[Part 10 of the author's "Gendering Tales: A Feminist Reading of Seven Wonder Tales"]
Tales of wonder, although told by women, to women, and describing the lives of women, seem to uphold the values of the dominant patriarchal culture, which are biased against women. In a "rhetorical self-flagellation" , grandmothers appropriate the prevalent misogynist images of women to tell their granddaughters about obedient good girls, evil stepmothers, jealous co-wives and daring bad girls, using this powerful socializing instrument to condition female children for their role as sex objects and procreators under the yoke of male domination to ensure a space of expression for themselves in a culture hostile to the female voice . However, below the overt embracing of traditional structures, dreams of transgressing the boundaries imposed on woman persist in undermining the implacable logic of the symbolic order.
The bulk of wonder tales about women and by women in our culture, and in most other patriarchal cultures worldwide, pays allegiance to the Law of the Father. At that level, there is no subversion of the status quo, as the language is always already marginalizing the female from the start. However, at an other level, spots of resistance and rupture from the symbolic order surface. Under a psychoanalytical lens, a "semiotic discourse" appears to be at work in these tales, liberating the desires women usually repress to fit into cultural norms. Julia Kristeva, who first developed this category of the semiotic language, defines it as a challenge to the paternal discourse (the symbolic order in Lacanian terms), together with a return to the preverbal identification with the mother . In these tales, both the symbolic and the semiotic order collide and contradict each other, in a profusion of metaphors, symbols and signifiers attesting both the wealth of the ethnic imaginary and the tensions inherent in the female unconscious.
In the case of this collection of tales, the semiotic discourse is not entirely an identification with the mother, as demonstrated in the third section, but rather a search for an alternative mode of female sexuality, instead of the passive, passionless role women are confined within the patriarchal heterosexual couple. Indeed, women as sexual partners are categorized by patriarchy as either virgin or harlot figures, either idealized and pure, or sensual and filthy. The possibility of sensual jouissance and fulfilment for women is so entangled with the concept of sin that the erotic dimension in their sexual life is marginalized at the benefit of the reproductive dimension. Paradoxically, as Bouhdiba confirms, Islam guarantees and actually promotes an erotically satisfied sexual life for both sexes, in the framework of marital life, of course . Contrary to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Islam strips sexuality off the web of sin and guilt within which it is caught in. However, pre-Islamic practices survived to deny women their rights to blameless pleasure.
Here comes the importance of the tale as a compliant enough type of textuality to contain the silenced female desire. Nevertheless, the narrative includes it so efficiently the critic needs to read at multiple levels, as in the case of the tale of "Zazia", the tale of the woman who became a dove. A first reading of this story reveals a definitely patriarchal tale. The heroine is a condensation of desirable femininity: she is pretty, passive, vulnerable, has long hair, according to the canons of female beauty, and triggers the lust of men around her, including that of her own brother. Her guilty flight from this first incestuous relationship, doubled by the animalisation of her younger brother, which means the break-up of this second incestuous relationship, leads her to a maturing stage, up on the palm, until she is recuperated by the community in a more culturally-accepted heterosexual union, albeit within a polygamous system. Another set of circumstances allows her to get rid of rivalry and finally secure the ideal union: a monogamous marriage with a protective, rich, paternal husband. The narrative is thus closed by the ultimate reward for a girl, the integration into patriarchy.
This blissful happy end is converted into a bitter statement of failure if the tale is to be read at another level of meaning. The whole narrative becomes then a succession of aborted trials to escape from the very femininity the community wants to confine Zazia within. Her desire to escape from the feminine is first expressed by the concealment of her hair under a scarf. There is at the base a desire to hide this hair, a metonymy of her whole desirable female body, for its discovery generates the first symbolic rape at the source. Her brother introduces his phallic stick in her source. The hair, removed from secrecy, eroticises and exposes the female body to the desire of her brother/father figure, for, being head of a tribe, he stands for the patriarch. So her first flight from the community can be translated not only as a flight from incest but also as a rejection of the rape/incest/procreation triangle she is to submit to, if she is to integrate herself to patriarchy as a woman. In other words, it is a flight from femininity. A second incestuous couple, that of Zazia and her younger brother, is disintegrated by the animalisation of the latter, which is the result, once again, of his drinking from the forbidden stream. Although strongly associated with the water element, the girl craves to move away from what it represents, her sex-role as procreator, water being connotative of childbirth and the amniotic liquid. So she crosses the streams and drinks from one, like her brother, like a man. She also climbs the phallic palm tree and lives like a bird in a nest, like a man, for birds and the act of flying are interpreted in psychoanalysis as a sublimation of the male Eros; therefore, for a woman, to dream of flying, of leaving the ground and defeating gravity, is a liberation of the desire to transcend her condition as a female in a culture where the transcendental signified is the phallus and she has only meaning in relation to it, as a sexual partner. Accordingly, Michel Butor, the French critic, concludes that:
Dans la chambre secrète du conte, la femme mime le rôle de l'homme.
