MAE Paner, aka Juana Change, a performance activist and avid critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, made reference to the female genitalia in one of her Facebook posts. She did so to affirm her womanhood, which according to her and her cohorts in the anti-Duterte movement is being assaulted by the President’s alleged misogyny.
And the reaction was swift. She was pilloried for being crass in using an offensive word. Others questioned her appropriation of the vernacular term for female genitalia in her political activism, thereby questioning whether in fact a connection between politics and the human body exists. And her Facebook account was taken down, presumably after being mass-reported by angry Duterte supporters. Facebook may have not anchored her suspension on the alleged vulgarity of her reference to the female genitalia, considering that the reason given to her was that she was using the name of a fictitious person, but it is precisely her use of the female genitalia in the vernacular that provoked the ire of her detractors.
People should realize that political slogans often subsist on symbolic appropriations. The vagina is seen as a symbol of womanhood and the feminine. It is an identity marker to a woman, as the penis is to a man. Unfortunately, patriarchal social relations have positioned the female genitalia as objects of gender discrimination, if not of total physical mutilation. This is the core of the politicization of the human body, where the body became a template for the exercise of power, and as such has been deployed as a canvass upon which to inflict the power of the dominant.
The bodies of criminals and enemies of the state during the period of tyrannical absolute rulers bore the brunt of dominant sovereign power, where they have been tortured, stretched, burned, crucified, quartered, disemboweled and beheaded. The bodies of women may not have been subjected to these brutalities in a patriarchal society dominated by men, but they nevertheless became the objects of benign control and confinement. Western religions considered women’s bodies as the source of original sin. Hence, women’s bodies had to be covered, veiled and confined lest they cause the perdition of the male species. And this practice is given a spin, by making it appear that it is to celebrate the virtue of womanhood, when in fact the imposition of higher standards on women’s virtues is for all intents and purposes designed to ensure that they will not become threats to the power of men to control their rational faculties.
In the guise of promoting virtue, some women are in fact subjected to brutal mutilation if only to control their sexuality. This is seen in the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Even today, there are places where women are still subjected to FGM. In 2016 alone, UNICEF reported that 200 million women in 30 countries, which included 27 African countries, Indonesia, the Kurdistan region in Iraq and Yemen, were subjected to this practice. FGM is rooted in imposing control over women’s sexuality, where the brutality is even made more painful as it is done by older women on young girls in order to ensure that they will be seen as pure and modest girl-children who will be offered to men who expect their wives to be untouched virgins. The most brutal of this practice, referred to as infibulation, entails not only the removal of the clitoral hood and clitoral glans, but also the removal of the inner and outer labia and closure of the vulva to leave only a small hole for the urine and menstrual fluid to pass. The women will then have to undergo another procedure to open them up for intercourse with their male spouses, and for childbirth.
Some may say that even men have been subjected to political marginalization, and even oppression, on the basis of their genitalia. Being uncircumcised can lead a boy to become the object of derisive jokes. But in history, being circumcised became a marker that led to being lynched, and even gassed. In a crowd of men, one way the Nazis identified Jews to be sent to the gas chamber was to inspect their penises, considering that Jews are circumcised. In the brutal riots between Hindus and Muslims that erupted during the partition of the Indian sub-continent, Hindu gangs had only to ask their male captives to strip down for them to identify a circumcised Muslim, who then will be lynched together with his family. The reverse is true when Muslim gangs search for Hindus in a crowd. However, in these instances, it is not because their penises were circumcised or not that they were gassed or lynched. It is because such only became a marker for their ethnicities which were the actual target for execution.
Indeed, the vagina has become a burden for women, even as the penis has become the source of male power. Patriarchal power required male heirs, and hence the crucial moment when a queen delivers a child, when the genitalia of the newborn is revealed, which would either become a time for celebration if the child is male, or for sadness if otherwise. The girl-child matures into a woman in a system that sees her as a last option, a possession to be used as leverage to strike alliances, and a trophy to be paraded.
However, a new breed of feminists have emerged who look at women’s bodies, including their genitalia, no longer as templates for their oppression and subordination to male power. In history, we saw powerful queens and politically astute mistresses prevailing over and controlling men. In the face of gender inequality and misogyny, agency feminists challenge the image of women as victims, turn them into active agents of their own empowerment, and celebrate women’s bodies and sexuality as templates for such empowerment. Here, we see variations from Lara Croft to Charlie’s Angels, to power-puff girls to the Amazon queens. For agency feminists, Mocha Uson can very well be a manifestation of an empowered woman and, whether we like it or not, so is Leila de Lima.
It is this brand of feminism that attended Mae Paner’s deployment of the female genitalia in her discourse of resistance. In this kind of feminism, the female sex organ is no longer the passive receptacle that male power enters, violates and brutalizes. It is now a marker for self-affirmation and empowerment.