· The symbolic power of women’s bodies ·
Women speak with their bodies. They don’t even realize that they are doing so. It is the greatest gift bestowed on us by nature, that complexity of emptinesses and fullnesses, protrusions and hollows, so hard to accept when from being a little girl you become a woman, when you realize that you no longer have that simple, balanced body which until a certain point you shared with males, the simple triangle – head-torso-legs – which identifies human beings. In that complicated sequence of movements which becomes the female body there is instead so much more to manage. Seduction/fear, tiredness/rest, beauty/ugliness, death and, finally, life. Birth and children.
The body says all this, and the worst of it is that it does so even against you, or with you, or in any case regardless of whether you want it or not. For the destiny of women is one of automatic identity, ample, larger even than the individual who dwells within it, since it is universal.
Would this be the reason that the female body has always been seen as a mystery?
It is something with a deeper and more sacred root – because it is so closely linked to the rebirth of the world, generation after generation.
In fact the suspicion of men – always insinuated into the roots of religions – dominates this body from that ratification of subordination which is the rib veiled to cover the devil’s temptation.
Ancient and modern wars, with a historical continuity that dismays us, have always had in women the heart of their vendetta and revanche [revenge] – kidnapping, rape, racial contamination and the final desecration of the female body are a rite and a theory which trace a dramatic line linking past and present.
The final result is a complete overturning of logic: in order to defend their own identity as citizens, that is their intellectual dignity, women over the course of the centuries have had to defend above all the freedom of their bodies.
And it is perhaps at this intersection between intelligence and physicality that women have developed their third language: the language spoken by the body even without us wishing it; or realizing it.
Look now at these two photos, or at any other photo of a woman, whatever the way in which the women have been taken: running, out of focus, by a cell phone or by a video camera. You will always see a movement, a folding of the lips, a glance, the curve of a cheek, a way of standing still or sitting; you will always notice a detail which tells of an idea, a word, an absolutely individual feature of that person.
So look at these two photos and you will see precisely this absolute individuality, recounted with no other words than those of the body.
At a first glance there is no relationship between the two situations, other than the drama of a conflict.
In one of these photos there is a young, certainly Arab, woman, identifiable as such by her long garment which covers every part of her, by the veil over her hair, by her dress trailing to the ground which reveals poor sandals on rough feet. Behind her two terrified children are looking at a soldier who, squatting, is pointing the barrel of his gun at their faces.
The group is moving along in a land without identity, in that emptiness of places of war, a high grey wall that is crumbling, a field of burnt earth, the steel picket fence of the check point. This place is probably in Palestine but it might be anywhere in the world where a war is being waged – armed men, gigantic in their armour, facing a frail humanity of weak members, of children and of women holding nothing but the hands of their wide-eyed little ones.
The photo captures a unique moment in which the aggression has begun but has not yet been carried through, destiny has not yet decided anything. What will happen between them all now? Will the woman plead, shout and beg for mercy? Will the children scream, as the boy, clinging to his sister, looks as though he is about to do, or will they lose their voices overwhelmed by terror, as appears to be happening to the little girl? And will the soldier, whose face we can’t see, hear these voices, will he raise his eyes to encounter the mother’s gaze, will he say a few words to calm their fears or will he shout louder than them? Or will he even fire his weapon? Are we really seeing the last seconds of three defenceless, innocent lives? At this point we can only look away and put this photo down. We shall return to it.
The other image brings us instead to the heart of a modern urban scene. It shows a very crowded space, by contrast with the emptiness of that checkpoint in the other photo. We are in the middle of a street in a neighbourhood that is certainly far from well-off, a pizzeria, a café and an unpretentious door, and curious bystanders, clad in the usual uniform clothes of city dwellers – fleeces, jeans, work overalls – stare from the pavement. In the middle of the road are three men with white shirts and white skin, three copies of each other with the same glasses and the same short haircut. In this environment, as if in black and white, blurred into the grey of what is without any doubt an English city, as we recognize from the padded jacket of the only policeman on the scene, a woman stands out like a flame: dark skin, shaved head, a leather jacket from which a red shirt seems to blossom which envelops her from her wrists to her neck like a scarf.
This photo is also the photo of a conflict. The three men have the manner and clothes of white suprematists and the woman seems to want to stop them by her mere presence, simply barring their way. Exactly as the Arab mother does.
And this is the connection between two very different and distant situations: two women face their enemy and defend their lives and freedom merely by deploying their bodies.
And their bodies tell what they are feeling at this moment.
The mother is using herself as a screen for her children. She is pushing forward to distract the man with the machine gun, perhaps to intercept his gaze; her torso is proud and combative, but from her waist down all her muscles seem to be contracting. Her whole figure is pulling back, bending, becoming convex, dominated, despite her courage, by fear.
The whole of the young coloured woman’s body is by contrast leaning forward, her torso extended, her shoulders broad, her fist raised, the tension carried through to her face, to her lifted chin. She is a sort of human spear. She is on the verge of shouting. We don’t hear these sounds but we can imagine them from her mouth that is about to open and from the position of her face. Her rage makes an impact on the still scene: the detached curiosity of the passersby, the passive look of the policeman and the empty expression of the three men. Not one of these three looks her in the eye.
Are embarrassment, incredulity and annoyance revealed by all these male faces? We cannot know it from this image. Just as we cannot know what the soldier will do in the end, as he confronts the mother. But perhaps, at this point, we are not even interested in knowing.
St. Peter’s Square
Nov. 20, 2019
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