Riya Dedkhat — Interrogating the Concept of ‘Equality’ through an Irigarayan Lens

In ‘Equal or Different?’ Irigaray elaborates that “To demand equality as women is, it seems to me, a mistaken expression of a real objective. The demand to be equal presupposes a point of comparison. To whom or to what do women want to be equalized? To men? To a salary? To a public office? To what standard? Why not to themselves?” (in Je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference, p. 12;. I added bold characters).

Owing to the cleavages in History in a syncretic gathering of matriarchal, patriarchal, phallocentric eras, the way “we position ourselves sexually in our culture is related to generation, rather than to gender as being sexed” (ibidem). This means that, within the family, woman has to be a mother and man a father, and “we lack positive ethical values enabling both sexes of the same generation to form a creative, not merely a procreative, couple». «It is quite simply a matter of social justice to balance out the power of the one sex over the other by giving, or giving back, cultural values to female sexuality” (op. cit. ,p. 13), that is, to the different sexed being that the woman is.

However, “equality between men and women cannot be achieved without a theory of gender as sexed and a rewriting of the rights and obligations of each sex, qua different, in social rights and obligations” (ibidem; bold characters are mine, italics in the original text).

In this regard, Irigaray proposes the solution of sexuate rights which acknowledge the value of sexual difference, so challenging a Western tradition which favored the masculine subject at the expense of an autonomous feminine subject. What she also calls for is the respect for a female genealogy and the creation of women’s own culture in order to provide the ground from which women and men can meet on their own terms and in their own respective ways. Only in this way a sexuate equality, or better equivalence, can be gained based on the respect of sexuate difference. In other words one could say that “the only equality women must first ask for is that of being themselves while respecting the difference of the other” (Yan Liu, ‘Feminism, Sexuate rights and the Ethics of Sexual Difference: An interview with Luce Irigaray’, accessed April 12, 2019; bold characters are mine).

In her conversation with Liu Yan, a Chinese Scholar, Irigaray further elaborates that currently the world’s two major dominant trends focus either on equality or on difference, which, in her opinion, must be overcome. Whatever aim women should have to reach is “equality in difference or, better, the equivalence of rights for two different subjects” (ibidem).

Historically (and politically), the concept of equality reflects the atmosphere of women’s liberation in the 1940s. The launching of Simone de Beauvoir’s book, the Second Sex (1949) was groundbreaking. However, its title indicated that men were still in a higher position, both the first sex and the standard to be reached and with which to be compared, whereas women always came after as the second sex. Irigaray does not only offer a very sharp critique of the fact that de Beauvoir “cannot imagine that it could exist two different subjects to whom equivalent value and rights could be recognized” but also provide a new direction of overcoming “the stage of criticism of past culture and values to elaborate and affirm values that suit women in order to construct a world culture respectful of two different sexuate subjects, this difference being the most fundamental paradigm for creating the other differences” (ibidem).

Additionally, Irigaray challenges the stage of criticism allowing women to pass from a natural status to a civil status and so to become full citizens. In this regard, for instance, their decision to ‘abort or not to abort’ ought not to depend on the power of the family or the state. As a full citizen, they would have he right to exercise her authority in owning, controlling and making decisions regarding their own bodies as well as to enjoy other cultural rights, which are not the same as those of men. However, it does mean that men are left behind as she argues : “Women and men will have to be granted a real identity, a natural and spiritual one, and not hobble along, one foot in pure nature (reproduction), the other in an abstract culture, if we is to be formed. The need is more pressing and imperative for women but it does exist for men too” (I Love to You, p. 48).

Yvette Russell reminds us of the fact that Irigaray’s work is divided in three phases. According to her it is above all in the third phase that Irigaray began to think about how sexuate difference could act as the basis for a wholesale transformation of a civil society formed by the intersubjective relation between two sexually differentiated subjects. In thinking through the possibility of a double universal in the earlier part of the third phase of her work, Irigaray turned increasingly to the law. While criticizing law as an institution which remains in the neuter and mired within phallocentrism it remains necessary, she argues, in order to initiate that ‘full-scale rethink’ of the civil system she envisages. But it is crucial to define sexuated rights appropriate to each gender. (Equality: Notes on the Thought of Luce Irigaray, 2013).

As a lecturer in the Law School in Roi-Et, the poorest and driest province, 514 kilometers northeast of Bangkok, as well as a family mediator at the provincial court, I realize that I am in the critical situation of initiating and building a ‘sexuate’ civil system which has never been approached by any legal expert in this country.

Many years have gone by, and lately, while driving back home from the Court, I could see what the ‘ex-Riya’has been left behind – a very committed and traditional (bureaucrat) mediator who tried to convince both husband and wife (who had a very clear decision to divorce and came to the Court to fulfil that process) to re-think the ‘good sides’ of each and reconsider their decision in order to maintain the status of their family for the sake of their children. I have realized now that such a way of mediating was not only inefficient but was also dangerous. it directly served the state’s purpose rather than the commoners’ needs. As a part of the Court’s mechanism, I played a crucial role in silencing women’s concern during a critical time in their life. Working as a mediator under the state’s policy, I have experienced and participated in how this position is structured in a way that enabled subalternity through silencing voices by an imposed framework established according to what can or cannot be heard by the court.

Let’s start where it begins: Once I have graduated, I will drive back to the Court with the idea to resort to sexuate rights to shape and change the family mediation process as a means of transforming Thai civil society.