Virginia Woolf, in her book, “A Room of One’s Own”, wrote, “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” The quote is significant not just from the social point of view of a woman, but also from the social point of view of the society itself. A woman being analogous to a looking glass reflects the idea of a woman being herself without her own ethics or psychological presence. The transformation turns her into an agent that augments a man’s presence and extends it to a distance where the woman’s presence gets surpassed by the man’s presence and the woman receives victimhood.
The assumptions of a society, in a sense, are almost equally lethal for both men and women. According to the Statement of Purpose of The National Organization for Women, “men… are also victims of the current half-equality between the sexes” as “a man must carry the sole burden of supporting himself, his wife, and family.” A society based on the archaic norms prevents a woman from getting the exposure that a man enjoys. The idea that “women belong to the house” divides the social sphere into two visible worlds, where women lose their freedom and get stuck in the internal world of family life which includes taking care of children, husband, household chores etc, and men belong to the external world.
Though men have the sole responsibility to earn bread for the family, which can be described as a burden, it is an undeniable fact that these norms were also created by men. Even when a man has the sole responsibility to earn for the family, he still enjoys his freedom by not being confined to the internal world of the home. And his biggest way to vent his anger is a woman.
According to Union Home Ministry’s crime records, every year, 1.35 lakh women become victims of physical torture in India (as of 2002). Out of which 37% are domestic violence cases. This statistic quite clearly shows the status of women as the victims of archaic social stratification, and also a second stage of oppression in the hands of men who emit their anger to console them for their own hectic responsibilities. A woman gets deprived of the creative external world by the patriarchal society, and then she gets tormented in the internal world by the men who are partial victims of patriarchal society.
This dyadic perpetuation of oppression of women is present in every part of the world. And it is a continuing phenomenon throughout the time.
During World War II, out of necessity, countries like the United States of America and Britain send in women to the war reluctantly. Though many of them were appointed as factory workers rather than battlefield soldiers, the place that was predominantly kept allocated for men. Once the War was over and the servicemen returned, women were asked to go “back to the kitchen”, so that the places could be filled by the men returning from war.
Betty Freidan, in “The Feminine Mystique”, wrote, “The core of the problem for women today is… a problem of identity – a stunning or evasion of growth that is perpetuated by the feminine mystique.” Women were asked to stay within their homes and oblige their husbands, then they were asked to go to war to help the men fighting in the front, then they were asked to retire to their homes so that men could replace them. Women came back to where they started. They went to the external world only to help out men, not to enjoy their own freedom.
So, women became victims of this merry-go-round of social norms. First, they were not allowed to go out because it is men’s responsibility to work and earn bread. Then they were asked to go out and do the men’s work in the time of urgency. And when men returned, they were again asked not to come out.
This reflects the perfect picture of the quote by Virginia Woolf. A woman went out to work not as a social responsibility, but as a secondary replacement of man. She, as a worker, reflects a man and not herself. She just fulfils a man’s responsibilities and not her own dreams. She became a victim of the society and consequently a victim of the society’s given responsibilities on men in a man-created war. She is paying for both society’s norms and men’s liabilities.
In the Statement of Purpose of The National Organization for Women, the issue of the status of African-American women was raised. According to the statement, “…Negro women, who are the victims of the double discrimination of race and sex.” For the African-American women, the issue is not just about civil rights or gender equality, but both. If they got civil rights but not gender equality, they would be tortured by the dominating gender in the dyadic fashion described earlier. And if they got gender equality but not civil rights, then they would be victims of racism and consequently male-domination as a result of racist attacks on males. So, either way, the African-American women become victims of multiple types of oppression.
The situation of African-American women in the 1960s in the USA gives an important realisation that gender equality is not always the only need for the women to achieve equal rights in the society. Gender equality carries with itself other prerequisites also. As Simone de Beauvoir said, “The woman who is economically emancipated from man is not for all that in a moral, social, and psychological situation identical with that of man.” To be completely free, a woman needs to overcome the childhood disadvantages and adolescent restrictions and adulthood constrictions.
Even when a woman is economically free, she is still a victim of moral oppressions in a society which is wholly dominated by male. The main characters in Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook”, Molly and Anna, are examples of this kind of situation. Even after the separation from her male companion, the mental occupation of societal myths of Anna is still restricting her from moving on. And every step towards self-emancipation seems to be blocked by the unworthy past.
A woman’s break from the social bondage consists of many sub-oppressions (if one could use the term) under the head of patriarchy. These sub-oppressions include the situations like economic instability, racism, sexism, opportunism etc. According to Betty Freidan, in the 1960s USA, 60% of women left colleges to get married and there was a new degree in people’s mouth for women – “Ph.T” (Putting Husband Through), as women thought or were made to think that attending colleges and not getting married early would make them “unfeminine”.
