Traveling back in time, imagine the Agora: a meeting place for Athenian civilians. It is an open space, highly visible and marked by boundary stones bisecting the sacred way to the Acropolis. Situated along these two sites is the Pnyx, a theatre for public assembly. These public spaces contrast with the private space of the home, where one could retreat from public scrutiny. Polis is Greek for both the ‘city’ and the ‘state,’ although Aristotle worried at the use of the same word for both. For Aristotle, the Greek polis was more than the relationship between the city and the state; the key relationship was the people. As Athens emerged from the Dark Ages, its population grew from five thousand to twenty-five thousand, and soon the public forum would expand to include people beyond the wealthy aristocrats. By this path of expansion, radical democracy was dependent on both physical spaces like the Pnyx, and the visible participation of the citizens. But the development of political life, and who can take part, created an exclusion by which certain individuals can be denied political life.
Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that the political life is unseverable from biological life, for the political has always placed life in question. Agamben theorizes that this takes form in the relationship of the sovereign to the people, where a human life can be so devoid of value their deaths do not count as a sacrifice, murder or execution. Here a figure called the homo sacer appears: declared by the courts to be an ‘accursed man’ whose transgressions were so awful the man couldn’t even be used as a sacrifice. The act of committing a transgression is only part of this definition; it depends also on society (ruled by the sovereign) to deem their transgressions as awful. Agamben projected the homo sacer into the modern world through the Nazi concentration camp; those inside were the ‘living dead’ who existed in the space between living and dying. It is precisely this in-betweenness where the space of exception exists, conflated with the omnipotent law of the land.
Expanding on the theory of the ‘homo sacer’ there is its gendered form: the femina sacra. The term was first used by Geraldine Pratt, author of Working Feminism. She believes it essential to embody the homo sacer in order to consider “how power works to target and manage certain groups in concrete spaces.” This notion of the femina sacra will be explored through two spaces: Palestine and Vancouver.
Included Through Exclusion
Through the exclusion of women in the ‘polis’ (i.e public spaces of debate) many spaces become masculinized thus creating a system of subordination in the home. Women become reduced to a state Agamben refers to as ‘bare life:’ lives facing legal abandonment. Boyd and Boyd add to the idea of bare life by suggesting that women in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside are reduced to “invisible victims of violence and hypervisible deviant bodies.” The public element of disinterest adds to the exclusion women in this paper face; pity or sorrow arises only for those that fit into a specific narrative – a life that is filled with value; a citizen that belongs. Violence against women is more ‘accepted’ when the space subjects them to derogatory discourses that label those as a “danger to the desired order of things.” As this space can be both bound up and boundaryless, so too can its mobility be multifarious. To understand the mobility of the ‘space of exception’ it is important to understand the spatiality of the ‘abandoned/excluded’ space.
The action of drawing a boundary between “politically qualified life and merely existent life” is just that, an action, where there are those excluded and abandoned. Once more, ‘order’ and ‘worthiness’ compose the qualities of a politically qualified life, whereby other spaces go along, allowing the ‘space of exception’ to be realized. Thus it is a mobile and dynamic space. This contrasts with the bound Nazi concentration camps which were placed outside of Germany; removed from view. We now we live more intimately with those who have been abandoned and it is no longer a far away notion of exclusion and abandonment, for the ‘homo sacer’ and ‘femina sacra’ walk amongst us everyday and everywhere.
From Sacer to Sacra
Let us go back to Athens and visit briefly the Pnyx: a theatre for public assembly to listen, debate, and discuss. Women could be seen in the space of the Pnyx but were not afforded access to voting privileges in Athens, or any state in the Classical era. Works from The Text of Heyne and Wagner (figure 1) show an unknown Greek figure holding “virgin and nimble fiery plantis.” A translated excerpt from the text reads: “which cowardice has fallen on the minds of so great? The woman drive you in disorder.” Even Aristotle believed that the exclusion of women from the political was essential, because women “by nature do not have command of their rationality and must, therefore, be excluded from rule.”
The possibility of suspending the law allows the elimination of “entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system”. But how does this occur in a legal manner? Michel Foucault’s “biopolitics/biopower” refer to “power over life” and at the centre is the sovereign (the king) and the visible power of the courts. Political rule can be seen as power used like an instrument; a canvas stretched out to enclose both individual bodies and the population as a whole. Agamben wove this notion of biopower into a ‘legal geography’ that saw the enactment of each and every law as a divide between ‘formal life’ and ‘bare life.’ Put another way, Agamben theorized the ways in which the law can be set aside, but still maintain control over subjects. In order to legally reduce one to a homo sacer, the subject must always be within the reach of the law even as the law retreats from them.
