Self-expression or Provocation?

By Julia Rosalyn


It almost seems as though society synonymizes self-expression with ease. The entire construct is that your life may ameliorate as soon as you express yourself and stay true to your own essence. However, society fails to consider those who are unable to do so and are silenced by accusations of provocation.

For many years, women have only been accepted in society provided that they expressed themselves according to the societal expectations of how women should act. And these obligated characteristics have moulded their entire existence; femininity, submissiveness, and vessels that should bend over backwards to satisfy a man’s whims. Rebel against these norms and you are instantaneously accused of provoking others by defying the boundaries that have been set for you.

Your demise is predestined the moment you try and claw out of the cage you were born to perform in.

History of Suppressing Women’s Self-expression

Scold’s Bridle


By taking away a person’s right to speak, you are degrading them to the level of an animal, to become a vessel of emptiness, devoid of opinions and thoughts. In the 16th and 17th centuries, women were regressed to just that; public humiliation and torture. 

Originating from Scotland, the Scold’s Bridle was a corporal punishment aimed at reprimanding women who committed the crime of gossiping or spreading slander, especially regarding their husbands. Suppressed and encased by an iron bridle, women were unable to express themselves and their integrity was tarnished by the inhumanity that they would be persecuted to. These iron bridle’s, also known as the Scold’s Bridle, was a muzzle made from iron with a framework that would envelop and encase a woman’s head. Certain variations of this invention would include a bridle bit that had protruding spikes placed within a woman’s mouth to impede her from talking entirely, otherwise these spikes would puncture her tongue and she would be silenced forever. 

To add on to the humiliation and cruelty, a leash would then be attached to this mask by her husband and she would be paraded around the town, as though being brandished as a lowly animal, similarly to the way one would tame a wild horse. The townspeople would also be encouraged to abuse her as a way for her to atone for her “crimes”. 

However, this was not a justifiable way of a woman paying for her crimes, but rather it was a means of silencing women who would express themselves too much in public until they would be deemed as “provoking” society’s order. These outbursts of self-expression could merely be opinions that women today would not hesitate to speak out about such as political opinions and advocating for change. Even women who tried speaking about the abuse they suffered by the hands of their husband would be subjected to this punishment. This, in turn, would suppress women’s capabilities to riot and subjected them to a lower role in society as they would not be allowed to be seen or heard as prominent public figures. The only lesson that they could take from such punishment was that women should be silent in public lest their words be deemed as an act of defiance. 

But how did such brutality come to pass? It must be noted that this corporal punishment was mainly practiced in Scotland, England, Wales and even spread to Germany. Majority of these countries’ civilians were Christian followers. During the Medieval times, the main belief of Christians was that the only way one could truly atone for their sins and revert back to innocence was by punishing one’s body physically so that they could comprehend the severity of their crimes against the Church as gossip was considered the Devil’s tool. The Scold’s Bridle was also used for women who were accused of witchcraft and who would be later executed. However, most of the executed women were falsely accused of witchcraft and were merely women who practiced self-expression. 

French Enlightenment Salons


The Age of Enlightenment, a product of the 18th century’s veneration of intellectuality, saw the emergence of prominent scholars in various fields centered around academia. Frequent social gatherings called cafés and cercles were held where political, religious and philosophical discussions were interchanged. However, this learned society was dominated by men who wholly repudiated women’s involvement. This led to women initiating their own parallel version of these gatherings called salons. Salons was the sole place where women were able to express themselves without heeding society’s perceptions of their self worth; where they were able to express their opinions and thoughts concerning intellectual discussions that they were left out of by men. Some of these salons not only became a safe place for women to speak out, but  was also a birthplace of political and revolutionary ideas whereby social hierarchy was deemed of less importance as people from different classes were able to exchange ideas. All seemed well for these female intelligentsia… until disaster struck.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a well-known philosopher of that time destroyed the platform that women had spent years building by publicly proclaiming that women were unfit for such discussions and their involvement in politics would only destroy the constitution. His words did not fall on deaf ears as he gained more supporters. Soon, women were urged to halt their salons entirely and their self-expression was infringed upon yet again.

With the dawn of the French Revolution, these salons managed to reemerge as a way of satisfying women’s educational needs. However, women were still not taken seriously in the male dominated political scene and so women had only the salons to express themselves.

These salons played a significant role in ensuring that women were able to express themselves freely without being patronized as they were able to share their opinions in an atmosphere that perceived them as serious scholars instead of inferior individuals.

Ultimately, these events are only a scarce glimpse into the lives of women who have had to endure their voices being silenced. With the rise of women publicly condemning the injustice they have faced and striving towards pursuing their ambitions, it is clear that the historical women have successfully paved a path for change throughout history. There is now hope for a future where all women around the world will not be told that their self-expression is a provocation. 

I believe that the only true way to repay these brave women for what they have done is to express ourselves to the fullest, and listen to all who wish to speak lest their voices relent to silence.

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