Since time immemorial, be it in popular culture or mythology, women have found themselves in a receiver’s position. Traded and fought for, the female form has been a muse to many. Through the years, written works presented predominantly from male perspectives have undeniably led to the diminishing of the female reference. The other half of the two primary sexes have been left with token representations of being the object of romantic obsession, the damsel in distress, or the increasingly popular narrative of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’, in mainstream media. Cliches, they say, stem out of lived-in reality. There’s no denying that the objectification of women piled on by the existing socially accepted patriarchy, disallowing their points of view in conversations of war and peace, has altered the course and history of nations.
Appreciatively, with a whole new brigade of ideologies and socio-economic-political norms, the past few decades have witnessed a commendable attempt in the aversion of one’s gaze from onto a woman, to that through her. Through this discretionary piece, we attempt to get into the minds of some known female figures, that have been, for centuries, subjects for the world to dissect.
Afghan Girl And The Fire That Continues Burning
Shells pounding, guns blowing, heads of snipers sticking behind dunes. While playgrounds doubled into shootout sites, roads ran for miles together without a soul in sight. Supermarkets lost the chatter, and families lost their appetite. Held up in rubbles, mothers kissed their children like it was the last time they were seeing them. Much like adult men, laughter went missing, while their wives waited in silence for starvation and violation.
In 1979, Afghanistan was stormed into by the USSR troops, following which was a nine-year-long brutal conflict. Hundred thousand soviet soldiers took control of cities and highways of the neighboring nation, showing no mercy. While the Afghan resistance was supported by world leaders, the war left the people plainly devastated. It was the same year, American humanitarian photojournalist Steve McCurry crossed the Pakistan border to enter the heart of Afghanistan, Kabul, to cover the civil war, and journeyed his way to the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan intending to explore the refugee camps set up just outside Peshawar.
The pictures taken, teleport one into the lives of Turkoman refugees, who made traditional carpets for a living and walked miles to fetch water for sustenance. He stumbled upon the Nasir Bagh refugee camp and realized it was being used as a girls’ school. On being allowed to click a few pictures of the class in progress, Steve looked around, and his eyes fell upon a particular child with piercing eyes. Intense and haunting, her gaze penetrated through his heart, ripping it apart, and in a moment, through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl, he lived the misery of her people.
Steve took pictures of two other girls, waiting patiently to capture the portrait he flew from across the world for. As he adjusted his camera, she turned her head around in a swift motion, challenging the lens with fire and rage in her sea-green eyes, breathing life into a photograph that created waves around the globe. The image of her face, with a red scarf, draped loosely over her head and lines of a hard childhood around the corner of her mouth, she was later identified as Sharbat Gulla. A subject of much commentary upon its release, the photograph went on to find its place on the cover of the iconic National Geographic Magazine in 1985. While Gulla became the embodiment of the Afghan struggle for the western world the fury in her eyes igniting a fire in her viewer’s hearts, her image took precedence over herself. Romanticized about in articles and essays and spoken about as a harkening back in a discourse rife with political tension, she was left behind as a face with no voice, and as a motif with a history but no discernible future.
However, for Sharbat Gulla, life has been more than one picture taken non-consensually. For years to come, the international fame that came along with her story failed to erase the incisions of the invasion. She retreated to her earthen-coloured village, with no education for her children. Having remained unknown for seventeen tumultuous years, she remained a refugee that endured the gory aftermath of a civil war. Viewing the world through the same eyes that left millions shaken, not much has changed. Several Sharbats’ occupy spaces in corners of the world, continuing to live the terrors of bloodshed.
A symbol of war-torn Afghanistan, Sharbat Gulla saw her photograph only in 2002, when Steve McCurry returned to see the little girl, who changed his life forever. After being deported from Pakistan, the ‘Afghan girl’ now lives with her son and three daughters in Kabul. Years after her photograph changed the world’s overtly masculine perception of war, demanding empathy and compassion for the human form, she continues to harbor simple dreams of leading a normal life, and providing education to her children. All of forty-nine, Sharbat Gulla has lived and braved the horrors of skirmish. For the world she may remain a vision or story, but she continues living each day, looking at the future with promise and hope, fierce as ever.
