Let’s play a game. First, read the following words: “bluestocking”, “hysteria”, “fragile”, “frigid”, “vulnerable”, “bitchy”. What do all of these words have in common? Bingo. They all exclusively relate to men describing women. All right, I’ll give you that we use “fragile” to describe a male’s ego from time to time. Come now, we can take one sexist joke to start us off on the daunting subject of feminism, right?
If you were a European woman in the late 18th century and happened to be a thinking person, someone who asked questions and observed and articulated human existence for what it was, then you’d be referred to (with much disdain) as a bluestocking. And if all patriarchs had to identify an epic version of a bluestocking, then Simone De Beauvoir would top their list.
Well-known in academic and feminist circles, De Beauvoir was a French existential philosopher and gender critic par excellence. She also had an open relationship with the great love of her life, the well-known man John Paul Sartre. Among her many writings, the bible of all gender studies is The Second Sex, a book that deconstructs the reality of gender architecture. And you may be surprised, because she twists the normal understanding of feminism.
Let’s talk of equality
Stripped to its bare bones, feminism asks for equality, equal access to the world, equal opportunities and equal pay. The reason? We’re equal too, right?
And that’s great, except the nuances are all lost on us today. Evidently rape, assault, molestation, and character assault are all just a part and parcel of being a woman today in the world in general, and in India in particular.
Bangalore is currently reeling after the fiercely liberal, beer-guzzling city had a bunch of goons assault, molest, and grope groups of women in the middle of the city on New Year’s Eve. If that wasn’t enough, video footage of two men on a scooter violently assaulting a young woman walking home had the public fumbling for words.
The Karnataka home minister has shrugged his shoulders. He declared that “such things happen” and then promptly blamed “westernization” for the incident. It’s 2017 – are we still going to pretend that no sari-clad or burqa-wearing woman has ever been sexually assaulted? Are we going to go straight ahead and be one-dimensional dimwits who see sexual assault solely as a response to women not knowing their place?
This is where De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex comes into play. She points out that the experience of being a woman is not equal or the same, as normative feminism indicates.
A person is not born a woman but becomes one. And we become one in relation to man. In fact, De Beauvoir argues that it’s the primary way a woman is discovered.
“To discover woman, we will not reject certain contributions of biology, psychoanalysis, or historical materialism, but we will consider that the body, sexual life and technology exist concretely for man only insofar as he grasps them from the overall perspective of his existence.”
Instead of knotting this idea up in academic denseness, it might be more fruitful to add cultural context to this.
In India, men define women
A person born in India becomes an Indian woman based on the Indian man. Who decides this? Popular culture, of course. It is in the everyday that we find these patterns. The woman who needs to stay at home to stay safe, the woman who needs to look a certain way to bag a man, the woman who needs to get married at a certain time and then produce a child. We’ll get a little more flexible in the cities, of course, we’ll account for western dressing, for some women drinking, smoking, chatting up with men. As long as the power lies with the men, and the women are not too out of line, everything will be just alright.
This is why De Beauvoir classifies the experience of our gender binary to as object and subject. The objects being women. We are to be described, delegated, and used to cater to the whims and fancies of the reigning patriarchy culture. Precisely why, in addition to biological differences, woman and men have vastly different experiences (and the same could be said, for those who don’t identify with one gender or are transgender). We see the world differently because of the experiences we live as objects in the social paradigm.
Men experience the world with an equally profound difference as the subject.
This is dystopia, for they are unwillingly thrown into this paradigm by birth. This explains why many men (#notallmen, anyone?) get upset, and think the feminazis are hiding under their beds, waiting to pounce.
The truth is that this subject-object world hurts all of us as humans, and to erode it we must first stop being objects, and men must stop being subjects. It’s confusing because of the setup of expectations.
Popular Indian culture regards the ideal young woman as a virgin. Perhaps the essence of this imposition comes from the need to be assured that masculinity and its ability to arouse the female stays protected. Thus, a man can always verify that he is indeed virile, without any competition from women.
Historically this hasn’t always been the case. The Second Sex describes Marco Polo’s commentary on the Tibetans:
“Marco Polo asserted that for the Tibetans ‘none of them wanted to take a virgin girl as a wife’ a rational explanation has sometimes been given for this refusal: man does not want a wife who has not yet aroused masculine desires.”
The body as the perceived asset
No matter which way we flip the coin, though, the story is the same. A woman’s most essential value lies in her body, her sexuality, and her ability to arouse a man. Through the construction of patriarchy, whether she is supposed to be a virgin or not, her life is dictated by the belief system of a man in any given cultural time period.
Even though The Second Sex was published in 1949, De Beauvoir unwraps an essential contemporary truth. One that lies behind the need to keep women at a distance while simultaneously coveting a certain kind of dominance over her body.
“In all civilisations and still today, she inspires horror in man: the horror of his own carnal contingence that he projects on her.”
The answer does not lie in castrating offenders, or beating assaulters on the head with a rod. Although I have imagined it. I too, have had gory daydreams of beating the living day lights out of an assaulter. But it is not the solution.
The solution may lie instead in exchanging lenses. Seeing the world from each other’s point of view: the traps, shortcomings, and power that the ideal Indian man consciously or unconsciously wields. We must loiter on the roads, and ask, that in addition to the equality to walk our streets, we also exchange stories of being.
No matter what equality we have, a woman wearing a miniskirt or modest sari on the road will experience the architecture of the place very differently from a man. And it’s here we must come, to the streets, the public space, to collectively pass on our stories. Our stories of privilege, our stories of vulnerability.
Tell me how it is to walk freely on a street at 9 pm, knowing your chances of being groped by strangers is negligible. Tell me how you chose your career over a child, or how you chose both. Tell me how you spoke up for another woman that one time at work, and tell me when you told your friend on WhatsApp that the sexist joke forward wasn’t even funny and lacked wit of any kind. Tell me how you wrote to our political leaders, asking them to set the record straight.
And when it comes to us women caught in the trap of gender, it’s time to consider De Beauvoir’s most profound social inquiry:
“It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex. The real question is not why she should reject them: the problem is rather to understand why she accepts them.”