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Women, motherhood, virginity and war

June 13, 2013

“Hunting as human beings practice it has very little in common with predation among different animal species. It is not an activity intended merely to fill stomachs. There are laws which regulate the killing and consumption of animals by human beings (obviously unthinkable in the animal world); these laws involve a sense of the sacred, from which women are generally excluded. (Though women may be, and often are, idealized as the embodiment of Sacredness itself – in many myths it is to women that spirits or divinities reveal the use of indispensable tools or magic masks – they virtually never preside over religious mysteries.)
Whatever discontinuity there may be between hunting and war – the latter is admittedly not the automatic outcome of the former – it must be significant that women have been excluded from both these realms of violence imbued with sacrificial mystery. The reasons for this must be more complex than the pragmatic considerations often advanced by specialists – it is more convenient for women to look after gathering food and raising children, given that they are ‘immobilized’ by pregnancy and nursing, while men go off to the hunt together. Rather, I would suggest that it is the act of giving birth itself which is considered to be profoundly incompatible with the act of dealing death.
One of the strongest indications that it is as mothers that women are excluded from life-taking activities is the fact that as virgins they are not. It is possible to trace this tradition all the way back to the beginning of recorded history.” (p.128) …

“Of course, the mutual exclusiveness between war – or hunting – and motherhood is largely mythical. However, myths are not passive objects that one can choose to contemplate, or not to contemplate, at one’s leisure. They are powerful acting forces which influence the behavior of those who hear and transmit them. Thus, even if there is no wholly convincing physiological justification for it, the mythical exclusiveness between motherhood and war can very well be actualized – and, consequently, any number or real cases can appear to ‘confirm’ it. …The most glorious female warrior in European history was none other than the Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc. And today, in the egalitarian Israeli army, as in the project for a women’s draft currently under study in Greece, women who have children are automatically exempted.
The idea that the loss of virginity makes women vulnerable, or that motherhood deprives them of their capacity to fight, is another proof of the specifically human nature of war. In the animal world, on the contrary, there is nothing more ferocious than a mother; [-p.130] one has only to think of the proverbial combativeness of lionesses and she-ears when their cubs are in danger. It is not from sheer benevolence that men have sought to spare the ‘weaker’ members of society the gruelling tasks of weaponry. Rather, hunting and warring have been institutionalized as the sacred privileges of the male, which he could share with the female only in fantasy – or, in reality, only temporarily – and only to the extent to which she had not yet taken advantage of the privilege of her sex by becoming a mother. Women’s exclusion from these activities is consonant with their exclusion from the sacred in general, and the latter exclusion is intensified wherever maternity – actual or potential – comes into play: it is absolute for pregnant or menstruating women, as well as for nursing mothers.
When women do take part in the sacred, it is because they have either renounced motherhood or gone beyond it. As virgins, they have the right to carry the Holy Grail, or to enter a nunnery; among the Celts they could become magicians or prophetesses; among the Aztecs they could be sacrificed to the Sun God. As widows, they often ‘retrieve’ their chastity and acquire new magical powers. But as mothers, they are inhabited by the ignominious forces of the natural world and must therefore be prevented from having anything to do with the spiritual.” (pp.129-130)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Nancy Huston ‘The Matrix of War: Mothers and heroes’ pp.119-136  Eds. Susan Rubin Suleiman (1986) The Female body in western culture : contemporary perspectives. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England


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