Pratt interprets Agamben’s account of modern democracy as “the unstable blurring of biological and political life,” in which the state administers the health of the national body through and in the name of the health of individual bodies. It is the focus on the body that brings to light a new axis for the feminine: the power to create life. In this way, the relationship between women and the sovereign is hostile and competitive, for it can only be the sovereign who decides the exception and the sovereign maintains the power over life and death. The power of the sovereign ideally absorbs the power of the maternal, and reproduction comes to be seen as a way of “securing the future of the nation.” If women are to have control over their own bodies, the powers of the sovereign will emerge in the feminine: the decision to create life; abort life; to choose not to bring life into the world. Tragically this embodiment of power has historically been subverted through rape where women are “impregnated with impunity.” The innate ability of women to subvert the sovereign justifies the use of more violent means against them. A prime example is the subjugation of Palestinian women in the State of Israel, which will be explored next.
Femina Sacra Embodied Through Palestinian Subjugation
The Israeli-state is an example of crude divisions that rely on race to determine “which lives were to be included or excluded from politics.” This aligns with Foucault, who believed that race came to be the signifying distinction for sovereign power. The 1952 Law of Return and the 2010 ‘loyalty law’ are two examples of sovereign power that create racial divisions through exclusionary measures. The former grants citizenship to “everyone who can prove they have a Jewish mother”; the latter requires “all non Jewish candidates for citizenship to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish democratic state.” If sovereign power is a dividing practice, which Gregory describes as, “to effect a passage between inside and outside, law and violence,” does the creation of a Jewish state knowingly and willingly expose Palestinians to death? To explore this question, I will first examine the gendered ways in which Palestinian women are reduced to bare life and are at the mercy of the sovereign power due to “her function as a vehicle of ethnic cleansing, and to her sexual vulnerability.”
In acknowledging that Palestinian women are both under Israeli occupation, and citizens of Israel, Lentin argues, “the latter are citizens without being part of the (Jewish) nation, leaving them with inadequate access to citizenship rights.” Here, the space of exception is made apparent through the retreat of the law. The Law of Absentee Property is legislation that allowed the State of Israel to appropriate lands from ‘internal’ Arab refugees to Jewish-settlers. Palestinians were exiled from various parts of Israel, told never to return, yet remained ‘citizens of Israel,’ existing between spaces, and in a ‘state of abandonment’. Gregory describes this as not a space of ‘lawlessness,’ but as a space of ‘rightlessness.’ In this context, Palestinian men and women “were abandoned by the law through the law.”
Another example of ‘biopower’ is the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). The IDF enforce security checkpoints and home evictions that aim to target Arab people, and more systemically, the Arab identity. The nature of the IDF checkpoints serve to humiliate, and target the identity of Palestinian women through “sexual victimisation, as a mode of compromising Palestinian honour and values of purity and family unity.” Lentin additionally argues that this gives the Jewish state “political control over Palestinian family and society”. She concludes by extending the state of exception to Palestine, which was created though Israel’s “intricate regime of emergency regulations and racist laws.” Here, the erasure of the Palestinian identity, through the creation of a homogenous Jewish-state, amounts to exposing Palestinians to ‘bare life,’ “merely existent life exposed and abandoned to violence.”
In situating the ‘femina sacra,’ Masters details the ways in which women’s lives are rendered bare in particular ways. The home evictions that Palestinians face specifically target women, for women are especially attached to the home, a private space, free from the gaze of strangers. Yet Masters argues that this sentiment contributes to all women being “cast back into the private – as women in need of protection, as sexualized objects, as deviant women.” Moreover, relegating women to the private realm makes possible the creation of the masculinized public space. Here, the bodies of Palestinian women are at the “intersection of state” where the state can continue its “civilization mission,” that is, to reinforce the inferiority of the Palestinian race by constructing notions of “barbarianism” and “deviancy.” Within this framework, Palestinian women are seen as reproducers of an ‘inferior state;’ one that does not ensure a Jewish majority. It is this specific exclusion of reproductive life that differentiates the ‘femina sacra’ from the ‘homo sacer’. Women are reduced to ‘reproducers,’ “not just as a danger to a nation’s security but as a means of, and a target of, violent attempts to redirect its biological and national future.”
The power that women have to create life has been presented as a direct threat to the sovereign. Palestinian women, however, are excluded from the political and reduced to bare life in a very particular way. Here, the sovereign uses the law to secure a biological future of Israel that depends on the exclusion of Palestinians. This does not mean that Palestinians passively let this occur. As described by Hillel Cohen, Arabs assert their agency by appealing to the Supreme Court about land claims, and uphold their demand to return to their villages. Additionally, Arabs refuse reparations offered by the Jewish State that would require them to renounce their legal entitlement to any land in the Israeli state. Palestinian women resist home evictions by sleeping in their clothes. Lentin describes this as a way of asserting agency over their bodies and ultimately reinforcing their ability to protect their family in the private space of their home.
