I learnt more about this society since 1974 from Jacqueline, a well-educated and friendly classmate who spoke English as I didnt know French yet. To attend my art college Ecole des Beaux-Arts on 14 rue Bonaparte, Paris 6, I had to get to the Boulevard St Germain metro station where theres a caf called Caf de Flore. Jacqueline would take me to Caf de Flore and Id listen to her fairytale-like stories as she helped me understand French culture. This caf was where I discovered existential feminist philosopher, political activist and author of The Second Sex. Shed come with her companion, Jean Paul Sartre, the existential philosopher, theyd sit and write for days on end, have heated discussions together or with other friends and intellectuals. As Id just come from a patriarchal society, it was difficult for me to understand the concept of feminism then. My deep-dose learning about famous feminists becoming sluts, and existential philosophy that was in the making in Paris, began in Caf de Flore.
From mid-20th century, French writer Simone de Beauvoirs feminist writings set the tone for Womens Lib later. In what came to be known as The Manifesto of 343 Sluts, she wrote that a million French abortions every year are condemned to secrecy under dangerous conditions. To protest Frances anti-abortion law she got 343 notable women to declare theyd had an abortion, making them susceptible to prosecution. When a French magazine printed that on April 5, 1971, it shook the Catholic world. Society was so sensitised that in 1975 abortion was legalised in France. Their health minister, who repealed the penalty for voluntarily terminating a pregnancy, was Simone Veil, about whom Ill write shortly in this courageous women series Ive started.
Simone de Beauvoirs The Second Sex exposed that fundamental to womens oppression is considering them as others, with an aura of mystery around them. Men use this as an excuse to not understand women or their problems, she wrote, and not help them. In societys hierarchy, a higher group always stereotypes the lower group to keep them subservient. Stereotyping is prevalent in identity categories like race, class, and religion too. But in gender, its used to organise society into a patriarchy. Historically, men are considered the ideal and women made to conform to that normality. So women must choose to take a position of responsibility and freedom. She had no qualms in writing about her private life with lovers. Her book She Came to Stay narrates her complex affair with Sartre and their sexual relationships with Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz. She and Sartre were a couple since 1929, but they never married because she later revealed, I had no dowry. Catholic society does not recognise relationships outside marriage, but making an exception, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) and Jean Paul Sartre (19051980) are buried next to each other in Montparnasse cemetery.
While writing on gender equilibrium and de Beauvoir, I suddenly saw on television the news about a man walking with one hand holding a beheaded head, the other a sword, both dripping blood. I was aghast. A 29-year-old Bengali boy in Kolkata pulled his sister out of her house, and beheaded her with one fell swoop of the sword in full public view. Her dismembered head rolled to the ground. The brother yanked it up by her hair, walked like a devil hero to the police station to surrender, the bloody sword in his other hand. Hed nervously chopped the hand of another woman whod tried to stop him. His seething anger was because his sister, married with two children, had deserted her husband and was hiding with her lover shed known before marriage. That such a barbarous act is called honour killing curdles my blood. Im shaken that it happened in my native Bengal. But it seems such honour killings are not uncommon in India particularly in love marriages without family consent. It becomes more dramatic in inter-caste elopements. With TV shows airing real-life crime, these brutalities are unnecessarily becoming dramatised.
Such violence can go to court only after the disaster happens. Unless men get totally convinced about stopping this kind of atrocity, things can never change. Forget about womens freedom or gender balance. We seem to be living in a gladiator society, where anything can happen to women at anytime. Killing his own sister symbolises the total power he feels he can exercise over her to uphold the familys honour, and prevent her from further dishonour. It disgracefully proves that women have no personal emotional liberty to make their own choice in love.
Just imagine, way back in 1971 Simone de Beauvoir had fought for abortion rights when 343 women signatories were disparagingly called sluts. Now 41 years later, again shamefully in my Bengal, a woman legislative assembly member was beaten up by male members, within days of the beheading incident. In our patriarchal society that makes women submissive, such actions will always remain unless mens attitude changes. Shockingly, even women like mothers-in-laws join in to kill new brides for more dowry. Activists alone cannot solve the problem. Men have to be sensitised to decide and agree on a certain code of conduct towards women. When man-beating-woman can happen in the hallowed precincts of the legislative assembly, can you imagine what attitude can prevail in small villages and what example these law makers can set
Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at www. shiningconsulting.com