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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 29, New Delhi, July 3, 2021

The Inauthentic and Anxious Life of the Married Woman | Gaganjot Kaur

Friday 2 July 2021

by Gaganjot Kaur*

“I know a woman who hates domestic work, but she pretends that she likes it, because she has been taught that to be ‘good wife material’, she has to be — to use that Nigerian word — homely. And then she got married. And her husband’s family began to complain that she had changed. Actually, she had not changed. She just got tired of pretending to be what she was not.” —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All be Feminists

A very prominent existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, is famous for his dictum, “Existence precedes essence” — that is — human life does not have any predetermined meaning and human beings are absolutely free to make choices to make their lives meaningful. This is also, to a large extent, a general existentialist idea. Various philosophers of the tradition, who may have digressed theoretically though, have emphasised the freedom intrinsic to human existence and maintained that it is solely an individual responsibility to act freely and become one’s true self. The world with various circumstances and situations is our facticity, and how we live in it and overcome it is expressed through our acts of freedom. Under the pressures of social and political forces, however, one tends to embrace false notions and values for oneself and live an inauthentic life — life lived under “bad faith”. I am particularly interested here in the choices of a woman who knows that she is “condemned to be free” but she uses her freedom to choose a life which is “inauthentic”.

Last year when a reality show called Indian Matchmaking released on Netflix, it received a lot of flak by its viewers for promoting gender stereotypes and questionable practices prevalent in the Indian matrimonial alliances. The show reinforced certain “desirable” qualities in women who are looking for husbands — the women should be “flexible”, “adjusting”, and “compromising”, should be willing to let go of their careers for family, besides other preferences like a certain body size/shape and skin-colour. It would be more desirable that the married woman moulds herself easily into the person that her husband’s family wants even if she has to pretend it. Married lives of many women in India may be described in terms of bad faith and pretence — they pretend to like household chores, they pretend to like their role and status in the family, they pretend to like looking after their grown-up husbands, they pretend to like being mothers, they pretend to like their husbands’ achievements, they pretend to like immanence when they really aspire transcendence.

Patriarchal structures and organisations function on essentialist definitions of human existence which do not leave space for many possibilities of being other than what is defined for them. For the existentialists, human existence and personhood cannot be understood on the model of objects, that is, objects without consciousness. A table can be fully defined for what it is, but a human being cannot be fully defined for what they are — the human life is constantly transcending itself through possibilities in virtue of choices that a person makes in coherence with values and principles important to them. Hence, an essentialist description of human life — regardless of one’s sex, gender, sexuality — is inaccurate and impractical. When a woman is handed over a “predestined” life of a “devoted wife and daughter-in-law”, without any recognition of her agency and freedom, it is coerced on her to accept it happily or pretend to do so. Pretence, when forced systemically on a person, like in patriarchy, is a form of oppression.

When a woman does not have reflective knowledge of the oppressive situation she is in and acquires the patriarchal values as her own, it remains mostly ambiguous to assess the authenticity of her choices and life. In fact, such an assessment can hardly be objective or even fair. But a woman who is aware of her situation and dislikes it but continues to live a life in conformity to values clearly not her own, is living an inauthentic life from the existential point of view. Let me clarify that this brief analysis is in no way a judgment on any life a person chooses to live or to advocate any “categories” of women. The idea is, at most, to acknowledge the experience of feelings like anxiety, anguish, and despair for a person who chooses to act in one way over the other, for example, when one pretends to desire or enjoy motherhood. One feels existential angst or anguish when they struggle having an authentic life, when they cannot overcome their bad faith through action, when one knows that they can choose a different life over this because they are free.

