“During the so-called ‘repressive’ ages sex was a joy, because it was practiced in secret and it made a mockery of all of the obligations and duties that the repressive power imposed. Instead, in tolerant societies, as the one we live in is declared to be, sex produces neuroses because the freedom granted is false and above all, it is granted from above and not won from below.” —Pier Paolo Pasolini, Pasolini prossimo nostro (2006) “Have you noticed how fashionable couples are today? But it is a completely false and insincere couple, frighteningly insincere. See these kids under the power of who knows what romantic notion, they walk hand-in-hand, or arm-in-arm, a young man and a girl. ‘What is this sudden romanticism?’, you may ask. Nothing. It is simply the new couple as revived by consumerism because this consumerist couple buys.” —Pier Paolo Pasolini, Pasolini prossimo nostro (2006)
This article examines the relationship between consumption and femininity in Hindi cinema. The eye is the orifice through which images are consumed; the alienated consumer of images is both man as a bearer of manhood and woman as a receptacle of notions of gender conceived in the cauldron of a social order which produces images as a subconscious language that suggests at the point that it compels; the question of gender is thus intertwined with sexuality, the body with notions of purity and pollution, the “truth” mingled with illusion, and masculinity with “right” or “righteousness.” Hindi cinema is a suggestive-compulsive discourse that defines social reality as it describes the seemingly obvious; my argument is that an analysis of this discourse is meaningless unless we see that the patriarchal order cannot exist in the absence of the politics of “consumption” with the “consumed” — both as image and reality — trapped in a homoerotic order that does not give women a chance to make choices in relation to their bodies.
Frames of Reference
With the opening of the markets to foreign products and investment, India’s liberalization, technically speaking, began in 1991. Supposedly the nation is moving from an era of repression to a more “tolerant” social order where the young are free to be themselves, or in simpler terms, boys choose to enter “freely” into relationships with girls they love and vice-versa. This is the antithesis to “romantic love” where, as Russell views it, “the beloved object” is regarded “as very difficult to possess and as very precious” (29). Ironically, with liberalization, the “possession” is retained while the “difficulty” is taken away. “Romantic love” is packaged as “love” responding to the alienated consumer of globalization. Two things emerge from this situation: one is the neuroses that sex produces out of a false sense of freedom; and another is the image of the “romantic couple,” the “free” couple that does things together, the woman as the man’s equal, the man elegant and caring and the woman articulate though docile and affectionate. The nostalgia for a community with its illusions of warmth and coming togetherness is bound to the individualism rooted in a capitalist ethic where you have the means to acquire what you desire; the “freedom” is about being able to afford the love as much as it is a politics of desire where the need for a love-object and the object of love are within each other’s reach.
The history of Hindi cinema is replete with examples of this ideal couple — an “ideal” that conforms to existing notions of reality. The couple that emerges from the 1990s is a consumer who is programmed to buy; unless you subscribe to the paradigm of buying, you’re an outsider — not in the existential sense of a despairing consciousness that has given up hope but in an all-too-real sense where your being-in-the-world is reduced to the margins as an outcast, where madness is the background to sanity, where truth confronts the onslaught of ideology. In the 1994 film Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Madhuri Dixit as Nisha Choudury sings: “Chocolate — lime juice — ice cream — toffeeyan pehle jaise ab mere shauk hain kahan/ Gudiya — khilone meri saheliyan ab mujhe lagti hain sari paheliyan yeh kaun — sa mod hai umra ka!” She is nostalgic for a girlhood when she could have chocolate, ice cream, toffee, and play with “dolls” (Gudiya) and toys (khilone). With a marriage round the corner, she is supposed to forgo the things that made her the girl she is. Her virginal self is so connected to the world of objects that her womanhood that will happen when possessed by a man will be a rite of passage to complete the process of her objectification that began before she was born.