There is, then, an inversion of the primary symbolism, which presumes the girl's embracing of traditional values in this secondary symbolism where she actually rejects her status and hungers for a position of power. But then, the community, through the old woman, recuperates Zazia, as her beauty is reflected in the water. She is, in a sense, betrayed and reclaimed by her own sex. It is also interesting to note that she is abducted while milking ewes, culture actually calling her back to the task assigned to her. The symbolism is reinforced by her marriage with the king and the garden she is to live in, since spherical fruits in general, forests, gardens, and water sources constitute symbolic representations of the female body and genital organs . Thus the woman is entrapped inside her body by patriarchy; she is destined to be a body, a figure of femininity, an object of male desire. In this sense, her metamorphosis into a dove sounds more like a liberation than like a curse, and her co-wives' function slides from that of aggressors to benefactresses, an expression of a female solidarity repressed and silenced by mainstream patriarchal discourse, for they repress deep inside the hair that makes a desirable woman of her, so she can finally experience freedom and a more independent sexual behaviour. So she flies with other birds and drinks from the source, enjoying, thus, a male-related autonomy, until she is definitely recaptured by her husband, the Patriarch, who re-shapes her into the woman she is supposed to be.
From this perspective, the tale becomes truly that of the woman who became a bird, the woman who tried to transgress the boundaries of her sex role, to mimic the possessor of the phallus who condemns her to an object position, and fails, because it is the only alternative she can narrate in her Father's language. "It is only by submitting themselves entirely to [patriarchal] culture . . .that women are allowed any space to manoeuvre," asserts Hasna Lebbady, who reaches the same conclusion in her analysis of another Moroccan tale. Female storytellers can indulge in a semiotic discourse, but only within the confines of the symbolic order.
The same implacable logic governs the destiny of the girl in "Smimien'nda Ould Lehnech", as the resourceful little girl who manages to save her brother and herself gradually degenerates into an evil woman, wife of a snake. The significance of the snake requires some development. In Judeo-Christian mythologies, the snake stands for the Beast, the devil who tempts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as reported in the Genesis Book of the Old Testament. It is also associated with the knowledge of sexuality. In Islam, there is no reference to the snake, Satan being the fallen Archangel, a creature of light. Consequently, the presence of the snake in this tale is either a residual motif from the pre-Islamic era, standing for evil and secession between brother and sister, or, rather, a symbolic representation of the male genital organ, the phallus.
In various cultures, actually, the snake connotes sexuality. In Cambodia, for instance, dreaming of a snake is a premonition for marriage , and Bouhdiba, in La Sexualité en Islam , reports that, in many Arab countries, the snake is a slang word for the male sexual organ. The young girl's alliance with the snake is, therefore, the metaphor for a sexual behaviour. But can a woman in a patriarchal community experience sexuality outside of the conventional paradigms, that is, without being a man's mistress, or a man's wife? Besides, the young woman is not possessed, dominated by the snake, but rather the contrary. She owns, controls, and directs the phallic symbol she is supposed to submit to in society. She introduces it in her jar of buttermilk, in her jar of dates, to kill her brother, for she must eliminate this representative of patriarchy if she is to assert her sexuality and her jouissance. There is a performance of erotic active female sexuality in this tale, yet it takes place outside of society, and is put out by the son, who takes a phallocentric revenge on his mother, not only by killing her snake, the object of her pleasure, but also by condemning her to loneliness outside of the community. Once her snake is dead, the girl is silenced, flung to the margins of the narrative, and forgotten about. There is no space in the symbolic order for a woman who challenges the Law of the Father, but that of the witch, the ogress, the monstrous figure condensing male hysteria before female sexuality.
If the snake figure is read as a symbol of evil on other mythological grounds, its presence might be indicative of the perpetration of an evil action, since there is no explanation of its appearance. In the quarto composed of the boy, the girl, the wonder baby and the snake, the latter could be interpreted as the embodiment of an incestuous relationship between the brother and the sister. Like Satan in the Garden of Eden, according to the Bible, the snake tempts both children in the tent of abundance. From this perspective, the hatred the girl feels for her brother makes sense, although the latter, because of his simple mind, could not be charged for abusing his sister, who seems to be quite resourceful and able to protect herself from undesired intercourse. Therefore, even at this level, the girl remains a figure of evil. Anthropologists can even read this tale as a fallen cosmogonic myth, partly because of its illustration of avuncular relationships, which Lévi-Strauss places at the heart of the logic of the incest taboo . The desire of the child to kill the father and the projection of guilt on the mother are all elements that would corroborate such a reading.
So these tales generate multiple levels of significance. From a traditional feminist perspective, they are discursive practices deployed by culture to subjectify women to a patriarchal ideology; this type of reading does away with the unconscious, while a psychoanalytical approach delves into the ambivalence of the discourse of those women speaking against themselves. Female sexuality, regarded as taboo and spoken about only in intricate metaphors, finds in the sphere of the extraordinary the proper environment to float up from time to time, even if the closure of each text relegates it back to the realm of the unconscious.
Last modified: 14 December 2001