IS and the Use of "Prostitution" Metaphor

Published: November 21, 2015 22:22 IST
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Language and emotion are as much at the heat of the "terror wars" of today as is realpolitik. Increasingly, this seems a given. We have come to recognize that high-pitched rhetoric is as essential a feature of the 21st century successor to the "world wars" and the "cold war" of the last century as are suicide bombings and drone attacks. For this reason, I'd like to analyze a single element of language that has been noticeably deployed in contemporary political discourse.

This is the ancient, gendered metaphor of "prostitution".

As we all know by now, through proliferating media reports, the Islamic State in its first bulletin claiming responsibility for the recent terror attacks in Paris described France as a "capital of prostitution and obscenity". This metaphor is very old, of course, with roots in ancient cultures from Assyria to ancient Greece and India. We may also recall that Gandhiji used it with considerable force in Hind Swaraj when he characterized the British parliament, as "a sterile woman and prostitute." Strong words indicative of a massive political struggle for freedom.

Worthy of note, then, is the return of this patriarchal trope in current political discourse. Analysts of the post-Soviet nation states have, for instance, pointed out that their succumbing to capitalism has, over the past decade or two, been explicitly represented by the old guard as an act of selling out or whoring. The solid socialist values of these countries, that is, have been seen as replaced by a tawdry and despicable consumerism. And in the US, there is no dearth of 'modern' Bible-thumping enthusiasts who see Islamic and other non-Christian cultures as citadels of whoredom. This intriguing connection between gender relations and political power across state boundaries is, to my mind, worth probing.  

Closer home, puns such as "presstitute", designating journalists and other commentators in the public sphere believed to be in the pay of certain political masters, indicate a similar orientation. The prostitution metaphor, in short, appears widespread today. Moreover, the current manifestations of this enduring metaphor are both extreme and every day. That is why it may be worth some attention.

To rewind a little, the terror conflicts to which we are witness at present seem to suggest a different perspective from earlier times since they involve not just elevated declarations by heads of state, such Francois Hollande designating France "a nation at war" or Barack Obama advising Muslim communities to "push back" harder on terror or PM Modi stating that an "entire humanity" should unite against terrorism. In this version of war, those high podiums are now shared by large, technologically connected, civilian populations across national borders. What seems a bit ironic as well worrying is that the "entire humanity" invoked by the PM includes so many disaffected voices. It is they, not the leaders of the world, who appear to be generating the current jezebel metaphors. What can we make of this?

It seems an undeniable fact that a hitherto "voiceless" subaltern infantry in several cultures today have a first-time chance to speak across the world on the internet and what some of them have to say is neither pleasing nor pretty. Youth everywhere, including those with immigrant histories who feel they have been excluded and "emasculated" within the developed and developing economies in which they live, now seem persuaded to attack these societies from the inside. Such growing anomalies amount to classic conditions of possibility for what was once known as 'civil war' to occur.

Fortunately, India with its plural and accommodative culture is reasonably resistant to such influences. Yet in an interconnected world, we can hardly afford to be complacent. The barrage of information so easily available online each day can bring down psychological floodgates and mess with a stable sense of judgment. When citizens learn daily of injustice in faraway places that in some ways reflect their own experiences of marginalization,a deep desire to join those who are "doing something about it" is understandable, as is the longing for lives that have meaning beyond material shortcomings and seductions. At the same time, such emotional highs can trap one in a web of self-deception and deceit. Like it or not, we are thus drawn into a virtual as well as terrifyingly real battle for the souls of men - and women.

Now, a key locus of gender analysis in contemporary society is without doubt the very real phenomenon of prostitution, in which two main paradigms seem to dominate. Researchers who subscribe to a "victimhood" framework point to overwhelming evidence that economic and social reasons actually force women to enter the trade. Such women, a significant number of whom are minors, have little choice. On the other hand, advocates of the "rights" paradigm maintains that women should be able to choose the professions they want of their own free will and that these might well include prostitution. Each of these paradigms has a rationale and can be argued for in various ways, even reconciled. Interestingly, though, terrorist organizations and others of a conservative bent appear to implicitly rely on the more radical rights paradigm of free will where a woman "chooses" to sell her body for material satisfactions. That is why she is held to deserve severe punishment.

What then is the political valence of comparing a country, a religion or a people to the image of a willful and wanton woman?

At least three psychological goals seem to me achieved via such a metaphor. These interrelated ends are ethical, emotional and esthetic.

First, hate, revenge and violence are legitimized because the "woman" in question - metaphorically, a state or a belief system - is unequivocally presented as impure. Her acts are intentional and her exercise of her freedoms perverse and polluting. Cleansing the body politic is therefore justified at any cost.

Second, as a corollary to the ethical first point, there's the emotional satisfaction of moral triumphalism, of being on the 'heroic' winning side even at the cost of one's mortal life.

Third, the very esthetic familiarity of this metaphor loops back to an established, utopian comfort zone when men's "rule" over women was the accepted norm. The reason? Women have been for long symbols of a lethal weakness in the moral fibre of men.

In the ancient world, we find the Manusmriti clearly expressing this opinion: "It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; for that reason, the wise are never unguarded in the company of females." Note the word "unguarded" here. Centuries later, we find John Knox, the Scottish Protestant preacher, raging in 16th century England against "the monstrous regiment of women" and arguing that women as rulers of state violated Biblical norms. Again, mark the word "regiment". Such examples where images of war and women, state and religion, are superimposed one on the other are culturally ubiquitous.

My point is that metaphors are indicative of mindsets. Especially if they are as durable as the one involving prostitution, we should be alert to the possible dangers they signal. Understanding the language and metaphors of terror - just one of which we've briefly discussed here - could give us vital clues to its workings. To neglect these subtler aspects of the psychology of terror could be a mistake. We cannot fail to notice, after all, that the word "terror" contains another telling word. That word is "error".

(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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