The Nature of Being

rethinking the facts of life

John Berger and the human-animal relationship

Our way (as humans) to behave towards animals tells us a lot about ourselves.I will use for my article the essay “Why Looking at Animals?”, part of the anthology About Looking published in 1980 by the British critic John Berger (who is also a painter, a teacher, a filmmaker and a novelist). The latter has, for me, particularly well described the human’s behaviors towards animals in capitalist societies.

He highlights different aspects of human-animal relationship and shows how animals have been marginalized through history, mostly due to the development of capitalism, as he explains by saying that “the reduction of the animal (…) is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units”.

The deep belief that animals as living species express emotions and have feelings have been called into question, especially with Descartes’s assertion of divide of body and soul: “the decisive theoretical break came with Descartes”. Since then it was made possible for some people to consider animals as “machines” (they are considered, unless humans, as “soulless”), and so remove from them their ability to have, as independent living entities, feelings, emotions, and needs. By far and against this statement, the critic shows that humans and non-human animals share much in common, from a biological (“Animals are born, are sentient and are mortal”) and also a historical point of view. Differences between humans and animals are variation in degree rather than kind.

For example the animals’s inability to speak is seen through a different angle than usual in Berger’s work: it should not be considered as a lack, but much more we should study and try to understand the means used by animals to express their feelings and communicate, as part of species. The use of language, a human characteristic, should not let us think of a given superiority of humans. Animals have typical features of their own, which we are not necessarily prone to understand. This refers also to the idea presents in Donna Haraway’s work When Species Meet (2008) that we should not define someone or something by a lack.

Then John Berger assumes that in modern societies men can no longer encounter with animals. He has also a main argument about the look: when there used to be a silent relationship between the two living species, the marginalization of animals and their confinement into zoos are the ultimate proof of it. We can no longer meet with animals, for a lot of them they live in artificial environment, they cannot either encounter with other species in their closed cages. Same with pets, which is a recent phenomenon. The development of companion animals brought with capitalist ideology. Before we used to rely on them for specific purposes (“guard dog”, “haunting dog”…).

In short, their essence is denied from them, and thus thanks to Humans whom, at one point in history, succeeded to make themselves above every other specie.



“Why Looking At Animals?” by John Berger

When Species Meet by Donna Haraway (2008)




“The World’s Most Dangerous Place For Women”, an inside look at women’s condition in Congo

I would like this time to focus on a country: the Democratic Republic of Congo. I will, with help from the S.I.G.I. (Social Institutions and Gender Index) research data, bring a closer look to this state, which is considered as the ‘worst place in the world’ for women. First it is important to bear in mind that Congo, since its independence from Belgium in 1960, is home of terrible conflicts that date back to decades. From then on, and especially from the 1990s, the military violence is one of the worse in the world. In that situation children and women are the first victims. Rape and sexual violence are weapons used by soldiers, particularly in eastern’s province, to inflict fear on people and terrorize them.

A young Congolese woman, who was sent by her parents to Great Britain as a small child, is going back to her native country twenty years later. The BBC shot this as a documentary. Its name is ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Place for Women’. The twenty-three year old woman relates how the mass rape is accepted as a status quo in Congo, although such stories are hardly – if not never – transcribed in Occidental medias.

Though DRC has ratified international legal treaties concerning humans and women’s rights (of which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which stipulates men and women equality) and has written the principle of equality between both sexes in the preamble of the 2006 Constitution; the inequalities between both genders are alarming. The political chaos makes the implementation of these legal acts practically impossible.

Women represent 53% of the total population and 61,2% of them live below the poverty line (comparing with 51,3% for men). They are dramatically touched by economical, social and cultural inequalities.

The figures brought by the Thomas Reuters Foundation are frightening: 1152 Congolese women are raped every day, and wives cannot sign any legal document without their husband’s authorization. The atrocity of mass rape is even worse when you consider that, if they have survived to it, raped women are often rejected by their husbands and stigmatized in their communities.


Their condition is closely tied to the political situation of the country, all of which makes them even more vulnerable to discrimination and physical violence. With the sexual-violence getting unpunished, we cannot imagine the cruelty ending any sooner unless international organizations and politicians do something.

