A Meditation on Violence Against Women and Nature

Photo of fountain shaped like a heart.

Fountain at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa

He says that woman speaks with nature. That she hears voices from under the earth. That wind blows in her ears and trees whisper to her. That the dead sing through her mouth and the cries of infants are clear to her. But for him this dialogue is over. He says he is not part of this world, that he was set on this world as a stranger. He sets himself apart from woman and nature. 

— Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature

Inspiration: A Colloquium

Earlier this month, I had the honor and pleasure of being part of a colloquium at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Titled, “Violence in/and the Great Lakes: the thought of VY Mudimbe and beyond,” this colloquium was hosted by the Thinking Africa project of the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes.

VY Mudimbe was born in Belgian Congo, and is the Newman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University. He is the author of many books and articles of philosophy and cultural critique, as well as novels and poetry, and is an esteemed scholar of African thought, culture, and history. Professor Mudimbe is also a person of great compassion yet realism. As both our guide and inspiration, he brought not only wisdom and experience to the colloquium, but also a commitment to safeguarding the humanity and dignity of life. With Professor Mudimbe as a mediating presence, our collective meditation on violence in the Great Lakes region was both sensitive and critical, which is not easy to do when the topic is violence.

My initial plan for this post was to give a summary of the colloquium. Yet I am still thinking about what was shared, still reflecting on the different perspectives and approaches to the topic of violence. I was also moved by discussions with students and faculty at Rhodes about violence, poverty, and exploitation in South Africa. Thus, to give a summary would feel dishonest, putting artificial limits on something that is not yet done for me, as well as somehow doing violence to a shared experience and others’ voices. This is both the beauty and curse when philosophy is enlisted in the service of problematizing the seeming nature of things: such reflective awareness has a way of suspending action. And yet it is often an impulsive and thoughtless drive that leads to violence.

Instead, I will share some ideas that have resurfaced for me and taken on new forms as a result of my participation in the colloquium. These ideas are rough sketches about relationships between men, women, and nature explored through the lenses of mythology, ecopsychology, and early civilizations. I am hoping to understand violence in ways that might lead to healing the wounds of the Congolese and other peoples exposed to the destructive underbelly of modernity. And I am still searching.

When Earth is Feminine and A Mother

The Great Lakes region of central Africa is a mineral rich area of the continent where, despite its vast natural resources, many people live in extreme poverty and suffer chronic malnourishment. And from the beginning of colonialism, and Belgian King Leopold’s quest for fortune and fame through harvesting rubber, to the more recent ongoing conflicts in eastern Congo, the Great Lakes region has also been the site of brutal violence. There has always been an economic component driving violence in the region. And there has always been sexual violence co-occurring with the economic exploitation of the area, whether through the rape of slaves by colonizers, or more recently, the rape of women by armed rebels and soldiers, breaking women’s bodies and spirits, along with social bonds that traditionally hold communities together — communities that might otherwise subsist on their land, rather than lose their land to the frenzied quest for mineral wealth that plagues the region.

But the ongoing violence and poverty in the Great Lakes region fails to stand in the way of progress. Starting in 2015 the construction ofacelogo (1) the largest dam in the history of the world will begin on the Congo River. According to its promoters, the so-called Inga 3 will potentially create electricity for half of Africa. Yet Peter Bosshard of the The Guardian, in a more critical analysis, claimed the dam “would primarily generate electricity for the mining companies and middle-class consumers of Southern Africa,” and not the rural poor that make up most of the Congolese population.

This mega-dam project ignores copious scientific evidence that large-scale dams destroy ecosystems, cause species extinction, and displace communities. Furthermore, wind and solar energy are now practical and effective approaches to creating electrical power, and better serve rural villages.

