Ma très chère Jeanne:
Although for years you have served as inspiration and comfort to me, it pains me to say now that we have grown apart, and our relationship has cooled. For awhile I thought that it was me: I wasn’t worthy, maybe I didn’t understand you, I don’t know. I felt guilty.
For how could I possibly hope to emulate you, Jeanne?
Legend says that you spoke directly to God, and followed his directive to enlist and lead the armies of France to victory against England in the Hundred Years’ War. You famously bobbed your hair and dressed as a man, but emphasized the fact that you were both a woman and a virgin.
This appealed to me when I was young, Jeanne, but I am not going to lie: it makes me uneasy now that I am grown. Your image has been co-opted by feminist movements as a symbol of acceptably feminine power. But you simply “passed” as a man to gain entrance to male society. Once there, you emphasized your “purity” and your “womanliness” (true female virtues) to support and perpetuate the status quo. It was important to you (and to the patriarchy) that you remain merely the exception. The whole “Madonna/Whore” question seems so cliché now, but I am starting to think that maybe you were part of the problem.
After all, you certainly were not the first woman to take up arms and fight battles. But you may be the only one sainted for it. So what gives? It’s never classy to compare, but I can’t help but hold you up to some of my other girlfriends, Jeanne. Bear with me.
Umm Hakim, who fought in a religious ecstasy alongside the Prophet, was a married woman and a mother of sons. Predating you by almost a thousand years, she fought the wars of men, but wrote erotic poetry about her yearning to be well met in battle as well as bed.
Maria Quitéria, who in 1822 enlisted for military service as a man, but who fought for the independence of Brazil while wearing a skirt. Maria didn’t die the pure and martyred death of the virgin: she left her husband in order to marry whomever the hell she wanted. After leading a battalion of women to victory and helping to secure Brazil’s independence, Maria settled down to raise a daughter and do a bit of farming.
Moving ahead to the 21st century, I recognize in the shahida traces of you, Jeanne. Becoming more virginal in their deaths, the shahida are manifestations of how problematic it is to focus on woman’s “womanliness” as a special weapon of war. Hours before the death of Palestine’s first woman suicide bomber, Wafa Idris, Yasser Arafat declared that “women and men are equal…you are my army of roses that will crush Israeli tanks.”
Wafa Idris, who had been divorced after producing a stillborn daughter and being declared “sterile”, was said to have suffered bouts of desperation and depression: unable to remarry, unable to move away from her family’s home, family members said she lacked the cultural resources to remedy her situation. She felt that she was in limbo, and family members say that martyrdom in service to Palestine became what she saw as a “release”.
And while I will not dissect the case of Wafa Idris and the many reasons she chose to become become a shahida (for that would take a whole separate research project, I think, and she deserves so much more than I have to give right now) I will say that we can read her case (and thousands more like hers) as not exceptional, but as instead symptomatic of the problem I see in you, Jeanne: restrictive gender roles in a patriarchal society where the only option left for a woman who cannot fit into those roles is martyrdom. While this is by no means limited to women in the “Middle East”, it is worth noting that the decision to use women as suicide bombers prompted several clerics of Islam to pronounce women eligible to achieve holy martyrdom. Before they were willing to destroy their bodies in service to the state, women could not reach paradise as holy martyrs: that honor was reserved for men.
Jeanne, I want to introduce you to another one of my amantes, Dr. Vaginal Davis. She confuses and excites me: she makes me wonder what I even mean by words like “gender”, “warrior”, and “identity”.
Vaginal Davis (who named herself in salute to Angela Davis) is a performance artist specializing in what has become known as “terrorist drag”: it hijacks and lampoons through her stage performance the personas of militiamen, serial killers (who are predominantly white and homophobic) and white supremacists.
Unable to “pass” as a heterosexual black militant within the Black Panther Party (an organization often fraught with sexist and homophobic tensions) Davis began to employ performative disidentification to parody “Black Power” and remake it into something else.
Jose Esteban Munoz describes Davis’ strategy of disidentification as a means of “resisting the interpellating call of ideology which fixes a subject within the state power apparatus”. A kind of “counterpublic terrorism”. Through performative disidentification, she “critiques the co-opting of African, Hispanic, and LGBT culture by the mainstream”. She refuses to “pass” within the traditional drag scene, and refuses to adapt it to integrate it into the normalizing discourse of dominant ideology. It is in this way, Munoz says, that Davis is a sort of social guerilla warrior. A fabulous one.
Could it be that this is the answer? Disidentification? Would refusing to “pass” have saved you from execution, Jeanne? For that is what got you in the end, wasn’t it? In spite of the fact that you were a pure and chaste paragon of maidenly virtue, you dressed like a man. You did precisely what they needed you to do: led armies to victory, filled everyone’s hearts with patriotic and religious fervor, made a hell of a mascot, and then burned prettily at the stake.
Finally, Jeanne, I think that you need to meet Chelsea Manning: the woman who guided me through this research project when I found that you could not. I chose her for guidance because, frankly, she inspires me in a way that you do not. The way we see both gender and the rules of war is changing so rapidly, Jeanne, and Chelsea represents that.
Currently serving a sentence of 35 years for leaking over 700,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning is the first prisoner in Fort Leavenworth history to request hormone replacement as treatment for gender dysphoria.
In spite of the repeal of DADT, transgender soldiers are still not allowed to serve openly in the military: nearly 20% of transgender people serve anyway (twice the rate of the general population). Since transgender people cannot openly serve, and since she cannot be discharged from service until she is released from prison, Manning was denied treatment for gender dysphoria. Prison officials have further stated that she may not dress as a woman, either.
Though it is widely assumed that Chelsea Manning was acting out of anti-war or pacifist beliefs when she leaked those documents to the press, she wasn’t: she said that he felt obligated to enlighten the public about “what happens and why it happens” and to “spark a debate about foreign policy.” She says that she didn’t believe that the information would harm her country. On the contrary, she leaked it because she believed so strongly in human life and equality that she felt obligated to.
As with Wafa Idris, I cannot begin to dissect the complexity of Chelsea Manning’s case: she deserves more than I can give her here. But it is worth noting that she spoke warmly of her country, her military, “the greater good”. Manning believed that she was serving her country. And now that country is forcing her to wear men’s clothing. You were fighting for the patriarchy, Jeanne, but Manning seemed to be fighting for something better.
Jeanne, it’s really late and I should probably wrap this up. I just felt the need to explain to you why I’ve been so distant since this whole project started. And I don’t really feel guilty about it anymore. It isn’t me: it’s you.
Mille tendresse, darling.