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

Sex, Sexuality and Gender in the Delhi Metro Trains: a Semiotic Analysis

Anuj Gupta, St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, India


This paper explores the way sex, sexuality and gender are constructed in Delhi, India by using a semiotic understanding of reality whereby an individual is thought of as being subjectivized due to his being embedded in the socio-semantic text of a city full of signs which he/she interprets and appropriates. Within this socio-semantic text that the individual interprets, there are various determiners of interpretation and gender is one of them. The text of analysis is the collection of signs in the Delhi Metro trains and the methodology used is loosely based on the works of Roland Barthes. The purpose of this essay is to determine the ways in which the citizens of Delhi think of sex, sexuality and gender and analyze the ways in which these notions are reproduced on a daily basis through microcosmic texts like the signs in the Delhi metro trains.

Introduction: A “bookish” understanding of reality

The idea of a book serves as an appropriate metaphor for a semiotic understanding of “reality”. In such an understanding, both a book and reality are texts or collections of signs that the individual subject interprets though his faculties of interpretation, conditioned through his identity. However, it must be kept in mind that the text of reality and the interpreter are porous categories which constantly pour into and mould each other i.e., while the subject’s interpretation constantly reproduces reality, the very tools of perception that the subject has are shaped by social factors or determiners (that which the act of perception/interpretation will then go on to reproduce), creating a cyclical rather than a linear or causal model of the creation of the self and society. A circle has no origin, which is why it is virtually impossible to pinpoint which came first; the self or the social, parole or langue, the chicken or the egg.

There are various determiners that influence this hermeneutical act of creation of meaning and being which are spread out throughout the text of reality, both inside the individual and outside in the society. In simplistic terms, one could say that the primary schools of cultural criticism today (like Feminism, Marxism, Post Colonialism etc.) are oriented to the study of one such determiner of interpretation each and then through that determiner they postulate about this entire process. (For example, a post-colonial school of criticism would ideally focus on the significance of the determiner of race or ethnicity in the meaning created in a cultural artifact (like say Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart), through which it would then go on to postulate larger theories about how this is connected to the ways in which people generated “meaning” and modes of being in the socio-cultural semantic realities from which this text emerged (In the case of the Things Fall Apart, this would perhaps refer to the interpretative communities of pre and post colonization Nigeria).

Ideas about these determinants of interpretation do not magically emerge hierarchically from “centers” of power (like the state, or the church or the police) as was thought traditionally. Foucault’s thought shows us that power rather operates in a horizontal manner and is present everywhere (Foucault 1980). It would thus be wise to rechristen these erstwhile “centers” of authority as “lenses” of authority. They should be thought of as convex lenses which concentrate certain ways of orienting these determinants onto the society in which they exist at a given time. When the individual comes into being in this socio-semantic space, his/her ways of interpreting it and orienting his/her self are influenced by such lenses of authority. Barthes’ essay, The Death of the Author argues that reading a text while keeping in mind what the author must have meant is a kind of censorship of meaning (Barthes 1978). Such a reading of a text restricts whatever meanings one might have produced. The writer figure should be thought of simply as the conductor of the textual symphony rather than its composer. If we transpose this argument onto the semantic text of reality, then just like the prominence of the intentional fallacy in the creation of meaning in the reading of a book, individuals in society too are usually influenced in their acts of interpretation of reality by the “author”otative lenses of power discussed above. Revolution in this sense would be a radical new interpretation of this text of reality that defies the meanings generated if one dutifully orients one’s interpretations in accordance with these lenses of ‘authority’…Access Full Text of the Article

A Feminist Aesthetics of Nature

Tegan Zimmerman, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

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This article examines the relatively unstudied field of the aesthetics of nature from a feminist perspective. Currently a feminist aesthetics of nature does not exist in scholarship, though I argue in our age of eco-crisis this is necessary. I explore what this feminist approach might entail by discussing three essential elements to the current masculinist study of nature: 1) the role of the subject or observer, 2) method of appreciation, and 3) appropriate object for appreciation. By focusing on the recent impasse in feminism, between essentialism and non-essentialism, this paper looks at how each side of the debate would approach these above three topics, and what future paths feminism might take in creating an adequate study of the aesthetics of nature. 

