Antonio Canova (1757-1822) Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1804-6)
As I was going through the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past week, I caught sight of a woman in hijab who was walking towards me. She caught my attention because you don’t see that many women with covered heads in the section of sculptures—they mainly concentrate on jewelry, furniture and ancient weaponry—but she was to walk towards Antonio Canova’s 19th Century marble sculpture of Perseus with the Head of Medusa and I wanted to catch her reaction to his phallus, and see what she would do? Would she pause and look, or avert her eyes? So I turned around as she passed me and saw that she did not even lift her head up and just walked by. More importantly in her urgency to look away she did not even notice the decapitated head of Medusa Perseus was holding in his left hand.
Which got me thinking of Medusa. A symbol of oh, so much, and the subject of so many: from Freud’s female penis envy to castration and decapitation. Many feminist theorists discuss Medusa in their writings too. Well, Medusa was a beautiful Greek mortal—the only mortal one of the Gorgon sisters—and aware of her beauty. One day Medusa was raped by Poseidon in the temple of Athena, and therefore Athena punished her. Medusa was to have a head covered of snakes, instead of hair, and that any man who would look at her directly would be turned into stone. Eventually, Perseus, son of Zeus and Danaë would go to decapitate her, a scene captured in many artworks.
But what is this about hair, or head? It must be perceived that it has certain powers. If we move from the Greeks to closer in time to the Old Testament, we see that Delilah cuts off Samson’s hair rendering him powerless. (Oh these bad women will always try to take away everything from you!) And then in the New Testament, in Corinthians that we keep hearing of so much lately, it says “if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.”
Again just like the woman I saw at the Met, observant Muslim women cover their heads as do observant Jewish women who are married. But, why exactly? I am reminded of the story told by a teenage babysitter I had for my toddler son in a summer we spent in Istanbul. This girl whose family had emigrated from the Black Sea area of Turkey to Istanbul once mentioned to me how when she was younger, whenever she and her sister acted unruly—for quite ridiculously benign things in my opinion—their father would sit them down and cut their hair! They would be protesting, and crying the whole time, but despite their objections—he wouldn’t beat them or anything—he would just cut their hair off. Super offensive and humiliating don’t you think?
But it this intention exactly behind this command of having to cover, or cut hair, or replace them with snakes: To offend and to exert power over. All those millions of women sent to the showers in Nazi death camps had their heads shaved. I read in a New York Times Book Review that during the dictatorship of Franco in Spain “tens of thousands of women had their heads shaved and were force-fed castor oil (a powerful laxative), then jeered as they were paraded through the streets soiling themselves.”
Shave their heads, cover their heads, and make them become uniform. Remove their individuality, render them one, and the same. Decapitate their unique minds and personalities. Remove their laughter among sisters, and separate them even further from one another, and make sure they cry no matter what.
Medusa was beautiful, and knew she was beautiful, was punished by Athena, a Goddess, removed of her hair to be replaced with snakes, yet punished for the rape of herself and from then on, any man who would look at her would turn to stone. She was feared and Perseus was asked to kill her. She was so powerful. Even turning her hair into snakes didn’t quite cut it, so she had to have her head completely cut off, to prevent her from exerting her power. Never the rapist or the looker should ever be punished.
I wish to all my sisters from everywhere more power, more courage, more voice and less feeling of guilt. Let the sun shine in: on your body and head. May you always have power, big, loud laughs and may we come to a day when we do not even have to defend them.
Happy International Women’s Day.