‘One male or female is never completed

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‘One is not born, but becomes woman.’-Simone de Beauvoir, The Second SexFeminists have long argued that there is no necessary co-relation between the biology and ideas of masculinity and femininity. Rather, it is the differential socialisation of boys and girls which contributes to the societal norms. That is, from childhood, boys and girls are trained in gender-specific forms of behaviour, play, dress and so on that is deemed appropriate in that particular culture. This training may or may not be subtle but is a continuous process. When necessary, it can also involve punishments to bring about conformity. We must not understand this gender performativity as something superficial, (that is, being a ‘mere’ performance’ as opposed to ‘reality’). Butler’s argument is that bodies are ‘forcibly materialized over time’ by the reiterative, repeated practices of gender performance (Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’, 1993).What Butler draws attention to is the fact that the project of becoming male or female is never completed – it is a ‘performance’ that must be repeated every moment of our lives until we die. For example, even a fifty year-old, brawny moustachioed father cannot say – okay, since it must be very well established by now that I am a man; tomorrow I can wear a sari to work.  At no point in our lives can we be confident that our gender identity is secure; we can never let up on this performance.Feminists argue that sex-specific qualities like bravery and confidence as ‘masculine’ and sensitivity and shyness as ‘feminine’, and the value that society attributes to them, are produced by a range of institutions and pre-conceived systems of beliefs. At the same time, it is ensured that men and women who do not conform to these characteristics are continuously disciplined into the appropriate behaviour.In addition, patriarchal societies generally value ‘masculine’ characteristics highly than ‘feminine’ ones. For instance, a man who expresses sorrow publicly by crying could get to hear something like, ‘auraton jaise ro rahe ho?’ (Why are you crying like a woman?) And who does not remember that stirring line of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan- ‘Khoob ladi mardani, woh to Jhansi wali rani thi.’ (Like a man did she fight/Bravely she fought, the Rani of Jhansi) What does this line even mean? Even when it is a woman who has shown bravery, it seems that it still wasn’t understood as capable of being a ‘feminine’ quality. When I see it, patriarchal norms are capable of rendering the woman as the scapegoat, no matter what the situation is. It is all a matter of how ideas and values indoctrinate our daily existence through ideology operating in the media, language, etc. This would be better illustrated by an example. Menstruation, as all we know is certainly one feature inescapably associated with the female body. But the ways in which it acts as a disability and taboo have to do more with social and cultural myths than natural constraints. Menstruating women are deemed “impure” and “unclean”, not allowed entering temples and the kitchen in some orthodox or Brahmin Hindu and Jain households while Hindus in Nepal tend to isolate and restrict girls to menstrual huts, probably in an attempt to be kept out of sight. PMS is rendered a joke, and a woman’s anger is reduced to “that time of the month” as if her anger could not have an actual objective basis.The overwhelming majority of women in India make do with extremely awkward and inescapably unhygienic ways of dealing with their periods. State subsidy for sanitary napkins should be routine, because they are unaffordable for most women, and given that the Indian state still does subsidize commodities from diesel to condoms. This in the light of the strange situation Indian Feminists encountered a 12% GST rate on sanitary napkins while sindoor became tax-free.The fact remains that something that affects half the population is simply absent in public consciousness. Clean and plentiful public toilets and inexpensive and easily accessible sanitary napkins would make monthly periods for most women simply routine. But because the public realm is structured around the assumption of the able male body (and in India, one that can use any public space to urinate or defecate), this seriously compromises normal (let alone efficient) functioning for women outside the home. The Indian market in sanitary napkins is controlled by the multinational company Procter & Gamble whose brand is called Whisper, a perfect metaphor for how your period should be spoken of — if you must mention it at all.I remember as a child I noticed shopkeepers using black polythene bags whenever my mom used to buy a packet of sanitary pads as opposed to the white or transparent plastic bags for all other items. I once asked her that if it is so necessary to keep the pads a secret from everyone else, it should be kept in the white polybags like everything else so that it seems unsuspicious. I also remember how my mother pretended that she did not hear me.But stop and think for a moment- what would happen to the understanding of menstruation in a patriarchal society, if men could menstruate? According to American feminist Gloria Steinem, since everything that men do is valued, that fact that men can and women cannot menstruate would become yet another indicator of the superiority of men: ‘Men would brag about how long and how