Yet the World Bank, which is organizing the project, appears to take a step back in time, preferring centralized projects rather than distributed, small-scale investments adapted to the needs and conditions of local populations. Commenting on the absurdity of the project, Bosshard wrote:

Is the World Bank blinded by an outdated ideology? More likely, its return to mega-dams is driven by institutional self-interest. A strategy paper leaked from the bank in 2011 recognised that the increase in project size “may seem somewhat at odds with the goal of scaling up activities in areas where many potential projects – such as solar, wind and micro-hydropower … tend to be small”. Yet, the paper argued, the “ratio of preparation and supervision costs to total project size” is bigger for small projects than large, centralised schemes, and so bank managers are “disincentivised” from undertaking small projects.

Inga 3 is b-ass-ackwards, as my southern Grandma would say, and it reveals a long-standing ideology witnessed in humankind’s relationship to nature that often mirrors dynamics between men and women in patriarchal societies.

The preference for efficiency, cost effectiveness, and centralized power over local communities and adaptation to local contexts may date back to the first cities and to what mythologist Joseph Campbell identified as the hieratic city state, and which he associated with the first Sumerian civilizations that emerged around 3500 BC. At this point in human history distinctions between the masculine sky god and the feminine earth goddess become widespread, organizing both spirituality and city life. And a similar dualism is reproduced today in projects like Inga 3 as well as in violence against women in the Congo. Yet before I can support this claim, I must go further back in time.

The masculine and the feminine have not always been polarized in their roles and symbolic representations. Archaeological evidence suggests it wasn’t until the emergence of agriculture and cities, and the organization of daily life around specialized work and roles, that the masculine and feminine began their polarized relationship.

According to Campbell, prior to the invention of agriculture, early hunters mastered all the technologies of their social groups by the age of 12 years or so, and were relatively autonomous with regards to their survival. In his book, Flight of the Wild GanderCampbell quoted the psychoanalyst and anthropologist Géza Róheim on this topic:

The outstanding characteristic of primitive economics is the absence of a true differentiation of labor. An incipient or rudimentary division of labor may exist along sexual or age lines, and there may be some incipient and part-time specialization in matters of ritual and magic. But true specialization is lacking. This means that every individual is technically a master of the whole culture or, where certain modest qualifications are necessary, of almost the whole culture. In other words, each individual is really self-reliant and grown up.

Agriculture seems to have upended the developmental processes that led to early life autonomy and mastery, causing an infantile dependency not only on the land, but also on fellow humans. Connections once based on relatedness were replaced with connections based on dependency.

In his book Nature and Madness, Paul Shepard also noted that co-occurring with the invention of agriculture was a shift in beliefs about the natural world that involved representations of the feminine. Whereas the hunter gatherers who preceded the agriculturalists created a relatedness with nature that depended on reading signs for survival, thus existing in communication with the natural world, the lives of early agriculturalists created a relationship with nature that engendered both feelings of dependency and domination. Earth began to look a lot like a mother figure. When crops were abundant, Mother Nature was giving and kind. When the yield was poor or nonexistent, Mother Nature was withholding and cruel. And this shift in relationship with the natural world may have emotionally stunted humankind. About this ensuing relationship, Shepard asked:

What are the results of a lifelong subordination to mother? Among them are resentment and masked retaliations, displaced acts of violence, and the consequent guilt — all of which can be exploited to intensify the maternal dependence. Here I wish only to raise the question whether lifelong subordination to a vast Earth Mother might not affect men in similar ways.

The impact of the shift from hunter gatherers to agriculturalists is also seen in spiritual practices, myths, and rituals. For example, around 6500 BC, during the Neolithic period, when village farming began in places like Çatalhöyük in Southern Anatolia (Turkey), there is an explosion in mother-goddess statuettes, and a particular representation of the feminine as both the giver of life and destroyer of life. At this time, males are depicted in relation to the feminine as either son or husband, suggesting a need for transformation, or ritual, to move from one role (son) to the other (husband), which in a patriarchal society is a shift from dependency to dominance (even if benevolent) in relation to the feminine.

Myths and rituals became powerful carriers of how to make the necessary transformation from dependency to adulthood. According to Campbell, rituals were crucial for the path from infantile needs to adult responsibility:

[Through myths and rituals] the infantile system of responses is erased and the energies carried forward, away from childhood, away from the attitude of dependency that the long infancy characteristic of our species tends to enforce — on to adulthood, engagement in the local tasks of man- and woman- hood, to an attitude of adult responsibility and a sense of integration with the local group.

Modernity, and the Enlightenment preference for scientific forms of knowledge, rejected myths and rituals as part of a superstitious ordering of the world. Consequently, the emotional development of modern Westerners often progresses without the transformative benefits of myths and rituals to guide the developing human psyche and the creation of community. Nevertheless, the symbolic ordering of the world that originated in early mythologies continued to order modernity, especially the dynamics between the masculine and the feminine. Science and cognition, as analytic tools used to predict and control life, were largely conceived as masculine traits, while Nature — science’s prime object of inquiry — continued its cast in feminine form.

Metaphorically, the relationship has often been one of penetration rather than relatedness, in which knowledge is obtained by lifting Nature’s ‘veil’ in order to ‘penetrate’ her dark, hidden secrets. Or Nature is altered — if not tamed — by technological achievement, like Inga 3, or the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the early industrialization of America. Consider the following remark by the nineteenth century immigrant, author, and statesman Stoyan Christowe in which the creation of a national railroad was seen to adorn the “bosom of American earth”:

Upon the white bosom of American earth we engraved a necklace of steel — set in tie plates, clasped with bolts and angle bars, brocaded with spikes. And there it lay secured to the earth, immovable.

The scientific method has also replaced the intuitive and transcendent aspects of human growth once implicitly guided by myth and ritual. Research studies, books, and manuals on child development potentially overwhelm parents, teachers, and child psychologists with their multitude of models and evidence for how best to raise a child. Yet despite reams of materials written on child development and what makes up ideal conditions for a developing child, the critical inner transformation from childhood to adulthood still seems to escape modern science. The child’s developing mind has largely become a feminized space in need of mastery and control, much like Psyche, the feminized spirit of selfhood — or the soul — and symbol of unconscious forces. However, what once was a mystery known obliquely, guided through myths and activated by rituals, became in the modern West tangible matter — the brain — which through exactitude and precise conditions is (hopefully) guided into adulthood.

Yet more than mere stories and cultural artifacts, myths and rituals teach inner relatedness between the different experiences of selfhood across the lifespan — including tensions that can emerge between feelings of emotional dependency and the will to power — and how to intuitively be a responsible person in communities constantly threatened by the possibility of fracturing and disruption. And without myths and rituals to repeatedly bring people together and remind them of their responsibilities to one another, there may be the risk of childish self-absorption becoming the norm — a state Paul Shepard believes characterizes the modern world:

The West is a vast testimony to childhood botched to serve its own purposes, where history, masquerading as myth, authorizes men of action and men of thought to alter the world to match their regressive moods of omnipotence and insecurity.

The Making of Narcissistic Wounds

Many of the materials extracted in the Congo serve little more than the quest for status — fancy jewels, or the latest smart phone or compact computer that depends on coltan for its lightening-speed functioning, if not a sense of being hip and important. And in the Congo, having material wealth and the ability to control the exploitation and distribution of natural resources is also associated with power and status.

But exactly what is the quest for wealth and status? If it were just about comfort and shiny baubles, there likely wouldn’t be extremely wealthy people, since once the bounty was secured, there would be a tendency towards enjoying the spoils. Rather, the pursuit of wealth is often its own reward, which points to a deeper gratification than just having nice things.

In his book, Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton spoke of two types of love:

Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first — the story of our quest for sexual love — is well known and well charted, its vagaries form the staple of music and literature, it is socially accepted and celebrated. The second — the story of our quest for love from the world — is a more secret and shameful tale. If mentioned, it tends to be in caustic, mocking term, as something of interest chiefly to envious or deficient souls, or else the drive for status is interpreted in an economic sense alone. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first, it is no less complicated, important or universal, and its setbacks are no less painful. There is heartbreak here too.

