Political Performance and Transnational Subjectivity in E. M. Broner’s A Weave of Women and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel
Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor (University of Memphis) [BIO]
In E. M. Broner’s A Weave of Women (first published in 1978), theatricality is not simply a metaphor. This novel exemplifies one way theatricality can open up or visualize a new logic for social transformation, through a theatrical agency long attractive to feminist conceptions of women’s agency (Judith Butler, Jill Dolan). In A Weave of Women theatricality and the freedom of private performance are tropes for the process of reconceiving boundaries of subjective space, of political space – even, for a disparate group of Israeli, European and American Jews, of national space. While Broner’s novel is structured “dramatically,” each chapter around a particular Jewish ritual, each ritual is rewritten and re-enacted by the group of women seeking a way of celebrating their Judaism in a way that also recognizes their gender. These women--Israeli, British, American, and German—come to live communally in Jerusalem in one large house. The novel traces in part how this group of individuals evolves into a community, when each woman - whether an immigrant to Israel or not - experiences herself as simultaneously “at home” and an exile in a city that is supposed to welcome all Jews. For both its natives and its immigrants, this city embodies, rather obviously, in its very streets and architecture an ancient political and (inter)national conflict, and a culture that is very highly codified and hierarchized. Jerusalem is not only itself a contested space; less obviously, it also embodies in this novel a hierarchical sexualized space, with many areas in which women are not welcome or wholly prohibited. With female agency restricted, to varying degrees but in so many ways, the women decide to contest these walls and these hierarchies. Each chapter in the novel is therefore organized around the re-vision and transformation of a ritual that celebrates not only women’s more flexible Jewish spirituality, but also women’s bodies, spaces, consciousness; each ritual attempts to embody the fluidity of the women’s subjectivity and to enact women’s agency, in opposition to the ossified male hierarchies so powerfully instantiated in Jewish orthodoxies.
This novel’s powerful exploration of theatrical space as utopian space, and theatricality as imaginative agency, gives its readers a model for the enacting of subjective transformation. Furthermore, it highlights the experience of an immigrants’ experience - even the “long-time” Israeli residents have only been there for about 30 years, since the modern country was founded, and both old and new immigrants to the country contend with ideas from the “old” world that conflict with an evolving (post-)modernity. While the play-acting of each chapter’s new ritual begins as a private assertion of more fluid conceptions of subjectivity and agency, it importantly does not remain so, as the women become less and less tolerant of their own political ineffectiveness. Instead, the play-writing and acting of several of the women come to life in a play they call The City Between Us, its title referring not only to the space “shared” (with ever-greater difficulty) between Israelis and Palestinians, but also between women and men. The drama, written by an American woman, is turned away by every Israeli theater manager, but she decides to produce the play anyway: she literally takes it to the street. The stage she chooses is the public space located before the Wailing Wall, and the play’s story about this city and the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict is projected with slides onto this ancient monument-turned-theatrical scrim. The play becomes a public spectacle challenging political, religious and gender ideologies, and provokes just the kind of discussion, just the space for debate, that the women have sought throughout the novel in their private productions. The play thus opens up as well a space where the women can - in some cases for the first time - become change agents, enacting models of resistance against closed boundaries of religious, social, even (or especially) personal space. This experiment in agency and activism reveals the fluidity of boundaries that the women had long experienced as fixed, unyielding; as the novel closes, Tova begins her next play - aptly entitled, Crossing the Border.
I will conclude this presentation by considering briefly the applicability of this fictionalized narrative of migration and evolving subjectivities with the recently published autobiographical narrative (Infidel, 2007) of the controversial Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman turned naturalized Dutch politician and terrorist target. Are feminist (and Western) utopian conceptions of performative subjectivity commensurate with the nonfictional experiences of women such as Ali, who migrated not simply from east to west, but between cultures whose interests appear to be increasingly at odds? How does Ali’s own gradual transformation, first experienced simply by wearing the “costume” of western women (i.e., unveiled) and emerging role on the Dutch national and, now, international arena reflect upon the optimism regarding women’s performative agency in the Broner book nearly 30 years ago?