On Reappropriation and Socio-political Empowerment: Thawra. Hurriya. Intifada.
Revolution was female. Revolution was all a female knew.
Her mere existence was revolution. Her mere survival was revolution. Her mere depiction was revolution.
Reproductive rights, citizenship, custody, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, suffrage, sexual harassment, sexual violence, domestic violence, sex trafficking. It was not that a revolution was female, nor that revolutions have ever had any other character. The women’s movement was preoccupied. And always will be.
Each of the words “thawra” (revolution), “hurriya” (freedom) and “intifada” (uprising) are feminine in a language where all abstract nouns depicting far-reaching imaginaries are feminized in nature. I would argue that the feminization of these words would hardly be a symbol of female strength until these words were taken “back.” Although no one has completed an empirical study of “feminine” language in revolutionary expressions, even a shallow review of these words, as well as countless other words with similar associations, would indicate more feminine words and symbols have been used to describe such figurative conceptions and virtues across histories, civilizations, historical eras, and subsequently, revolutions.
The association of symbolism with political movements is not a new phenomenon, nor is the feminization of revolutions and the slogans they carry.1 Furthermore, the phenomenon of using a revolutionary symbol, whether a word or a "figure", has subsequently existed for centuries – often enough, rendering a word a standalone symbol.2 The most popular figure and symbol of the French Revolution was Liberty. The historical precedence and survival of this “female” symbol in our contemporary imaginaries might have to do with its consistent presence in written archives, unlike symbols of other, more marginal revolutions and uprisings. Referred to as Marianne by her cynics to derogatorily signify that she was nothing but “a woman,” Liberty became quite permanently associated with the French Revolution.
Liberty was often coupled with another feminized revolutionary symbol: Truth, as depicted partially nude, sensual and vulnerable in the infamous painting Allegory of Truth by Nicolas de Courteille. Even after the Republic was proclaimed in the year 1792, Liberty, Reason, Regeneration, Wisdom, and of course Equality were all depicted in the form of a woman’s often sexualized and sensualized body.
Why did just women appear so often in these allegories and symbolic depictions of figurative concepts and notions? Iconographic tradition has a long and complex history of depicting virtues as female, but interestingly, never as “contemporary” or “realistic” women. An artist illustrated the symbolic status of these depictions by dressing them in Roman or Greek attire or even by showing them half naked, often with breasts exposed, mildly covered with sheets. No French woman would have dressed in this manner during this era. Even more so, absolutely no woman would have dressed in this manner during any era. And subsequently, and quite subconsciously, no one admiring this symbolism or even making reference to it, would think that these “women” were “real women.”
Moving from this point, why did women make such good symbols then in a period where men were at the frontlines (or assumed to be) of the movements that inspired these symbols? Simple. Because women could not hold public office or participate in political life in any way, shape, or form. That is to say, it was quite impossible to confuse a depiction of “Liberty” with any particular political leader or official, who was by default, and even by definition, male. The French revolutionaries were increasingly concerned that during such a politically and socially sensitive time, one man would take power and establish yet another dictatorship. They favored symbols and symbolisms that could not be associated with any specific male political leader. Instead, Liberty became the dominating political figure. And as a result, no one person ever enjoyed the symbolic status accorded to other male leaders such as, say, the one later enjoyed by Che Guevara in Argentina for instance.
One might even argue that this rhetoric was exported to America. As The Statue of Liberty stands in Upper New York Bay, she continues to stand as a universal symbol of freedom (with breasts, of course). Originally conceived as a symbol of the “friendship” between the people of France and the American people, as well as a symbol of their “mutual desire for liberty” (and mutual desire to keep it female?), the Statue of Liberty has stood tall for years now without garnering much debate.
So let’s step back for a minute, and take a look at our “feminine” turned feminist language for a moment. These words, much like the symbolism in associating the female body or the female figure with abstract virtues, are a clear depiction of the Patriarchal connotations that undertone our very conceptions of power, politics, decision-making, leadership, notoriety, and even the very notions of strength and influence. As men continue to battle it out to exhibit their masculinity amongst themselves, the repercussions of this toxic masculinity are felt across the history of women in every era.
With the furthest thing from reality being a woman as a political leader or a symbol of leadership, have these words been linguistically and historically feminine because men thought of figurative unattainable concepts in the same manner through which they thought a female leader to be figurative? Are they feminine because history has taught us that the realization of these almost “fictional” and idealistic notions would only exist outside reality? And even more so, have they assisted in the fictionalization of the “female leader” even further? Making her something to “aspire” to only figuratively, but never “completely” achieve?