I think Botton is correct —the quest for status is a universal phenomenon. Yet how this quest is emotionally experienced, and how status is gained, is context and culturally dependent. And perhaps the most influential context is the first experience with love when we are children and first learn how to get our dependency needs met.

I believe that when love is not forthcoming in the first years of life, or when it is intermittent or unreliable, then the quest for status is at risk of becoming the more gratifying form of love. If we can’t trust love in relationships, then we’ll seek gratification from the image the world projects on us. But status is a poor substitute for intimacy, and as Shepard pointed out, quite destructive when it becomes a cultural norm.

In all of us there may be an archetypal expectation to both receive love and give love. And when this archetypal need isn’t activated, or because of early life trauma, intimate relationships are experienced as threatening or overwhelming, then a person is more likely to seek the “love” that can be attained through status. In psychology, this is often discussed as a narcissistic wounding, which at its root is a deep sense of shame for feeling unworthy of love.

The search for love is complicated for a developing boy who must shift from being dependent on women to being distinct from them. This shift also involves moving from having a nonsexual relationship with women to potentially having sexual relationships with them (assuming heterosexuality). And if mother is experienced more as life destroyer than life giver, then the developmental process may be experienced as a need to sever the connection with her rather than develop a sense of relatedness to women as well as feminine aspects of the self that are present in all human beings, regardless of sex or gender.

Furthermore, if domestic violence is present in the home, or the mother is perceived as weak due to subjugation to her husband, which has been the norm in patriarchal societies, then distinguishing oneself from the feminine may feel akin to separating oneself from the possibility of victimhood.

(In this discussion I have left out the development of homosexuality as well as the role of status in women’s lives and female development in relation to the feminine and masculine aspects of self. This is not because they are not important, but rather they do not seem to drive the violence against women and nature occurring in the Congo the way I believe heterosexual male development is playing a deciding role.)

If men need ways to distinguish themselves from women as part of their development from a child to a man, and there are no rituals or myths to guide this deeply transformative process, they may nevertheless create ways to symbolically represent this transition. And I think such representations of manhood are occurring through Botton’s two expressions of love — the sexualized union and the demonstration of status, although too often status is preferred to genuine relatedness. Where once an inner transformation and spiritual development occurred, us moderns too often attempt to make do with visual ‘evidence’ of change — what depth psychologists sometimes refer to as a literalization, or the acting out of inner psychic processes — something rituals can do in symbolic ways that don’t necessarily involve deleterious consequences to women or the natural world.

King Leopold’s Narcissistic Wounds and the Legacy of Colonization

This depth psychological look at violence in the Congo that I am formulating requires a close inspection of the childhood of King Leopold and the men who first colonized the peoples of the Great Lakes region of Africa.

To describe King Leopold’s childhood as emotionally cold would be an understatement. His parent’s marriage had been politically motivated and loveless. His mother barely contained her disdain for son, who likely took the brunt of resentment she couldn’t show Leopold’s father. Her tone with Leopold was cold and judgmental. In a letter to Leopold about his academic performance she wrote:

I was very disturbed to see in the Colonel’s report that you had again been so lazy and that your exercises had been so bad and careless. This was not what you promised me, and I hope you will make some effort to do your homework better. Your father was as disturbed as I by this last report.

Whereas his mother was cold, his father was emotionally and physically unavailable. According to Adam Hochschild in his remarkable account of the history of colonization of the Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost:

If Leopold wanted to see his father, he had to apply for an audience. When the father had something to tell the son, he communicated it through one of his secretaries. It was in this cold atmosphere, as a teenager in his father’s court, that Leopold first learned to assemble a network of people who hoped to win his favor. Court officials proved eager to befriend the future monarch, to show him documents, to teach him how the government worked, to satisfy his passion for maps and for information about far corners of the world.

Rather than learning to establish relationships of trust, Leopold learned how to manipulate power. Where love might have been, a quest for high esteem grew forth. Having not been treated as a person with feelings, it was easy for him to disregard the pain of others. I imagine that for Leopold, the feminine was a devouring, life destroying force (which is probably why he sought relationships with teenage prostitutes). And when faced with the possibility of unbridled power and riches, there was no sense of relatedness, or even humanity, to stand in his way.

