The thing about a woman’s body and her bodily agency is that it never really exists in its own right. It exists mostly because we are constantly made aware of it and its purpose. We are agencies of sexual pleasure, motherhood and procreation, all of which are manifested through our bodies.
Japanese author Mieko Kawakami follows this similar line of thought in her international bestseller, Breasts and Eggs. Her fiction is informed in its take about how when there is a whole goddamn evolutionary burden on our bodies, they cease to become just ours, thus invisibilising our agency. In Breasts and Eggs, Makiko is chronically disappointed with her breasts because they are small, worn out from her maternity days and can no longer cater to a gaze that’s not her own. Her teenage daughter is aghast at the period of adolescence and the uncalled physical changes it brings in her. Midroriko wants children of her own at forty but we are not told if that want is instinctual or simply a product of a social construct where a woman is constantly reminded of her bodily purpose.
Kawakami’s women in Breasts and Eggs are disgruntled at the reproductive purpose behind their bodies and at how this structure manipulates so many of us into considering motherhood compulsory. And when she deviates from this path, trying to assert her agency, she faces corrective measures like abortion ban, early marriage and social stigmatisation.
Breasts and Eggs is a scathing observation on how society politicises literal breasts and eggs with the rationale of evolution, while ultimately putting women in a position of compromise with their own anatomy.
Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (1970) had argued that women could be truly free only if she and her body were freed of reproduction. She was one of the first women to make space for radical voicing of feminist ideas and calling out on institutions that participate in oppressive structures against women. Shulamith made a point about artificial wombs that would free women from their reproductive burden, which at the time was mocked at for being preposterous but recent scientific research has seeded a possibility of such a womb.
Fertility institutions, with a male-dominated demography (which again entails from the structural problem of women being seen as better caregivers and pushed to pursue the nursing field) constitute an authoritative voice on a woman’s body and agency. While one cannot ignore scientific empiricism and its implications, institutions like these can be made puppets in the hands of bigger structures like the State and the government to implement legislation controlling our bodies. Which is why anti-abortion arguments become even more difficult to be overruled if they are medically backed by these institutions. Shulamith was wary of this decisive voice of science that often presides over the agency, choice and autonomy of the subject. And it’s important to note that medical advice is often presented to the woman with an illusion of “choice” thus manipulating her to act according to the state’s wishes.
When our class/caste/creed/race/ethnicity/sexual orientation/sexuality are removed as metrics determining our oppression, we are left with only our biological functions and our physical bodies. Society at large then takes it upon itself to study, control, police and discipline it, disrobing us of our agency.
There’s a neat structure that constitutes such policing.
A working class structure that capitalises on the body, using it for cheap or unpaid labour–sexual or otherwise, while also dictating how and when it should be used for procreation for the structure to expand. Fertility centers then act as spaces where a woman’s sexuality is ‘allowed’ to be channeled in a controlled manner for this purpose.
The narrative of a woman clinically injecting herself with a stranger’s sperm from a sperm donation centre being a morally legitimate affair while her engaging in actual sex without marriage is not, stands morbidly moralistic.
Perumal Murugan made a similar observation on the issue in his book One Part Woman. The narrative deals with a South Indian carnival where women were sent to and “allowed” to engage in sex with drunk strange men so she could be impregnated. Her sexual enabling was on the grounds of her husband’s infertility, making it a hushed-up affair. Thus, even in the mask of a carnivalesque freedom, it is never really her agency or freedom in its true sense. She is enabled because she is to be impregnated for perpetuating the family lineage.
In hindsight, it’s important to note that structures: patriarchal or capitalistic, are inherently insecure of women taking agency for their sexuality. For capitalistic institutions it would mean the end of free/cheap labour and for religious institutions it would mean breaking up of the heteronomative, gendered family structure upon which most thrive. Thus, any feminist argument which disregard and fall short on asserting bodily autonomy is not a fully realised one. Our bodies are central to our oppression and emancipation and it has to be just as central to any feminist discourse or discussion.
Featured image source: Womenfitness.org