On November 24, Bagnani Hall was packed with students, faculty, and community members for Dr. Kimberly Hutchings’s talk.
Dr. Hutchings, from the School of Politics and International Development at Queen Mary University of London, is the fifth Elaine Stavro Distinguished Visiting Scholar in Theory, Culture, and Gender. Dr. Stavro is a professor of Politics as well as Theory, Culture, and Politics at Trent University, and the aim of her visiting scholar series is to explore the intersections of the social sciences and humanities.
On the evening of November 24, Hutchings discussed two of the 20th century’s most important activist-thinkers. Gandhi (1869-1948) and Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), from India and France respectively, oppose each other’s views in the domain of violence. Gandhi famously practiced and advocated non-violence while Fanon was a firm believer in the usefulness of revolutionary violence. However progressive their political aims may appear, according to Hutchings, in their theoretical writings, both thinkers work with traditional gendered rhetorics.
Hutchings convincingly argued that the two thinkers operate within what Thomas Laqueur identified as the two-sex theory developed at the end of the 18th century. The transition from the old one-sex model (females as lesser males, or female genitalia as inverted male genitalia) to the two-sex model (sexual difference) had implications for cultural responses to femininity and masculinity, and as we know, resulted in highly contestable definitions of these performances and their relationship with biological sex.
Gandhi and Fanon use this model to legitimize their theories. According to Hutchings, first, the adoption of gendered language (and gender roles) acts as a rhetorical device to help us understand the world. Working within binaries simplifies otherwise complex issues. Second, by relying on gendered discourses, the two thinkers reproduce traditional discourses (and possible modes of gender oppression), and thereby undermine their political projects, i.e., to create an entirely new political system.
Gandhi identified with traditionally feminine virtues, at times speaking of becoming woman and being a mother to his family. He expressed equality for women and perhaps even their superiority. For Gandhi, women were the guardians of hearth and home, specifically of religion and education. Women inherently possessed virtues of purity (of desire) and self-sacrifice. Men faced the more difficult challenge of taming their sexual desire and Gandhi makes the connection between men’s excessive desire and excessive greed and violence.
Alongside his use of gendered terms for colonialization – e.g., India has become effeminate and emasculated by the colonizers and needs manliness to attain independence – Gandhi’s justification for non-violence adopts traditionally feminine virtues.
Women, by nature, are essentially non-violent. Gandhi provides the disturbing example of non-violence through a retelling of parables and true stories about women sacrificing themselves for the sake of their (sexual) purity and their faith.
In these stories, women defend themselves against their abusers and rapists by allowing themselves to be killed or killing themselves.
It seems that Gandhi’s tirade against sex finds its legitimacy in the then-present situation of women; women had not explicitly discovered their sexuality (and weren’t encouraged to do so), thus Gandhi mistakes gendered oppression for inherent, feminine virtues. He thereby de-radicalizes his politics by imposing the same old gender binaries and roles.
Fanon, conversely, wrote that one can find self-consciousness and agency through acts of violence against his colonizer. Fanon, however, was referring solely to men here. Similar to Gandhi, Fanon adopts gendered language when discussing colonialization. He also finds the justification for violence, and particularly women’s violent revolutionary action, of which he is a proponent, in traditional gender constructions and roles.
Women were expert participants in the Algerian revolution because of their expertise in the home. For Fanon, much like Gandhi, women become revolutionaries “effortlessly”: they get involved quickly and instinctively. Women are the “heart of combat” and with their endurance of the tortures and rapes perpetrated by the colonizers (what Gandhi might call self-sacrifice), women testify “to the violence of the occupier and to his inhumanity.”
Fanon also writes that women can be well-used in revolutionary efforts (these efforts usually spearheaded by men). Algerian women can easily change their costumes to pose as French women or can wear a veil to conceal weapons (see Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers ).
The women in Fanon’s account do not necessarily have the same ability to reach self-consciousness and agency through violence, yet nevertheless have an inherent ability to be part of the fight.
For Fanon, engaging women in the political sphere would still require they assume the virtues of men.
Hutchings clearly demonstrated that two different political thinkers have the same failings in their supposedly revolutionary theories.
This talk was part of Hutchings’s larger work on gender, violence, and the writings of key figures in the latter domain. Gendered rhetorics, according to Hutchings, appear in similar ways for a number of revolutionary thinkers.
Hutchings’s research thus gives us a more well-rounded account of otherwise politically progressive theories.