It would be easy to blame Leopold’s mother for his sociopathic pursuit of power and status. However, the relationship with his father may have been the more deciding factor — which is likely also the case for men perpetuating violence against women in the Congo today. If Botton is correct in his formulation of two types of love, then these two types are also characteristically gendered. Romantic love is often feminized, whereas the pursuit of status in the world has historically been associated with the masculine heroic quest.

Especially since the Industrial Revolution, the quest for status has been symbolized as a masculine affair in which men went out in the world to work while women stayed home and tended hearth and progeny. Consequently, many children were effectively raised without their fathers being around much of the time, and thus with the sense of the masculine as a distant presence experienced for brief hours at the end of the workday or on weekends. Manhood was often equated with leaving the home and the supposed world of women, leaving behind childish emotional needs. Too often, however, the shift from childhood to manhood became characterized as a rejection of emotional needs as a sign of dependency, rather than as a shift in styles of relating between sexes.

[And how different is this model of manhood from the role taken by the World Bank proposing Inga 3 for the Congo? Does not the World Bank act much like a distant father (and domineering force), dictating the realities of daily life despite minimal observation of what actually occurs in the lives of Congolese people? Father doesn’t always know best.]

Unlike female children who are raised by women and can use their mothers, aunts, and sisters as gauges for how (or how not) to engage with feminine aspects of themselves, male children must separate from the women around them, and find a model for how to express their difference — their maleness — that distinguishes them from the world of women. Ideally, we all have both around: men and women who model for us how to modulate both our emotions and will to power, and these models are men and women who have had the benefit themselves of witnessing the embodiment of the masculine and feminine aspects of the self, regardless of sex or gender. Yet in patriarchal societies, where gendering the sexes divides selfhood into unequal parts, and makes one dominant over the other, men can find themselves in the difficult position of needing not only to separate themselves from the feminine, but even feeling obligated to dominate, if not denigrate, the feminine in their quest for manhood. Such a dynamic between the masculine and feminine can get expressed in men’s relationship with their internal sense of the feminine (including the capacity to experience feelings of dependency and vulnerability), in relation to actual women (whether they can be perceived as equals or must be dominated, even dismissed, as the “opposite” sex), and in relation to the natural world (whether a sense of relatedness or domination ensues).

When King Leopold’s cronies entered the Congo, they also brought with them their sense of the relationship between the masculine and the feminine, their experiences as children of a patriarchal culture in which their development as men was in part defined in terms of denigrating the feminine, as well as a sense that masculinity equated with status and power. They took these beliefs about what it meant to be a man to their interactions with the peoples of the Congo, perceiving the peoples of this region as developmentally inferior (much how they likely perceived their own feelings of emotional dependency), and treated a feminized earth as something to master, if not exploit — especially when she was perceived as dark, mysterious, and withholding as the Congo was often depicted.

As this post suggests, I am beginning to see the violence in the Great Lakes region, and in many acts of colonization, as an unconscious acting out of men’s age-old need to transform their relationship with women on their path to manhood — a process that was once regulated by myths and rituals, but which science disregarded as mere superstitions. The ideologies of scientific progress and modernity have unwittingly contributed to a worldview that makes possible sexual violence and the exploitation and domination of natural resources as evidence of virility, social status, and power.

Trauma Sinks Deep In the Congo

During King Leopold’s reign, roughly 10 million Congolese people died as a result of colonization and exploitation of the region. And today, according to one source, around 38,000 people die each month in the Eastern Congo due to war-related causes. Yet if the killings in Rwanda and Burundi are included, since 1994 approximately 5.5 million people have died from conflict-related causes in the region. It is hard to imagine that anyone living in the Congo today has not been either personally traumatized by violence or is not the daughter or son of someone who has endured violence.