much. Boys would mark the onset of menses, that longed-for proof of manhood, with religious ritual and stag parties… Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free… Military men, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“men-struation”) as proof that only men could serve in the Army (“you have to give blood to take blood”), occupy political office (“can women be aggressive without that steadfast cycle governed by the planet Mars?”), be priest and ministers (“how could a woman know what it is to give her blood for our sins?”) or rabbis (“without the monthly loss of impurities, women remain unclean”)…’ Headlines like “Judge cites monthly stress in pardoning rapist” (Steinem, If Men Could Menstruate, 1978). Thus, women would’ve been made to feel impure regardless of whether they could menstruate or not. This is what I meant when I said that patriarchy has the ability to render the woman as the scapegoat. Also, men aren’t immune to the doings of patriarchy, and I would like to explore toxic masculinity in my piece as well.As we live out these gendered identities, we either reaffirm their worth and value, or reject them and actively seek others. What does this mean for Feminism? Is it liberating to realize that the body is not our prison? I think the answer is – yes.That is what I seek to achieve in the longer piece that we have to write. A young adult world where women think! A story that reflects how a young girl actually thinks and talks and come to understand her position in the world. She doesn’t have to be sixty years old or be dying a pre-mature death from cancer to come to these realisations. By overturning the idea that young women are creatures of emotion as opposed to reason, my protagonist might as well be the only beacon of logic in the locality that she lives in- questioning the “traditions” that have long been a part of people’s psyche, especially with regard to women. I attempt to contrast this to the character of Bridget Jones in a way that is illustrated below.When I read Helen Fielding’s ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ which is considered the classic of the chick-lit genre, I noticed one thing which other critics also have been vocal about. Bridget sets goals to get to work on time, to stop smoking, to lose weight, to read The Famished Road and proves incapable of accomplishing any them. Her diary revels hilariously in her insecurities, her failures, and her mistakes. As a result, critics suggest that the humor of the novel is not consciously created by Bridget, but generated at her expense. In my piece, I want the protagonist to question and dismantle the institutions, values, and structures of patriarchy as furthered by her society. The fun would be poked at the institution of marriage, family, etc. rather than the protagonist herself when she questions and tries to dismantle the rules forced upon her. I feel that the first step to emancipation for women would be to overcome a psychological tactic of ‘learned helplessness’. Learned Helplessness was discovered in 1965 by psychologist Martin Seligman while he was studying the behavior of dogs. In the experiment, which was designed to be a variation of Pavlov’s famous “classical conditioning” experiment, Seligman restrained the dogs for some time in a hammock. Every time a sound was heard, the dog would receive an electrical shock. Later, the dogs were put in a confined box which they could easily jump out of. Seligman wanted to see if the dogs would have learned to jump out of the box when they heard the sound to escape the shocks. What surprised him was that the dogs just lay there and did not try to escape.What Seligman had discovered was that the dogs had “learned” from the early part of the experiment that the shocks occurred at random, were unavoidable and didn’t depend on their own behavior. The dogs could, in fact, just jump out of the box to escape the shock but they had learned otherwise.This kind of behavior pattern has since been demonstrated in humans if they have been exposed to punishments or discomforts which seem random and unavoidable. A feeling of helplessness and no power to improve one’s circumstances is one of the key factors in depression.Learned Helplessness can lead a person to falsely believe that they are more powerlessness than they really are. This can lead to them making poor choices, resulting in a worse situation and a vicious cycle of depression sets in.The protagonist in my novel would be able to take the first step towards emancipation when she starts questioning the norms relegated to women. She would be able to start thinking and start unchaining herself from the mental control that patriarchy hosts over women. During the course of the book she might not be able to make a great change or action, but then “Feminism is not about that moment of final triumph, but about the gradual transformation of the social field so decisively that old markers shift forever.” (Nivedita Menon, Seeing Like a Feminist in India, 2007). This “shift” is what would enable many young women today to proclaim that they’re a Feminist. I feel that if someone is not familiar with the concept of Feminism, they are looking the world with only one eye open. People of all sexual orientations and gender (LGBTQIA+) can take away something or the other from the movement. I want to be able to use humour and wit to expose the hypocrisy and double standards which society holds for women. By joking about the situation, I want to render it silly, so that the reader