The Universality of the Individual Body in Politics
Shadi Daryoush Dialectic with Zillah Eisenstein
“The female body is a constant battleground” this is what Zillah Eisenstein, American political theorist and gender studies scholar, Emerita Professor of the Department of Politics at Ithaca College and the author of the book The Female Body and The Law, asserts in her post on her blog regarding the conditions of women around the world right now. So, I contacted her for an interview with Praxis in order to discuss her thoughts on events around the recent political movements in relation to the female body.
You’ve been teaching political and feminist theory for many years now and you’ve been emphasizing on the body as a political vessel specifically in your book The Female Body and The Law. My question is, how the female body is defined in political terms and why it is important to dwell upon the body in politics?
The body is how we are present and historically at different times what the political world needs of female bodies both changes and remains the same. Historically even if it was the period of Chattel Slavery in the United States, the black female body was raped and used to reproduce new enslaved people. At different historical moments, the issue of sexual reproduction of one society, that does relate to the female body and what the choices are that women have to control what happens to it, is what politics is. For me politics is about power, and power always relates back to the sustenance of making the world. So, the body to me is crucial, I mean all bodies, just look at the violence being used against opposing bodies in countries where people are objecting the power system. The terror that it creates and the system of control. So you know that’s the most kind of fascistic element in so-called democratic societies, the try to mystify what that control is. I think that most countries are in crisis right now and that’s because it is so explicit that the control of the females’ bodies is necessary for the political order.
In your recent article on your website, you called the female body “a constant battleground”, this mirrored Judith Butler’s account of the bodies acting as a practice of resistance by standing in the way of an external power. Do you believe that the presence of the bodies has the required power to bring about the change currently needed for the world?
Well, I think that one of the most politically poignant things happening in this moment are when female bodies refuse to stay in the private spaces and go into the public to make their demands. It’s not surprising if we look historically so often it is women fighting in some sense for liberation, sometimes it is directly related to the body other times it’s related to being able to be in the labor force and have a job. So, there are dynamics, the concept of women actualizing both their equality and their freedom.
In a conference in Ithaca College, you mentioned that the contribution to the political feminism is not possible unless one sees beyond oneself. For many years there has been a major global ignorance toward the condition of women in the middle east, but right now we see that there is a remarkable number of reactions from the global communities in solidarity, people are acting on it and holding their political authorities responsible. So, to what extent do you think that the historical moments such as the presidency of Donald Trump, the pandemic, the current condition of Afghanistan and above all, the Ukraine war actually contributed to this notion of moving beyond oneself in political feminism?
I think everything that you have just mentioned is crucial to people understanding that their own individual lives are part of larger communities and that solutions have to be collective. I do think that Covid was a lesson for everyone who was not paying attention that you can not solve individual problems individually, that we are part of a public. And part of the problem in the United States is that we don not have a good enough policy right now for public health, so there was just a huge amount of really conservative individualism of people just thinking that any policy that required anything of them that they would not individually choose was a violation of them rather than a recognition of the community. So, in the US we have not done well with Covid which really is no surprise in the sense that the death-rate here initially with Trump, but also with the lack of the belief in the collective. I think we live in a very unique moment where people feel vulnerable as they have come to understand that they are part of not just the country they live in but the globe and that all of this affects them and I myself think that currently we can really do see a real movement forward in understanding that what is happening to women in middle east is not disconnected to what is happening to women all around the world. It’s just that the specifics should not be used to cover up the universal here. The point is, no one should tell you what to do. What I tried to do with my political activism is that these are really connected issues and deeply connected to the politics of the body and particularly the female body and when I say female body, I do not mean to exclude trans and beyond gender people, but the point here is that when it comes to the body, that’s why there is such a violence done to the trans people’s bodies. if it weren’t such a difficult moment, I would just say that it is the most fascinating moment I have lived in, because so much is exposed to being able to see if you are willing to see it.
So, as you said these historical moments that we experienced as the global community has kind of brought us together here in a sense, as we can see there are similar movements going on right now…
Yes, I think we want to see the complexity of all of it. Early on when covid hit in the US I said that covid existed along many other pandemics; the pandemics of racism, misogyny, inequality, and then the thing about covid is that it exposed it all. But again, to see Covid as a singular thing is already many layered. The point here is that there is a way of having lived and exposed the global community, it really does break down the so-called national borders. You could really say that what is happening right now around women in the middle east, to the rest of the world, the exposure is even more intensified because of all these other lenses that have already been mobilized. I think for me it is to see the multiplicity of any identity here which gives a lot of strength to the struggle right now.