Politics of Abjection: Analysing the Debasement of Female Bodies in Cross-Border Conflicts

Deblina Hazra, Jadavpur University


Julia Kristeva in Powers Of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982) describes abjection as the ambivalent process of subject formation in which elements that the self cannot assimilate are expelled, disavowed and designated repugnant. Female bodies in cross-border feud have always been subjected to abjection for the greater religio-political need. The bodies of women have proved to be useful mediums to transfer symbolically messages of power, victory and supremacy. Violence perpetrated on these bodies not only metaphorically asserts male superiority, but also serves as an effective platform to terrorize people. Degrading the female bodies also signifies the extermination of a particular community, both by destroying the honour and impregnating them with the seeds of a foreign community. Reading Jean Franco’s account of debasement of female bodies in the war across USA-Mexico border and the partition narratives based on the Indo-Pakistan front, as well as taking into account the contemporary scenario of Islamic terrorism, this paper aims to look at the ways in which women’s bodies are violently debased, and analyse the symbolisms of such abjection against the backdrop of border-wars.

[Keywords: Border, partition narratives, Islamic terrorism, female bodies, abjection.]


“…when the taboo against harming others is broken, there can be no limits, no social pact.” (Franco 1)

Franco in her 2013 book Cruel Modernity analyzes the various forms of cruelty that has begun to define modernity in Latin America. Though focused only on the discriminating atrocities committed across the USA-Mexico border, her reading is an echo of border politics all around the globe. Border exists, whether visible and physical or invisible and imaginary, because there is an ‘other’. It differentiates race, religion, ethnicity, community, nationality, language and even gender. Franco’s extensive research reveals that the only possible way modernity can negotiate with such varied borders is through an extreme form of violence which amounts to a complete dehumanization of both human body and psyche. The violence inflicted on human beings, in such cases, leads to a debasement of the human body and reduces it to an animalistic status. The human body, subjected to beatings, curses and other forms of humiliations, loses its subjectivity and becomes synonymous to a non-human existence. Franco examines the conditions under which extreme forms of cruelty become “the instrument of armies, governments, and rogue groups” and seeks to answer the question, “Why, in Latin America, did the pressures of modernization and the lure of modernity lead states to kill?” (Franco 2) This is not to say that Franco considers cruelty as a newly emerging phenomenon. She is not blind to the fact that neither cruelty nor its exploitation is new. However, it is the lifting of the taboo against harming others that concerns her thesis. She explores how “the acceptance and justification of cruelty and the rationale for cruel acts” (Franco 2) has become a major feature of modernity. The scenario that she paints is a universal one – be it across the USA-Mexico border or the India-Pakistan border. The root cause of such barbarism across multiple forms of borders can be pinned down to the internalization of border in human psyche. Border denotes difference and difference is a natural phenomenon, since the world as it was created was not a homogeneous one. However, the differences of race, religion, ethnicity, language has led to an utmost intolerance towards the other calling for its cruel annihilation. The hatred towards the other has been nurtured to such an extent that human conscience no longer recognizes cruelty as an act amounting to crime. The involvement of state apparatuses in further endorsing this hatred and its participation in the game of brutality deprives humans of their rights in such a manner that “no act committed against them could appear any longer a crime” (Agamben, qtd. Franco 4).

‘Cruel Modernity’ and the Female Body

Among other forms of brutality which constitute ‘cruel modernity’, the treatment of the female bodies in cross-border politics is the most grotesque and barbaric. The female body is a site of numerous conflicting and contesting claims. It is a site to assert male supremacy; it is simultaneously a site where the symbolic extermination of an entire community or race can be carried out; it is also a site which bears the burden of honour. This honour once again is not singularly of the woman’s. The honour of her family, the honour of the race and ethnicity to which she belongs are all manifested on her body. The female body, therefore, is a vulnerable site – a site whose violation can symbolically violate an entire community, and a site whose protection is mandatory to maintain the purity and integrity of the community, even if that protection comes at the cost of her life. This paper studies this complex reading of the female body and how it is used to manipulate cross-border politics. Through a comparative reading of instances of abjection of the female body from Franco’s Cruel Modernity and literary examples from the Indo-Pakistan border this paper attempts to show how two widely different border spectrums resort to a similar brutal treatment of the female body with an aim of turning it into an abject to assert various forms of male supremacy in their own individual ways. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines abject as “Brought low, miserable; craven, degraded, despicable, self abasing” and it describes abjection as a “state of misery or degradation.” While describing how abjection is expressed, Samantha Pentony in her article ‘How Kristeva’s theory of abjection works in relation to the fairy tale and post colonial novel: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and Keri Hulme’s The Bone People’ comments that

“[R]eligious abhorrence, incest, women’s bodies, human sacrifice, bodily waste, death, cannibalism, murder, decay, and perversion are aspects of humanity that society considers abject” (Pentony 1; italics are mine).

This paper traces how women’s bodies in being subjected to the politics of abjection become a means of proclaiming male supremacy in conflicts across all kinds of borders – whether geographical, political, racial, or most importantly, gender.

Julia Kristeva put forward her theory of abjection in Powers Of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982) where she identifies that we first experience abjection at the point of separation from the mother. This idea is drawn from Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory which underpins her theory of abjection. She identifies that abjection represents a revolt against that which gave us our own existence or state of being. For Kristeva, the corporeal link between mother and child is the most fundamental abjection of all, initiating the logic upon which all other forms of abjection are predicated and paving the way for the child’s entry into the symbolic. This, for Kristeva, is why language is a masculine preserve and why femininity – and particularly maternity – is tainted with the abject. According to her, abjection describes the ambivalent process of subject formation in which elements that the self cannot assimilate are expelled, disavowed and designated repugnant. Her model of the Abject outlines a conflict in gender between patriarchal signification and the female imaginary and explains female oppression as an inability to cast off the internalization of the mother. Taking her cue from Kristeva, Barbara Creed writes:

“The place of the abject is where meaning collapses, the place where I am not. The abject threatens life, it must be radically excluded from the place of the living subject, propelled away from the body and deposited on the other side of an imaginary border which separates the self from that which threatens the self. (Creed 65; italics are mine)

Besides political, racial, communal, ethnic and linguistic borders, women have to confront what is probably the most unaccounted but the most diabolic border – the border of gender – where women are seen as men’s ‘other’ and, thus, are separated out in heinous ways of all kinds…Access Full Text of the Article

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