As a DustyLady who completely and absolutely hates restrictive dichotomies, more often than not I’m squeezed into a tiny box of stereotypes so tight I eventually grow claustrophobic and completely disinterested, barely an inch away from completely disengaging myself from these situations. As Women Of The Broken World, we’re supposed to be either poor, limitless, undeniably open to possession and incredibly in tune with Nature or Gramsci’s little organic intellectuals, capable of seeing through oppression enough to elevate one’s status to an Earth Goddess, imparting wisdom on every stone; while the dusty realities of who we really are conveniently effaced. Sometimes I just need to read an article like this one and hear distinctive popping sound in the vicinity of my temporal lobes and hope fruitlessly it’s going to end soon. And no, sometimes, even caffeine doesn’t help. Just reading opinions like “I like women from countries that have sustained political turmoil,” makes me want to pack every book I possess, a vat of coffee and just go live in a cave till this blimp called ‘civilization’ is over. In which way can you say Assange isn’t being an arsehole excluding the one that implies cultural appropriation and tokenism is a sign for appreciation? If you can figure that one out, let me know.
Once the urge to puke at his every word went away — by the fifth or so read — one thing that becomes clear is the cast of the ‘Eternal She’¹ that is manufactured for women from ‘broken countries’ to keep us at an exotically attainable distance. Exotic dudes are generally just pouty and exude potent sexuality, capable of letting the ‘inner beast’ — of course all exotic dudes are animals inside! Who said colonial tropes have to die anyway? — possess them into taking the WhiteWashed Lilly of a Woman for an erotic journey, but exotic ladies or the ‘Eternal She’ is always in a position of subordination. If the Dusty Lady is not in a submissive position, sexually or otherwise, then she is either Westernised or has 2 parts English ancestry, which makes her not ‘authentically’ Dusty anyway, so giving her quasi agency doesn’t upset the world order. From the
drugged tame Auoda who is rescued by the adventurous White Man, to say Peter Walsh’s Daisy whom he leaves behind in India² as he re-forms his ties with Clarissa Dalloway, and all women that I can’t name right now, so many whose names we’ve erased away, all fit into the shoes of this ‘Eternal She’: Eternally passive, eternally waiting for the White man to rescue her, or just make her more than a minor background detail in the narrative. Her ‘ethnic’ identity comes through from her ‘native garb’ that she loses through the course of the narrative, to something more civilised as a dress or a skirt. In my mind’s eye, eventually their skin goes white as well. In this way, ‘Ethnic’ dress becomes interchangeable with tradition and essentialism, and the female body enters an unstable arena of scrutiny and meaning, till you can change ‘Ethnic’ with ‘Woman’ with ‘Body’ and come away with the same image, ready for consumption at will!
Besides the obvious problems with the ‘Eternal She’ Earth Goddess routine, what is more brutal is the complete ahistoricisation of WOC and their communities. When you place this woman as a representative for her entire ethnic class or group, it becomes quite difficult to think of the ‘Eternal She’ as a product of her specific history or circumstances, considering you just robbed her of her history. One example that comes to mind is ‘Jewel’ from Lord Jim whose name is changed from ‘Ratna’ (which means jewel in Hindi) depriving her of a visceral geo-political location. When characters like Ratna roam the pages of these colonial, cannonised texts we see them as side-steps to the Bigger, Whiter character. Is it that big a surprise when we as WOC still have to prove to the world that, why yes, we are people too? Ratna (in this text) and all other ‘Ratna’s we don’t know are brutally displaced from their land, their people — somehow they still maintain the most stereotypical qualities of their communities — till we begin to see them as isolated specimen in a Female Of The Species kind of way. So if this character undergoes any kind of gendered hardship at the hands of her community, the Bigger Whiter character can save them and still not be accused of abhorrent racism. See? It’s a win-win situation for all; and surely Ratna, whoever she was or is needed to be ‘saved’ anyway. If this ‘Eternal She’ gets the bearing of history on her ‘broken’ back, then she can hold such colonial narratives and spaces accountable for their actions, so twist her tongue till she forgets her culture and people, till she resembles the biologically made Frankenstein, devoid of past and by extension a memory.
Another trope that upsets me with this ‘Eternal She’ routine is how her story is narrated, conveniently told to fit in the agenda of the narrative — from emancipating the Third World Woman to giving a detailed Marxist solution to her problems — that though she speaks, no words come out. Reading Hosseini’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ left a bitter taste in my mouth precisely because I couldn’t hear her at all in the book, though the book’s protagonists are two Dusty Ladies. Reproductive labour is the one space that all such narratives love to delve into, while completely forgetting how different reproductive labour is in colonised countries. It’s not a ‘simple’ case of hiring womb services — which is in no way simple actually — it’s an un-negotiated idea that women’s bodies are up for reproductive labour. Here there is no case of ‘surplus’ labour being sold off for profits, for bodies become surplus; a new-age psychic ‘re-memberment’ of sorts, if you will. The ‘Eternal She’ cannot be placed on any Marxist axiom or any other mainstream feminist chart, fixed to be rescued or helped. Instead of urging this kind of faceless framing of bodies, it would do us good to keep our histories, our memories — collective or otherwise — and not consume our part-human-part-animal-part-clone identity of the ‘Eternal She’ on such a regular basis that ideas like ‘women from such countries have stronger and more defined characters’ are commonplace. We’re not your metaphors neither do we exist to lend you wisdom. We are not the Eternal She.
1. I stole ‘Eternal She’ from Spivak. But we’re both feminists, so stealing is totally okay. Because what is feminism if I can’t plagiarise content from you, right?
2. Yes Daisy is essentially English, but she’s been in India for so long that she is now Dusty By Association™. Yes, I hear it’s quite contagious.