Some books have the ability permeate geographical and temporal boundaries to become instantly relatable. The Feminine Mystique written by Betty Friedan in 1963 in the United States is one such book. Friedan grapples with the identity crisis faced by American women in the 1950s when she finds that the ideal of femininity—the notion that the primary role of women is being wives and mothers—was causing more and more women to give up the pursuit of fulfilling careers, in turn filling them with a deep sense of emptiness. She argues that the predominant belief that women's fulfillment lies in the enactment of femininity is a sham because it stunts their emotional growth, and goes on to examine the problematic of women's identities. Friedan's book is often credited as being instrumental in fuelling the second wave of feminism in the 1960s.
[The feminine] ideal asserts that women find fulfillment when they dedicate themselves to their roles as wives and mothers instead of exploring their own passions.
By the 21st century, this should have been one of those books that we pick up, smiling at its irrelevance, thinking about all the progress we, as women and as a society, have achieved. The fact that it is still relevant today reveals something heartbreaking—that many women today still face that perennial dichotomy between their own aspirations and societal expectations when discerning their identities.
The core of the book is the exploration of the stalling of women's search for their own identities, and their compliance instead to the patriarchal ideal of femininity. This ideal asserts that women find fulfillment when they dedicate themselves to their roles as wives and mothers instead of exploring their own passions. It mistakenly presents discharging women's responsibilities (both real and imagined) to their families versus following their dreams as a choice—a mutually exclusive choice. Friedan exposes the fundamental flaw in this approach by arguing that the manifestation of stereotypical femininity is a "dangerously comfortable trap." She argues that when intellectually stimulating work is abandoned in favour of mindless chores it causes women to lose their sense of self, rather than find fulfillment. In turn, this leads to increasing anxiety about trivial issues, dissatisfaction, tiredness, and an overall void that isn't filled no matter how gleaming the kitchen floor. Friedan calls this "The Problem that Has No Name."
Far away from the United States of the 1950s and 1960s, in a vastly different cultural milieu, Indian women too are grappling with similar issues. A woman pursuing her career isn't looked down upon today in the same way as it was during the last century. What remains, however, is the hangover of the idea that a woman's place is in the home. In her book, Friedan identified the various societal factors that contributed to this perception during her time. For instance, Freidan articulates that firms were keen to perpetuate the stereotypical model of femininity by advertising the idea that women can discharge their responsibilities towards their families, and find fulfillment doing so, by using their products. This served to wrap up women's identities in an organised home, clean laundry and tasty meals, rather than in pursuits of their own choosing.
The burden now falls on us... to grapple with the patriarchal hangover in India, understand how it impacts women, and collectively find ways to challenge and change it.
Indian women today can relate to that argument. Consider advertisements for any type of product we see on television—from detergents to masalas to kitchen equipment. With few exceptions, most of them portray the image of a happy woman who takes pride in ensuring that her children's school shirts are sparkling white, or that her family enjoys her cooking, or that she has a spotless bathroom. Men are rarely shown to share the burden. Insidiously, these advertisements go on to reinforce the notion of women as housewives, even as women take on their roles as professionals.
In Friedan's time, the belief that women can "have it all" used to be that they found fulfillment in femininity. Today, in India, it is that whatever other function they may have in society, they have to discharge their role in the home, and be happy with it. The question of women's identities, and how they may be developed is a question that we are still grappling with. And that is precisely what makes Friedan relevant us Indian women. As we struggle to establish our identities while dealing with with societal expectations, Friedan's book is a voice of empathy, relating to our battles, and informing us of the pervasive role the patriarchy plays in our lives.
So where do we go from here? As I see her argument at work around me, I realise that there are no one-stop solutions. Freidan, too, acknowledges this. The key takeaway she offers is that the identity crisis faced by women must be one we confront continually at both the individual and the societal levels. So the burden now falls on us, regardless of gender, to grapple with the patriarchal hangover in India, understand how it impacts women, and collectively find ways to challenge and change it.