In the patriarchal institution of heteronormative marriages, there are well-defined gender roles for the two partners. As Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis of the situation called marriage goes in The Second Sex, the man/husband is an autonomous and complete individual who is well-regarded by the society, while the woman/wife is confined to the domestic and reproductive roles barely recognised with any dignity. In her Seeing Like a Feminist, Nivedita Menon also brings out similar aspects of patriarchal marriage among many other observations about experiences of women. Marriage as an instance of bad faith is also interesting because in its patriarchal form, a marriage in most of the regions and cultures in India discourages women to live an authentic life — whether within caste/religion or outside of it. Typically, a woman moves to the husband’s house after marriage where she now must “adjust” in and with the new life. This new life is basically the life as preferred by the husband’s family — from their religion, faith, customs, culture, and even reproductive decisions, to their career choices, food choices, and everyday activities or rituals like rules of do’s and don’ts during menstruation etc. A “good” woman in India, as Adichie talks about in the Nigerian context, is someone who knows how to adjust, that is, she knows and is willing to negate everything that she believes in and adopt the values of the new family. A “good” woman must embrace immanence and avoid transcendence.

However, many women often find themselves divided between their own values and principles, and those of her husband’s family’s that are imposed on her. These women are perpetually haunted by the freedom they are condemned with, but they continue to choose to pretend fearing the consequences of possibly losing all personal relationships. That is not only an inauthentic life; that is also a life full of anguish. With developments like urbanisation, education, and better healthcare resources, women, especially from educated sections and cities may want to and do consider life without or outside marriage. Yet, they are unable to fully use their freedom for such a choice ending up becoming complicit in their own immanence and oppression. However, it is not that only women with formal education and living in urban spaces have a realisation of their situation because these are contingencies which are generally conducive to being aware of structures, but not a necessity. The problem is that freedom, in existentialism and even causally, would entail consequences. Hence, it comes with responsibility which forms the basis of practical morality.

It is certainly two distinct things to entertain the philosophical and existentialist notion of anguish on one hand and to manage anxiety and other mental illnesses triggered by systemic oppression. Constant subjugation of women within the families as well as when it is religion or state-sanctioned may cause mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, dysphoria, neurosis, and various psychosomatic problems in varying degrees among them. It would be unfair if I did not acknowledge the fact that there may be a significant difference in the experience of the lived-life of women who are oppressed not only on the basis of their gender but also class, caste, religion, disability, etc. Moreover, patriarchal marriages are not just limited to adjusting to new customs and routines; there are numerous instances of physical and sexual violence against women in marriages. A lot of times, given one’s weak background in terms of real opportunities to choose and to act freely, it may become rather morally and politically problematic to ask philosophical and existential questions. Having said that, it is not always the case that women only from a certain class are victims of gender-based violence.

Beauvoir acknowledges in The Second Sex that although men and women are equally free in principle of their being, a woman does not have concrete means and opportunities to liberate herself. For example, lack of education, safe and supportive environment within families and society, access to health care, and economic security barely leave any scope for acts of freedom; by this I do not mean that women from marginalised groups cannot or have not made informed and feminist choices. But it is equally true that in a socio-political complex like India with multitude of disparities, I wonder what kind of questions may be asked about authenticity/inauthenticity of one’s life. Does self-overcoming and freedom in such a case remain only a myth? We cannot say. But the experience of physical, psychological, and emotional trauma is despairingly real which calls for accountability as well as healing and, the metaphysical freedom bestowed on the individual by the existentialist philosophers has not really liberated the married woman in India.

Purely philosophical contemplation over authenticity/inauthenticity of life as an intellectual endeavour is, I am afraid, predominantly a matter of privilege. However, the affliction of common mental problems like anxiety and depression and their internalisation among women due to gender-discrimination and oppression is not. The discourse on gender and mental illness is gradually occupying a mainstream space but the number of women being able to identify their problems — personal, political, mental — and getting help for them is not very accomplished. The social, political, economic, cultural, and religious structures very heavily determine the quality of our experiences, and if and how one would attempt living an authentic life. Even if a person is not familiar with the expanse of philosophical or existential vocabulary and does not have resources for a “sophisticated” formal education, living a life of authenticity and well-being is an absolutely fair right they must have.

*(Author: Gaganjot Kaur is Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi)

References:

  • Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi (2014): We Should All Be Feminists, London: HarperCollins Publishers.
  • De Beauvoir, Simone (2011): The Second Sex, London: Vintage Books.
  • (2011): The Ethics of Ambiguity, New Jersey: Philosophical Library.
  • Menon, Nivedita (2012): Seeing Like a Feminist, India: Penguin Random House.
  • Sartre, Jean Paul (2003): Being and Nothingness, London and New York: Routledge.
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