In any phase of history, repression complements permissiveness. In the worst dictatorial regimes, something is deliberately overlooked, something consciously allowed, and something else actively promoted. A patriarchal society thrives on contradictions and needs them in order to perpetuate existing inequalities. As Engels points out in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:
The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male. Monogamous marriage was a great historical step forward; nevertheless, together with slavery and private wealth, it opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others. It is the cellular form of civilized society, in which the nature of the oppositions and contradictions fully active in that society can be already studied.
In acknowledging the ideological nature of marriage — and by extension love intertwined with property relations and the maintenance of a social order in the form of a state — Engels brings out the class nature of female oppression. Mainstream Hindi cinema to a large extent embodies the “first class oppression” of the “female sex by the male” in equating the body of the woman with possession. The right to possess the feminized body is a primordial right of the male to such an extent that in the absence of the property frame of reference, it is impossible to understand sexual obsession. The metaphor of the body is not a metaphor detached from the “real” body but literally a property of reality — in this case, class relations in a patriarchal society. Knowledge is the power to possess and the source of obsession. When Othello protests “I had been happy, if the general camp,/ Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,/ So I had nothing known” (Act III, Scene III), he curses the knowledge that brought to light the obsession with Desdemona.
The treachery of the woman is a challenge to the male’s knowledge of his own sexuality because the man is then not enough of a man; he is not the possessor but the possessed. For the knowledge to remain as power, the treachery in the body of the woman needs to be suppressed. The loss of maleness is a fear of homosexuality or a loss of knowledge or possession; this is what makes homosexuality a taboo in the Hindi film complex — it threatens the power and the knowledge that makes the power a reality. Shakespeare understands that the right to betray belongs to the weak and the oppressed whether it is Caliban in the Tempest or Shylock in The Merchant of Venice; or as Emilia says in Othello, it is the revenge of the woman-wife:
But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. (Act IV, Scene III)
In Hindi cinema, the “righteous” mother preserves patriarchy in its elemental forms. In fact, she is the source of patriarchy and thus the “liberated” woman’s worst enemy because she is opposed to liberation even in its superficial forms. Liberation is equated to prostitution, and the “liberated woman” a whore because she confronts what Foucault calls the “truth” constituted as knowledge through a “discourse” of sexuality which in this case is that of a male whose body stands on that uncertain precipice of a fantasy that his maleness cannot exist without — the purity of woman.
What I want to show is how power relations can materially penetrate the body in depth, without depending even on the mediation of the subject’s own representations. If power takes hold of the body, this isn’t through its having first to be interiorized in people’s consciousness. There is a network or circuit of bio-power, or somato-power, which acts as the formative matrix of sexuality itself as the historical and cultural phenomenon within which we seem at once to recognize and lose ourselves. (Power/Knowledge 186)
At the unconscious level it is homosexuality that fears the knowledge exposing the vulnerable ego and turning the “fucker” into the “fucked.”
Through “compulsive heterosexuality” the Hindi cinema taboos homosexuality except in the terms set by the heterosexual world-view. Thus a movie such as Dostana (2008) with straight men pretending to be gay is a parody — we see echoes of the parody in Wycherley’s Restoration drama The Country Wife, which begins with the memorable line from Horner: “A quack is as fit for a pimp, as a midwife for a bawd; they are still but in their way, both helpers of nature” (McMillin 4). Engels dwells on the point in the chapter on “The Monogamous Family”: “Together with monogamous marriage and hetaerism, adultery became an unavoidable social institution — denounced, severely penalized, but impossible to suppress.”
The bourgeois family cannot exist in the absence of the institution of prostitution, which is why the male born in this order is schizophrenic and trapped between the unconditionally giving mother and the tantalizing whore. Ideally, he needs to be mothered by the whore in bed. In her absolute devotion to the husband and the family and in motherhood, the woman has to retain her inner purity although defiled in flesh the moment she lies with the man. The corrupt and seductive whore complements the frigid purity of the woman. In the colonial male imagination, the suppression takes the character of tyranny. The caging of the woman’s being works at a physical and emotional level as much as the spiritual.
