Saturday, September 25, 2021

Rape, Control of Women, War and....Art


"Judith Slaying Holofernes" by Artemisia Gentilachi


"Control of female sexuality is fundamental to the patriarchal system.  This explains why there is so much controversy about the “simple matter” of access to birth control and abortion and so much anger directed at single mothers. "
~Carol Christ
I never cease to be amazed that the contemporary versions of Biblical Patriarchs continue to fight for control of  the bodies and lives  of the female population, even as they attempt to remove virtually all infrastructure to support or assist poor and single mothers.  Or the "right to rape" that is  so much in evidence in the power structure of our society.  I reflect on Donald Trump, the former President of the United States, bragging about his career as a "pussy grabber" as he virtually celebrated his sexual predations publicly.  I also remember marching in the Women's March with thousands of equally offended women.

As a long time student of art and mythology, the celebration of rape and war is to be found everywhere. The rape of young women is a prime theme in contemporary television drama, over and over and over.  How we seem to love our sadistic serial killers.   And if you look back at the his-story of Western art, it's all over the place as well.  In fact, much of it is on plain view in our most distinguished institutions of art and culture such as the Metropolitan Museum or the Smithsonian.  High Art, High Rape, rarely examined for the message under all those pretty colors and plump, seemingly  acquiescent women, who never seem to be wearing any clothes.*

I remember all those paintings, for example, of the rape of various mortal women  by those manly, if naughty, Greek gods, because the Masters were constantly forced on me as a young art student.  I tried to like them, but something I couldn't articulate bothered me.  Later I began to see them as a perfect  co-option of myth, often turned religion, used to justify the voyeuristic violence of men:  i.e.,  the gods rape  just the same as ordinary men do, with the head god, Zeus, leading the pack.  

In a popular  Renaissance theme like the painting below, "The Rape of Europa"  by Luca Giordano, the  abduction of a young girl is positively a party for all!   

"The Rape of Europa" by Luca Giordano

Or the "Rape of the Sabine Women", or the "Rape of the Trojan Women", or "the Rape of Persephone" or so was  only years later, after all that Classic Arts Education, that  I finally understood that those paintings amounted to pornography for wealthy men of the time.  As well as propaganda.  

"Rape of the Sabine Women" by Sebastiano Ricci

Above we have a huge, and famous, Renaissance painting with a popular theme of rape, each man carrying off his prize.  I wonder how many women sat beneath this expensive painting at expensive dinner parties and felt a tad queasy without exactly knowing why?

Here's a more recent painting from the end of the 19th Century:  our proud warrior sits atop his "loot" - lots of gold, spoils, and several passive, helpless  women as "loot" too, one appropriately nude with a good pair of breasts exposed.  Oh, and we have a weeping, but worthless,  old woman on the side, just to show the artist's recognition that there is a bit of suffering in war.  

And then there is Atemisia Gentileschi"s "Judith Slaying Holofernes".  The daughter of a famous painter who was raped herself  as a young girl and publicly humiliated, I somehow don't think she found the subject at all sexy.   Her brilliant, honest,  and disturbing painting of a powerful Judith and her maid servant severing the head of Holofernes strikes a cord in the heart of any woman who has known the suffering of sexual assault.  

"Judith Slaying Holofernes" by Artemisia Gentilachi

I decided to take the liberty of sharing a  brilliant article (2013) from  Feminism and Religion  by the marvelously articulate feminist scholar, writer,  and theologian  Carol Christ that takes a long look at the issue, so deeply embedded in the violence of our world, and so very crucial to understand if there is ever to be change.  Thank you to Dr. Christ for her words, once again.* And thank you to Susan Brownmiller and her book Against Our Will (1975) which I have not read in many years, yet still stands as an important voice for the unspeakable.

And I also share, below, an image of what rape really looks like in war.  Because we need to remember.

  Patriarchy as a System of Male Dominance Created at the Intersection 
  of the Control of Women, Private Property, and War 

 (Part 2), February 25, 2013


Patriarchy is a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols, in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality, with the intent of passing property to male heirs, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.*

In last week’s blog, I explained patriarchy as a system in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality with the intent of passing property to male heirs.

 How did a system that identifies a man’s essence with his property and the ability to pass it on to sons come about? I suggest that the answer to this question is war and the confiscation of “property” by warriors in war. Patriarchy is rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.

My argument is that the origin of “private” property, defined as property owned by a single (male) individual, and as that which defines the “essence” of that individual, is the “spoils” of war, which are divided up by victorious warriors.  The “spoils” of war are the tangible treasures “looted” or taken by the victors from the conquered, such as jewelry and sacred objects.  The “spoils” of war include land “taken” as the result of warfare, along with the right to exploit resources, directly or through taxes and levies. The “spoils” of war also includes the right to “take” the women of the defeated enemy and to confirm ownership of them (and humiliate their fathers or husbands) by raping them.  The “spoils” of war also include the right to “take” these raped women and their young children home to serve as slaves and concubines.

Though many people were surprised when the rape victims of the recent war in Bosnia began to speak out about the use of rape as a tool of war by Serbian soldiers, in fact, rape has always been an “ordinary” part of war. In the “great” epic known as The Iliad which is said to be the foundation of western culture,  Achilles and Agamemnon are fighting over which of them has the right to rape a “captured” woman named Briseis.  The term “spear captive” is used to mask the reality that Briseis and other women like her were “rape victims” and that the “heroes” being celebrated were their “rapists” and “jailers.” I believe that the institution of rape and the (twisted) notion that men have a right to rape (certain kinds or types of) women originated with war.