In the Congo, where the abduction and/or recruitment of young males by both army and rebel groups regularly occurs, violence has become a central aspect of the quest to manhood. Furthermore, the most lucrative avenue to status in the region is the country’s mineral wealth, which is largely an unregulated industry motivating the ongoing conflicts occurring there. Yet relatively few actually profit from the mineral trade, and it seems the quest for status is instead often played out on the bodies of women.

The rapes of females in the region — acts typically characterized as weapons of war — often mirror the destruction of land in the search for mineral wealth. Much as the earth is stripped of her hidden gems, some rebels who raped have literally cut the labia from their victims’ vaginas and wore them much like jewels on a necklace — the more labias, the greater their status as warriors and men. These “trophies” are about men’s relationship to other men, and thus about their status and bonds with other men, as much as they are about the denigration of women and destruction of communal and family bonds. Indeed, most rapes in the Congo are gang rapes in which men witness each other attack defenseless women, girls, boys, or even overpowered men. When the victim is female, they are often thrust with the butts of guns or sticks, much as pick axes are taken to the earth in search of precious stones and metals.

It is easy to label such behaviors as savagery. They are. The people of the Congo need protection from such madness. But this madness has been ongoing since the initiation of colonization in the area and is a continuation of the psychological trauma haunting its survivors. When a group’s survival is dependent in part on the successful identification with the aggressor, violence is at greater risk of becoming a cultural norm. The psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi first noted this psychological defense in children abused by a parent. It is a psychological tactic for survival in terrorizing conditions, which Alice Miller believed also explained how Nazism gained so many followers in Germany at a time when corporeal punishment was the norm. And the brutality currently committed against women in the Congo is no different from how women were once raped by colonizers, who rather than butts of guns, stuffed cement in their vaginas when they failed to meet their rubber quotas. No doubt, their children witnessed their subjugation.

Because of the brutality of colonization, especially in this region of the world, the people of the Great Lakes region were not only traumatized by their captors, but they also lost connection to their cultures’ sense of the masculine and the feminine, their myths and rituals, their ways for becoming mature and interdependent men and women.

When Westerners went into the region, they brought with them not only guns and chains to subjugate bodies, but also beliefs and attitudes that put minds in captivity. Especially in the Congo, there was a sense of lawlessness that attracted particularly pernicious men — many were soldiers on “extended leave” from duty — who not only lacked compassion, but also relished the opportunity to inflict cruelty. And I suspect that if we looked into how these men were raised, we would also find profound discrepancies in power between men and women as well as a devaluation, if not disdain for, women and the feminine (and vulnerable) aspects of themselves.

The sexualized abuse of women is not limited to the Congo. Many countries, including America and South Africa, are concerned with the prominence of so-called rape culture. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron successfully championed a ban on rape pornography, largely due to concerns that unsupervised children are watching rape pornography on the web. Yet in the Congo, there is no way to protect children from witnessing the rape of their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and sisters. One obvious difference between youths in the West and youths in the Congo is that the Congolese children are exposed in situ to rape while Western children are exposed to images of rape. However, in both cases, children are seeing the feminine as vulnerable, objectified, and victimized. Not only will these children potentially project such attitudes on females, they will also likely be fearful of the feminine within themselves.

Looking Forward

Honestly, I am overwhelmed by the amount of trauma in the Congo, even though I am very hopeful about therapies developed specifically for the treatment of trauma. The situation is more complex than just healing the wounds of trauma. A profound shift in attitudes is needed in the relationship between the masculine and the feminine in which the feminine is not identified as other, not equated with the state of being a victim, and not used in the quest for status by men. And for such a shift, we need men who are comfortable with all aspects of themselves — including feeling emotionally receptive to equality with women as well as committed to the constrained and respectful use of power. We also need more women like this too, but we especially need men who can show boys a different path to manhood — in the Congo as well as other places around the world where violence against women and the exploitation and dominance of the natural world have become evidence of virility and the attainment of manhood.

Written By Laura K. Kerr, Ph.D
SJS Contributor

The post A Meditation on Violence Against Women and Nature was written by  and has been syndicated with permission of the author. Visit her website at Laura K Kerr, PhD.

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