To understand Hindi cinema is to understand the homoerotic nature of the obsessions underlying purity associated with the “body,” especially when it comes to the virginity of the woman. The same homoerotic tendency to preserve caste purity underlies the need to preserve virginity and for a male to seek such purity in the female. They cannot be middle-aged women or women with a child or two — but a girl at the peak of her virginal angst, when she is caught in the bloom of her body flowering within the “prison” of her soul. Foucault says in “The Body of the Condemned”: “The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body” (Discipline and Punish 30).
Female subjugation is the other face of female worship in India. The disempowered mother is a reflection of the so-called empowerment of motherhood we see in Mehboob’s Mother India (1957). To worship is to alienate because imaginary attributes — the most important being purity as opposed to pollution — take the place of real ones. The obsession with the “pure” mother in her ironically “virginal” form can be seen in all movements that claim uniqueness — linguistic and regional variations of Mother India — whether it is Telugu “thalli” (mother) or Telangana “thalli.” The asexual mother is a masculine invention because motherhood is not connected to the person but to the abstract untainted body. At the core of female subjugation in India is this untainted body of the “virgin mother,” which is colonial in its deepest sense, combining a feudal mindset with a corporate liberal framework. What happens in effect is that across class and caste, Indian women tend to be in an ideologically “inferior” position, and centuries of oppression keep resurging wearing new masks to perpetuate the base of a casteist and sexist social and political order.
The ideal woman is born out of this separation of the woman from her sexuality. The ideal woman doesn’t exist, and neither does the ideal Indian woman as an epitome of patience like Mother earth except in the male imagination. In her 2005 essay “Women Writers, Islam, and the Ghost of Zulaikha,” the Turkish woman novelist Elif Shafak refers to the dissociation of a woman from her sexuality. The same thing is reflected in women writers as well. As Shafak points out:
First, the woman writer systematically refrains from writing on sexuality until she is “old.” Only when she is old and safe, does she start to write unreservedly on these issues. Thus, we have numerous examples of women writers waiting until they are in their sixties, then publishing books unlike anything they have written before, almost pornographic.
Second, the woman writer does write on sexuality, but at the same time desexualizes herself. The less reserved and “seamy” her writing, the more reserved and “reputable” she attempts to become. Here the writer defeminizes and desexualizes herself. The openness of the text is counterbalanced with the “chastity” of the author. This particular model of defeminized women also perfectly fits neatly into the pattern of comrade-women in Turkey, which the Kemalist reformists have systematically encouraged.
Third, the woman writer chooses to speed up the flow of time because it is easier to be respected as an old woman in a patriarchal society than as a young woman. Thus, we end up with women in their thirties acting as if they were in their sixties. In the Middle East women age quickly, leaping from the category of “virgins” to “old women,” as if there is nothing in between. The quicker the jump, the more esteem and authority a woman writer earns in the eyes of the society.
The Indian woman on the Bollywood screen is isolated from her sexuality. Her sexuality is owned by an emotionally impotent male. This separation of the Indian woman from her sexuality or her body is the essence of a patriarchal society, where the nation-state is wedded to a civil society whose objective is to keep class relations intact. Thus we see Ramu Kaka, a popular character in most Hindi movies — the Indian version of Uncle Tom — a refined version of the eunuch from the Ottoman harem, except that in this case the former is mentally castrated. Ramu Kaka or Uncle Ramu is the stereotypical image of the asexual male servant — the loyal avuncular Ramu — who sees the women of the house of the master as his daughters or mothers or sisters and is happy to be serving in his role as a servant. In other words, the women are untouchable both physically and mentally. It would amount to incest not to mention absolute disloyalty to touch them.
In connection with the asexual male servant is another stereotype, which is that of the sexual innocence of children, especially if they’re girl children and women in the roles of mothers or sisters-in-law or daughters-in-law. This sterile, repressed atmosphere where everyone is holier than thou is common in Bollywood representation of women. In real life such categories are meaningless because they prove that the hardest thing for us to confront is the fact that children and women are sexual beings as much as they’re other things.