The institution of slavery also originated in war. Both the Bible and the Greek epics testify to the ancient custom of enslaving the women and children of the enemy.  Slave women in every culture, like the slave women on plantations in the Americas, are at the mercy of their owners and his sons, who can rape them if they felt like it. The “custom” of taking slaves from the enemy and the “custom” of also taking enemy women sexually, is deeply intertwined with the history of war.  The Africans who sold other Africans into slavery in the Americas were selling Africans they had taken as the spoils of war.
If we entertain the hypothesis that earlier matriarchal clan systems existed, then we can see that the notion of individual powerful men’s peri-ousia being defined as the treasures, land, and people they “stole” and then claimed to “own” would have involved a massive cultural shift.  The shift to defining men by the property they owned required that men would also ”own” and absolutely control their wives and daughters, who had previously been free.  Such a cultural shift could only have been instituted and maintained through violence.

Patriarchy is a system of male domination, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence. Warriors who have learned the methods of violent domination of other human beings—not only other soldiers, but also the women and children of the people they conquer—bring the methods of violence home.  Violence and the threat of violence can then be used to control “one’s” wife or wives, in order to ensure that “one’s” children really are “one’s” own. Violence and the threat of violence can be used to ensure that “one’s” daughters are virgins who can be “given” to other men to perpetuate the system of patriarchal inheritance.  Violence and the threat of violence can be used to hold enslaved people “in line.”  In addition, violence and the threat of violence can be used to subdue those within one’s own culture who are unwilling to go along with the new system. Women who refuse to let men control their sexuality can be killed with impunity by their male relatives or stoned by communities as a whole.

How does such a violent system legitimate itself?  By religious symbols.  In Greece, warriors were “in the image” of the “warrior God” Zeus whose rape of Goddesses and nymphs was celebrated.  In Israel, the power of warriors is mirrored in a male God who is called “Lord” and “King” and who achieves his will through violence and destruction. Sadly, this is not an exclusively western problem. In all of the so-called “highly developed” cultures defined by patriarchy and war, symbols of divine warriors justify the violence of men.  Laws said to have a divine source enshrine men’s control the sexuality of their wives, permit some men to rape some women, and allow some people to own other people as slaves.

Patriarchy is not simply the domination of women by men. Patriarchy is an integral system in which men’s control of women’s sexuality, private property, violence, war, and the institutions of conquest, rape, slavery arise and thrive together. The different elements are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate one as the cause of the others.  Patriarchy is an integral system of interlocking oppressions, enforced through violence.  The whole of the patriarchal system is legitimated by patriarchal religions.  This is why changing religious symbols is necessary if we hope to create alternatives to patriarchal systems.

The model of patriarchy I have proposed argues that control of female sexuality is fundamental to the patriarchal system.  This explains why there is so much controversy about the “simple matter” of access to birth control and abortion and so much anger directed at single mothers.  The model of patriarchy as an intergral system can help us to see that in order to end male domination we must also end war–and violence, rape, conquest, and slavery which are sanctioned as part of war.  We must also end the unequal distribution of wealth inherent in the notion of ”private” property, much of it the “spoils” of war, which led to the concept of patriarchal inheritance, which in turn required the control of female sexuality.  As feminists in religion we must identify and challenge the complex interlocking set of religious symbols which have sanctified the integral system of patriarchy–these include but are not limited to the image of God as male.  Ending patriarchy is no small task!

*I am offering a functional definition of patriarchy that does not address the separate question of why it originated.  I will be publishing an expanded version of this dicussion in the future.

This Article is from Feminism and Religion, February, 2013 

Carol P. Christ 
* I am deeply saddened to note that Dr. Carol Christ passed away this summer of 2021.  She is profoundly missed. Among her important books:  She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions

**"Rape in warfare is not bound by definitions of which wars are “just” or “unjust.” Rape was a weapon of terror as the German Hun marched through Belgium in World War I. Rape was a weapon of revenge as the Russian Army marched to Berlin in World War II. Rape got out of hand when the Pakistani Army battled Bangladesh. Rape reared its head as American GI’s searched and destroyed in the highland of Vietnam. Rape flourishes in warfare irrespective of nationality or geographic location. Rape was outlawed as a criminal act under the international rules of war. Yet rape persists as a common act of war.

Men who rape in war are ordinary Joes, made unordinary by the entry into the most exclusive male-only club in the world. Victory in arms brings group power undreamed of in civilian life. The unreal situation of a world without women becomes the prime reality. To take a life looms more significant than to make life, and the gun in the hand is power. The sickness of warfare feeds on itself. A certain number of soldiers must prove their newly won superiority – prove it to a woman, to themselves, to other men. In the name of victory and the power of the gun, war provides men with a tacit license to rape. In the act and in the excuse, rape in war reveals the male psyche in its boldest form, without the veneer of ”chivalry” or civilization."

......Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller, 1975, Excerpts


Trish MacGregor said...

Great post! The historical perspective on the patriarchy shows just how far back this travesty goes. Florida's republicans have now drafted a law similar to that of Texas. Sickening.

Lauren Raine said...

The arising of women around the world is deeply disturbing to the power structure of male domination, hence all this effort at going backwards. I wish I did not live in such a backward, unprogressive country. Sad, because I remember when it actually was a great country.