But, the end of trauma was not near. The real problem started once they started living a life that is ‘feminine’. As one woman told Freidan, “I’ve tried everything women are supposed to do – hobbies, gardening, pickling, canning, being very social with my neighbours, joining committees, running PTA teas…. But who am I?” This journey of delusional femininity starting from leaving colleges to fulfil the duty of a woman as housewife and continued till the trauma-affected state of women after living a life without a vision left in women a psychological mark that has been “puzzling their doctors and educators for years.”
The actual cause of this trauma is not only the breaking of delusion about the life that women thought of as feminine. But also the secondary pounce on them by the effects of that delusion. As a housewife, a woman is bound with the chains of helplessness. The household chores she does turn her into a machine that has some specific duties to do and has no wish of its own. The works she does at home is monotonous, without any creative angle. This monotonous work done unwillingly injects into women a sense of despair and mentally forces them to take “tranquillizers like cough drops.”
The issue also affects women belong to other sexualities than heterosexuality. As Adrienne Rich said, “… the lesbian experience as being, like motherhood, a profoundly female experience…” As the society, based on archaic rules, believes in only one dominating gender; masculinity, and one dominated gender; femininity, it turns brutal towards other innumerable genders that exist in a society. From the psychological point of view, there could be as many genders as there are human beings. If we take up the societal treatment of lesbian women, we could see there are already two layers of ill-treatment present; one for being a woman and one for defying traditional gendered tropes. Rich said that patriarchal society as a method of showing its authoritarian side prevents lesbian women from any kind of freedom, which includes confiscating a child from a lesbian mother as an act of punishment, forcing society-described femininity on them through marital rape, arranged marriage etc, or by cramping their creativity by forced seclusion from the outer world.
A lesbian woman has to fight not just for gender equality, but also for recognition of her sexuality. As a woman, she has to face childhood disadvantages and fight them as gracefully as possible, and then she has to fight the society-inflicted womanhood to establish her true gender orientation. The idea of gender binary is also a product of patriarchal society to spread the idea that lesbianism or anything apart from two traditional genders is an act of notorious revolt against established societal rules. Society does not recognize any third gender as a personal stand but as an anti-social attitude. This attitude helps patriarchal society to explain femininity the way it wants and rejects other truths to identify women as mere objects in possession. So, a woman who recognizes herself as lesbian also becomes a victim of double oppression: once as a woman, and again as a lesbian.
Indian society is not an exception in any way. Women here, in the same way, are victims of dyadic oppression like any other place on earth which is inflicted with patriarchy. An interesting fact about Indian society is the treatment of women in the time-period before the Partition of the subcontinent. The dyadic oppression was still prevalent but one of the components of oppression was imperialism and foreign occupation. As Prof Bharati Ray wrote in the introduction to a book she edited (Nari o Paribar: Bamabodhini Patrika – translation mine), “The question of freedom-bondage was wrapped in deep political complexity. In the colonial times, men were not free. But subjection of women was twofold – political bondage under the British empire, social bondage under men.”
During the colonial period in India, men were subjected to unquantifiable oppression due to political and revolutionary activities even when they were not involved. That made them ventilate their frustration on women who were already subjected to patriarchal oppression. And just like in any religious society, the Holy Books which classified women as mere secondary human beings and forever subservient to men gave the oppressed men the right to vent their anger on women. Women became victims of archaic religious rules and after-effects of the socio-political situation.
The women, in the outside world, were deprived of the equal rights on the basis of gender and occupier-occupied relationship. The position of women in a colonial society is worse than in an independent society. The extra fact that bothers women’s freedom is the presence of imperialism. In a colonial society, a woman is a slave in an enslaved society where the perpetrators of violence on women are also slaves.
The perpetual injustice pervading against women is not based on any particular country, culture, religion, ethnicity or occupiers. It is universally same in all conditions and remains constant throughout time. The dyadic oppression against women only proves the terrible state of women in a society. A woman gets mentally and physically butchered not just by society and its rules, but also by the people affected by different situations, which the woman has nothing to do with.
Dyadic oppression has turned women into a symbol of living injustice in all respects. Emancipation of women is needed not just to bring equality in the society, but also to save society from destruction in the clutches of endless maltreatment. Ill-treatment of women is not a separate or personal issue, but part of the larger socio-political situation. The issue carries within itself a part of the breakdown of civil society from its pinnacle. Women are as essential a part of society as men, so are the people belonging to other genders. And their freedom symbolises the freedom of a part of the society without which complete freedom is impossible. As Charlotte Bronte wrote, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”