regular-article-logo Tuesday, 28 November 2023

Exploring shadows

The Dutch scholar and writer approaches gender traditionally and not in its contemporary fluid form

Nandini Bhatia Published 22.09.23, 06:03 AM

Book- Hills Of Paradise: Power, Powerlessness And The Female Body

Author- Mineke Schipper


Published By- Speaking Tiger

Price- Rs 599

Women are born with shadows. They live in shadows and bear their weight on tip-toes, existing as quiet murmurs. Mineke Schipper’s book — borrowing its title from a medieval student song in Latin, “Flora” — explores this shadow and its silence. The Dutch scholar and writer approaches gender traditionally and not in its contemporary fluid form. She writes about gender myths as a political tool and an economic opportunity where the female identity is both the produce and the product.

Themes of management and control of female sexuality, recreational versus procreational values of sex, the use of rape as a weapon, outsourced, charitable and erotic breastfeeding feature prominently as the book discusses the old and the new beliefs around the skewed, misinterpreted and inaccessible female identity. Discussions on religiously-evoked “moral” inflexibilities, fatuous virtues of female chastity, the intellectual disadvantages of women, and the synthetic prototype of female appearance that occupies the public space have been present across histories and cultures and occupy space in Schipper’s book.

In three parts, the book covers the theology of male versus female creators, the desirability of a female body and the terror (and insecurity) it evokes in men, and the power of possessing breasts and the powerlessness of those who possess them, denied of ownership and control of their own bodies (and fates). We find that despite their complexity, humans have progressed uniformly across cultures. The evolution of religion, god, patriarchy, gender, sex — as ideas or norms — has been unidirectional, becoming shared values despite not having shared time or space.

The winner of Eureka! Award (2005) for Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet, Schipper is internationally acclaimed, given her nuanced understanding of culture and literature. Citing worldwide reports, indices, interviews, research papers, and various books, Schipper makes for a strong, unpierceable case. One leaves with a long reading list, featuring thought-provoking works such as Shirley Ardener’s Perceiving Women, Rosalind Coward’s Female Desire, Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography, and many others.

Hills of Paradise coincides with months of protests by women wrestlers against sexual harassment as a means of exploitation by authority; the Manipur crisis where sex and gender are variants of caste and tribal conflicts; the restrictive US abortion laws as an attempt to gain control over a woman’s body; the #MeToo movement that got the ball rolling years ago. It makes one wonder if such a book is or ever will be irrelevant. The answer, sadly, seems to be an unapologetic ‘No’. The problem lies in an existing illusion, where radical feminism is assumed to be mainstream feminism. As Schipper concludes, however, "[i]t is not a matter of degrading the sexuality of men, but of upgrading that of women." It is this thin line — between equality and discrimination — that one hopes to cross. Books like Hills of Paradise are certainly a step in the right direction.

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