Prepared by: Blerta Sejdija
THE OPPRESSIVE TRADE-OFF, SEEN THROUGH SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR’S LENS.
“The destiny that society traditionally offers women is marriage,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir in her landmark book, The Second Sex, in 1949. Seventy-one years later, many women are subjected to the societal pressure that pushes them to choose between family and career.
To put it simply, no society has fully reached gender equality. According to a study by Plan International, “even in the world’s most gender-equal countries, harmful and discriminatory gender norms will continue holding girls and women back right up to 2030 and beyond.”
Having had the opportunity to explore two different cultures as a Kosovo Albanian born in the Czech Republic, this global forecast rings very plausible to me. However, here I want to focus on “the destiny” that women are offered by Kosovo society, and to point at the ridiculous and quite insulting rhetoric that they have to face.
In my experience, girls are indoctrinated into the virtues of marriage from a very young age. “Family is number one, you should aim for one — you can’t spend all your life with studies and work,” is a sentence almost every woman I know has been told, including myself. Marriage and career are often asymmetrically presented to men and women.
De Beauvoir would’ve described this as men being socially autonomous and complete individuals, regarded above all as producers, and their existence being justified by the work they provide for the group. Meanwhile, in earlier times women were integrated as slaves or vassals into the family group dominated by fathers and brothers, and were given in marriage to males by other males.
In the traditional view, young women became absolutely passive; they were given in marriage by their parents. Men married; they took a wife. I would dare to say that in Kosovo, even the generation of our parents may have gone through such experiences.
Today, this practice has largely disappeared, except for some rural areas. Nonetheless, young women’s free choice has always been highly restricted.
WE LIKE TO THINK THAT THE OLD TIMES OF “GIVING A WOMAN AWAY” ARE OVER, BUT WE ARE YET AGAIN FACED WITH OTHER FORMS OF OPPRESSION.
De Beauvoir would argue that in marriage, women seek an expansion, a confirmation of their existence, but not the very right to exist. And that is what defines many Kosovar marriages. Confirmation of existence, value, worth — as social constructs. Not the very right to exist in its full meaning, however.
Defeatist attitudes urge women to settle
Existence precedes essence — in this regard you should be able to find your purpose. You cannot be an essentialist about women because there is no essential role that women are meant to fulfill. Just the fact that women are reminded of marriage and career much more frequently and willfully than men, is an essential way of addressing their position.
Today, when we like to think that the old times of “giving a woman away” are over, we are yet again faced with other forms of oppression. That being rhetorical oppression, in a better case. The worse case being its escalation to not allowing young women to decide for themselves and constantly reminding them of marriage as the only life purpose, thus making education a secondary value — a societal one, not for the true sake of expanding one’s knowledge.
Education and knowledge are processes of inviting truth and possibility. Women (and men alike) must be taught how to think, not what to think so it’s acceptable within the model of our cultural norms. On the contrary, many parents, rather than doing their best to raise self-sufficient women that don’t have to worry about who will marry them, keep reminding their daughters that marriage is the end goal.
Instead of saving money for the “sacred celebration” of marriage, why don’t you spend it on her education? Most importantly, instead of preparing your daughter for marriage by teaching her how to make traditional dishes and taking care of house chores, why don’t you teach her self-love and confidence?
Because of this defeatist attitude presented by parents, in de Beauvoir’s words, the woman easily settles for a mediocre success — she does not dare to aim higher. Starting out in her job with a superficial education, she very quickly curtails her ambitions. She often considers the very fact of earning her own living a great enough feat — like so many others, she could have entrusted her future to a man.
As a matter of course, a woman’s existence is not dependent on a man’s existence, but it’s unfortunately often presented in such a way. Our society should aim to challenge the woman’s subordination, which is undoubtedly a historical event. It has been here forever, hence why it appears natural in many people’s eyes.
INFERIORITY COMES AS A RESULT OF HOW YOU’RE TREATED, IT IS NOT PREDATED.
With that in mind, it is important to note that not only men keep women in the subordinate position, it is also women adding a great deal to this situation. Mary Wollstonecraft, the philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights, wrote that women have historically tended to not need to learn anything about morality themselves, so they learned manners before morals, how to behave but not why they should behave that way, and how to please men but not how to take care of themselves.
This is very unfortunate, as it lets you off the economic and metaphysical hook; you don’t have to find meaning for your life, you don’t have to find security — a man delivers it to you. Yet again, inferiority comes as a result of how you’re treated, it is not predated.
Outdated expectations need to go
If there is anything that scares traditionalists more than anything, it is a woman devoting her life to pursue her Ph.D. and Ph.D. only, or to work and work only. I will not forget that one time I was asked by an elderly woman: “What do you study for?” Or that other time, when I was told I should restrain from being a driven careerist.
People who approached me that way, in other words told me that a woman alone is a socially incomplete being, even if she earns her living. A woman in their view needs a ring on her finger to achieve the total dignity of a person. Whereas 71 years ago, de Beauvoir wrote that no young man considers marriage as his fundamental project; economic success is what will bring him to respectable adulthood. Frightening, isn’t it, how accurately this applies to our days.
WHAT IF A WOMAN DECIDES TO LIVE ON HER OWN, SIMPLY BECAUSE SHE WISHES SO?
Let’s consider the situation of a woman mastering both — becoming a successful careerist and a wife/mother at the same time. Which by all means should be to every individual to decide, and being both is of course possible. Nonetheless, that is when the second shift comes into play.
The fact that wives in today’s modern society no longer are responsible for everyday domestic work has been at a great notice within western households. However, it seems that this doesn’t apply for Kosovo’s society, where gender inequities in the division of housework remain and are largely accepted as traditionally given — by both men and women.
The domestic work that is for the most part performed by women, while having a professional career at the same time, rather resembles the Sisyphean torture. Even when domestic work is not repetitive, it serves only to sustain human life rather than to advance its progress; necessary for life but lends it no significance. A housewife achieves thus nothing herself, she transfers her raison d’être to those with whom she lives.
Another situation wholly worthy of discussion is when a woman approaches her 30s and is unmarried, focusing on her career solely — she is considered desperate, a figure of pity. On the other hand, an unmarried man of the same generation “has enough time,” at least in the eyes of our society.
What if a woman decides to live on her own, simply because she wishes so? Adding to the criticism she will be subjected to by the society, she will also be constantly approached by her circle: “There’s a great man of a good reputation I’d like you to meet…”
I believe there is a need to transform the normative expectations surrounding the position of a woman, a careerist, and wife — in Kosovo and beyond. On de Beauvoir’s account, marriage is oppressive and involves a moral wrong when it facilitates the transcendence of one spouse by relegating the other to the round of relatively uncreative chores needed to maintain life in the home.
Considered as outdated, her analysis, unfortunately, remains relevant to Kosovar second-shift marriages and the perception of women’s role in our society.