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Four Great Scholars On How Women Have Been Silenced And How They Can Fight Back

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By Neha Chaudhary:

feministWhen one asks the question, “What is a Woman,” Simone De Beauvoir answers, that the very need of asking this question is testimony to the fact that the “act of being a woman,” is not “normal.” Time and again, there has been the need to redefine ‘woman’, the grounds of her oppression, and the roads to her liberation. It began with the likes of Jeremy Bentham and Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1790s and is still continuing. The plethora of themes that these works have dealt with is sundry and diverse. At the same time, these works are responses to the changing socio-economic and political settings, written on account of different backdrops, and dedicated to the questions of ‘women’ by questioning the dominant ideologies with theory.

“Otherness is the fundamental category of human thought”; and woman is the ‘other’. A woman is always defined vis-à-vis a man; she is secondary, the subordinate one. God created man, and woman was born out of his ‘supernumerary bone’. He is the supreme creation of the ‘Supreme Creator’, and she is only a ‘woman’–a mere ‘other’. Aristotle in his works writes, “A woman is an incomplete man.” She is a woman because of the lack of certain virtues. Plato shows his gratitude for not being born a ‘woman’. Rousseau, who gave the ideological basis for the French Revolution, argued that women should be educated only in the art of ‘home-making’ as this is what they are supposed to do. As Simone De Beauvoir writes, with the help of theology, philosophy, science, literature et al, men have turned their supremacy into a ‘right’.

Ideas Of Oppression

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first to question this right of men in her work ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. Although she agreed on the point that women are physically inferior to men, she elaborated that men further tried to dominate women through the indoctrination of the ideas that propagate women’s moral and mental subordination to men. She criticised Rousseau on calling women “virtual slaves,” and stated that ‘virtue’ is not relative to gender, as both are created by God, both have souls and have similar abilities to exercise reason and develop virtue. Here, she brings in the idea and importance of education. It was the lack of education or, rather, the lack of the right kind of education that was responsible for the deplorable condition of women.

She argues that women are taught that their appearance is of paramount concern. They are led to believe that emotions and sentiments are above reason and common sense. They are taught to please others, conditioned to develop a love for homely affairs and tricked into believing that this is what they are made for. She further develops this point by calling this the reason for extra-marital affairs; women are not at par (in terms of knowledge) with their partners and after a point, men lose interest in the sheer nature of “hollow beauty.”

Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels deals with the question and problems of monogamy. He traces the beginning and the need of family as a structure. According to him, the family was the system “which had all the contradictions of state and society.” It was in the family that the first division of labour occurred, for the production of children. He adds that the first ‘class antagonism’ is manifested in monogamy, and the first oppression is that which is done by the male sex of the female sex. Thus, he calls women the “first exploited class.” He delves into details in defining the presence of slavery within monogamy, taking examples from Iliad and Odyssey to comment upon women’s condition. He points out that monogamies were “marriages of convenience” and, with the passage of time, women were increasingly deprived of their sexual freedom.

The logic applied here is simple. With the coming of ‘private property’ male heirs were given paramount importance as they were the carriers of wealth and private property, and men ensured that the bloodline remained unadulterated by curbing all the sexual freedoms of their female counterparts.

Simone De Beauvoir

And as we know, they were very successful. As De Beauvoir writes, “…in truth the woman has not been socially emancipated through man’s sexual desire and the desire of an offspring…” She draws a trajectory and writes that much like the relationship of ‘master’ and ‘slave’, which is governed by the reciprocal need (economic needs in this case), always works in the favour of the oppressor–the men. With the passage of time, women accepted their role as the ‘other’, and are often pleased with this.

However, this is not the end of it. Men are looking for their virility in their female counterparts, according to De Beauvoir. He is always concerned with his appearance as a male–the important, the superior one–and persists on woman to continue to remain in their chains, as he “identifies” himself with them.

Ideas Of Liberation

Mary Wollstonecraft

As the definitions on oppressions vary, accounts on liberation also vary. First-wave feminists, the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft look for the liberation in ‘education’, ‘universal suffrage’. She argues that women and men should be given the same kind of knowledge and should be sent to same schools, as young girls developing an interest in “playing dolls,” is nothing but patriarchal indoctrination. However, her ideas begin to grow problematic when she suggests that there is no need for men to worry, as women can never grow strong enough to completely do away with them in their lives.

