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  • Sexual Violence/Textual Violence:Desai's Fire on the Mountain and Shirazi's Javady Alley

Whether within the framework of third world or western feminisms, the elision between mother and woman in patristic cultures has been put under erasure by feminists who argue powerfully that the perceived symbolic equivalence between the two confines women to traditional social spheres and allows the patristic economy to regulate female autonomy and sexuality. In western male psycho-analytic theory, this elision has become naturalized so that the term "woman" is subsumed by the mother in discussions of sexual difference. The maternal body, inscribed by the male gaze, glides imperceptibly in the male imaginary to represent male projections of maternal/female desire as potentially threatening to the male.1 The symbolic equivalence between the maternal and the female curiously engenders a splitting which renders it possible to represent maternity, and not femininity. This equivalence simultaneously becomes the condition by which femininity is written, whether by male or female authors, and in which maternity is silenced. While femininity is spoken, maternity is spoken of. The elision now appears to be a radical, if untenable, bifurcation. The central question in this particular trajectory of representation becomes, "Can the mother speak as both mother and woman?" What happens if the elision between the two—feminine desire and maternal desire—is examined, instead of taken for granted in a "commonsensical" way? [End Page 17]

The presentation of the maternal as the "natural" lot of femininity remains silent about political and cultural imperatives that underpin this ideology. Haleh Afsahr, for instance, argues that the unequal sexual division of labor in Iran "renders the sphere of domesticity a far more attractive and secure base for women than that of production" (Afsahr 247). The elision between "mother" and "woman" works to keep women tied, not merely to motherhood, but to specific ideologies of motherhood which foreground the institution of motherhood as the only site of power for women. The "power" of maternity is touted by entrenched ideologues who veil licensed sexual discrimination in the workplace.

In India, despite feminist protest and struggle, femininity is maternity. Sudhir Kakar contends that male worship of motherhood as cultural icon makes maternity the only uncontested space of power for women in India. Using a variety of popular and mythological texts, Kakar advances the notion that the Indian male's fear of adult female sexuality—the sexuality of the mother—plays itself out in the adult male's complex worship of his mother. Kakar insists that a reading of Indian mythology, unique in world history in terms of the place of the mother goddess, does not necessarily reveal any genuine articulation of maternal might, but reveals rather male fear of adult sexuality. Kakar bases his interpretation on a reading of mothers in India as dependent on children, especially males, to establish their authority. He presents the mother as projecting her unsatisfied desires on the male child whose ego is too fragile to cope with it and who consequently begins to learn his fear of the maternal from the mother herself. Feminist readers of Freud are familiar with the male trope that argues that if men treat women in a particular manner, it is in response to maternal desire. Through an analysis of the Arjuna Urvashi myth, Kakar comes to the conclusion that the elision between maternity and femininity is total; the mother's sexuality is denied and then the woman becomes acceptable as mother. Maternity becomes the pre-condition of the foreclosure of the female's sexuality and autonomy.2

Liddle's and Joshi's more nuanced feminist rereading of the relationship between matriarchal heritage and patriarchy is convincing because of its focus on caste and class as factors in the development of the myths. They also draw the reader's attention to a different group of myths in the canon. They argue that the old indigenous matriarchal deities such as Kali who epitomizes Shakti—autonomous female power—were rendered passive by the Aryan influenced brahmanical tradition. Nevertheless, the popular worship of Devi Mata and Kali persisted in many of the other castes. In their brahmanical versions the boundless energy and "dangerous power" that...


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pp. 17-35
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