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Meet Simone de Beauvoir: Busting Gender Roles Since 1949!

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Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.

Simone De Beauvoir, despite being one of the most controversial (and even scandalous) figures within feminist theory, never failed in dropping truth bombs like the one above. In fact, her seminal text, The Second Sex, revolves around this very idea—confronting human history and the oppression of women within it, from a feminist perspective. In this nearly 800-page text, she rips patriarchy to shreds—covering a vast variety issues from gender roles to societal expectations of the ‘feminine’, to questioning the conventional representations of women in history, myth and contemporary culture.

But why is de Beauvoir, and this text, such a big deal? Let’s find out.

Who Was Simone De Beauvoir, and Why Should We Be Talking About Her?

Born in Paris in 1908, de Beauvoir dabbled in multiple pursuits—political activism, existential philosophy, fiction writing, and ultimately, and most importantly, feminist theory. As a child, she was intellectually precocious and wise beyond her years. In the post-First World War period, where women from middle class families like hers faced continuous suppression in many walks of life, she led a life defying every patriarchal hurdle faced in her path. At 21, she was the youngest to ace the agrerion—a highly competitive postgraduate exam (in a society where women were continually ostracized from higher academics), and later became a high school teacher, prolifically wrote political pamphlets and essays, and hobnobbed with some of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of the time (including Sartre, Hegel, and Jean Hippolyte). Instead of being overshadowed by the bevy of influential male intellectuals and philosophers who were part of her close social circle, she carved a niche of her own—and her writings became as academically celebrated as that of Jean Paul Sartre, who was both her intellectual and romantic partner. Her relationship with Sartre was something wildly revolutionary for the times she lived in—they had an open polyamorous relationship, each choosing to have multiple affairs on the side while simultaneously being very devoted to each other. She refused to get married, yet again, making an unconventional decision for the time.

Breaking Down The Second Sex

Her no-fucks-given attitude to patriarchal conventions translates into The Second Sex as well, where she lays down, in great detail the history of women’s oppression and silencing at the hands of men. It is divided into two volumes—Facts and Myths, and Lived Experience—which are further divided into tellingly titled subdivisions such as ‘Destiny’, ‘History’, ‘Myths’, ‘Formative Years’, ‘Situation’ and finally, ‘Towards Liberation’. Let’s look at some of her basic arguments in detail:

1: In Which She Differentiates Between Biological Data and Social Conditioning

One isnt born, but becomes a woman

De Beauvoir devotes her first few chapters in exploring this very phenomenon—how ‘womanhood’ is far from a biological fact, and is ultimately what society imposes. She analyzes the biological processes behind reproduction, and the relationship between the ovum and sperm, to draw logical conclusions that these facts ultimately have no bearing on one’s gender expression—basically, laying down one of the biggest truisms of Gender and Sexuality studies, which stipulates that one’s biological sex ultimately may not coincide with one’s gender expression, and that gender itself is a social construct. This is a concept that people still find difficulty wrapping their heads around, especially when it comes to trans and gender nonconforming people, and though she doesn’t explicitly bring trans people into the equation here (instead focusing on the social impositions of ‘femininity’ on women), her saying this way back in 1949 was a huge and important revelation, and a landmark in how gender is understood today.

De Beauvoir talks about how the myth of ‘feminity’ leads to a near-fetishization of the processes of fertility and reproduction. This, she says, is because men are actually uncomfortable with the fact of their birth and the inevitability of their death—basically talking about how fragile ‘masculinity’ is. Further, she lays down another truism—that a “woman is not born fully formed”; and in fact is conditioned by her patriarchal upbringing to adhere to what society believes to be a woman. It is ultimately these very forces of society which tells women that they are passive, secondary, unimportant and not the equals of men.

2: In Which She Calls Out The Silencing of Women Within History

The whole of feminine history has been man-made

Long before ‘herstory’ was even a thing, de Beauvoir was contesting the male-domination of traditional historiography and the exclusion of women from within it. She talks about how most histories and mythologies have been constructed by the male gaze, in which women have been either reduced to their bodies (ie, their function of motherhood, or their virginity, or even their sexuality being highlighted instead of anything else), or have been unnecessarily elevated as untouchable goddesses, devoid of humanity. She uses the term “immanence” to describe the historic domain assigned to women; which is a closed-off realm where they are slated to be interior, passive, subordinate, or immersed in themselves. “Transcendence” is the word she designates to the opposing male lot: who have occupied active, creative, productive, powerful roles in history and have participated in activities which affect the external world. She breaks down the process of traditional myth-making and history-writing stage by stage, and shows how women have been always forced to relinquish their existential right to ‘transcendence’ and accept their circumscribed, inferior lot. It is a harsh exposition, and really makes one think about the extent to which women’s achievements have been erased in history, and how problematic their position within it is.

3: Production v/s Reproduction: In Which Gender Roles Are Explored

What would Prince Charming have for occupation if he had not to awaken the Sleeping beauty?

De Beauvoir exposes how, at a very fundamental level, the woman’s role in society has been biological reproduction, while the man’s role has been economic and social production. She explains that one of the central problems of the female condition is the ultimate difficulty of reconciling a woman’s reproductive capacity with her productive capacity (ability to participate in economic production). She hits the nail right on the head here, because this is a dilemma that we still face—with every professionally successful woman still getting asked how they balance their careers with raising kids.

On closer inspection, de Beauvoir finds that reproduction and production are not mutually exclusive. A woman’s reproductive capacity should not stop her from fulfilling a position in society beyond the home—woman is neither exclusively a worker nor exclusively a womb, and her contribution to society shouldn’t be limited by either.

The solution she offers to balance these two functions is a restructuring of the traditional nuclear family so the woman can enter the workplace as a man’s equal. To achieve this, various social stigmas—surrounding abortion (Beauvoir was strongly pro-choice), single mothers, and in general, working women—should be challenged, and ultimately, dismantled.

4: Caveat: The Motif of The Other

At the moment when man asserts himself as subject and free being, the idea of the Other arises

Beauvoir uses the term Other throughout The Second Sex to talk about the woman’s secondary position in society as well as within her own patterns of thought. One of her chief goals in writing this book, is to answer the question of why and how women have been othered. Beauvoir explains that according to the philosopher Hegel, reality is made up of the interplay of opposing forces, and hence, for a being to define itself, it must also define something in opposition to itself. Hence, throughout human history, men have occupied the role of the self and in making himself the subject, has made women the opposing force, the ‘other’. Because it is fundamentally unnatural to live in the role of ‘the other’ women constantly struggle between this role that has always been ascribed to them and to try to break away from it.

In Conclusion: This Is An 800-Page Force To Be Reckoned With

As mentioned earlier, with this text, de Beavouir apprehended aeons of feminist thought which didn’t surface until late twentieth century, making this a true landmark. She talked about subaltern history, abortion rights, how gender is a construct, gender roles and sexuality in ways that had rarely been talked about before, and spawned ideas which would influence generations to come. Apart from all that, she constantly spat on patriarchal norms and threw societal expectations out the window in her personal life—basically proving how she was feminist theory’s own reservoir of swag and badassery.

Read More from the Decoding A Feminist Text series, where we show you that feminist theory is actually pretty rad, here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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