Sexual violence is a problem many women around the world encounter in their lives: one in three have experienced it in one way or another. The situation in countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is in many cases worse, ranking Egypt at the lowest end of the scale, with 99.3 percent of women having experienced sexual harassment. And the trend is negative: the position of women in the countries that went through the Arab Spring has been shown to have worsened. What is more, sexual violence seems to be increasingly normalized or ignored, which is an attitude that characterizes what has been termed a ‘rape culture‘.
This short essay addresses the problem of sexual violence from within the theoretical framework of the book Masculine Domination (2001) from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In the context of rape culture, sexual violence will be shown to contain a paradox, which will subsequently be explored with the ideas of Belgian feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray in order to offer an explanation of rape culture arguments. This essay will thus at once provide a further understanding of rape culture by a focus on the MENA region and an application of theoretical concepts of Bourdieu and Irigaray.
1. Sexual violence and rape culture in the MENA region
2. Theoretical framework: Pierre Bourdieu
3. The paradox of rape culture
4. Understanding the paradox: Luce Irigaray
5. Epilogue: the sin of the body
UN Women defines sexual violence as “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances against a persons’ sexuality using coercion”. Examples are rape and sexual harassment: any words or actions that violate a person’s body, privacy or feelings. Attitudes, norms and practices that condone, excuse or ignore sexual violence reflect a ‘rape culture’. Its characteristics include victim blaming (holding the victim responsible for being harassed because of what she wore, how she behaved, where she was, etc.), rape myths (common beliefs such as “men cannot help themselves once they are sexually aroused”) and the sexual objectification of women. The justification of these ideas springs from the understanding of sex as an act involving domination of a male over a female: the eroticization of male dominance.
There is disagreement over which societies qualify as a rape culture, but I argue that in the MENA region these attitudes are prevalent. In very general terms we can say that in MENA-societies, while the sexuality of men is recognized, the idea that women have sexual desires too is ignored or assumed to be nonexistent.1 Women are supposed to be modest, righteous and to uphold the moral order. Men, on the other hand, are “represented as easily corruptible and sexually led ‘astray’”; the female body is seen as contaminating the “vulnerable male mind”.2 Often, women without a headscarf or male company are considered to “ask for” being sexually harassed, or even invite to be raped “through putting themselves in a position which makes them subject to rape,” such as by joining protests. Victim blaming is rampant.
Not as the first one but among of the most eloquent accounts, Pierre Bourdieu describes in his book Masculine Domination (2001) (full PDF here) the binary division between men and women as being more widely applied than just to the realm of living beings. He argues that humans have classified all the things and practices in the world in binary oppositions which are reducible to the male/female distinction: light/dark, strong/weak, big/small, dry/wet, summer/winter, public/private, right/left, top/bottom, positive/negative, active/passive, and so forth. One of the most influential of these binaries is the mind-body dualism that has characterized human thinking since antiquity. The masculine has for centuries been associated with the mind and the feminine with the body. None of these oppositions are symmetrical: the two sides stand in a relation of dominant and dominated. The masculine principle is always the dominant and thereby posited as the measure of all things. Indeed, the dominant power is the creator of this entire social construction, leading Bourdieu to adopt, like Judith Butler, a performative account of sex and gender.
This relation of dominance is however not obvious to us anymore. The historical construction of the dichotomous division of the entire natural and social order shapes the schemes of perception, thought and action of everyone, men and women alike. The omnipresent oppositions channel the mind in a more or less insidious way, without that it becomes clear to us that they are all facets of the same structure of relations of sexual domination. Instead, they are perceived as objective, as if these divisions pre-exist in nature instead of being constructed and only existent in our modes of thought. They are deeply ingrained, permanent dispositions that we have embodied: they have become unconscious. Men nor women are aware of this implicit relation of domination. The unconscious power exerted on the dominated calls Bourdieu ‘symbolic violence’: imperceptible and invisible even to its victims. Thinking about this structure of domination is therefore a difficult, if not impossible, undertaking, because all we have is the cognitive instruments which are the embodied form of this relation of domination.
At first glance, sexual violence, and the justifying arguments of rape culture, can clearly be understood within Bourdieu’s account of masculine domination: it is men’s demonstration of power over women. Sexual possession is not necessarily the aim, as Bourdieu points out: harassment seeks the affirmation of domination. One can show to be a ‘real’ man by increasing his honor “by pursuing glory and distinction in the public sphere.” Consequently, as every form of sexual violence is directed to the female body, a woman walking through the average Middle Eastern street will feel extremely aware of her physicality, as she is constituted by the gaze of men, as Bourdieu would say (“the female being as being-perceived”), constantly being looked at, commented at and approached.
In the framework of the asymmetrical mind-body dualism, sexual violence indeed reflects a dominance of the man/mind over the woman/body. Morality is, like all things in the world, constructed according to the same categories: Bourdieu calls it “the identification of morality with the strength, courage and self-control of the body, the seat of temptations and desires.” Controlling bodily desires is a virtue; following them is a sin. The argumentations of rape culture are antithetical to this: men are pardoned for their actions by the excuse that their physical desires were stronger than them. The paradox is that men were presented as the rational part of the opposition, but in the rhetorics of rape culture, at the same time as unable to control their bodily (irrational) desires. This leads to the justifying arguments mentioned above, and the hysterical reality that women are directed to shield men from their desires: they will, for example, cover their bodies not just to protect themselves against men’s unwanted attention, but indeed to protect men against their own hormones.
