The birds and mice will hear you: On transactivism and the characteristics of totalitarian rule

As soon as I was old enough to understand, my mother warned me that I should be careful about what I was saying. “Remember, Yeonmi-ya,” she said gently, “even when you think you’re alone, the birds and mice can hear you whisper.”

Yeonmi Park, In Order to Live


“North Koreans,” writes Yeonmi Park, who escaped the country in 2007 –

have two stories running in their heads at all times, like trains on parallel tracks. One is what you are taught to believe; the other is what you see with your own eyes. It wasn’t until I escaped to South Korea and read a translation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that I found a word for this particular condition: doublethink. This is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time – and somehow not go crazy.

This “doublethink” is how you can shout slogans denouncing capitalism in the morning, then browse through the market in the afternoon to buy smuggled South Korean cosmetics… it is how you can recite the motto “Children Are King” in school, then walk home past the orphanage where children with bloated bellies stare at you with hungry eyes.

Whether in support of Christian, Muslim, communist or “free market” regimes, totalitarianism has some universal characteristics. For a start, it always relies on the suspension of disbelief: on romantic ideals that don’t stand to reason. Whether it is “honour”, God’s plan, patriotism or the American dream – some faith-based and sentimental ideal always props up patriarchs, making them allergic to critical reason and driven to stamp it out. Non-conformists and dissenters are dehumanised through stereotyping, interrogation, a climate of self-censorship, routine punishment and scapegoating. It’s this factphobic clash of romance and sadism that Orwell named “doublethink” in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Romanticism, doublethink, and the punishment of dissent are of course not the only hallmarks of totalitarian regimes. The glorification of violence is another, as well as the fetishisation of women, and medical experimentation that involves a kind of grotesque gynecology and conversion therapy for homosexuals. Fear and romanticism also combine to produce a manufactured “consent”. For instance, exorcists profited from women who considered themselves bewitched, in a climate of confession and indulgences, during the medieval witch burnings. Today, only 33% of girls in Somalia are reported to be supportive of the abolition of female genital mutilation under sharia law. This demonstrates the power of terror combined with romanticised concepts like “honour”.

It is a symptom of arrogance and white blindness that we in the so-called “developed” West have managed to condense all aspects of totalitarianism into one package – transactivism – while, for all the access to information in the world, failing to recognise the warning signs of histories repeating. We really do believe that we in white society are beyond the influence of “culture” that otherwise so affects people “over there”. Yet here we have an ideology based on romantic fundamentalism that glorifies violence, fetishises and brutalises women (with “TERF” functioning as the new “witch”); promotes censorship and medical experimentation, and loves a scapegoat – and liberals lobby to embed this ideology in law and policy.

It seems we have forgotten the past, and a good chunk of the world to boot.

Societies of two

We could perhaps afford some of this amnesia if we at least retained the sensitivity to patterns of power and control offered us by resources that feminists developed, whilst setting up safehouses and refuge centres during the second wave of women’s liberation in seventies. The power and control wheel (pictured above) is still a valuable distributed resource and it has much to say about recognising abuse not only in intimate relationships, but also as it is levelled against women on a collective scale. Today, anti-feminist backlash leverages many of the tactics clearly bullet-pointed on the power and control wheel. Transactivism – through which men dictate to women everything from what a female is and which of us should be allowed a voice, to how reproduction should be discussed, and how feminist gatherings and organisations should be run and conducted – is an important vehicle for anti-feminist backlash and controlling women.

Sharia law

Taking on the tyranny of the paternal household in her book Man’s Dominion, Sheila Jeffreys questions the cordoning off of a “private sphere” not proper for public discussion. She says that not allowing exploration of what takes place in the household, the building block of patriarchal society, only serves those who rule over this domain – men, fathers, husbands. It is a myth that this sphere is private, separate from society, and untouched by cultural norms. Audre Lorde made this same point in her critique of sadomasochism, which replicates the very relations of dominance and submission “even now grinding our earth and our human consciousness to dust”. Andrea Dworkin referred to heterosexual partnerships as “societies of two”, where much behaviour follows a script based on patriarchal norms.

In Man’s Dominion, Jeffreys describes the rise of religion and the backlash to feminism being waged by religious groups lobbying to secure the privacy of the domestic sphere – or in other words, man’s dominance of that sphere. Jeffreys suggests that sharia law is totalitarian precisely because of the male dominance of the household, which cannot be challenged, and that also relies on naturalised myths about masculinity and female subservience.

gay and lesbianIn her book The Hidden Face of Eve, Nawal El-Saadawi, one of the foremost feminist writers of the Arab world, discusses how the romanticised Muslim concept of “honour” is used to perpetuate myths that bolster male dominance. She describes how this leads to the simultaneous idealisation and brutalisation of girls and women. Under Muslim law, “honour” justifies man’s rule over the home, the covering up of women with headscarves, honour killings, acid attacks and grotesque gynecology: female genital mutilation. In Iran, it justifies the pathologising of homosexuality and conversion therapy forced on lesbian women who are told they need to change their gender.

Many Arab girls are raised on misogynist doublethink. They are

brought up in an atmosphere of sexual fear and kept in ignorance of their reproductive organs and the natural physiological functions carried out by different parts of the body. Girls are made to feel the difference between themselves and boys from early childhood. A brother can go out and play and jump around. But a girl must remain indoors, and, if her skirt rises just one centimetre… [it will] put her to shame.

…From a young age a girl is made to feel that her body is something impure, obscene…

Yet despite these rigid and orthodox teachings which deny sex in the life of a girl and aim at moulding her into an asexual being, a parallel and contradictory educational process is going on all the time which seeks to make her an instrument of sex and a mere body which should be adorned and made beautiful so as to attract men and arouse their desire.

Many aspects of transactivism echo sharia law. In fact, “identity” has become the white man’s “honour” under neoliberalism – romanticised, unchallengeable and sacred. Grotesque gynecology and an taboo on discussing female anatomy and connecting women’s oppression to sex – these characteristics of transactivism also echo sharia law. Supporting transactivism means, then, turning our backs on women living under Muslim laws.

“Forgive Me, Father”

The concept of honour in Islam is also tied to the glorification of violence through the image of the martyr. “Every night my father would pray to God,” writes Malala Yousafzai in her account of living under Taliban rule, I Am Malala – “O Allah, please make war between Muslims and infidels so I can die in your service and be a martyr.” Violence is similarly glorified in the Christian tradition – and in 1095, Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade as a “holy war”. The origins of romanticism and the romantic tradition in the West can be traced to this time of the Crusades, too. To the troubadours, “knight bachelors” who “prided themselves as greatly on their martial prowess and capabilities as they did on their music,” writes John Rowbotham.

God and Christianity then provided justification for the colonisation of the Americas – and by 1668, Spanish Jesuit missionaries arrived in the Northern Mariana islands. The Spanish Jesuits supposedly occupied the Marianas islands for the good of the indigenous Chamorro themselves – to “protect” them, as Zohl dé Ishtar writes, “from the increasing numbers of traders, gun-runners, beachcombers and others flooding into the region and to save the souls of “heathens”.” Yet within twenty-three years the Spanish had all but wiped out the resisting Chamorro.

dream last nightIn the era of the troubadour poets, romanticism, along with visions of the ideal woman – the mother Mary, and courtly ladies – were embedded in European culture. The witch hunts then began in Shakespeare’s time, and were carried out in the same way, with similar justifications as colonisation. Scholars like Max Dashu, Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin have described how women hunted as witches were often healers and midwives who also provided abortions and contraceptive care. In the 1500s, Cambridge professor William Perkins wrote that “it were a thousand times better for the land if all witches, but especially the blessing witch, might suffer death.” The witch hunts were carried out for God and the greater good of the people.

lizzie love and peace

The witch hunts were also fetishised: as Max Dashu writes, women’s “sexual parts were singled out for torture, and they were forced to parrot back the hunters’ sadistic fantasies of devil sex.” The “pear” was a tool of vaginal torture, in a context in which “Sexual repression had become so entrenched that the witch-hunters saw the natural anatomy of the vulva and vagina as deviant and therefore suspect.” This demonisation of women’s anatomy is echoed in El Saadawi’s accounts of sharia law – as well as in neoliberal gender individualism.

Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology discusses the substitution of women’s healing practices with patriarchal (what I call ‘grotesque’) gynecology in the centuries following the witch hunts. As Daly writes, “the massacre of the wise women / healers during the witchcraze was followed by the rise of man-midwives who eventually became dignified by the name “gynecologist.”” By the nineteenth century, gynecologists from Robert Battey to J. Marion Sims, and later Sigmund Freud to Havelock Ellis developed essentialist notions of female “frigidity”, whilst experimenting on women’s bodies. Battey is infamous for advocating hysterectomies to cure “hysteria”; Sims infamously preyed on African-American women in slavery for surgical experiments. This punishment, demonisation and pathologising all took place while women were romanticised in domestic scenes and Venus paintings in the galleries of Europe.

J Marion Sims

“Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer”

Two books are particularly instructive for looking at how the Nazi era arose in Germany in the early twentieth century: Robert Jay Lifton’s Nazi Doctors, and Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies. Lifton looks at the centrality of medical experimentation in the Nazi era, its jutifications, and how doctors were transformed into killers; Theweleit discusses the Freikorps, the German armies that preceded Nazi Germany, and their masculine glorification of violence and misogynist fetishisation of women. The Freikorps participated in the genocide of the Hereros in Namibia from 1904. This genocide involved concentration camps where prisoners were subjected to medical experimentation; hundreds of skulls were sent back to Germany for research to prop up notions of racial superiority.

White nurse Te PapaIn Theweleit’s book, as well as Kathleen Barry’s Unmaking War Remaking Men and Jock Phillips’ A Man’s Country: The Image of the Pakeha Male, military violence and its glorification is distinctly gendered. The writings and testimony of soldiers bear this out, with passages about women being especially telling and easily characterised. Theweleit notes three typical archetypes: soldiers tended to idealise the absent wife (“absent” being the operative word); the chaste, white nurse, and the “red woman”, or femme fatale, faced in combat. These archetypes concur with Phillips’ history of New Zealand.

By the 1930s, the Nazis promoted a feminine ideal of Kinder, Kirche, Kuche (children, church and kitchen) for German women. As Robin Morgan writes in Demon Lover, this ideal meant Nazi agitatation against employed women, contraception and abortion, and homosexuality. Feminist groups and publications were closed down, as were contraception clinics, and women were barred from political office. In 1934, abortion was criminalised, punishable by hard labour or the death penalty.

The program to enforce early social acceptance of the Nazi regime was aggressive. According to Lifton, in the 1930s,

[M]ilitant behaviour from the National Socialist Student League, which organised early, soon came to dominate or replace traditional student groups and formed an arrogant subculture with intense camaraderie and more than a tinge of violence. Its members broke up lectures that displeased them, and understood their task as opposing all teaching that was not rooted in National Socialist doctrine.

Mya Byrne

In this era, the fetishisation of womanhood combined with perverse medical experimentation started to take the distinct form of transgenderism. In his published memoirs, Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal recalls how he

met another boy whom the scientists of Auschwitz, after several operations, had… turned into a woman. He was then thirteen years old. After the war, a complicated operation was performed on him in a West German clinic. The doctors restored the man’s physical masculinity, but they couldn’t give back his emotional equilibrium.

Bild Lilli.jpgIn the later twentieth century, the German ideal of womanhood evolved into a doll called Bild Lili, an initial bachelor gag that American toy manufacturer Mattel later adapted into a Barbie doll distributed to girls. At the same time, the sex “reassignment” techniques developed in Nazi Germany were taken to the United States and promoted through gender clinics. As Janice Raymond writes in The Transsexual Empire:

The gender identity clinics where would-be transsexuals are counselled and evaluated – along with the medical establishment foster and reinforce stereotypical behaviour. It is a primary requirement of these centres, in counselling persons who desire to be transsexed, that they “pass” as “true women” in order to qualify for treatment and eventually surgery. “Passing” requirements evaluate everything from feminine dress and feminine body language to feminine positions in intercourse… the influence of these clinics and clinicians in reinforcing sex-role stereotypes is significant.

So-called socialism

By 1945, the United States was engaged in an arms race with the Soviet Union – also under totalitarian rule. In Woman and Russia, Ekaterina Alexandrova describes how militarism and population politics lead to a pronounced idealisation of motherhood in Russia, where the “Soviet authorities extol procreation and maternity, and emphasise their respect for mothers in every way.” A fervent desire for marriage, too, was “actively inculcated in society by the authorities.”

Conformity was enforced through propaganda, surveillance, encouragement of self-censorship, and punishment. “Most often the control of “the public”,” says Alexandrova, “is exercised through examinations of bad or antisocial behaviour at trade union or Komsomol (Young Communist League) meetings, for example… such meetings were extremely unpleasant procedures and everyone feared being the object of one.” Yeonmi Park, writing of her escape from North Korea, recalls:

On Saturdays, we would all meet for propaganda and self-criticism sessions. These were organised around student and work units, with students reporting to their classrooms and workers to their offices. We began by writing out quotations… Then it was time to stand up in front of the group to criticize yourself. At a typical session I might begin, “This week, I was too spoiled and not thankful enough for my benevolent Dear Leader’s eternal and unconditional love.” I would add that I had not worked diligently enough to fulfill the mission that the party ordered us to do, or did not study hard enough, or did not love my comrades enough…

After we had finished our public confessions, it was time to criticize others. I would always jump up and volunteer… When I was finished, my victim would have to thank me and assure everyone that he or she would correct the behaviour. Eventually it was my turn to be criticized.

Inevitably, under these regimes, women are punished: through poverty, censorship and interrogation, persecution and perverse gynecology. One primary reason women were sent to the gulag in Russia was for avoiding medical check-ups. While motherhood was almost financially impossible in a country rife with domestic violence and on sparse state support, contraception was largely withheld from women and abortion legal but punishing. In her essay The Other Side of the Coin, Natasha Maltseva described the abortion clinics as “slaughterhouses” and childbirth in hospital as nightmarish.

In light of these experiences common to women, Tatyana Mamonova began publishing the periodical Women and Russia in the 1970s, in which some of the essays mentioned above were published. As a result, she was interrogated by the KGB: even making Xerox copies was forbidden, since the distribution of unofficial writing was forbidden. Several Women and Russia editors were arrested and exiled. In 1980, Mamonova was piled onto a jet hired by the KGB with her husband, son and two other feminists against their will. No-platforming in action.

The “free market”

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, McCarthyism in the United States meant the hunting down of “commies” working for the U.S. government through holding interrogations and inciting a climate of suspicion. At the same time, the U.S. continues to flex its military muscle, including in the Pacific, where the Marshall islands were taken over as testing sites.

Between 1946 until 1958, over one hundred nuclear devices were tested on Bikini and Enewetak atolls. Here the overlap of fanatic, technological violence, medical experimentation and grotesque gynecology is clearly seen. As dé Ishtar notes in Daughters of the Pacific, when the Rongelap people were returned to their contaminated atoll in 1957, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission stated that “the habitation of these people on the islands will afford most valuable ecological data on human beings.” Darlene Keju-Johnson told dé Ishtar about the epidemic of cancer in Rongelap since the testing, and its impact on women.

The women have cancer in their private places. Children are being deformed. I saw a child from Rongelap. Its feet were like clubs… Now we have this problem, what we call “jellyfish babies”. These babies are born like jellyfish. They have no eyes. They have no heads. They do not shape like human beings at all. But they are being born on the labour table… And they breathe… They do not allow the mother to see this kind of baby because she will go crazy.

These same women on Rongelap were subjected to other, more direct forms of grotesque gynecology. “I have had an injection [depo provera] but it made me really sick,” Renam Anjain told dé Ishtar. “Another woman has had an injection too and when she wanted to have a baby she couldn’t.” Women in Honduras testified to the same gynecological experimentation in the 1980s, while Honduras was under the control of the U.S. military-backed United Fruit Company. “I don’t like my daughters using that birth control, because of all the problems it causes,” wrote Elvia Alvarado in Don’t Be Afraid Gringo. “Those pills do a lot of harm to women here. Maybe they don’t affect the gringas so much… But… Honduran women, many of them get sick.”

The worst thing we get is cancer. Here in my village six women died recently from vaginal cancer. Before we never had that kind of sickness… But now lots of my friends are dying from it. Some were using pills, others were using IUDs. My sister’s in the hospital right now dying of cancer in the uterus.

Of course, this experimentation still carries on – notably in West Papua – as the West continues to promote the fetishised image of a smiling, Pacific island woman with swinging hips, long oiled hair, grass skirt and coconut bra. This romantic image promotes and glosses over the brutalities of colonisation and sex tourism destroying the lives of Pacific women.


Medical experimentation also carries on through the patriarchal paradigm of transgenderism, a continuation of Nazi medicine. In New Zealand, the indigenous concept of takatāpui and explicit marketing of coloured breast binders by RainbowYouth encourage indigenous people, in particular, gay, lesbian and gender non-conforming youth, into mutilation, onto hormone treatment and the surgeon’s table, and under the knife. Transactivists use this concept of takatāpui to lobby for increased state sanctioning of this grotesque gynecology, and do so by employing typical totalitarian tactics.

Transactivists rely on essentialist and romantic ideals about femininity and womanhood as identity, as image, as ideal, as costume – valorising “heros” like Laverne Cox, Bruce Jenner and Janet Mock in the name of “feminism”. The doublethink sees women who discuss female anatomy and its relationship to the oppression of women demonised through the label “TERF” – today’s “witch”. This pressure and silencing has affected many reproductive rights, family planning and midwives’ associations throughout the West – midwives have been ousted from the Midwives Alliance of North America, Planned Parenthood refers to women as “menstruators” and Abortion Law Reform New Zealand regularly refers to “pregnant people” rather than women.

Many women have succumbed to the pressure; many women are resisting at great cost to themselves. Some stay silent in the face of (often pornified) threats, violence, and militant posturing. Then there are those who watch quietly on, walking a tightrope carefully – not wanting to commit a thoughtcrime, lest the birds and mice might hear them.

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12 thoughts on “The birds and mice will hear you: On transactivism and the characteristics of totalitarian rule”

  1. Thank you so much for putting it all out there for the world to see. It’s hard to deny it once you string it all together like that.

  2. Pingback: The birds and mice will hear you: On transactivism and the characteristics of totalitarian rule | Madam Nomad

  3. Pingback: REBLOG: The birds and mice will hear you: On transactivism and the characteristics of totalitarian rule — writing by renee

  4. The witch hunts were a repressive state apparatus which bears more resemblance to mass incarceration – not the supposed “persecution” of TERFs, who are defined by their hatred and exclusion. Silvia Federici in her spectacular historical materialist analysis of the witch hunts, Caliban and the Witch, explores the social, political, and economic context in which the witch hunts occurred as part of an era of primitive accumulation – creating the conditions for capitalism.

    It was also an era in which homophobia was rampant. The slur “faggot” comes from the pyre in which people were burned. Even men were not safe, especially if they were socially perceived as sexually deviant. And trans women were not immune from the misogyny of the witch hunts. They were targets.

    How is it so hard for you to grasp that maybe different women experience misogyny in different ways? Women are interpellated as women socially. Attacks on reproductive freedom, lack of access to abortion and birth control and treatment for endometriosis are a feminist issue, but so is access to hormone treatment, or gender affirmation surgery, or the right to not be raped in a men’s prison because of what your birth certificate says. Cisgender and transgender women experience misogyny in different, sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory ways but it’s still misogyny.

    Just as women of the bourgeoisie, being susceptible to condescending remarks about their capacity for leadership is misogyny, so too is the criminalisation of benefit fraud, or the institutionalising of mentally ill women (trans women being some of the most vulnerable to the conversation therapy you parrot on about, and I’m a lesbian Renee, and you’re not, so stop speaking about homophobia when you don’t live it and clearly have no idea what you’re talking about). All of these are issues that effect women in different ways and some issues are more severe than others. I’m less sympathetic to female CEOs wanting equal pay, than I am to the woman who was jailed for benefit fraud or the trans woman being raped in a men’s prison. But the whole point of intersectionality is that different women experience misogyny in different ways.

    1. 1) The statement “TERFs, who are defined by their hatred and exclusion” actually proves my point.
      2) You have not said anything about the witch hunts here that negate what I have said about them being a systematic attack on women, but anyone who would want to deny that is a misogynist anyway, and certainly not any kind of “intersectionalist”. And let’s be clear: you are not an “intersectional feminist”. Advocating for males in female prisons makes you a men’s rights activist, pure and simple. And forget trying to claim there is any material analysis underlying that, because there is not.
      3) Yes, the witch hunts were homophobic. So is gender individualism, which medicalises gender non-conformity and especially…

    2. Only XX adult human females experience misogyny because XY adult human males are not female. I
      t’s about the BODY not the obsequious porn-influenced behavior that females are forced to adopt in order to survive as prey under male supremacy. You can say men are women a billion billion times but it will never be true and thus your entire argument serves as proof of what the author of this article is stating.

  5. Thank you for this piece, it’s so worrying how women themselves are being left out the debate and any questions or concerns leave you branded as a bigot.

    Currently, there is a bill altering the Birth, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Act to allow self-identification of sex with supporting medical evidence. A person will be able to change what is a fact about themselves and a fundamental identity document if this passes. They are taking submissions until 2 March and I am concerned that this change will have detrimental effects on women and the ability to maintain sex segregated spaces like changing rooms or refuges. There is no provisions in this to prevent improper use such as paedophiles using it to morph their identity. I haven’t seen much or any real public discussion on this, but the Green party is going out to encourage submissions. Over in the UK they are definitely getting some pushback on this and it seems women may actually be getting some traction on getting heard on issues such as males taking positions meant for women and the loss of sex segregated spaces.

    It is pretty simple to make a submission to the select commitee, it doesn’t need to be lengthy. The relevant clauses are 67-72 and the provisions of bill can be read once you click through to the relevant committee to assess it.

  6. What an excellent piece of writing. Thank you so much for this. Keep on fighting the fight. We are with you.

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