In her article on the internal challenges that feminist movements face, first-year Sciences Po Undergraduate Kriti Malik provides an insight on gender subjugation and complicity.
“Is it not the other who, in believing it is the other, creates the one?” wondered Simone de Beauvoir, in her observation of how women often participate in reinforcing their own unfreedom. Although such an attitude influenced the beliefs of women significantly more in De Beauvoir’s time, gender complicity continues to corrupt and neutralize the effects of the feminist movement around the globe. This article has been written from a place of privilege. A place of being able to observe and point out the few but potentially influential cases of women serving as obstacles to the feminist movement. In no way whatsoever does this piece intend to discount feminist efforts or encourage gender complicit behaviour. Instead, it endeavours to study the manners in which this practice manifests itself in society and encourage people to acquaint themselves with the knowledge to identify and discourage behaviour that proves to be counterproductive in this era of women’s empowerment.
Taking the example of India, the National Family Health Survey 5, surveyed women across the country to inquire them about their beliefs regarding the acceptability of a husband to forcefully rape his wife. Unsurprisingly, and primarily due to historically rooted notions of patriarchy, many women supported the normalcy of this gruesome offence. This phenomenon wherein, oftentimes, certain women reinforce patriarchal norms onto themselves, occurs commonly in two ways – submission and complicity.
Women’s submission finds its roots in the subjection of women. J.S. Mill in his book ‘The Subjection of Women’ wrote that “the adoption of this system of inequality never was the result of deliberation, or forethought, or any social ideas or any notion whatsoever of what conduced to the benefit of humanity or the good order of society. It arose simply from the fact that from the very earliest twilight of human society, every woman was found in a state of bondage to a man… Those who had already been compelled to obedience became in this manner legally bound by it.”
Although, it must be noted that the assumption and belief that since the wake of humankind a woman’s identity was associated with that of a man may be problematic, Mills’ intention and tone aptly elucidate the popular mindset with regard to the individual personhood of a woman. This flawed idea existed due to the notions of physical strength, unequal marriage roles, legal ownership of private property and other reasons, which are beyond the scope and purpose of this article. What needs to be attended to, however, is how modern societal institutions distinguish themselves from those that were seen in the past.
This difference lies in the fact that the worthiness of an individual no longer exists in their position at birth that they hitherto had been inexorably bound to. We are free to employ our faculties to achieve what is desirable. Despite this freedom, we continue to observe women’s subordination and their own participation in the same. This subjection is perpetuated and magnified by women who accept their role as the ‘other sex’.
Some say this was initially a convenient acceptance of inferiority in order to find an automatic escape from financial insecurity. Others assert the inevitability of the longevity of this thought process due to legal and cultural entrenchment of ideas. Amalgamation and preservation of these ideas by various communities has led to a balanced social situation that is extremely difficult to diverge from and in doing so, feminists face copious opposition and resistance. According to Mills, “The social subordination of women stands out as an isolated fact in modern social institutions, a solitary breach of what has become fundamental law, a single relic of an old world of thought and practice exploded in everything else but retained in the one thing of most universal interest.” The silence of women through their continued subordination and subjection, therefore, has constantly benefited the “universal interest” of males.
Gender complicity is a more explicit pillar that upholds patriarchy in modern society. It is an expressed form of opposition towards feminism or encouragement of male domination by some women that negates positive efforts to overcome orthodox mindsets. Varying power relations among women of different classes proves to be one cause of gender complicity through which higher class women ill-treat those belonging to lower classes, creating an internal issue that divides the collective female identity. Cultural influence that encourages injurious practices such as the Sati – a practice that existed until the 19th Century in India where a woman had to sacrifice her life by throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre- supported by women due to the pressure of intergenerational custom is another contributing factor. In the modern scenario, female victim blaming is an example of gender complicity where rather than extending support, female members isolate and blame the victim of abuse due to social stigma, further entrenching the normalcy of patriarchy in every aspect of society. By blaming the victim, we become culprits of a greater custom, an offence whose effect is arduous to overturn.
The significant question we must ask ourselves is, do all women have the freedom to choose their reaction to the treatment they receive? The response to this question is twofold. On one hand we have silence due to helplessness. Women such as those in rural or orthodox societies are unable to express themselves due to cultural and social barriers that don’t only deter them due to the fear of non-responsiveness but also due to the fear of receiving reactions to their own detriment. If by voicing one’s experience of being raped by a male family member, the victim recieves death threats, public humiliation and no legal remedy, it’s fair that she’ll deem it fit to keep the truth of the offense concealed. On the other hand we witness support by choice. These are cases where some women having the privilege and security to express themselves openly, either don’t, or in fact behave in opposition to feminist agenda. This could be through explicit support of or discount towards misogyny. “Men have been punished summarily, forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch
someone’s knee or try to steal a kiss” said Cathrine Deneuve in an open letter in Le Monde (January 2018). Another example was broadcasted on the BBC radio 4’s Today Programme where Patronella Wyatt stated “There were a couple of men that were a bit gropey [working in the British parliament in the 1990s] but you know what? I was flattered.” Such opposition as seen in the first case and negative support as in the second is unfortunately employed as a defense by the enemy to attempt to divide and weaken the force of the ever strengthening feminist movement.
The longstanding misunderstanding of women’s natural inferiority that has penetrated minds through centuries needs to be eradicated using progressive movements and schemes as is being done already, but additionally must be coupled with a constant opposition to the resistance towards feminism received from women as well, which often remains veiled and overlooked. If everyone does their part in ensuring the right outlook towards collective action as a catalyst to the feminist movement, it would make a world of a difference to the universal rights and conduct towards women across the globe.