In my first few posts, I have worked at deconstructing East and West through Historical States, Geographical States, and States of the Psyche. I am still no closer to understanding the true differences that define the two. I do know that spaces and people come into contact and certain ideas and places overlap—which results in more differences being explored and more changes that take place between the two cultures. For this post I want to explore the interstices of Gender and its social implications when it comes to defining the unequal balance in power between the West and the East.
I will be examining Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red and will also apply poco theory from Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s Feminism Without Borders. My Name is Red examines the gender relationship between East and West, and Mohanty’s first Chapter deals with a warning of not falling into universalisms when talking about Women in Third World countries. After all, My Name is Red is not just about art or religion—it is about the influence of patriarchy and how it can distort the existence of certain gender roles. Much can be implied from this simple statement.
It is easy to fall into to the trap of using Universalisms when it comes to talking about the East and West, but before I start my explication of Pamuk’s novel through the use of Mohanty’s concepts of women and third world countries I’d like to propose a hypothesis.
Since we know that the West is the hegemonic force in the Binary West/East we could apply gender roles to each. Why can we apply gender roles? Since the West (Europe) is known for its infamous patriarchal class structure we can understand where and how power is exercised in controlling the East. Patriarchy is a hegemonic force which results in an uneven distribution of power between the Sexes and those who do not conform to certain gender roles specific to their sex. It is also evident that many Eastern cultures were not Patriarchal as evident from certain creation stories—but that is a different post for a different time. Therefore when it comes to the East and Binary let’s apply gender and sex into the mix.
Let’s add more to the Deconstruction Binary:
East=Non-Europe (India, Middle East, Asia etc…) =Matriarchy=Feminine=Female
I am in no way trying to be universal, but if it’s one thing I know so far is that the West holds the dominant space within this binary. In Patriarchy the Masculine controls the relation and distribution of power—since the West is the Dominant then it would take the place of the Masculine male and the East would take the place of the Feminine Female. I also know that before any type of colonization took place the East didn’t so easily fit into certain boxed gender roles. It is only when the West came and needed to assert its power that Gender and Sex became inflated and Patriarchy was enforced as the appropriate from of control.
I’ll come back to this binary of Masculine/Feminine and Male/Female because it’s a major theme in Pamuk’s novel.
What does Mohanty have to say about the construction and understanding of Women as Subject to power when it comes to the colonial binary? Mohanty says that there is a “hegemonic connections between the First [West] and Third Worlds [East] in scholarship” (37). What is this hegemony that Mohanty speaks of? This hegemony stems from the fact that:
the “status” or “position” of women is assumed to be self-evident because women as an already constituted group are placed within religious, economic, familial, and legal structures….However, this focus whereby women are seen as a coherent group across contexts, regardless of class or ethnicity, structures the world in ultimately binary, dichotomous terms, where women are always seen in opposition to men, patriarchy is always necessarily male dominance, and the religious, legal, economic, and familial systems are implicitly assumed to be constructed by men…The major problem with such a definition of power is that it locks all revolutionary struggles into binary structures—possesing power versus being powerless. Women are powerless, unified groups. If the struggle for a just society is seen in terms of the move from powerlessness to power for women as a group, and this is the implication in feminist discourses that structures sexual difference in terms of divisions between the sexes, then the new society will be structurally identical to the existing organization of power relations, constituting itself as a simple inversion of what exists…Third World women, in contrast, never rise above the debilitating generality of their “object” status...Western Feminist discourse, by assuming women as a coherent, already constituted group that is placed in kinship, legal, and other structures, defines Third World women as subjects outside social relations instead of look at the way women are constituted through these very structures (Mohanty 38-40)
I know it’s a long passage (I skipped quite a few paragraphs and sentences as well!) but this passage as I have it within this post is of fundamental importance to the work I am about to do when explicating two very important chapters within Pamuk’s novel. So what does Mohanty mean?
1) NO single experience of oppression is the same ---This goes for both women and men
2) Just because a woman inhabits a Third World space DOES NOT mean she’s automatically oppressed, to think of her as such makes it impossible to disassociate her “object” status.
3) When we Group a Woman into the collective Women we Risk objectification
4) Finally, instead of viewing women outside of social relations we should understand them inside producers and creators of said social structures.
With these concepts firmly in hand, let’s take a look at Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red. In short summary this novel centers on a book of illustrations that the Sultan is having created in secret. One of his miniaturists is murdered and the story is told through a variety of perspectives all of which deliver certain narratives fundamental to understanding the entirety of the story. The bottom line is that this story takes place because of the violence that is above all the product of the West/East binary.
But this story isn’t just a story about Art, Religion, or Philosophy—and how each is viewed in terms of the West/East binary. It’s a story about a Woman caught up in the struggle of Patriarchy between the East and the West. It’s a story about a Woman’s choice—a choice between East and West.
