Perseus and the Gorgon
by Laurent-Honore Marqueste (1903)
Our society is quick to denounce the horrifying decrees promulgated against Afghan women by the Taliban. We lament the unjust punishment of raped women in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. We cry in outrage when we hear of yet another victim of gang-rape in India. The beliefs and mechanisms that underpin the appalling treatment of women in many parts of the world are many and varied. They cannot be outlined here and that is not the purpose of this post.
This post is about patriarchy. Yet it is not your standard feminist post. Far from it. It is about denouncing the women who assist patriarchy.
How does a woman in India assist patriarchy?
By privileging a boy's education. By telling her daughter through actions or words that she is worthless. By raising sons who feel entitled to better treatment than girls. By allowing a son to grow up believing that he is a little king, and that he deserves more than women, or worse, can do whatever he likes to a woman, including beating her to a pulp or savagely raping her with his male friends.
How does a woman in Africa assist patriarchy?
By perpetuating the cruel practice of female circumcision. In parts of Africa, especially Somalia, the women are indoctrinated to believe that a daughter's worth for marriage and her chastity depends upon her being circumcised. It is the women who take an active, aggressive role in circumcising their daughters. It is women who tell their uncircumcised daughters or daughters-in-law that they are filthy and not fit to be a wife unless they have been brutally mutilated.
How does a woman in any part of the world, including the secular Western world, assist with patriarchy?
By happily labeling another woman a 'slut' when it appears that this other woman naturally solicits male attention. It is often the case that such a label is born of envy or insecurity. Its true crime, is that it publicly invites the social scorn of their sister, while supporting the patriarchal belief that sexually desirable or sexually active women have no place in this world, and that only a man has rights over his pleasure and sexuality.
How does a woman in any work place or organisation assist patriarchy?
By undermining her own female co-workers or potential female employees because she, without realising it, has long internalised social beliefs that certain skills are best acquired by the male gender. There is a doubt that exists within her about her own ability as a woman to master certain technical or other traditionally male-dominated skills, and it is this internal doubt that she projects upon her sisters such that she comes to undermine them even where they are perfectly capable.
By doing what many men do so well: that is, by assuming that her female co-workers could not have achieved what they have on merit; that if they have at all delivered, it must have come primarily through some male aid or worse, through the practice of some female guile to acquire the assistance of others while doing nothing herself.
These are all forms of female-assisted patriarchy and female-assisted sexist attitudes. They serve the outdated male beliefs that women are not as important, valuable, skilled and trustworthy as men. They reduce women to manipulative, unfit and beguiling monsters. They reduce women to the gorgon, Medusa.
Do you know the tale of Medusa?
Yes, you must remember the Greek tale of Medusa. She was this hideous female with snake-like streams for hair and one look upon her face was thought to petrify the onlooker such that he or she turned to stone. It was Perseus who, with the help of Athena, managed to kill Medusa.
But do you know the real tale of Medusa?
Before she became a gorgon, Medusa was a beautiful girl. Her beauty was such that even the goddess Athena envied it.
Athena soon found out something horrible. She discovered that the God Poseidon had raped Medusa. Being enamored of Poseidon herself, she saw it fit to punish Medusa. She turned her into a gorgon. Perhaps Athena thought that it was Medusa's fault if Poseidon had not been able to control his legendary urges and added Medusa to his long list of sexual conquests. But never mind that Poseidon was a serial rapist, Athena cast the entire blame on Medusa. In so doing, she no doubt appeased her fractured ego and took her revenge on a rival. And so it is when insecure women blame other women: they assist patriarchy.
Just like her Indian and Pakistani sisters who receive no justice for rape, Medusa was turned into a monster whose fate was to be reviled and avoided. Besides, it is impossible to engage a gorgon in conversation if one is soon cast to stone upon looking at her. Medusa was fated for social isolation. There is a word for that. Ostracism. Ostracism was her ultimate punishment. Even today, ostracism is a familiar mode of punishment for women who dare raise the ire of their jealous sisters. When the word is out against them, ostracised women are ignored, unfriended and perpetually removed from invitation lists.
Returning to our Greek legend... Our patriarchal hero, Perseus, had sworn to kill Medusa, this monster who inspired so much fear. And so it is when women are seen as nothing but monsters.
Not content with having turned Medusa into a gorgon, Athena also took it upon herself to assist Perseus in killing her.
There are many forms of female-assisted patriarchy but the one that really stood out for me was the story of Medusa. I always felt sorry for her and the unjust punishment meted out to her. When I look at the image in this post, the photo of Marqueste's sculpture, it represents for me all that is ugly and horrifying about the treatment of women at the hands of patriarchy. I feel only pity for Medusa. Her misery could have been avoided if a certain ocean deity could have learnt better manners as a child and then, as an adult, kept his staff in place where it belonged (and I don't mean his trident). But without a doubt, her misery could have been avoided if Athena had not been so spiteful about Poseidon's slight and if she had not been so intent on casting the fault upon Medusa.
Can you think of other ways in which women assist patriarchy? I can think of many. In fact I can think of instances where women have turned out to be even more patriarchal than men.
How do we stop this? Because ultimately, whether we like it or not, some women are part of a vicious cycle that perpetuates patriarchal behaviors.
So what can we do? It is hard. Education is a big factor. We need to raise educated, strong women who are confident and not embarrassed with archaic modes of thought. At a social level, we educate them to shun traditional male-favouring attitudes. They must, in turn, not grow to favour their sons over their daughters. But most importantly, we give them confidence in themselves as individuals. We teach them the joy of being women, women who can overcome their insecurities. We give them a belief that life is filled with opportunities and we give them these opportunities whenever it is in our power and in their best interests.
We teach them to give, just as we expect them to be spiritually generous toward their own sisters.
We teach them to protect their own sisters, rather than fear them in the same way that generations of men have feared Medusa.