The thin line that separates the ideal from idealism is nowhere more evident than in romantic love. In some sense, both are extraordinary discourses that have a lot in common. Their extraordinariness comes from the fact that they’re outside the realm of the norm. Since the norm shares the features of the ideal, the ideal responds to the demands of the norm. The relationship between “consumerism” and “romanticism” essentially explains what makes the ideal the normal — in the sense that the “romantic couple” of the Hindi movie is the objectification of a relationship that has no basis in reality. Reality is modest in the same way that representation is not meant to be. Representation accentuates certain elements of reality. The representation of the woman in Hindi cinema accentuates elements that fall within the parameters of male desire. “Femininity becomes nothing more than a dissimulation of a fundamental masculinity” (A Feminine Cinematics: Luce Irigaray, Women & Film 82).
Karel Kosik, in Dialectics of the Concrete, talks about the relationship between “things and persons” in capitalist economies. The logic of the relationship between things and persons is further intensified in the case of women. There is a base objectification that serves as the foundation for every other kind of objectification. In capitalism, women serve as the base or the edifice on which every other objectification is raised — an illusion of bodies that keeps the reality of things alive.
In capitalist economies, things and persons become interchangeable. Things are personified and persons are reified. Things are invested with a will and consciousness, i.e., their movement is conscious and willful, and people turn into agents and executors of the movement of things. The will and consciousness of people are determined by the objective course of things: the movement of things employs the will and consciousness of people as its own medium. (116)
Once we acknowledge the reality of the object, we endow it with a “will and consciousness” and as happens in the case of computer graphics, the personhood can be given from the outside without it having to emerge from within. The lack of personhood as a creative function in the case of women is what shows mainstream Hindi cinema in a poor light. What we call “mainstream” or “popular” has to be understood as elitist and masculine representations of women; a personification of objects endowed with a female body and feminine characteristics is conversely to give the “real” woman an objective character. If what is popular is an elite understanding of popular, what is reality is what ideology that takes the place of the real is.
The profound insight that might actually be commonplace if you look at it straight is that gender is as important a parameter as class to understand inequality; that gender might actually be at the heart of the class war; that in the absence of gender oppression the class oppression could in fact disappear. In India, the woman knows oppression merely by the fact of being woman — in the Heideggerian sense of being-in-the-world. The suppression of the sexual, social, and moral rights of the woman at the heart of the cultural and political economy, which in practice can barely be dissociated from one another, constitutes the nation-state reflecting the so-called goals of a postcolonial society.
Female-centered movies such as Jab we met (2007) and Ugly aur Pagli (2008), in an attempt to market the “globalized” Indian woman, are in fact to a large extent a repackaging of the runaway brat-of-a-daughter that Nargis played in the 1956 movie Chori Chori, a remake of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934). The American dream that Capra — a Sicilian-born immigrant in the United States — defined for the audience of the 1930s and ’40s is now the global dream that America has successfully marketed in the past couple of decades. The Kareena Kapoor Jab we Met type of girl is another version of Nargis from Chori Chori pushed from 1956 into the year 2007. The backdrop to movies like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and Bride and Prejudice (2004) that show the Punjabi woman as liberated, frolicky and free to choose is a rate of female feticide so alarmingly high that it has caused a demographic crisis in the Northern states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Uttaranchal, Maharashtra, Chandigarh and Delhi.