could feel the same about the situation. In a way, the form could fit the function.The inspiration for this comes from Twinkle Khanna’s debut book ‘Mrs. Funnybones: She’s Just Like You and a Lot Like Me’. Below is the excerpt which I liked the most. She has described her musings of the day she’s asked to keep a Karva Chauth fast:-“I am one of the many fortunate women who get to stay hungry and thirsty all day in order to magically lengthen my other half’s life.In ancient times, I can appreciate why one would enthusiastically undertake such a task—if you know that as soon as your other half pops it, someone is going to make you jump into a large, blazing fire and commit sati. I can completely understand the motivation to try any means to prolong your husband’s lifespan, but today, when the unfortunate circumstance of your spouse’s demise merely frees you up to place ads in the matrimonial column, go on online dating sites and feverishly attend bar nights, the zeal for such taxing endeavours seems a bit extreme . . .4 p.m.: I know that all our Indian customs are based on scientific research by ancient minds where they spent decades examining and experimenting before they came up with specific rituals to ensure our well-being; so I do my own scientific research (which takes me a little less than five minutes, via Google) and the results are unmistakable. The United Nations research states that men with the longest life expectancy are from Japan, followed by Switzerland. I am rather surprised at this result as since time immemorial we have been doing the Karva Chauth fast to make sure our men have long lives, and the results should have definitely shown by now.I scan the list, confident that in this chart of life expectancy, the Indian man must definitely be in the top 5. Nope! There are 146 countries above us where the men have longer lifespans, and the biggest blow is that even with four wives who don’t fast for them, the Arab men outlive our good old Indian dudes.” (Khanna, Mrs. Funnybones, 2017)Adding on to the possible questionings of my protagonist, one must realise that women’s bodies have been shaped by social restrictions and by norms of beauty. That is, the ‘body’ has been formed as much by ‘culture’ as by ‘nature’. For example:”A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”  (Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, 1990)One possible basis for my piece could be a transition of the protagonist from being overweight to becoming underweight as idealised by the society. Despite the little rewards that society bestows upon her for now being conventionally attractive, the insecurity never seems to leave her. I want the book to be motivational as well, and would not shy away from giving it a philosophical feel or touch. In the end, she might say something on the lines of- I want every girl to be as thin and as pretty as she wants, only to let her know that this is NOT the answer. The fact that a woman who appreciates herself and loves every inch of her body and her mind is perceived as arrogant and vain, whereas a woman who struggles with a self-esteem issue is more or less the norm and seen as modest clearly shows how society is trying to belittle women and trick them into thinking they somehow have to feel inadequate all the time.This is how the capitalist world works- by making women feel inadequate. This is why fairness cream industry in India is worth crores of rupees, for example. Because if every woman chooses to be happy with the way she looks, all these products like anti-aging creams, hair colours, scar creams etc. would take a downward plunge.My piece might or might not end up being powerful enough to actually change the ways of the girls who read it, but if it makes them stop, think, and question, I would be more than happy.I have seen men rolling their eyes or getting uneasy when talking about feminism. That is the agenda- to make them feel uneasy, uncomfortable, and unsettled so as to bring about a change in thinking and a differential way of seeing, perceiving, and comprehending things.The final question that comes is- why do I want to write about this? I would like to draw your attention to an hour-long talk by Gloria Steinem and Emma Watson that my teacher sent me. A girl asked Steinhem that whenever she talks about the problem of gender inequality, she is hushed up by men who proclaim that there are “more serious” problems to be dealt with first, like terrorism and climate change. To this, Steinhem replies that all these major problems find its fundamental basis in gender inequality. For example, one of the main reasons of global warming is said to be the population explosion. Women’s bodies have been controlled and used to produce babies. This wouldn’t have been the outcome if it were left for women alone to make decisions and have reproductive rights and access to abortion, etc. because it’s a matter of our body and health. She adds that if more women had been a part of the decision-making process in politics etc. we could’ve seen different responses to terror and war, not because women are some inherently good people but because women do not have to live up to any masculine expectations of aggression.Steinhem also talked about doing away with gendered roles of breadwinner and homemaker in the household as a democratic family is the basis or foundation for a democratic country.Thus, issues of women need to be taken seriously. Women need to be taken seriously.

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