The economical issue is of course also a huge concern: if women are not independent economically, how can they achieve their supposed autonomy?

The NGO Women for Women International, created in 1993, is trying since then to help women in all the conflict areas around the globe. This association tries to compensate some of the problems the women mostly face in such regions: from a lack of power, a lack of education (mostly the lack of being aware of their rights), a lack of economical resources, and the lack of nutritional health. It also tries to change the mentalities, which are often very discriminative towards women in such countries. Its work have shown good results but of course it cannot inverse the tendency if the crimes committed still stay unpunished.






The introduction of gender in the belief of ghosts in Thailand

In South East Asia ghosts play an important role. The spirit of ghosts is notably predominant in Thai culture. A radio is broadcasting every night between midnight and 3 a.m. a call-in show, “The Shock”, dedicated to the supernatural where Kapol Thongplub, the animator of the show, listens people nightly telling him about their ghost stories and the apparitions they experienced.

The Thai belief of ghosts is so strong, that Thai people regularly leave offerings at places where people have died, and for example a Hungry Ghost Festival, “Por Tor Festival’, is held in Phuket every year.

There are a lot of different kinds of ghosts, mainly coming from Buddhism history and former Chinese influence, that have however survived and adapted themselves to the modern era.

One of them, called the “widow ghost” (Phii mae maai in Thai), particularly present in the North East Thailand, is a ghost that seeks to steal men away from their families (looking for men to kill and take as “husbands”). The power of this spirit reflects some of the Northeast Thailand understandings of gender difference and most of all translates the danger inherent in female sexuality. This is a reference to female hysteria.

The gender differenciation in poor rural areas of Thailand is not so marked: the domestic work are often done by both women and men. However the gender differenciation remains an important aspect in social life mostly through the necessity of controlling the woman’s body. This translates a divergent understanding about male and female sexuality. Masculinity, except for monks that represent a higher “class” in Thailand, spotlights sexual prowess. Female sexuality is interpreted in a different way: it is the subject of moral problems. When the sexuality of a female is not linked to a conjugal relationship, it is seen as depraved and the social equivalent of prostitution. Female sexuality is interpreted as potentially dangerous for the physical and spiritual well being of men.

They have to avoid any sort of public physical contact with men as this can be interpreted as a sexual interest of their part.

In the case of the widow ghosts, the ‘women’ show their sexuality powers. They take the initiative by seducing husbands. This is a reversal also of the male and female bodies hierarchy (the phii mae maai are thought to lie on top of their chosen ‘husbands’, contrasting with the more usual known sexual position of the man above the woman during the sexual intercourse).

This belief is linked with economical and geographical changes in Thailand (and which are mostly affecting the northeastern part, the poorest one): there is a labor immigration to Bangkok and it is women, usually young and unmarried who constitute the primary labor force. The new geographical mobility of young unmarried women challenges the customary male monopoly over the sources of prestige. Villagers’ fears of widow ghosts bring into play these conflicting meanings of female sexuality in contemporary Thailand. The mobility of young women and their growing independence towards their family and husbands challenge the traditional idea of men being more productive.

This threat of ghosts in Thailand is also a symbol for the new challenges and issues that capitalism and the evolution of the urban spaces.


“Attack of the widow ghosts: gender, death, and modernity in Northeast Thailand” in Bewitching Women, Pious Men by Aihwa Ong and Michael G. Peletz (1995)




The Notion of ‘dividual androgyne’ and an introduction into cross-gender’s dances in Java Island

I would like to introduce the concept of « dividual androgyne » introduced by the British anthropologist Marilyn Strathern. In her book The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia, published in 1988, she has brought out a conception of gender she had noticed in the study of Melanesian people that are at the opposite of the Western’s conception of gender. I qualify the Western’s conception of gender as a social construction notion of masculine and feminine, where the biological sex of a person is defining her as a male or a female.

The book follows an anthropological study of the Melanesian culture (a sub region of Oceania which includes Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guina), where the masculine/feminine distinction (as we have as Westerns) is questioned.

Contrary to Western beliefs, which the author criticizes, the person is here thought as being constituted through his relations. An ‘attack’ against Western’s ethnocentrism, which puts at the margins society in which system of values, conceptions, religions are far from ours.