In the essay “Algeria Unveiled,” Frantz Fanon observes that the Algerian woman is given an illusion of freedom while the nation is colonized by Europeans (Duara 44). The liberal European opens the door for the Algerian woman while at the same time suppressing her cultural and political space of resistance. The oppression of women by the Algerian male makes the prospect of Europeanization seem attractive. The European alternative for the Eastern woman is an illusion because it is built on the colonization of resources in the third world. Fanon captures the colonial or neocolonial dimension of globalization in the third world that turns women into commodities while ideologically claiming to liberate the very women trapped in the clutches of a male-dominated society:
The colonial administration invested great sums in this combat. After it had been posited that the woman constituted the pivot of Algerian society, all efforts were made to obtain control over her. The Algerian, it was assured, would not stir, would resist the task of cultural destruction undertaken by the occupier, would oppose assimilation, so long as his woman had not reversed the stream. In the colonialist program, it was the woman who was given the historic mission of shaking up the Algerian man. Converting the woman, winning her over to the foreign values, wrenching her free from her status, was at the same time achieving a real power over the man and attaining a practical, effective means of destructuring Algerian culture (Duara 45).
Hindi movies constitute the ideological base that props the globalization of markets serving the interests of powerful elites in the third world and their Western masters in the first world. The position that the woman occupies in Hindi cinema defines a pan-Indian sensibility where free market liberalism battles reactionary ultra-nationalist forces for the bodies of women or in effect for their labor value aestheticized through the institution of the family.
The Brothers De Facto
Love’s greatest deceit is that, replacing the real woman, it makes us toy with a doll that lives in our brain, the only woman whom we have always at hand and can ever really possess. And gradually, to our own sorrow, we force the real woman to resemble this factitious creation” — Proust 111
The ideal woman originates in a real situation called the family that is reinforced and in turn reinforces the romanticizing of the female body or femininity. The “doll in the brain” is the only “real” woman that patriarchy is willing to tolerate as embodying womanhood. There is no “woman” outside the woman in the masculine imaginary. The outside woman terrorizes notions of masculinity at the core. Therefore, the doll is meaningful because it removes that dreadful contradiction between being male and wanting to be a man. The importance of virginity as a sign of purity is a logical extension of the “doll in the brain” syndrome. Remove the dolls and there is no patriarchy. Even if in itself it means nothing, virginity is essential to retain the dollness of the doll. In his essay “The Taboo of Virginity” (1918), Freud says:
Few details of the sexual life of primitive peoples are so alien to our own feelings as their estimate of virginity, the state in a woman of being untouched. The high value which her suitor places on a woman’s virginity seems to us so firmly rooted, so much a matter of course, that we find ourselves almost at a loss if we have to give reasons for this opinion. The demand that a girl shall not bring to her marriage with a particular man any memory of sexual relations with another is, indeed, nothing other than a logical continuation of the right to exclusive possession of a woman, which forms the essence of monogamy, the extension of this monopoly to cover the past. (191)
The reason Freud forgets to add in this description is patriarchy, which justifies the “exclusive possession of a woman.” This line of thought is not pursued in the essay because it challenges what psychoanalysis and Freud stand for. As Irigaray notes: “Psychoanalysis needs to reconsider the very limits of its theoretical and practical field, needs to detour through an ‘interpretation’ of the cultural background and the economy, especially the political economy, that have marked it, without its knowledge” (TSWINO 66-67). In not being able to recognize the “political economy” that has marked psychoanalysis “without its knowledge,” Freud and psychoanalysis are guilty of embracing the fundamental premises that define patriarchal oppression of women. The languages of women within the patriarchal discourse fighting to articulate their beingness are completely ignored. The political economy that turns women into mental patients is as important as the fact of the illness.
Women in the movies of Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) tend to display an alternate aesthetic embodying rebellion and the language of protest. They’re quintessentially Japanese, and their rebellion against the world of men is because they are deprived of what is rightfully theirs in a culture they helped create with their bodies and their imagination. Their contribution as women is denied to them because they’re women, while at the same time they’re exploited for being women in a masculine social order that preys on female flesh. To live without human dignity they find impossible to accept and fight in every way possible to recover their selfhood.
