The gentrification of womanhood

Crosses marking the mass grave of femicide victims in Chihuahua (Image: Wikipedia)

These are hard times for women. The feminist movement of the 70s and 80s raised awareness about violence against women on a global scale. As a result, today, we are able to identify the murder of women and girls as systemic under patriarchy. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where violence against women is an epidemic, we even have a term for this: femicide (or “feminicidio’” in Spanish), meaning, “the murder of women on account of their sex.”

Despite this, women’s lived reality has become unspeakable today. Those who acknowledge that females are oppressed as a class, under patriarchy, are labeled phobic and worse. In other words, feminist analysis of systems of power is set aside in order to accommodate the idea that womanhood is nothing more than a “feeling.”

Over at Equality For Her, journalist Katelyn Burns writes:

“So what does it mean to feel like a woman? It means that if you are a woman, it’s whatever you are currently feeling. Women are so diverse in their experiences that there can be no universal model of womanhood.”

Apparently, womanhood is now so all-encompassing it can be experienced by anyone, based on “feelings.” Yet, at the same time, within this analysis, womanhood is rendered meaningless and without structural roots.

“What is a woman?” is a question asked by those privileged enough to never have had to suffer the answer to this question. No one asks women what womanhood “feels” like, because, for us, being “women” is simply our reality. Most women around the world learn early on that, under patriarchy, their opinions about their subordination are irrelevant. As a structural force, patriarchy continues to degrade and violate women and girls, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not — women’s feelings be damned.

Male violence against women ensures our compliance. Femicide is the lethal extreme of this, but violence against women and girls manifests in a myriad of ways. In feminist circles, we talk about male violence against women often. Indeed, ending male violence is the most pressing point in the agenda for women’s liberation. But how can we eradicate male violence against women if we ignore the centrality of women’s bodies under male supremacy? How can we move beyond a patriarchal society if we refuse to acknowledge that women are a class of people, whose status is determined by their sex?

On August 31st, this reality was laid bare in a Chinese hospital. A 26-year-old woman named Ma Rongrong started labour a week ahead of schedule. She was advised by the medical team at the Yulin Number 1 hospital, in the Shaanxi province, that the girth of her baby’s head was too big for her to give birth naturally. Ma and her husband, Yan Zhuangzhuang, signed a document, against medical recommendations, stating that Ma still wanted to try a vaginal birth.

The Chinese newspaper Caixin reports that, as the labour pains intensified, Rongrong changed her mind and requested a cesarean section, multiple times. The problem was that, under Chinese law, a patient’s family must approve of all major surgeries their relative is to undergo. Rongrong’s family denied her the c-section.

The article explains: “Hospital records showed that both the woman and the hospital requested permission from the family three times to perform the operation, but her relatives allegedly refused and insisted on a natural delivery.” There’s video footage of Rongrong trying to walk, but kneeling in excruciating pain, surrounded by half a dozen family members.

Today, the family and the hospital staff blame each other for denying Rongrong the c-section she needed. But it seems that the last word laid with her family — specifically Rongrong’s husband, who had her written permission to decide on the method of medical treatment for his wife (after consultation with medical staff), but who still didn’t approve the surgery.

In her desperation, Rongrong even tried to leave the hospital, but was caught and brought back inside. Eventually, she made a drastic and tragic decision: Ma climbed out of a window on the fifth floor, and jumped to her death.

Why did Rongrong die? I’d argue that Rongrong died, ultimately, because of her sex.

Nobody asked Rongrong if she “felt” like a woman, patriarchy simply treated her as one — governing her female body against her will, ignoring her thoughts and feelings. A nationwide policy dictating that all surgeries have to be approve by family members affects every patient in China. But, as Rongrong’s death shows, this policy has particular repercussions for those with female bodies.

A similarly gruesome case took place around the same time in the Dominican Republic. A 16-year-old girl named Emely Peguero Polanco had been missing for over 10 days. Her disappearance and the search efforts were breaking news, in part because Peguero Polanco was five months pregnant in a country that fetishizes pregnancy. For almost two weeks, it seemed the country could talk of little else.

As many people suspected, Peguero Polanco had been murdered. Her final hours and the manner of her death were ghastly. She had been ambushed by her boyfriend, an older guy named Marlon Martinez, who told her he would take her to a doctor’s appointment. Instead, he took her to his apartment where he (probably with the aid of other people) performed a forced abortion on her.

