The wilful child rises against fascism

Updated: Jan 10, 2020, 07:43 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia and AMU embody the spirit of dissent, of revolution. Each time you try to repress their soul, an arm rises up in protest, and the arms are always multiplying

Sara Ahmed, a British-Australian scholar, espouses the symbol of the dissenting arm as a valiant metonymic unit of protest and dissent. Representation pic/AFP
Sara Ahmed, a British-Australian scholar, espouses the symbol of the dissenting arm as a valiant metonymic unit of protest and dissent. Representation pic/AFP

Rosalyn D'melloWhile re-reading the third chapter of the Zubaan edition of Sara Ahmed's 'Living a Feminist Life', I came across her retelling of a single-paragraph-long story, one of Grimm's fairy tales. I wasn't aware of it before, even though it seemed extremely familiar. It is often interpreted as "The Wilful Child", though a more literal translation from German to English would render it as "The Stubborn Child". In the original, the child's gender is neutral, but most translators tend to pronounce the gender as masculine. Ahmed's retelling uses 'she' as a way of reclaiming a feminist subjectivity (also because 'he' doesn't always include 'she').

In a nutshell, there was a nameless child who continually disobeyed its mother. As punishment from God himself, the child laid in its deathbed. And yet it remained wilful or stubborn or self-willed, to its detriment. When the child was lowered into its grave, the earth spread over it, its wilfulness resurfaced in the form of an arm that stretched upwards. Fresh earth was laid over but the arm resurfaced yet again. Finally, the mother violently struck down the arm with a rod. The arm was then drawn in and the child was allegedly at rest. It's a complicated story, especially in English translation with its focus on gender. In her New Yorker article about the lure of the fairy tale, titled "Once Upon a Time," Joan Acocella reproduces a translation by Jack Zipes, followed by this observation by the famous writer A S Byatt — "It doesn't feel like a warning to naughty infants. It feels like a glimpse of the dreadful side of the nature of things."

Sara Ahmed locates the fairy tale as part of a genre of educational writing that Alice Miller referred to as "poisonous pedagogy" in her book 'For Your Own Good', wherein violence is institutionally validated as an instructional, disciplinary mechanism. "The history is condensed by the brutish maxim 'spare the rod, spoil the child'," Ahmed says. "Just consider that in this story the only time that the child is at rest is when she is beneath the ground. By implication, when the child gives up or gives up her will, when she stops struggling against those she must obey (her mother, God), when she is willing to obey, she will be at ease." Later, Ahmed makes the connection between this brutish ideology and the way states legitimise the subjugation of their citizenry through the unbridled use of violence as disciplinarian, punitive and coercive measures. "The brutish maxim, 'spare the rod, spoil the child' becomes 'spare the rod, spare the nation'," she says.

She goes on to make an eloquent connection between wilfulness and resistance, and how the figure of the feminist killjoy is one that is charged because she is in possession of a will, and in being in possession of a will and in articulating it, is immediately a bad subject because she refuses to be subjugated. Ahmed also espouses the symbol of the dissenting arm as a valiant metonymic unit of protest and dissent. "The arm that keeps coming up might not be willing to do the housework, to maintain his house, to free his time for thought. When women refuse to be helping hands, when we refuse to clean for him, or clean up after him, when we refuse to be his secretary, the keeper of his secrets, his right hand, we become wilful subjects," she says.

This week, barely a month into the horrific instance of police-orchestrated violence at Jamia Millia Islamia, we were confronted with news of mob-controlled aggression at another central university, Jawaharlal Nehru University, of which I happen to be an alumna. It was painful to hear about the Vice Chancellor's potential role in the perpetuation of violence against students. I saw footage of the Sabarmati hostel door in pieces, which made me cringe in horror. I lived in Tapti, the hostel right across from it. Reading about how the masked mob tried to make their way into women's hostels made me shudder. The message was loud and clear — students, especially women, were being punished for their agitations against the fee hike. They were out of line. They had to be taught a lesson. Between the police and the JNU administration, it was decided they needed to be silenced.

Except, JNU, like Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University, is analogous to the stubborn or wilful child. These institutions embody the spirit of dissent, of revolution. They locate their collective politics outside of the systems of fascism and share a history of criticality against repressive state and administrative machinery. Each time you try to repress their soul, an arm rises up in protest, and the arms are always multiplying. This is part of the function of subversive pedagogy, to keep those who want to claim sole ownership of power on their toes, to question the discriminatory mainstream ideologies they peddle that get subsumed under the umbrellas of patriotic and patriarchal conformity, and to pass on to those who may not have access to such an education an inkling of exactly what is at stake when we allow the ideals of our democratic constitution to be upended.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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