Following the Melanesian’s conception of gender, the person is both dividual and relational. A person contains both masculine and feminine aptitudes and her “delimitation” into one is made possible through specific time/place/ and in relation with others.

The gender is not considered as a specific category that is unchanging through time, but rather as a process. It is an understanding of a gender as always moving, evolving. Being ‘male’ or ‘female’ emerges as a unitary state under particular circumstances.

This notion leads me to introduce a few words about cross-gender’s dancers in Java Island. There is already an article dealing with the approach of the third sex in Indonesia on the blog which I invite you to read it to get an overview of its gender’s culture.

The concept of ‘dividual androgyne’ can be applied to the Java Island’s transvestites dancers. Didik Nini Thowok, one of the most famous Javanese dancers (as a male dancer performing into woman), talks about ‘mystical gender’. He made an interview with a Senior lecturer in South East Asian Anthropology, Kostas Retsika in which he explains how, when he puts his mask on for the show, he can thinks of himself as a woman. ‘When a woman dances the male mask, she is transformed – it is mystical. And when a man dresses up as a woman, in bedhaya, we don’t always recognize that the dancer is male – it is mystical. He, too, is transformed.’ I find this conception of ‘becoming gendered’ really interesting and important to highlight, it also highlights that identity is a process. I find it also interesting because of the relational idea: we can only define ourselves in comparison to others. 68bb5ed8caa2210a1e7a2f2437d2f63d


The sorcery of gender: sex, death and difference in East Java, Indonesia by Konstantinos Retsikas (September 2010)




The Women’s condition in Algeria

For this article I chose to focus on women’s’ condition in Algeria. It is considered one of the two most progressive countries in Maghreb (with Tunisia) when speaking of women’s rights. A law, which consisted of a modification of the penal Code, was adopted on December 2015. This adoption was a victory as it stipulates the principle of non-discrimination based on sex and criminalized violence committed against women.

Verbal and psychological harassments are also criminalized. The sanctions (bills, imprisonment) are higher and the burden of sentences is increased. A woman can also legally claim her salary. It is the first time that the economical violence is sanctioned.

But this improvement still has to be tempered. First, the text has a clause of ‘pardon’, which means that the legal proceeding of a man can be stopped at any time if the woman forgives him. We can easily guess that the family can in this case put pressure on women for withdrawing the complaint, which can lead to terrible cases. Associations denounce a lack of application of the law, and deplore that a lot of improvements have still to be made for women. The death of a 34 year-old woman, Amira Merabet, who was burned alive when she was going to work on the 29th August 2016 is a terribly shocking fact. The violence has not stopped against women and a strict application of the law is necessary. Indeed if progressive forces and associations are making themselves heard we cannot hide the fact that there is also a lot of conservatism in the Algerian society, some patriarchal and reactionary principles that have to be fought against.

Discrimination against women is far from having stopped. The housing problem in Algeria is an issue since the independence. It is even worse for women. A single woman can hardly, if not impossibly, find a place to live if she wants to live on her own or in a flat share. There are a growing number of single women in Algeria (11 million of women are single, which means that more than half of Algerian women are unmarried according to the National Office of Statistics in Algeria). Still Algerian society is, due to religion and customs, not tolerant towards singlehood and it is even worse when it comes to women’s singlehood.


One of the main obstacles for women to achieve completely full rights is the Family Code. It was adopted in 1984, and is dyed with Sharia’s’ principles. Some modifications have been made in 2005 that improved women’s access to divorce and child custody but an adult woman still requires a male guardian to conclude her marriage contract, a clause not required for men. Also, a man can divorce unilaterally, while a woman must apply for the courts.

It is interesting to underline that this disposition of modification of the Family Code was enacted by presidential ordinance in order to avoid a political deadlock at the assembly. This shows that the practices and mentalities, at least of the people in power, need to be changed.



About a Myth of female dominance in the past

I was not aware that the present male-dominance could be explained by certain people through the belief of the past domination of women. Even if that supposed women-centered culture dates back to five thousand tears ago, some persons –mostly men of course – use this fact as a legitimization of the current predominance of men in our social organization. But this myth is also highlighted in some feminist movements, especially in the U.S.