With the passage of time, we see women were given education, they were sent to schools to study, factories to work, courts to become lawyers and judges. So, if education was the way out, then by this time, at least, a section of women must have been liberated. So, what is the catch? Emma Goldman, in her work ‘The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation’, answers this question.

Emma Goldman

According to her, the emancipation that was achieved was only “external” in nature and this made the modern woman an “artificial being.” The “hollowness” of this emancipation is manifested in the fact that women fear to fall in love, as it will take away their freedom. She fears to experience the joy of motherhood, as it will not allow her to do justice to her profession. She writes that the emancipation was reduced to a “battle of the sexes.” This is not the true emancipation, states Goldman.

On the question of ‘political suffrage’, ‘economic emancipation’, she writes, “The right to vote, or equal civil rights, may be good demands, but true emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts. It begins in a woman’s soul.” True emancipation is not just about fighting “external tyrants,” but, from internal ones as well. The lines, “until woman has learned to defy them all, to stand firmly on her own ground and to insist upon her own unrestricted freedom…she cannot call herself emancipated,” very much explains what she is looking for.

Simone De Beauvoir

She responded to the times she was writing in, and she was very successful. The answers that she left were taken up by Second-wave Feminists in their discourses, Simone De Beauvoir being one of them. She argues, “the bond that unites her [woman] to her oppressors is not comparable to any other…women can’t even think of exterminating males.” She goes on to explain that the reason for this is that, women never perceived themselves as a single unit, they have “no past, no history, no religion of their own, and that they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat.” Women’s efforts, she says, were not more than “symbolic agitation,” where they were pleased to “receive” whatever men willingly gave them; thus, they have “taken nothing.”

She asks for a “Social Revolution,” much like Engels, with the first condition being the bringing of the “…whole female sex back into public industry, and that in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society.” However, it doesn’t mean that monogamous families will cease to exist, what it means is that when both the sexes will be ‘equal’, in all the senses, in all the forms. Only then the truest nature of ‘monogamy’ would be achieved as there will be no economic, social and political ‘compulsions’ governing the dynamics of ‘gender relations’.

After engaging with the ideas of four leading feminists, do we have a clear-cut answer to any of our initial questions? I hope not. Because writing about women is not about ‘categorising’ them. This theory is about “formulating the problems correctly.” However, this is not going to be easy. Above everything, our task here is not to stop at these narratives and wait for equality to be bestowed upon us. And fortunately, we have not stopped. Feminist ideas are still arising, with the coming of Third-wave feminism, and the New-Age Feminism. However, it is important to mention, that these new narratives are probably more problematic as they increasingly focus on the ‘individuality’ of the issues and look for ‘individual solutions’. They forget Simone De Beauvoir and Friedrich Engels, who demand more ‘collective solutions’.

In the end, I would urge people to ask the question that Lenin once asked. “What is to be done?” Until and unless we ask this question firmly, we won’t get an answer. In this ‘liberal’ world, where women are oppressed under a ‘mask’, and are forced to live under the farce of ‘free choice’, we need to ask this question. And the answer will most certainly demand that we give women the authority and the agency of their freedom and emancipation in their hands. Only then can what is aspired to be truly achieved–the true emancipation.

You must be to comment.
  1. Spider-Man

    Discrimination occurs when, for a marriage proposal I am asked how much I earn, my salary, savings, what car I drive, what kind of house I live in, how ‘large’ my bank account is, where I will take my prospective wife for the honeymoon, etc.

    A man spends his whole life working for his wife, which is real slavery and bondage. Instead of being thankful. women complain.

    Men are not ATM machines. Stop the misandry. Stop the discrimination.

  2. Daredevil

    Men are the majority of suicides, majority of war deaths, majority of the homeless and unemployed, have less access to healthcare hence live ten years less than women on average, are subject to harsher punishments than women for the same crimes, also suffer from rape and DV but are not given support or protection under the law, are subject to mandatory conscription, biased family courts which thrown unemployed men in jail for not paying alimony, are subject to mandatory arrest laws, are subject to no evidence laws, even when innocent and are now a minority in college education. Yes it’s the men’s fault they ended up this way. But do women actually care about men as a gender? No. Yet there are hundreds of men out there fighting for “women’s rights” when men actually have less “rights” as such. Every prominent feminist over the decades has advocated bigotry and hatred towards men.

  3. Karuna Maharaj

    Very well written

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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.

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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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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