Complacent, demeaning, and groveling for male attention — there is nothing in the Indian woman on the screen that makes one feel they belong to this cultural space as creators or inventors. Culture is a much broader term than tradition. While exclusive notions of tradition are constantly emphasized in a superficial sense that privileges the family, we never see the Indian woman “protest” except when her sense of belonging to a tradition is taken away from her. What she is “fighting” for is to be enslaved and subjugated within the “secure” confines of the home. A historical sense of possessing a creative self that comes from an understanding of one’s role in making a culture is conspicuous by its absence in the case of Bollywood representations of women.
Irigaray’s point that “Female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters” (23) is a defining statement for the woman on the male-dominated screen. Underlying the brotherhood of man that movies as sinisterly simple-minded as Three Idiots are out to portray is a phallic sense of oneness that identifies the “parameters” of “female sexuality.” The “idiots” are one — they bond before they know each other based on their maleness, a bonding that is imperative to an understanding of how sex as a biological category and sex as in sexual intercourse are “one” with reference to the body of the woman; the woman in the male fantasy is sexualized by virtue of being female. While on the one hand the body of the woman stands for the possibility of desire, on the other hand it reflects the absence of fulfillment. In a patriarchal society, the ideal woman is the castrated male. She thinks and feels like a man but has the body of a woman. Fulfillment to a male therefore must enter the realm of duties and obligations directed toward the preservation of property.
The reproduction of the male fantasy is in essence Hindi cinema at its musical best. As Irigaray notes:
Woman, in this [masculine] sexual imaginary, is only a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man’s fantasies. That she may find pleasure there in that role, by proxy, is possible, even certain. But such pleasure is above all a masochistic prostitution of her body to a desire that is not her own, and it leaves her in a familiar state of dependency upon man. Not knowing what she wants, ready for anything, even asking for more, so long as he will “take” her as his “object” when he seeks his own pleasure. Thus she will not say what she herself wants; moreover, she does not know, or no longer knows, what she wants. (TSWINO 25)
The masculine “sexual imaginary” has its prehistoric origins that Freud talks about in Totem and Taboo. In the war of the brothers who fought for primacy to overcome the father, women played the central role of being objects that each man wanted all for himself. This primal fantasy is reenacted in Hindi cinema each time the “hero” — a popular term for the protagonist — defies the father only in turn to become the father and partakes in the murder of the other brothers who want the woman for themselves. The preservation of the woman is the preservation of property or what is proper to a man. Homosexuality is the background to the fantasy at a point when the brothers are on their own plotting against the father. Freud puts it thus:
Though the brothers had banded together in order to overcome their father, they were all one another’s rivals in regard to the women. Each of them would have wished, like his father, to have all the women to himself. The new organization would have collapsed in a struggle of all against all, for none of them was of such overmastering strength as to be able to take on his father’s part with success. Thus the brothers had no alternative, if they were to live together, but — not, perhaps, until they had passed through many dangerous crises — to institute the law against incest, by which they all alike renounced the women whom they desired and who had been their chief motive for despatching their father. In this way they rescued the organization which had made them strong — and which may have been based on homosexual feelings and acts, originating perhaps during the period of their expulsion from the horde. (167)
The brothers might be vanquished, but brotherhood has to be sustained at all costs. The man will thus continue to be a man more than ever before. Perhaps manhood is the issue and not man. As Irigaray in Speculum of the Other Woman, a critical analysis of Freudian psychoanalysis and its understanding of the feminine, says:
Really successful femininity cannot lay claim to being ideal or confer an ideal upon itself. It lacks a mirror appropriate for doing so. The narcissistic ideal for a woman will have been and theoretically is still the man she desired to become. Narcissism and her pact with the ideal would derive from phallic domination. Which woman has the task of supporting. Whence the fact that she will choose the man she would like to have been. And this, essentially, would satisfy the man’s interests, for he would not have to step out of his gender, ideally. To woo, he would need only to correspond as closely as possible to the most perfect self-image, be as narcissistic as possible, an “absolute” model of narcissism. A woman would support that “model” with her “own” narcissistic project, and the model would thus have the advantage, and the excuse, of appeasing, satisfying, and, above all, healing, female narcissism. (105)
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