I will use the book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future published in 2000 by Cynthia Eller, a professor of religion who is specialized in women and religion. She tries through this publication to deconstruct the myth of a prehistoric matriarchy.

She uses the American feminist activist Gloria Steinem (from the 1960s) to assume that this theory is also used in some feminist movements. Cynthia Eller assumes this theory is weakening the feminists’s causes.

Whether this myth is useful or not to understand the present is not the question I want to focus on now. It is still interesting to learn about history, but it can be dangerous to focus too much on that myth, which can be used for different purposes or explanations of our time. I would agree with Cynthia Eller in seeing in that myth an exaggeration of differences between men and women that can does not serve the rights of women nowadays.

Moreover this myth is hypothetical, even more as it refers to a time where we cannot really have access to scientific evidences.

The first person who has theorized matriarchic societies is Johann Jakob Bachofen in 1861. The Swiss sociologist has, through ‘das Mutterrecht’ deducted that matriarchal societies have possibly existed in Ancient Greece. That statement, as I have said earlier, can serve different theories: for example the Mundurucù society (the anthropologists Murphy and Murphy have studied this society in 1985), situated in the southeastern Amazon basin, has used stories of an original matriarchal order where everything went wrong to legitimate a male-dominated structure order. However the use of myth shows here that the women subordination is not considered as natural; if it would be so they would not need a supposed legend that they use as a warning against the power of women that can rise.

Historical and anthropological works have tried to determine the origin of male-dominance but it is always difficult to find out considering the different societies, cultural beliefs and the large scale times. For example the domestic work is not in all societies considered as a ‘female’ task and therefore is not considered as ‘ungrateful’ everywhere.

To conclude I would say that the definition of myths is that of something we cannot be sure of, it leads then to different interpretations and can serve variant purposes.

The most important question and pressing task we should focus on is how we can build up an equalitarian society, where women and men are not considered through their differences but rather on their cooperation.


Small places, large issues. An introduction to social and cultural anthropology by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (1995)


Una Mujer Fantastica (A Fantastic Woman)

I would like this time to post an article about a movie that I have seen at the Berlinale 2017. It won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay and is directed by the Chilean director Sebastian Lelio.

I will first tell you the context in which I happen to watch that movie: I was there with a friend and we did not wanted to see any trailer or synopsis of the movie that we would happen to see. So we went to the cinema and just had a look at the title of the movies that were screened that night. ‘Una Mujer Fantastica’ caught our attention. So we went into the room and said to each other that we hoped it was going to be a movie that leaves you a bit perplexed, the kind of ones that stir you and makes you want to smoke a big cigarette afterwards. Well, we happened to have chosen the right one.

The director and actors were present at the screening, and went on stage before the beginning of the movie to make a brief speech without saying anything about the film we were about to watch. At that moment, when I saw the beautiful main actress in a purple long dress that suited her really well, something else still caught my attention and left me a little bit perplexed. As I saw her from behind walking with her high heels, and then when I saw her standing up on stage I had the feeling she was a transsexual. I must say I felt very uncomfortable having that feeling, I asked myself what could let me think that. Especially since my friend did not see her as a transsexual. We actually talked later about it, she discovered in the movie that the actress actually a transsexual. My digression apart, I would like to recommend this film.

It is set in Chile, probably the most catholic state in South America. A very conservative country. It is the story of Marina Vidal, a transsexual, of whom boyfriend just died. It is the story of her, expecting through the funeral to say a last goodbye to her lover. It is also the story of a transsexual in the Chilean society and her not being accepted by her boyfriend’s family.

I was shocked by the psychological violence of the movie. And even more shocked and stirred when I think about the fact that this movie is actually depicting a picture of our society. As a woman (and born woman), I am aware of course of the discrimination that are transgender persons the victims of. But I have never faced it, I will never experience it and that difference is huge. Through the movie I saw so much verbal and physical violence that tears of sadness but also anger fell from my eyes. I would recommend seeing that movie to every person who seeks to understand better the violence of our society towards people that do not fit in the “two gendered” main culture.






Stereotype or prejudice?

In my last three posts I have described my observation of someone in the street and analyzed it. I had noticed that I discomposed my subject in different hierarchized elements which served my analysis and judgment. But now I am wondering why I have needed to analyze and judge this person? Does it mean that she did not seem normal and accountable to me? Yet someone who does not have a different gender than masculine or feminine does not disturb me. Then I should still cope with social stereotypes about the social representation of couple to have further analyzed this woman. How much do those social codes influence my perception and point of view of the situation?

For instance, I took her long hair as an evidence of the feminity of this person, because long hair are known to be a feminine attribute. Yet nowadays more and more men wear long hair, and more and more woman choose short hair. However long hair still stay the norm, even though it does not agree the reality.

Mark Snyder from the University of Minnesota argues that stereotypes are erroneous because there are a simplified representation of the society. Yet they have a real influence on the perception that someone has of another, and the “social interaction between the individual and the target”1. He explains that stereotypes are widely accepted and stays in the collective unconscious. Then it has an impact on individual beliefs and influence it because it fosters presuppositions about observed stereotyped people. Someone who observes someone else will try to make the reality of its subject correspond to its stereotyped beliefs, finding elements which goes in its way. The issue is then obviously the gap between the stereotype and the truth. The author takes the example of the “social labeling of deviance”.

That means that from the beginning of the experience, my observation is biased by my social attempts and/or by the way I am formatted to see the world around me. Mark Snyder also shows how by this process stereotypes are perpetuated. That means that my observation is not only biased by stereotypes of the society I live in, but also that it fosters them. Then if stereotypes had been different, my perception of this woman would have been also different. I would have had other criteria of analysis and other hierarchy for them. It proves that the way someone matches with social stereotypes affects the way he or she perceives and analyzes people. I would probably not have been surprised by the same things on this person if social codes had been other ones. If I have been surprised it means that it goes against my social attempts of a couple walking in the street, it has discomforted my look at random people around me in this street.

I do not consider myself as narrow-minded or intolerant person. However I must admit that this person has stroke me. Then it proves that social stereotypes have impregnated the unconscious part of my mind more than I would have thought. Does scaling my observation have been a way to hide or deconstruct social prejudices I would have unconsciously?



[1] Hamilton David L., Cognitive Processes in Stereotyping and Intergroup Behavior, Psychology Press, 2015 (1981). Snyder Mark, 6. On the self-perpetuating nature of social stereotypes (p.183)



Different elements of analysis

In the wake of my post about scaling to categorize the gender of the subject I observe, I would like to write about how are scaled the elements which justify my judgement. Which elements I found on the body and in the behavior of the woman I observed one time walking in the street, who I have supposed has previously been a man.

The elements which had took part in my observation had been: shape, hair, face, jaws, eyebrows, legs, breast, and extern track of genitals. Here they are written in a chronological way, but they also can be grouped in three categories. One may first distinguish a first level of signs, which fall in the sphere of general appearance. The shape of a person and its hair can be noticed without paying so much attention, and it does not overtake the polite ignorance. It is a normal process when one sees someone else in the street. It even often stays unconscious. On the other hand the second group may be the one of a better look, a further observation. When someone looks attentively at the face and its details or at the limbs of someone else, it is another step in observation. The last level that I see in those clues are in the intimacy of the person. I remember that I had been surprised by myself to check in what shall be called an “intimacy zone” between the legs, and I had thought that it was less respectful of this woman to look for a piece of evidence of her gender as far as looking for her genitals. In fact checking the breast had been different. As I had noticed a masculine face of this woman, I had realized that nothing had stroke me in her body, and especially not her breast which can easily be seen as fake, and then only I had a real look at it to be sure about my mind. It definitely shows a difference between “having a look at the appearance of someone in the street” and “observe the body of a stranger and pay attention at details”. The step of the overtaking of a taboo, breaking of intimacy, is then the next level. Observing attentively a limb or a face does not mean the same thing than observing as attentively the genitals area.

So it can be said that there is a scale between information which can be used from an observation. I also notice that higher was the step of the clue-group (previously defined), the more I needed to justify it. This implies the relation the observer has with the body of the subject (a more or less active action, have a look/pay attention), and the importance of the part of the body. As well, one may notice that the more a part of a body stands for an effective proof of the sex of someone (a penis more than a face), the more necessary it is to justify observation.

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