Could it be that these notions and virtues were feminized to signify something a man would wish to conquer? Even more so, to feed into notions of male entitlement? And along this same line of thought, are they depicted as feminine to exemplify the “lust” men feel for them in the same manner through which they lust for a woman? All of the areas covered by feminized words signify, in one way or another, the birth of something new or different – a state of “being” directly associated with a “female” supposed reproductive abilities that would bring about change, a disruption.
Why is this all interesting to Lebanon’s 2019 revolution? Because: Linguistic Reappropriation.
Linguistic reappropriation, reclamation or resignification is the cultural process by which a group reclaims words, symbols or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group. It is a specific form of a semantic change (change in a word’s meaning). Linguistic reclamation can have wider implications in the fields of discourse and has been described in terms of personal or sociopolitical empowerment.3
The revolution is female because women continue to strive to take these words back.
A reclaimed or reappropriated word is a word that was at one point in time derogatory, or founded in derogatory ideals, but has been brought back into different usages and interpretations, usually from within its original target, meaning the communities that were targeted by the use of this word or the mindset associated with its inception.
In terms of linguistic theory, reappropriation can be seen as a case of a semantic shift, namely, of betterment – a process whereby the circumstances surrounding the original rationale behind the word or symbol become more “positive” over time.
Robin Brontsema, a researcher in Linguistics at the University of Colorado Boulder suggests that one of the main identifiable goals of reclamation of a word or symbol is “value reversal.” Value reversal refers to a shift in the meaning or rationale behind a word from derogatory to “neutral or positive.”4 Reclamation can be seen as both an individual, psychological process and as a sociological, society-wide process. The use of the slogan “The Revolution is Female” by Lebanese women and other protesters depicts just this. It depicts a realization that the very reasoning as to why these words and feminine symbols were used to exemplify these virtues is a source of strength women can take back, claim, and adopt. This revolution, like the ones before it and the ones which will come after, are an example of just how swiftly and how abruptly a reclamation can be made, and a table can be turned.
Brontsema goes on to elaborate that in terms of a personal process, this takeback often enough takes place in a context of empowerment that arises from “disarming the power of a dominant group to control one’s own and others’ views of oneself,” and gaining control over the way a particular marginalized group is depicted. It is further linked to developments in the understanding of one’s self-image, as well as in regaining self-control and self-understanding whilst challenging societal norms, barriers and expectations in the areas of roles and stereotypes.
Brontsema’s most beautiful words on this subject matter are elaborated in her stating that “[…] at the heart of linguistic reclamation is the right of self-definition, of forging and naming one’s own existence.” The empowerment process, coupled with the denial of language and symbols as a means for oppression and abuse of power, has also been the subject of discussion for multiple scholars across the realm of social and behavioral sciences, including Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. Foucault also refers to this phenomenon as “reverse discourse.”5
And the notion of reverse discourse has been at the heart of revolutions themselves across various societal classifications – as revolution at its heart, and predominantly so in the SWANA regions, is a need to break free of a categorization (social, economic, denominal, or other). It is a need to place oneself in a category they choose and have control over. Similarly, and quite intersectionally, women have been placed in all of the aforementioned categories, as well as in the “woman” category. This categorical “move” can only take place when stereotypical assumptions are challenged at every layer. In terms of a more comprehensive socio-political empowerment process, reappropriation has also been the major catalyst behind the promotion of social justice. It is worthy to note that groups of activists who engage in this process have been argued to be “more likely” to be seen as true representatives of the community whose behalf they speak on. Scholars have made the argument that those who use words and symbols to describe themselves in the act of reappropriation “will feel powerful and therefore see his or her group label as less stigmatizing. Observers will infer that the group has power and will therefore see the label as less saturated in negativity.”6 And it is when this reclamation takes place that this reflects upon other socio-cultural concepts, stereotypes, popular culture, and even the reappropriation of traditions.
Revolution was female. It has been feminine. And now it is feminist.
- 1. Censer, Jack, Lynn & Hunt (2001). How to Read Images: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.
- 2. Zompetti (2017), The Power of Symbols: The Ideological Representations of a French Revolution Playing Card Deck, the Revolutionnaires, Inquiries Journal, Volume 9 , No. 3, Retrieve at: http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1548/2/the-power-of-symbols-the-ideological-representations-of-a-french-revolution-playing-card-deck-the-revolutionnaires
- 3. Brontsema, Robin (2004) "A Queer Revolution: Reconceptualizing the Debate Over Linguistic Reclamation," Colorado Research in Linguistics: Vol. 17. DOI: https://doi.org/10.25810/dky3-zq57
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. Ibid
- 6. Groom, C.; Bodenhausen, G.; Galinsky, A.; Hugenberg, K. (2003), "The reappropriation of stigmatizing labels: implications for social identity", Identity Issues in Groups, Research on Managing Groups and Teams, 5, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 221–256, doi:10.1016/s1534-0856(02)05009-0, ISBN 0-7623-0951-2