A face is more that the sum of our features – the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, lips, etc. It is the the way we present ourselves to the world in an immediately recognizable form. During my PhD I learnt a lot about ‘face-work’ as presented by Erving Goffman, an American sociologist. I shall discuss the concept of ‘face-work’ with the social status and treatment of women in South Asia through selected examples. This is not meant to be a universally representative view of how all women present themselves, or ought to, in the region.
Societies across the globe have signified the importance of the face in cultural idioms, traditions, and even targeted acts of gendered violence (some of which overlap with one another). For example, to ‘save face’ has nothing to do with protecting the features on the front of your head – it refers to protecting your integrity, honor and perceived identity from being torn apart.
Faces are the masks, or personas (not meant to imply inauthenticity) through which we project our essence, intent and moods to other people. Our smiles, our gaze, our looks reflect how confident, powerful and beautiful we feel about ourselves (or not) – and that has little to do with the shape of our features – those associations are often socially conditioned. Others interpret who or what we are on the basis of what faces we wear or exhibit to them.
For instance, one shows a different face at home, than they do to their boss at work. The features are exactly the same, but the identity that is projected to them, differs.
When it comes to women, the restrictions placed upon the kinds of faces they are expected to wear in public/private/cultural spaces and on the use of the face as a means to destroy one’s honor or reputation speaks volumes as to their societal status.
In particularly conservative cultures, showing a woman’s face is forbidden in public spaces – they are veiled (the Hindu women in the picture are wearing ghungats), or – as in some Hindu courtly traditions – kept in a zenana, hidden from view. The veiling or hiding of the female face is not exclusive to any one religion or culture.
When faces are the means by which we present ourselves to one another as social creatures – what does it mean when women’s faces are not even allowed to exist, to be seen publicly? Without a face, you have no identity to which social status, dignity, honor, prestige can even be afforded to. You are immediately erased or ignored in the public sphere.
In South Asia, the practice of throwing acid onto a woman’s face goes well beyond disfiguring her so ‘no one will want her’ – typically by a jilted would-be lover whom she may have zero interest in. Damaging her face is a powerful tool to make her feel ashamed of herself for daring to reject a male suitor. I have heard, so far, of virtually no cases in which women (unless they are related to the men concerned) doing this to one another at all. It is a cruel form of punishment that permanently that seeks to distort the essence or identity of the ‘face’ the women will wear for the rest of her life.
So – Working both ways, the face is not just an expression of essence, but whatever happens to it affects the way we see ourselves in a profound way. When it is erased, or disfigured, so too (rightly or wrongly) is one’s self-perception of who they are and how they perceive others to see them. Coming back from such trauma and presenting one’s self to the world is … nothing short of pure heroi(ne)ism.
This reliance on ‘face’ is shown in even in cultural idioms: If one has, particularly in a traditional society, committed a social transgression, one might say: So-and-so has no shame, showing their face in this place. Similarly, someone who has been shamed may say: I can’t possibly show my face there.
If a woman has had premarital sex, experienced sexual assault or violation or chooses to marry someone from a different caste or religion – her mother might say: What have you done – your father can’t show his face in public anymore? (Note the attachment to the male body and its status in the public sphere)
There is a dual meaning here: The literal, physical face is associated directly with the symbolic status or imagined identity of the person whose head it sits. Two, that shame is one of the most powerful forms of social conditioning as it is directly linked to something as intimately connected to our identities as our symbolic/literal faces.
The importance of ‘face-work’ and its specific, gendered, vulnerabilities/mechanisms of control of the female form and identity – are not relics of so-called primitive societies and archaic customs – they continue well into this technologically-mediated age.
Our biggest social media platform is called Face-Book, we value (even more so with Skype) face-to-face conversations to conduct business across the globe – and we have (as a global society) become obsessed with ‘the selfie’. So, really, the sociological importance of the face has only intensified as it becomes easier and easier to represent the face/selfie/self in far wider networks.
One form in which face-attacks occur upon women now, inhibiting them, or putting them / their families at risk of ‘losing face’ (which has inspired many a young woman to kill herself) occurs through Facebook. Indian girls are advised not to use their faces on their profile picture because there are those who morph their faces onto the bodies of nude women – and then blackmail them/their family with it. Schoolgirls and young women are covertly filmed on phones, and messages sent via mobile to their peers at school, and on the Internet.
So even today, the Southern Asian woman has to fear for her face – will it be violated, in the flesh, or through digital altering? Does she have to remain in a zenana (closed enclosure), or is she forced to adopt anonymity for fear of dishonor? Can she never be seen, freely and truely in the public domain, albeit of a virtual kind?
Or can she come out, be seen and project her face into the world for what she wants it (and herself) to be seen as?
I am inspired by the courage of young Jada, a 16-year old girl in the US who rape was filmed and ‘went viral’ on the Internet. Rather than expressing solidarity for – at first – random people mocked her ordeal and mimicked the way her body was postured and filed as she lay unconscious after her assault. They even posted selfies of themselves doing it on Twitter.
In response, this brave young woman re-claimed her face. She went public, and simply declared ‘I AM JADA’ – I cannot think of a braver response to such misogyny.
So really, this is a global thing.
I could, and might, write a whole other piece on how women who are permitted to be seen in the public sphere have certain ‘rules’ to obey – whether it’s how fair/dark their skin is, how many wrinkles they have, what they wear, etc. There’s so much more than can be said about this subject.
At the end of the day, this is about power, identity, and the right of self expression. To those women who feel freedom in anonymity, or find the veil/ghungat an expression of their identity – this piece is not meant to critique your choices – it is meant to critique social conventions that force women to make that choice against their will.
As an Indian woman, I thought of these concerns when I ‘went public’ – and I’m glad I made the decision I did – To Shine, To Smile, To Soar.
Blessings to all,
Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD
Image Information: By Mohsyn Clicked by Zainab Zaidi (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons