Lessons from Cleopatra


Cleopatra from Shakespeare's tragedy Anthony and Cleopatra can be rightfully considered the paragon of female power, agency, and self-ownership. Her leadership skills, along with a complex and unapologetic character, surpass Elizabeth Taylor’s interpretation (sorry, Lizzie!), rendering the Egyptian queen a mythical and ethereal female persona. But maybe the most striking element of Shakespeare’s creation rests not on the play’s fictionality, but on the Queen’s very much real defiance of colonial dynamics: a feat that has been historically repeated by women in the so-called “Third World” — although the latter’s audience has been considerably less receptive. While the irresistible passion of Antony and Cleopatra continues to fuel romantic expectations, there is an underlying dichotomy to it that is particularly indicative of the relationship between women and imperialism. And do not be mistaken: Rome has fallen, the triple pillar of the world has long been transformed into a strumpet’s fool. But women of former colonies still struggle against foreign domination, especially when it comes to solidifying their own voices in the international arena of feminist discourses.

person holding an open book in front of their face Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

From the Roman perspective, Egypt is equated to Cleopatra and Cleopatra is equated to Egypt. And there is nothing diplomatic about that, nor is it an appreciation of the Queen’s patriotism. Rather, it is the manifestation of a paternalistic approach that perceives a foreign land and a female ruler as equal objects of imperial expansion. It is not by chance that, in a fit of pique, Antony asks Cleopatra: “O, whither hast thou led me, Egypt?” For him, just like her land, Cleopatra is exotically unruly; she, too, must be colonized. In her book Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism, Ania Loomba argues that “for the Romans, an identification between Cleopatra and Egypt was strategically necessary in order to highlight an absolute division between Rome and Egypt” (Loomba, 2002). Most importantly, it is “the opposition between a masculine Rome and a femine ‘East’” (Loomba, 2002) which inflames the drive for domination, based on a gender hierarchy common to imperial discourses; as remarked by Loomba, “imperial conquest is routinely demonstrated through the sexual possession of conquered women” (Loomba, 2002). And, arguably, it is often perpetuated through the transhistorical maintenance of  colonial structures. 

In Feminism Without Borders, Chandra Talpade Mohanty presents an interesting overview of the challenges faced by feminists of the so-called “Third World.” These are women from Latin America, the Caribbean, sub-Saharan and South Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania, as well as members of black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous minority groups in Europe and North America (Mohanty, 2003). Their voices have not been merely silenced throughout history; they have been appropriated by a predominantly Western intellectual production that rests on stereotypes and generalizations to create a façade of unity. Indeed, the problem of what Mohanty calls “the Third World woman” has to be addressed by international and domestic political agendas (Mohanty, 2003). But the one-size-fits-all model overwhelmingly produced by North American and European feminists can be a hindrance to an effective inclusion; by defining the “Third World Woman” in terms of “underdevelopment, oppressive traditions, high illiteracy, rural and urban poverty, religious fanaticism, and overpopulation”, it also strengthens neocolonial structures (Mohanty, 2003). The West, the purveyor of masculine virility and imperial drive, maintains its hegemony over the female and therefore fragile new world. Indeed, women in former colonies can face analogous systems of oppression based on familial, religious, educational, and development structures; however, understanding their conditions through a homogenous model is just as perilous as the total disregard for their concerns. Women of former colonies are affected by different structures and do not compose a group that is easily generalized. Mohanty highlights the fact that Muslim women in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Egypt all wear a kind of veil for various reasons. This, in turn, has been vastly perceived by Western feminist discourse as unquestionable proof that “sexual control of women is a universal fact in those countries” (Mohanty, 2003) — a descriptive and gross generalization that prevents the development of accurate and politically relevant discourses. Just like Cleopatra fascinated Antony by her exoticism and foreign aesthetics, the reality of the “Third World woman” has been fictionalized by Western intellectual production. In both cases, the result has been actual (or discursive) colonization and appropriation. But, like the Egyptian queen herself, it is time for us — women beyond the imagined Western borders — to stand up and make our own voices heard.

Third World women not only can, but need to represent themselves if they are to become key players in international and local developments, and to claim their rights. And do not get me wrong — the challenge is not to develop a feminist intellectual culture able to compete against the broader Western discourse; it is merely to assert a necessary position, and to fill the void created by the homogenous, easily generalized, and universal model of understanding women of developing countries and minority groups. Cleopatra’s process of resistance against incorporation by Rome rests on her refusal to leave the shores of her native land and her fight for the maintenance of her power within it. It is through her fundamentally “Egyptian self”, which rejects assimilation by a foreign entity, that Cleopatra breaks away from the imperial dynamic imposed by Rome (Loomba, 2002). The dichotomy forged by the relationship of Antony (the Roman soldier) and Cleopatra (the foreign woman) is dismantled by the Queen’s commitment to her inherent identity. As a woman, she claims her power, her race, her land, halting the colonial cycle and challenging the Western hegemony.

It is time to politely thank those who have claimed to represent us, but to request our seat at the table of intellectual feminist production. It is time to engage in dialogue at the domestic and international levels, to raise our own hands, to have our own voice, and to push the envelope as far as we can. Only by acknowledging the nuances of our individualism and the complexities of our identities, can we truly address common sources of oppression and domination. It is by speaking truth to power that power itself is acquired by those who have been historically oppressed. We cannot all be Egyptian queens. But we must solidify our agency, and have courage to stand up for it. Let that be the “Third World” woman’s true immortal longing, and our agenda as autonomous, complex, and diverse political actors.

group of diverse people holding hands Photo by Wylly Suhendra from Unsplash Information obtained from:

Loomba, A. (2002). Shakespeare, race, and colonialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mohanty, C. T. (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. London: Duke University Press.

Shakespeare, W. (2009). Antony and Cleopatra. Ney York, NY: Modern Library.