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With an eye on humanism & feminism

How can one be beautiful without being moral and ethical? How can men be respected when their conduct can be so shoddy, despicable and have no rich moral content and what tradition can be defended in this disturbing context?
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 00:46 IST
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 00:46 IST

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Recently, I managed to possess by perchance the autobiographical work Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and it was such an enchanting read that it made me revisit and reconsider the gender empowerment and rights movement and struggle in a totally new light. The book provides a very poignant and colourful insight into the growing up years of Simone in a typical French High Bourgeoisie family of the pre-war and inter-war years; a world of quaint and gracious living which vanished with the Second World War.

According to literary pundits, Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiographical endeavour is a response including a self-reflection of her position as a feminist intellectual. However, for me reading it conveyed the image of a very sensitive, caring, humanistic personality with high moral standards evident early during her growing up years, who found the social mores and conventions an exercise of hypocrisy and hollow; for instance, the institution of arranged marriages which she felt was an alliance of vested interests bereft of sincere love.

In her own words, the social conventions or mores were ‘tedious’ and ‘tiresome’. Hence the illuminating part was the fact that I no longer perceive Simone as purely a feminist intellectual or post-modern philosopher but a humanist and a moral thinker who stirs within us powerful questions.

There is another social trend which disturbed her enormously, that eligible bachelor men were not expected to live by high moral standards and that their ‘dalliances’ and ‘infidelity’ were tolerated while that of the women who were supposed to marry them, were demanded to conform to very high standards of purist living as per the moral doctrines. One may argue that this is all old rhetoric for us, but what really struck me was the reasoning behind these questions, which had a strong moral and ethical component as well as an aim for purity and beauty.

How can one be beautiful without being moral and ethical? How can men be respected when their conduct can be so shoddy, despicable and have no rich moral content and what tradition can be defended in this disturbing context? We all, both men and women, irrespective of our social position, have to hold high standards of conduct as much as the women in their lives.

The arguments put forth were not the typical ‘double standards’, unfair ones between genders but more the poor standards of conduct and defilement of the soul, as Simone mentions that our roots of existence are rustic and desultory and we all seek liberation through pure disembodied spirit. This spiritual yearning is a very interesting and new awareness which struck me within a feminist framework when she mentions that at the end of a spiritual drought, she took refuge in the ‘fumes of alcohol and tobacco’.

Around the same time, I happened to watch the movie Becoming Astrid, a semi-biographical drama based on the life of Astrid Lindgren, the Swedish author/writer of fiction known for her children’s book series; here in the movie she is shunned and ostracised by her family for having a child born out of wedlock with a local newspaper publisher.

Astrid struggles with her family particularly the mother for the rights of her child to be accepted and not abandoned in a foster home in Denmark based on the logic of sanctity of the motherhood and compassion for a child. The young Astrid questions traditional norms which are inhumane and has no regard or respect for the feelings of the mother. This only strengthened my reflections and ponderings which emerged while reading Simone’s memoirs about the ideals of feminism being congruent with the broader ideals of humanism and compassion.

Traditions and social conventions were being questioned and challenged by Simone and Astrid not just on the grounds of individual rights and liberty but notions of humanity, compassion and love. In the movie which is based on Astrid’s real story, the publisher who happens to be the father of the child, postpones the marriage under the pretext of securing a divorce from his current wife and offers the excuse of imprisonment to banish the child to a foster care centre in Denmark.

Later, when he proposes marriage to Astrid he mentions with glee that he got away with a fine of a few thousand Kroners which upsets her and she walks away from the proposed marriage. Astrid expresses shock that then this delay was all about paying up the fine which again is rich with a moral sentiment of putting human care and values at the feet of pragmatism and financial priorities. These two experiences highlight the ways in which feminist thought originated from the contempt that certain women had for such crafty, sly, and tactical practical motives rather than for humanistic compassion. I thought of the haunting question: Can we have tradition without a sense of compassion, forgiveness and humanity? Or even tradition which doesn’t nurture and nourish young bright fresh minds for their intellectual faculties to bloom? We need to be conscious of the fact that many of the gender empowerment struggles of the 20th century had deeper moral, humanistic and spiritual undertones which often missed our readings and thought.

(Dr Kaustav Bhattacharyya is an entrepreneur and independent researcher based in Bengaluru who writes columns independently for The Country Squire Magazine India Edition and The Sunday Guardian.)

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Published 14 April 2024, 00:46 IST

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