There are two Chapters I would like to examine—Chapter 54: I am a Woman and Chapter 59: I, Shekure. Notice the Title of the Chapter starts with the Reflexive Pronoun of “I.” The “I” denotes individuality, independence, and therefore I will not associate Shekure’s oppression or the “Woman that is not a Woman” with the universal oppression of Patriarchy—its connected to the binary that destroys the humanness of any Woman or Man.
So “Chapter 54: I am a Woman” is a chapter about a Woman that is not a Woman but more of a man. The man is so fascinated with Woman that he decides to put on his dead mothers and aunts clothes. Once in the clothes he looks like a woman and reflects
Only my eyes and cheeks were exposed, but I was an extraordinarily attractive woman and this made me very happy. My manliness, which took note of this fact before even I had, was erect. Naturally, this upset me. In the hand mirror I held, I watched a teardrop slide from my lovely eye and just then, a poem painfully came to mind. I’ve never been able to forget it, because at the same moment, inspired by the Almighty, I sang that poem rhythmically like a song, trying to forget my woes:
My fickle heart longs for the West when I’m in the East and for the East when I’m in the West/ My other parts insist I be a woman when I’m a man and a man when I’m a woman/ How difficult it is being human, even worse is living a human’s life/ I only want to amuse myself frontside and backside, to be Eastern and Western both. (Pamuk 354)
AH! To be Woman or Man? To be East or West? To be both? The catch here is that the oppression is not related to either East or West it’s related to the human condition. Difference is the key factor, why is being a woman different then being a man? Why is West any different then East? WHY is humanity defined by differences? Maybe the universalism is in being human.
Yet, the problem this Woman who is not a Woman is not his/her sex, but the gender specificities applied to both men and women---which transcend societal boundaries and in fact define East and West. SO this becomes an issue of gender and space. He’s a woman, yet his body betrays his desire to be a woman. S/he performs a gender role, which becomes symbolic in h/er poem of the West/East binary. Gender becomes a concept strictly linked with desire. When gender and sex become synonymous universalisms run rampant.
The final passage I’d like to examine is the final chapter “Chapter 59: I, Shekure.” Shekure’s cousin Black Effendi has solved the mystery of the murder, and in doing so has proven his masculinity to Shekure. Because Black spent some time within the West Shekure understood him as masculine. Yet, when he’s subjected to his own society his gender becomes feminized because of Shekure’s husband’s brother. Within the binary of East and West Black is conflated—which in turn becomes intricately linked to Shekure’s own problem. This final chapter examines the relationship between Black and Shekure, East and West, and the violence that begets certain social constructs.
SHEKURE on her own is not oppressed by anyone. In fact she plays the game of independence quite well and dictates her own choices in life through the letters she writes to her lovers and friends. But I am more concerned with what Shekure deems are the two things she’s wanted her entire life:
1. My own portrait; but I knew however hard the Sultan’s miniaturists tried, they’d fail, because even if they could see my beauty, woefully, none of them would believe a woman’s face was beautiful without depicting her eyes and lips like a Chinese woman’s. Had they represented me as a Chinese beauty, the way the old masters of Herat would’ve, perhaps those who saw it and recognized me could discern my face behind the face of that Chinese beauty. But later generations, even if they realized my eyes weren’t really slanted, could never determine what my face truly looked like. How happy I’d be today, in my old age—which I live out through the comfort of my children—if had a youthful portrait of myself!
2. A picture of Bliss: what the poet Blond Nazim of Ran had pondered in one of his verses. I know quite well how this painting out to be made. Imagine the picture of the mother with her two children; the younger one, whom she cradles in her arms, nursing, him as she smiles, suckles happily at her bountiful breast, smiling as well. The eyes of the slightly jealous older brother and those of the mother should be locked. I’d like to be the mother in that picture. I’d want the bird in the sky to be depicted as if flying, and at the same time, happily and eternally suspended there, in the style of the old masters of Herat who were able to stop time. I know it’s not easy…
….The time-halting masters of Herat could never depict me as I am, and on the other hand, the Frankish master who perpetually painted mother-with-child portraits could never stop time. (Pamuk 412-413)
As much as this is about art, Shekure is talking about her own sex—an image of her gendered self. She represents beauty and independence associated with being a mother and a Feminine woman. But because neither East nor West can understand the gender roles evoked through her sex, none can truly understand or create the image of herself she has in mind. Isn’t this kind of liberating? Only she has the power to depict her self portrait, when half the novel the miniaturist cannot decide between the true relationship between reality and fantasy.
Misconstrued Images of gender, and it’s imposition between East and West, is what causes Shekure’s oppression. Her sex has nothing to do with the picture, and in fact her culture respects her individuality as a woman. Thus her desire for a portrait is a desire for an adequate understanding of who Shekure is.
As you can see, Gender adds more confusion to the East/West binary, and I wonder why that is. I know not all oppression is the same, but does the universal struggle between East and West gender roles create the major problem facing Women in the East and the West? Where do we draw the line of differences? Can a woman be an individual and part of the collective at the same time if gender issues remain unresolved?
Why must the concept of gender create said differences?