Unhappy Women: Caught In Identity Crisis?

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Department of Women's and Gender Studies, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand


In 1963 in the U.S., a Psychologist named Betty Friedan was perplexed by an unusual mental condition that she found was quite widespread among women, of all ages. Women (mostly married) complained of depression, of being unable to focus on things, of bursting into tears without reason, sleeping a lot and feeling unusually tired. They just felt – for want of a better description – unhappy. Yet, seemingly, there was no reason for many of these women to feel so. They had secure marriages, had children, and financial security and social networks, and were involved in community groups. Many had at least one or two years of college education before deciding to settle down to marriage and children. Friedan was clearly confused as to why this collective depression among women existed; it was in her words, a "problem that had no name". In her book titled The Feminine Mystique she traces the origins for this problem. She tells us in her book that very early on she realized that these women’s suffering were not individual, that is, these were not women who had some biological, hormonal, sexual or other psychological defects. The answer to this problem clearly lay elsewhere.

Friedan talked to hundreds of women and realized that the source of these women’s depression was an identity crisis. On the one hand, women from girlhood were being told that they would find fulfillment and happiness as wife and mother, in traditional feminine roles. On the other, the reality was that as women spent more and more of their energy being just that, they felt more and more unhappy. As one young mother told Friedan: "I’ve tried everything women are supposed to do – hobbies, gardening, pickling, canning … but I’m desperate. I begin to feel that I have no personality. I’m a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bedmaker, somebody to call on when you want something. But who am I?". Another woman told her that she had everything – a husband who was moving up in his career, a lovely new home, enough money. Yet, when she woke up in the morning there was nothing to look forward to. Women had just one question that summed up their feelings: Is this all there is in life?

Tradition is very strong in India and dictates many aspects of our lives. In India, regardless of religious differences, caste, class or regional location, tradition makes particular demands on the way women live their lives – from the clothes that they can wear, to their mobility, the kinds of jobs they take up and so. Psychologists have observed that as young girls grow into adolescence and womanhood, they comply more and more with the feminine roles demanded of them. For instance, it is well known that girls are better achievers at the school level and often are rank-holders and toppers in Std X exams. Their performance, however, falls considerably once they are in Pre-degree, in entrance exams and in professional courses. Some people may argue that girls are unable to cope with the rigor of advanced studies but studies conducted abroad suggest that women are subtly conditioned to feel that over-achievement is an "unfeminine" trait.

Alongside this traditional part of society, women are also influenced by the advantages of modern life. Education, jobs, friends, and money are increasingly changing the image that women have of themselves. More and more young women have aspirations that do not fit with the feminine roles of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’. Does the impact of modernity bring with it its own brand of "identity crisis" for women? Our understanding of women’s responses to their social conditions arise from their voices: from stories, autobiographies, movies, and so on. A collection of short stories by women in Kerala Inner Spaces: New Writing by Women From Kerala (1993) reflects how women are caught within the web of expectations that is imposed on them by tradition and family. Each story is dark and bleak – in most of them the female character is portrayed as trapped and unable to escape her destiny. Bharati Mukherjee, a US settled Indian writer, also fashions women characters who struggle to fulfil the demands of Indian tradition and their own hearts – in one book, Wife, the character eventually turns to murder. Kamala Das’ well-known autobiography My Story records her emotional wanderings searching for meaning that she never found as a wife. Deepa Mehta’s movie, Fire, is popularly known for its lesbian theme – how two women discover happiness in their emotional and physical attachment to each other. Yet, the understated part of the movie is the sterile life that these women lived as conventional housewives. "I was dead", says the character played by Shabana Azmi. Their radical and rebellious decision to run away together is perhaps not an option that many women in India would take – but shows that women are trying to resist society’s hold on them.

As a researcher into women’s issues, I find similar themes of emptiness and vacuum in the everyday lives of women. A woman, who is now a primary school teacher, told me that she "wasted seven years" sitting at home just after marriage. In another case, a woman admits difficulty to having sexual intercourse even though she loves her husband. She feels the problem lies in a sense of frustration about being only a housewife. In more extreme situations, as in the "Ice Cream Parlor" incident that became a scandal in the Malabar region a couple of years ago, seemingly ordinary women – housewives, students, and so on - consented to being part of a prostitution ring. The motive was clearly not monetary – it is interesting to ask what was missing in their lives that drove them to take these potentially dangerous risks. Many women who are asked by family to give up their jobs or studies after marriage do experience a sense of identity loss.

What Friedan argued in the sixties in the case of women in the U.S. and which is probably applicable for women here in India, is that they be allowed to pursue activities that enhance their identity. The idea of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ are artificially created in and by society and trying to fit real human beings into these ideas will probably lead to dissatisfaction and frustration. Women, like men, are creative beings. Often, the ideas of ‘femininity’ stifle women’s creative side – women are more than just mothers and wives. For many women, a working career is what gives them a sense of being and purpose – an identity that is enriching. It is not easy to say that one thing will suit all women, but one thing may be generalized: that women must be allowed the opportunity to consider what things will make them happy. An environment which conditions women to think of themselves only as beings of reproduction will, in the long run, stifle their personalities and lead to a crisis of their identities.