[I gave this paper in April, 1995 for a conference on women entitled “Le discours sur la femme.” Ironically, Princess Asmaa, one of the then Hassan II’s daughters, was late to open the conference so the conference time was cut down to ten minutes. I wrote this on a napkin and present it instead of my intended paper. Later many of us gave our talks in a more informal setting in Rabat.]
In her book, Unmarked, Peggy Phelan examines the current discourse of knowing sexual difference — a discourse she claims synchronically stabilizes “difference” while repressing the “sexual” as a means for securing, reproducing, and marking self-identity. Phelan writes: “[C]ultural representation seeks both to conceal and reveal a real that will “prove” that sexual difference is a real difference” (p. 4). Thus, in the tradition of Irigaray and Jardine among others, representing sexual difference for Phelan becomes a process of securing a hiatus between the “real and the representational”:
Representation functions to make gender, and sexual difference more generally, secure and securely singular — which is to say, masculine. (She ghosts him.) Representation tries to overlook the discontinuity between subjectivity and the gendered, sexual body, and attempts to suture the gap between subjectivity and the Real (p. 172).
Representing sexual difference therefore preserves the impossibility of representing woman and hence renders her unmarked. Reworking the contradictory narratives of representation from both “identity politics” of the Left which emphasize visibility and the psychoanalytic and deconstsructionist critiques which doubt the power of visibility, Phelan contends that the unmarked occupies a space of indeterminacy which maintains a certain power over the visible since it eludes fetishization, surveillance, reduction, or possession.
Why then, do we meet to discuss “Woman”? Is this not a banal act of historical intervention in which we attempt to “right” the wrongs of history, renaming the streets with “our” patron saints, using the feminine pronoun in lieu of the masculine, underpinning its enunciation with a dryness, a sternness of bitter memories, harsh experiences, strained lives… No we cannot be oppressed once again…no we will not stand for it. ha! This is what we think. But we do not exist, we are a fiction which at any moment becomes part of the greater voice of historical and political homgenization for at the very moment in which the “we” speaks, the “we” loses its individualizing force, its power of the masses and at once confronts the singularity of voices, of identities, of lives. Woman does not exist outside of ideology. I am not woman except in reference to an imposed, a shared, language execpt in relation to a discourse with which you mark me. Where does subjectivity part with the metanarrative of woman?
I want to be unmarked and invisible.
I want to walk down the street without anyone looking at me, thank you very much, without hearing the comments of how I look. Do I look?
When am I getting married? That’s a good question. Why don’t you ask me when I’m going to die—the answer might be more predictable. I mean, after all, I am going to die…this is rather certain.
No, no, I do not want to be accompanied. Sometimes I just want to be alone. I promise you that I will not bore myself.
It just happens to be a coincidence that I know how to cook. I sometimes try to hide this skill in order to not be understood in terms of my sexed body. “Cook, yes, I can make cornflakes and milk.”
Oh, so women in power are dangerous, you say. Of course they are, men are natural leaders, strong and imperious, and woman with power are hysterical and often bitchy. Believe me…I’m a woman and I’m telling you this. I know what I’m talking about.
I often want to take a grand taxi and sit next to the window without a man coming and telling me that he does not sit between women. It would be nice to open the window and simply breath long inhalations of nonsense.
Madame or Mademoiselle, I was asked recently at a bank. Neither, I responded, it’s not important. What, of course it is, I must mark it in this box designated here on the form. Ok, then Madame. Ah, so you are married? No. Well, then you are madamoiselle. No, madame will do, thank you. No, if you are not married than you are mademoiselle. No, Monsieur, I am not to be categorized as married or not married, that is not my task in this bank at this moment. I, like you, am a subject of this bureaucracy and wish to keep my personal life outside of this process. But Madame, I respect women completely and in fact do not understand why you do not want to be mademoiselle since every woman wants to be mademoiselle. Not me, Monsieur. I’m different and if you truly do respect women than you will mark “madame”. And if you keep insisting than I will soon begin to ask that you mark “Monsieur.” The bank clerk quickly marked “Madame.” I went home tired from the whole experience.
True or False
Answer the following questions as true or false:
1. Women are naturally more feminine, gentle, caring, and sensitive than men.
2. Women have a natural instinct and desire to bear children.
3. Women enjoy receiving comments from men about their appearance, because beauty is essential to them.
The above questions are not meant to be answered, but I throw them out as just a few of the artifacts of cultural expressions that deeply offend me. Do I offend you by stating this? I mean to, or at least I want to jolt you…a bit. Ok, I’m sorry. I apologize if I’m being culturally insensitive, but such cultural expressions, these innocent, curious questions are offensive to me. I want to be unmarked and representable only at the threshhold of my own desire—I am not them, I am not women. Close your eyes and think of (a) woman….what do you see? An image, a cultural spectacle…? What is the woman of your dreams? These are all nauseating ponderings—my body is not your canvas, I am not your fantasy!
Come on, tell me to just ignore the dragueurs in the street. That’s my role after all, the passive woman walking by the offensive, ill-bred men (so many questions of class come to mind) who line the streets and I, the Western woman must ignore this for that is the “best” way to handle the situation. Don’t make waves, don’t cause a scandal. Just ignore them.
Us/them., them/us, man/woman..how boring. I’m tired of this discourse. Let’s look at the inner panoptica circles. We weave our language and cast it against the historical monuments of oppression which our language seduces….
I walk down the streets and realize that the same man has been following me for fifteen minutes. Your advice didn’t work, babe. He’s still sticking to me—and like glue! I turn to him and say: “Sidi, ana hmqa wa gdi nqta lzb dilk..” [Translation: “Sir, I am crazy and I will cut your dick off.”] He quickly turns and leaves me. I talk with women who ask me why I am not married, when will I start a family, etc. I find this discourse equally suffocating. I find the framing of these questions and actions offensive. I am not representable at the level of “Woman”. If you ask me one of these questions, you offend me while reassuring your cultural, sexual and religious beliefs. To discuss woman is an action which is at once liberating—for now there is a space to discuss such long elided subjects—yet, this space provides the possibility of a ghetoization of woman, a reaffirmation of the essential worth and system of values of woman. This space can also be nullifying. Perhaps the liberation of “woman” as a discursive subject lies not within the realm of representation, but exists at the brink of not being representable, of being unevocable, heteroglossic. Perhaps a liberation of the subject is offensive to tradition, to culture? Perhaps liberation implies destruction. What price are you willing to pay for oxygen?