Abandoned and Invisible
The next space I will discuss is not neatly tucked into one area, and its territory is not contested, for perhaps no one cares to contest it. This space could be invisible to those traversing it, but those inside are unquestioningly ‘transients, prostitutes, and drug addicts.’ Pratt refers to this as something other than an ‘excluded’ space and calls it an “abandoned space.” The key component of an abandoned space is the public perception of it. The abandoned remain in a relationship with sovereign power, but the people inside may not be aware of the laws in place to protect them, and the surrounding public spaces do not care to contest the lack of rights. Pratt emphasizes that this state of abandonment is not equivalent to exclusion where one is neither inside nor outside the judicial order. Instead, one of the most important dimensions that constructs this space is the disinterest shown from the public. Their lives are seen as unworthy, and the violence committed against them is seen as part of the space and therefore built into the lives of the people.
The normalization of such oppression can be seen in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), where many missing and murdered police cases remain open and unsolved. The research of Kiepal, Carrington, and Dawson show that excluded groups in Vancouver’s downtown east (disadvantaged youth, women escaping domestic violence, aboriginal people, and visible minorities), go missing in high numbers. What makes the DTES unique is the congregation of vulnerable individuals who do not fit into a preordained narrative and become marginalized by society. The belief that those “Missing Downtown Eastside women” are just ‘transient types’ halts the process of treating their disappearances seriously. The lack of appropriate attention from the police can be examined through the time it took to solve some of the murders. It took eight years and dozens of missing women to name one suspect and even then, the women were still characterized as prostitutes and drug addicts. The media facilitates the ‘state of abandonment’ by overexposing the criminal ‘nature’ of the DTES yet refrains from exposing the fragility of the lives lost within. Aboriginal women are lost within a “neo-liberal mode of governance” that selectively marginalizes through “strategies of representation,” which include “silences, blind spots, and displacements that have both material and symbolic effects.” In Canada, government cutbacks for the poor emerge by way of de-regulation and gentrification. This causes a shortfall of affordable housing, pushing more vulnerable citizens onto the street and into the open; a paradoxical space that is both invisible and dangerous.
Another way that those in the DTES are marginalized, is through a narrative of fear. In his article Tainted Space, Andrew Woolford considers the space of the Downtown Eastside as situated within, a “tainted or infected realm.” The mindset is then reinforced and spread by unfair representation by the media and the Downtown Eastside is presented as separate from the rest of Vancouver. One example of this narrative is the spread of HIV/AIDS, where not only are the people infected by the space itself, anyone leaving might infect those on the outside. The identity of those in the DTES reflect the perception of a space filled with junkies and alcoholics who are a threat to the health of nearby populations. This perception allows these men and women to be “removed from the field of local moral concern.”
In presenting these two perceptions, it is vital to present a third, where the ‘invisible’ population becomes visible as “activists, advocates, organizers and leaders in their own communities.” The Annual Downtown Eastside Women’s Memorial March is one example that allows men and women to resist the negative depictions of the area. The march is held every Valentine’s Day and not only honours the memory of the missing and murdered Aboriginal women, but also it tangibly registers the men and women who face violent realities everyday. Hundreds gather and hold photos of those lost to them, memories are shared, and the individual lives lost are realized. Organizations like the Red Shawl Campaign, have declared worthy the lives of the missing and murdered women by wearing on their bodies a painted shawl. The event is hosted by the Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre and through this symbolic representation of women they were able to capture the attention of media outlets. The invisible become visible through the participation of people.
Reign of The Self
Did Aristotle have hindsight to the ways in which the ‘powers of the feminine’ would clash with those of the sovereign? And if so, did he find necessary the exclusion of women from the political for these very reasons? Regardless of the answer here, it is clear that a large part of politics is rooted in fear; fear of succession, fear of dissent. The role of media increasingly is shown to aid the sovereign by projecting notions of fear and disinterest onto the public. With the power to over/underrepresent people as victims and as criminals, the media thus often takes on the omniscient task of deciding which lives are ‘worthy’ and idealizes certain bodies by placing them to a higher regard. Those lives deemed ‘unworthy’ are subordinated and relegated as bodies living in binary constructions; good/bad, pure/impure, worthy/unworthy, women/victim, Arab/Jew.
Spaces of exception are not only tangible realms, but are filled with living people wholly capable of ebullience and aspiration. The people are not there to wither away because the sovereign excluded and abandoned them. They have an internal power to resist the forces against them. The power of the sovereign has limits, and those limits are realized through the bodies of individuals who do not go passively. Not only can women embody the power of the sovereign, so too can all abandoned and excluded men and women. The agency of one person can produce empathy in another and through this succession, the sovereign can be challenged at a trans-scalar level.