The Mona Lisa Magic
Arms in a loose embrace, unruly tresses casually strewn over relaxed shoulders, and a faint smile that has had millions puzzled over centuries, the painting of Lisa Gherardini is a timeless piece of art, fondly titled, ‘Mona Lisa’. Unlike the ‘Girl with a pearl earring’, a tronie (type of painting that focuses on the expression or attribute of the character), the portrait in case focuses on the individuality of the subject. When the eighteenth-century Jean-Honore Fragonard piece, ‘The Swing’, was deemed “frivolous” for its connotation, philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment demanded a more serious art, which paved the way for the eternally elegant, ‘Mona Lisa’.
From raiding libraries to running out of web links to navigate, connoisseurs of art have construed to the finest figments of the painting. From intricate details like Leonardo’s signature painting style to the detailed study of the metaphors sewen into the piece, everyone’s narrative of the masterpiece is unique and alike at the same time. While the 77×53 cm piece is housed proudly in the Louvre Museum of France, protected by bulletproof glass in a climate-controlled environment, the painting has also witnessed a notable case of theft by an Italian patriot that held the firm belief that the painting must belong to Italy for display. The equation that the world has shared with the portrait has oscillated between hitting the peaks of an intimate love affair to that of a threatening obsession.
It is, however, undeniable that amidst the chatter of the magnificence of the portrait, Mona Lisa- the woman, stands forgotten. The world has never missed a chance of tensing their brows and deciphering the complexity in her eyes, but how often have we viewed the world through her lens?
A member of the Gherardini family, Lisa was the wife of a Florentine silk merchant. A woman that came from humble beginnings, she was a mother to five children. The portrait was commissioned celebrating the birth of her second-born Andrew, which explains the glow on her face beautifully captured by Da Vinci and their shifting into a more spacious home from a cramped shared accommodation. It could escape one’s notice, the influx of the newness in Lisa’s life given her calmness in the artwork. Neither heavily jeweled nor grossly dressed, Lisa would never have imagined that her look would lay the foundation of the much popular ‘minimalist look’ in reigning fashion circuits.
While the painting created ripples in the lives of those that set their sight on it, Madame Lisa’s existence was as ordinary as anyone else’s. Although she was Francesco Giocondo’s third wife, she questioned no societal norms as her painting did. The painting of Mona Lisa landmarks a monumental shift not just in the standard of art in Renaissance culture but also in the representation of women in the same. Mona Lisa died shortly after her husband succumbed to a deadly illness, but had she witnessed the humungous change her portrait meant for the world, humble and docile, she would have flashed a wider smile! Conversely, given her simplistic approach, chances are she would remain unperturbed, the trajectory of her life not deviating by an inch!
Villain, or Vilified?
Slimy strong arms, constricting Percy Jackson’s small built, Medusa unleashed her head full of venomous snakes over his youthful face. As she caressed the boy’s cheek with her bony fingers and repeatedly forced a struggling Jackson to look into her petrifying eyes, the audience found themselves on the edge of their seats, rooting against the ‘monster’. With the notorious depiction of Medusa by the much-celebrated Uma Thurman in the classic ‘Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief’, the image of the Gorgon goddess was sealed as that of a certified villain. Whether she was painted as Professor X’s seductress in the Cartoon Network production ‘The Power-puff Girls’, or the primary antagonist in the Nintendo Entertainment System game, ‘Kid Icarus’, the undertone of her representation has remained dark and negative.
A face that is today dreaded, Medusa was once considered the most beautiful woman to have walked the face of the planet. Her beauty was often compared to that of Athena, the Goddess of War and Wisdom, in whose temple Medusa was a humble priestess. Having submitted her life to the deity, Medusa swore virginity till death. Athena, however, was unendingly jealous of the devotee. “How can a wretched mortal be possibly more beautiful than her?” seethed Athena with rage. For Medusa, hell broke loose when Poseidon, God of Sea, was infatuated by her allure. He lusted after her, and on being rejected repeatedly, he decided to take her by force.