The investigation is still open but the crime is both misogynistic and vile. Marlon’s mother, Marlin Martinez, was an influential politician in the community and actively helped her son cover up the crime. Marlin paid multiple employees to move Peguero Polanco’s body around the country so that the authorities couldn’t find it. Marlin even appeared with her son in a video recording where they pled with Peguero Polanco — who had already been murdered — to return to her loved ones, addressing her as though she were a runaway.

The forensic report states that Peguero Polanco was a victim of psychological and physical violence, as well as torture and barbaric acts:

“Inside the cadaver, there were pieces of the fetus that she was carrying in her womb, concussion to the uterine wall and vaginal canal, a perforation of the uterus, meaning that great force was applied in the area and various organs relating to a forced abortion.”

The report also explains that she had “a blunt concussion with cerebral hemorrhaging, meaning the trauma was inflicted while she was alive.”

Regardless of the “motives” her murderer and his accomplices might have had (some analysts argue that there was a class element because Peguero Polanco was poor and Marlon was upper class, so his family didn’t want a working class girl carrying his child), Peguero Polanco was killed because of her pregnant, female body. And I am certain that none of those who performed the forced abortion that killed her asked Peguero Polanco if she “identified” with the biological realities of her womanhood.

Rongrong and Peguero Polanco are merely two recent examples, but the ways in which women are killed because they are women, under a patriarchal system, are infinite. But today’s queer theory and its advocates are casting aside this brutal reality in order to depict womanhood as abstract. Reducing “womanhood” to feelings, clothing, and personal identities is a slap in the face to most women and girls whose oppression is forced on them, regardless of how they dress or identify.

Recently, British singer Sam Smith came out as “non-binary,” saying, “I feel just as much woman as I am man.” This newfound identity appears to be based solely on the superficial. He explains:

“There was one moment in my life where I didn’t own a piece of male clothing, really… I would wear full makeup every day in school, eyelashes, leggings with Dr. Martens, and huge fur coats — for two and a half years.”

Determining that you “feel like a woman” because you like to wear high heels, makeup, and dresses is deeply misogynistic, as these are merely the trappings of femininity — a projection of male fantasies about women — yet this idea appears to be gaining traction.

Much like the upper class loves the aesthetic of the working class and similar to the way male authors fetishize women in the sex trade, hoping to appear “hip,” as Kajsa Ekis Ekman argues, this watering down of womanhood is a form of gentrification. In this case, womanhood is desired and coopted by those who benefit under patriarchy (males), while the uncomfortable and violent realities of womanhood remain relegated to the underclass, who don’t have a way out.

In Being and Being Bought, Ekman writes:

“A man who romanticizes the working class applauds the physical labourer and hopes that he has some of those attributes, but it is stereotypical masculinity he admires, not a living person trying to survive under difficult conditions. The ‘wigger’ feels like he is part of the black community, but is not upset about violence in the ghetto. What he fails to understand is that by fetishizing someone’s everyday life, he shows how distant he is from it. Living conditions become and identity, and then a fetish.”

The gentrification of womanhood takes the gender stereotypes forced on women and presents them as though they define womanhood. This offers a subversive facade that functions only on an individual level, rather than a structural one, ignoring the suffering and oppression of women. Rather than advancing the rights of women and girls, this form of gentrification obscures them, erasing the reasons women need sex-based rights in the first place.

Ekman argues:

“The oppressed is keenly aware of the humanity of the privileged. For the privileged, on the other hand, the oppressed is an enigma living in a magical, half-human world. The fantasy of the privileged is having the ability to wallow in this world.”

Indeed, men may wallow, but they will never be forced to exist within the constraints of womanhood, as they were not born with female bodies. Through superficial choices like clothing and make-up, women’s oppression is transformed into something liberating… For everyone but us.

The casual cruelty of these nonsensical, circular arguments is playing out while girls and women around the world bear the brunt of what, for them, is a reality, not an identity.

Raquel Rosario Sanchez

Raquel Rosario Sanchez is a writer from the Dominican Republic. Her utmost priority in her work and as a feminist is to end violence against girls and women. Her work has appeared in several print and digital publications both in English and Spanish, including: Feminist Current, El Grillo, La Replica, Tribuna Feminista, El Caribe and La Marea. You can follow her @8rosariosanchez where she rambles about feminism, politics, and poetry.