In Masculine Domination, Bourdieu already pointed out a paradox in dominant behavior of men towards women in front of other men, like sexual harassment in public or gang rapes: these forms of ‘courage’ spring from the very fear of losing the respect or admiration of others to not be seen as feminine but as a ‘real man’: the fear to show the feminine in themselves. Harassment is, then, an attempt to avoid looking feminine. But in the context of a rape culture, the conclusion is reversed: if men show their masculinity by harassing women and justifying this by the argument that they are seduced to do so by women, they are actually, in their own discourse, displaying their feminine side: the domination of their bodily desires over their mind. In this understanding, women are the victims of men’s unrestrained femininity.
In a rape culture, sexual violence is still motivated by the desire of domination, but the excuse is contradicting the ‘rational’ image the masculine has crafted of itself. This image was defined through its opposite, the woman equated to the bodily, while in a rape culture the domination gets confined to control of the woman, not control of the body. It may seem little more than a strategy to deny responsibility and blame women. In an attempt to understand this paradox, I will introduce another paradox, theorized by Irigaray. She holds that women represent the “sex which is not one”, which marks the title of her 1985 book.
In Judith Butler’s discussion of Irigaray and Simone de Beauvoir, she paraphrases the latter as saying that the masculine conflates with the universal: it claims a disembodied universality, while the feminine gets constructed as a corporeality. The masculine subject, freed from the physical, thus obtains a ‘radical’ freedom. In Irigaray’s account, this subject is something the feminine can never become: women are not just identified with the body, but reduced to nothing more than body: a lifeless matter that lacks any form of self-determining agency. The distinction between body and mind is absolute in that it deprives women of the mind, of autonomy. Women are reduced to and used as ‘products’.
The paradox is the following: the body the woman is reduced to is not her own. For Irigaray, women don’t represent the opposite of men, of body against mind, but they are an extension of the male; of the male body to be exact. As Butler puts it in her discussion of Irigaray: the woman is “the masculine sex encore (et en corps)”. This is what Irigaray means with “the sex which is not one”: there is only one sex, the masculine, that elaborates itself in and through the construction of the woman. The masculine-constructed conceptual scheme that Bourdieu described (above), achieves, according to Irigaray, “its totalizing goal through the exclusion of the feminine altogether”. The masculine encompasses everything, including its ‘opposite’, which was created to renounce their physicality; the female is constructed, but in reality denied as being anything on her own.
This paradox can help us to understand rape culture arguments. Without agency or autonomy, there is nothing that can be ‘led astray’ by bodily temptations, nothing to have sexual desires: this can explain the attitude in the MENA region of women’s sexuality as nonexistent. Men however are seen as autonomous subjects and therefore recognized as having sexual desires. Primarily, they are however also taught that following these bodily inclinations is bad. This old moral ideal of dominance of the mind over the body, the virtue of self-control, is then pursued by men by disembodying themselves: putting away their physicality in a place they can control, that is, in women. This doesn’t eradicate the power of the body and its desires, but subjugation to its temptations (such as engaging in sexual violence) is not anymore the man’s responsibility: it becomes the woman’s fault. She seduces men with ‘her’ body (which is not her body), which makes her the sinful. It’s a strategy to escape responsibility of sins.
Blaming the woman ascribes her a fake autonomy, as if she is a subject on her own, capable of making decisions and therefore capable of being blamed. But she is not a subject i.e. a mind: she is the physical. And because the bodily is in our morality seen as sinful, the woman is inherently immoral. The woman is constructed to function as a depository for all things bad: a scape goat. This is completely in line with both Bourdieu’s description of the supposed ‘maleficent’ nature of women and the rape culture ideas we find in the MENA region and beyond, which blame the woman for sexual violence committed against her.
The fundamental problematic assumption at stake might be the ‘evil’ reputation of the body. Whether originated when humans wanted to distinguish themselves from animals or with the advent of Christianity, the historical idea(l) of superiority of the mind over the body should be considered rethinking. Butler argued that “the mind/body distinction illuminates the persistence of gender asymmetry”. The order of causality is however uncertain: did the desired masculine domination give way to domination of the mind over the (female) body, or did the assumed (embodied) superiority of the mind give the need for domination of women to serve the disembodiment of men to escape responsibility of sins and become virtuous?
The superiority of the mind should be rethought for another fundamental reason. Oppressing the bodily is a problem itself: in the MENA region, where at least from a western perspective sexuality is oppressed (through the prohibition of sex before marriage and nudity, for example), a common argument for the high levels of sexual violence is that many people are sexually frustrated. Sexual violence is the consequence of a man confronted with the body – his own body. That this confrontation is problematic is because through his disembodiment the man became alienated from his body; lost touch with his body and doesn’t know how to take care of it anymore. This is maybe the crucial issue: by considering it as evil, we have lost living in harmony with our bodies. Instead, we think in oppositions.
This is an adapted version of a paper I wrote at the University of Freiburg for the course ‘European Social Thought’. I have left out specific page references; don’t hesitate to contact me for any clarifications.
Image: detail from Light of the Harem (1880) by Lord Frederic Leighton.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Masculine Domination (2001)
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)
Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One (1985)
- As’ad AbuKhalil, Gender boundaries and sexual categories in the Arab world. ↩
- Amal Treacher, Reading the Other Women, Feminism and Islam. ↩