Scared and vulnerable, Medusa found herself on her knees before the Goddess she considered the strongest of all Olympians hoping for protection against Poseidon. Much to her horror, her pleas were reciprocated with nonchalance by her so-called ‘protector’, who left her on the steps of her temple, only to be violated and impregnated by the “Earth Shaker”. In a classic case of modern-day ‘victim-blaming’, Athena cursed Medusa taking away her much-prized beauty. She turned her luscious hair into a head full of venomous snakes and eyes that would turn man to stone. Horrified, Medusa fled the city, for she was now banished from civilization. With a price for her head, many gallant Gods vied for it as a part of their eclectic souvenirs won during war. Defending herself, Medusa turned several of them into concrete monoliths, in acts that have resulted in her going down history as a primordial beast.
Mythology has always been reflective of the society that practices its scriptures in the form of theological doctrines. Vilified and misunderstood, the terrible tale of Medusa draws undeniable parallels with present-day victims of heinous crimes. Much like the Gorgon, they find themselves ostracised and banished from a complacent society that failed to protect them. While perpetrators walk rampantly accepted by their families and social spheres, victims bear the brunt of a stigma that destroys their lives forever. While Medusa’s coping mechanism earned her a loyal place on the wall of the most hated villains, survivors of sexual crimes are more often than not disparaged for displaying the will to fight back. Viewing the world through the eyes of the most misunderstood character in Greek mythology helps disambiguate the narrative spun over generations. While a beheaded Medusa met her end at the hands of Perseus, her spirit continues to live, staring into the eyes of a concrete society, waiting for it to stir.
When Venus Met Mars
Sole breadwinners for a major part of history, men have always been associated with strength and independence. Women, on the other hand, stayed home and looked after the household and were said to embody principles of giving and nurturing. The 1992 bestseller, ‘Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus’, written by author and relationship counselor John Gray, focuses on intricate areas between a man-woman dynamic, exploring the core differences between the two primary sexes. However, the first and youngest woman to have flown in space, Valentina Tereshkova, has lived a life that proves otherwise.
An anomaly in herself, Tereshkova defied gender norms even before she was a professional astronaut. She took up a job in a tyre factory, following which she worked at a textile mill, both of which were predominantly male spheres. When women her age harbored socially useful hobbies, like knitting and cooking, Valentina’s heart wanted to converse with the winds. Once the daredevil had trained in skydiving at a local Aeroclub, making her first jump at the young age of twenty-two, there was no looking back! Her love for the adventure kept growing, and she found herself training as a professional skydiver, keeping it a closely guarded secret from her family. Although Valentina had not held any previous desire of going to space, with an unwavering belief in herself and being strongly intuitive, her experience in skydiving opened to her several avenues. After a regressive phase of training, Valentina was selected along with four other candidates to join the female cosmonaut corps as a part of the Soviet Air Force.
While many believed the female body had its restrictions, Tereshkova proved them wrong training in the harshest environments, from being underwater to enduring spatial turbulence to being confined in a cell as a part of the isolation tests. Nikolai Kamanin, the director of cosmonaut training, often referred to her as “Gagarin in a skirt”, for she never missed an opportunity to exhibit skills as competitive as him, who was the first human to journey into outer space. On the morning of sixteenth June 1963, dressed in a spacesuit, Tereshkova was taken to the launch pad in a bus, where following a tradition set by Gagarin, she also urinated on the tyre, a custom that is no more mandatory. Nevertheless, being the first woman to partake in it, she changed the rules of the game forever.
Having had a flourishing career as a cosmonaut, Valentina displayed skills that were expected only of men in the era. However, the second innings of her life brought with itself platforms where she could get in touch with and express her female energies. She received emails and letters for women across the world, for no lady had achieved a feat like hers before, and soon she stood tall as an icon of strength and equality. Having lost her father at the age of three to the gory Operation Barbossa of 1941, Valentina went on record condemning the bitterness of war, standing strongly for a non-violent solution for political disagreement, advocating world peace. A prominent member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, her political reign displays her ideals on compassion and empathy. With the power of Venus and Mars residing within her, Valentina’s journey is a testament to the fact that with the right balance of masculine and feminine energies, the sky is the limit!