Book Title: Hills of Paradise
Author: Mineke Schipper
FOR several months this year, India witnessed a baffling standoff. Baffling, because on one side was a group of accomplished women who had defied patriarchal norms to become top-class wrestlers. Facing them was a political strongman and long-time president of India’s premier wrestling body, accused of sexual misconduct. The women were sporting heroes who had brought pride to the nation. But when they were dragged through the streets and detained for daring to protest, it became evident that this was not a fair bout. For they were battling not just one opponent who enjoyed political and institutional backing, but also a deep-rooted patriarchal system.
Patriarchy and the problematic lens through which it views the female anatomy lies at the core of Mineke Schipper’s book ‘Hills of Paradise: Power, Powerlessness and the Female Body’. In her prologue, Schipper makes an exposition of the binding social order, validated by myths and legitimised by religions, over the years. It’s an order where men are in charge, even though they remain dependent on women for offspring. Schipper posits that this dependence not only led to male control over female sexuality, “but also an ostentatious need for compensation in political, cultural and religious terms, and to striking propensity to territoriality — excluding women from positions in which gender differences are totally irrelevant”. She adds how body parts, unique to women, have furthered this legacy, evoking a male appraisal that ranges from “absolute power to absolute powerlessness, from delight to insecurity, distrust and fear”.
Spread over three sections, the book draws from myths, folk tales, cultural studies, art, and medieval and modern constructs to weave a global cultural history of the male perspective of the female body. Schipper observes how disparate cultures first thought up stories in which a powerful goddess manifested herself in all the living earth, water and air. The earth mother has an all-pervasive presence in global culture, with the endowed divine breasts seen as a sign of nourishment and abundance. But in later versions, the progenitor becomes a decidedly male entity. For instance, in Chinese stories, the goddess Nuwa created the first people with her own hands but in later versions, she loses her creative independence to become the sister and/or wife of the male Fuxi. If the creator god Bumba is in the likeness of a man in Congo mythology, his counterpart in Hindu mythology is the self-propagating Prajapati. The author also points to the obliteration of goddesses from the monotheistic Arab world and Hebrew Bible and how, over time, the relegation of the ‘mother god’ to the ‘mother of god’ became complete.
If in religious texts, God has infinite power over the womb and its contents, on earth, man comes a close second. Schipper observes how in Christian, Islamic and Jewish theology, the contribution of Eve as a life-giver is ignored, and the uterus is reduced to a mere passive repository for the life-bringing sperm of men. In Christian Europe, a birth-giving Adam was a popular visual theme between the 12th and 16th centuries, justifying the hierarchical superiority of man as head of the family. As she analyses stories about menstruation, pregnancy, virginal bleeding or chastity, she finds a conforming male-centric narrative. The polluting presence of menstruating women and their forced isolation, miraculous pregnancies or immaculate conceptions, and perpetual warnings about unconstrained female power are common in most cultures.
In an earlier book, ‘Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet’, Schipper collated earthy proverbs and maxims from across cultures that nurtured and perpetuated stereotypical narratives. It’s a similar trajectory that she follows in this book as well. The mythical past, Schipper seems to reiterate, weighs too heavily on the present and needs to be unburdened.