“Last Seen Alive”: Lacan, Louise Bell and I in a Haunted House

Fiona Sprott, Flinders University, Australia

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Nobody notices me. That’s kind of normal. Nobody really noticed Ellen either until she was gone.

In 1983 a young girl called Louise Bell mysteriously disappeared from her bedroom in an outer-lying suburb of Adelaide. This story became part of the tapestry of fragmentary memories of my own girlhood. I used Lacan’s Borromean knot model of the psyche as a tool to guide my creative research and ideas towards a contemporary performance text titled Last Seen Alive which strives to translate newspaper accounts, and personal memories of the story into a fictional text. What is the symbolic order of the story of a girl who mysteriously disappears from her bedroom one night? How to conjure the ghosts and monsters of the imaginary which populate the print media stories of Louise Bell’s disappearance? How to represent my encounter with the man currently suspected of murdering Louise? 

The “Politically Correct Memsahib”: Performing Englishness in Select Anglo-Indian Advice Manuals

S. Vimala, M.G.R. College, Hosur, India

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Examining select Anglo-Indian advice manuals written after the Indian Mutiny in 1857and during the ‘high imperialism’ period of the British Raj, the essay proposes that this cultural artefact served the purpose of constructing and naturalizing the English Memsahibs’ gendered racial identity. By reiterating the performance of gender, class and race imperatives to construct a unique identity prerequisite for the Anglo-Indian community as well as the Indian colony, these texts aimed at the crystallization of this identity that will strengthen the idea of the British Raj. Such reiteration- apart from revealing the imperial anxiety of the subversion of the Memsahib identity- were useful to caution the English women new to the colonial environment.  Reading these Anglo-Indian advice manuals produced for the consumption of the Anglo-Indian community, what the essay further proposes is that the performance of gendered-racial identity of the English women in India constituted not only the governance of their bodies and the Anglo-Indian spaces, but also their management of travel and material consumption including food.  Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter provide useful insights to study the performance of the “politically correct Memsahib” identity and its attendant relation to the imagining of the homogenous British Raj.   

The Semiotics of Violence: Reading Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies

Debamitra Kar, Women’s College, Calcutta, India

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This paper attempts a reading of Italo Calvino’s novel, The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1969) from a postmodern perspective. The novel has always been seen as structuralist experimentation, particularly because it was written at a time when Calvino was associated with the OULIPO, the group of the French philosophers like Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and others. The paper argues that the simultaneous reading of the words in the text and pictures in the margin, challenges the very practice and method of reading. The novel suggests that it can be read as a card game, a game that accentuates deferral and plurality of meaning. These conflicting readings create the semiotics of violence, which again is reflected in the theme of the stories. The paper cites example of three stories which show that the violence of language is codified as the violence of the feminine on the masculine, arguing that the feminine challenges the rules, laws, and structures of language as well as life and destroys things that adheres to any strict binary form. The conflict between the rule of the Father and the lawlessness of the Mother leads to no higher synthesis—it ends in violence that refuses all routes of communication or meaning.

In ‘prison-house of love’[i]: The Bad Girl and bad girls of Mario Vargas Llosa

Tajuddin Ahmed

Netaji Subhas Ashram Mahavidyalaya, India

Volume 2, Number 3, 2010Download PDF Version

DOI: 10.21659/rupkatha.v2n3.09


Mario Vargas Llosa’s recent novel The Bad Girl centers around a sexually liberated woman who is in search of individual emancipation through transgressions of all social norms. The issue of female sexuality and its relation with woman liberation occupies an important and debatable position in Feminist discourse. Llosa’s own attitude to liberated female sexuality had been an ambivalent one. In this paper I would like analyse and explore the question of woman’s liberation in the novel of Mario Vargas Llosa, taking into account the major conflicting Feminist discourses as well as the presence and erasure of female sexuality in the history of Latin American novels. 

“Hijos de la madre chingada” or New Mestiza: Paz and Anzaldúa

Danielle Lamb

University of Alberta, Canada

Volume 2, Number 3, 2010Download PDF Version

DOI: 10.21659/rupkatha.v2n3.06


This paper explores Chicano/a identity through the seminal work of Octavio Paz and Gloria Anzaldúa. Paz and Anzaldúa draw from a common ethnogenesis and the figure of La Malinche.  However, Anzaldúa not only challenges Paz’s view on identity but also provides an alternative to his highly gendered theories of the Mexican diaspora.

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