Come to my woman’s breasts,/And take my milk for gall… or ‘I have given suck and know/How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:/ I would, while it was smiling in my face,/Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums/And dash’d the brains out had I so sworn as you…

This is true of most of Shakespeare’s female characters — from Ophelia to Gertrude, Desdemona, Calphurnia, Cordelia and Portia (Brutus’ wife — ‘Think you I am no stronger than my sex, / Being so fathered, and so husbanded?’ In both cases she refers to the males in her life. Or this: ‘I have a man’s mind, but a woman’s might’.) Contrast these characters with Goneril and Regan (King Lear) and it is clear that there are no shades of grey here; the last two can be bracketed with the male ‘villains’ rather than with the tender, beautiful Miranda in The Tempest or the soft-spoken Cordelia, for instance.

Look at Portia (The Merchant of Venice) defending Antonio while Bassanio stands there like a wimp unable to do anything, but talk. The intelligent and ‘liberated’ Portia is completely smitten with this oaf (I recall Faiza’s use of the word for Cleopatra in love with Antony!). For all her intelligence, she is bonded with him. Her home address after the trial will be C/O Bassanio. (Of course Portia is disguised as a young man; let’s also not forget that all female roles in Shakespeare’s time were played by men.) Not surprising: fast forward to the mother of feminism in France, Simone de Beauvoir, hopelessly in love with the horrible Sartre. Surely something is wrong here, even with the liberated ones!

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sophocles’ Antigone. As far as I know, there is no Antigone anywhere in Shakespeare. Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, who had the courage to stand up to Creon for violating the Laws of Nature by not allowing anyone to bury Polyneices. Whatever Sophocles’ reasons for creating such a strong female character in the male-dominated Greek society, Antigone has stood, even in modern literature, as the symbol of resistance to oppression. Interestingly, in Oedipus the King, Antigone and her sister Ismene do not even have speaking roles! That was more in tune with the Greek ethos.

Now, briefly to Mahim’s point about feminism being “a challenge to an organised theology”. Absolutely. Feminism was a heterodoxy. But like all heterodoxies, it has ended up creating its own orthodoxy. That’s precisely my point about criticising it. But there is nothing strange about this. This is a problem with all belief systems, religious or secular. Finally, all orthodoxies generate their mumbo-jumbo, which is also reflected in the language. And when you get a combination of feminism, post-modernism and post-structuralism (one of these days we shall have a column on these isms) you get the modern witches’ broth a sip of which can send you reeling. If you don’t believe it, let me produce a paragraph here from Mahim’s letter and I challenge you to decipher it:

“Feminist theory and its subsequent manifestation in the drive for political correctness in the 1980s were an attempt to simply invert prevailing hierarchies of gender, culture and race and they have progressively welcomed the poststructuralist invitation to refuse the binary oppositions upon which patriarchal authority constructs itself.” (my italics). So it’s not just about feminism; it’s also about plain English, dear reader!

Ejaz Haider is News Editor of The Friday Times and Foreign Editor of Daily Times

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