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“One is not born a Woman, But Becomes One” – In the Indian Context

“One is not born a Woman, But Becomes One”. Analyze the Statement in the Indian Context. (Best essay written on this question as part of Weekly Essay Challenge)

Amudhan (IAS aspirant)

The statement in question was made by the female existentialist philosopher Simone De Beauvoir in her book called the ‘Second Sex’. It alludes to the notion of women that is brought about by societal and Physiological conditioning. Hence Womanhood is something that is attained by a woman rather than something innate. Before we proceed however it is pertinent to difference between becomes ‘becomes’ (as used in the statement) and development. The latter is the manifestation of the being’s innate nature and growth in a quantitative manner whereas the former can involve a change in ‘Telos’ alien to oneself. A ‘woman’ in the above statement refers to society’s idealized version hence referred to as ‘societal women’.

Conditioning, both classical and operant, entails alteration in behavior and concomitant changes in one’s identity. A woman is conditioned by her physiology by virtue of her ability to bear children and by society by a combination of external and internal agents, such as her teacher or Father, in her milieu. She is also conditioned by societal expectation, rules and treatment by institutionally agencies in both favorable and unfavorable ways.

Physiological conditioning starts from a very early age rights from gifts including skirts that hinder free movement and the ability to climb trees, enjoy play. It is at this point a girl becomes aware of the differences between herself and boys. Upon the attainment of womanhood a ceremony is conducted to signal to her womanhood. This is not practiced in western nation and no undue significance is given to this particular event anymore and can be attributed to advancement in women empowerment abroad.

In India the woman has greater exposure to conditioning and its impact hence. She is told of the appetites of men and how she must behave in front of them. She is told to obey a combination of rules and has her movements severely restricted. Certain social classes ‘protect’ their women by not letting them have an education in public schools with boys. The environment in which the women operate undergoes changes after this event and she begins to be conditioned in a different manner. It is important for the reader to note the lack of agency for the female sex. Things are done to and for her while her passivity in the affair is a ‘Legitimate Expectation’ of society whereas men enjoy stability in the growth and are ‘developing’ as individuals without violent alteration to their Telos.

Social conditioning of women is a lot more apparent in India. It is accomplished by the conforming of women to their societal expectations, even ones alien to them. This can be clearly understood upon examination of the societal role of ‘Wife’. From a young age women are taught to see their social standing in relation to theirs husbands or fathers. Her duties to her husband are learnt by watching her mother or movies or any other external source which depict this relation. Progress for her is made through men in her life and to identify with their success. These idealized versions stand in direct contradiction to the small margin of women who escape these notions and find a path for themselves. They seldom find accepting partners treating them as individuals and constantly experience covert societal indignation for their failure to meet these idealized versions of Wife. Although we as a nation embrace liberal beliefs and promise equality under the constitution our ‘alief’ (habitual belief-like attitude) is still backward.

Why is it ‘right’ for men to expect women to cook and clean when they both earn the same amount of money? What about the subtle impediments faced by ambitious women in their pursuit by institutional actors. This is the result of women operating in a patriarchal structure. She pulled by the reward of meeting the expectations of society with honor and social standing, to fit and ‘become’ rather than ‘develop’. Any attempt at ‘development’ is met with systematic and persistent hardship and her struggles are not met with sympathies. It is seen as a struggle against her destiny of becoming a ‘Women’ as society intended her to be, to make her realize her rightful place. In India, a conservative society, strictly defined roles with both traditional and religious legitimacy are powerful and have tremendous impact.

The reader might wonder if similar ‘societal expectations’ are not placed on Men and thus argue that men ‘become’ as well. It is the extent of the conditioning they face and the level of control that men have over themselves in their milieu that invalidates the argument. Men have far greater ability to escape these confining factors. Men are economically independent and society is far more tolerant of their ambition. The role of men has so far eluded strict definition and is therefore dynamic. It is defined, if at all, in a negative manner e.g. Men don’t…… A women’s role however is defined in a positive manner such as “A women’s place is in her home” and any negative definitions extends as a logical derivative similar to the statement “Women don’t belong in politics since they belong at home”.

It does beg the question, why can she not stop ‘Becoming’ a societal woman? Virginia Woolf wrote a book called a ‘room of one’s own’ arguing for the need to find a space for ‘development’ without external conditioning. A plan to escape the conditioning effects of society and ‘develop’ as an individual however this will not be sufficient since the societal notion of a woman and their identity found does not fundamentally alter the patriarchal structure. Thus starting the cycle of conditioning afresh but this time she will be more resolute. Furthermore “A room of one’s own” is available is only available to affluent section with education and employment opportunities in India.

We need a more fundamental change. She needs to regain her agency. J.J. Rousseau noted in the ‘Origins of inequality’ a direct relation between dependence and inequality and that inequality cannot exist without dependence. If women were thoroughly independent economically and empowered politically and socially, and in sufficient numbers it may be possible for them to ‘develop’ rather than ‘become’. We can see this happen in India with the women’s reservation bill bringing about political empowerment, increased participation in the labor market gives women economic independence and a place outside the home for women slowly brings about societal changes.

For women to enjoy the agency that men enjoy and for the creation of a society where one’s anatomy is not the primary determinant of one’s role is a goal of our constitutional republic. Till then however “one is not born a women, but becomes one”