How Women Are Gaslighted To Believe That They Don’t Really Know What They Want!

The only time a woman’s choices are validated is when they are in accordance with patriarchal expectations. Otherwise she is told she MUST ignore her inner voice telling her what she really wants.

Trigger Warning: This deals with violence against women, emotional violence, breach of women’s consent and gaslighting, and may be triggering for survivors.

All patriarchal societies seem to unanimously agree with the statement that ‘women don’t know what they want’. It has been reiterated over and over with such conviction that not just men but even women have accepted it as indisputable.

Be it pop culture or narratives of politics and religion, all spaces are rife with references to this phrase that conveniently furthers the cause of male hegemony. It reinforces the stereotype of women as fickle, unintelligent creatures ruled by momentary emotions versus men as firm, stable intellectual beings. Movies show women characters stating that they have ‘no clue what they want’. Many books also endorse the same narrative.

The truth, however, stands miles apart

Most women have a clear idea of what they want, but to accept this would mean that society would have to make way for them to move towards that goal, which is what threatens male dominance. Insisting over and over that women are confused is, in fact, a convenient ploy to dismiss women’s demands and their reality.

Shashi Deshpande says in Writing from the Margin: ‘When I became a mother, I found such a discrepancy between what I was told about how mothers felt, and what I really felt, that I was deeply disturbed. It was only as a writer that I could get across this disturbing split and approach reality.’

This ‘disturbing split’ highlighted by Deshpande defines not just the experience of motherhood but of womanhood itself. Quite like motherhood, womanhood is not a monolith. There can be no single answer defining what women want, for different women want different things.

Women are, as a rule, gaslighted to control their choices

However, they are persistently told to ignore their inner voice. For most of their lives, women are at the receiving end of constant gaslighting, making them deny their authentic selfhood, their true needs, desires and aspirations. They are shamed and bullied into accepting what society wants. In such a scenario, they experience cognitive dissonance- a feeling of inconsistency between their beliefs and behaviour, which is actually a result of the sharp split between what they truly want and what they are expected, nay, forced to want.

It is then that patriarchal society zeroes in on the dissonance, holding it out triumphantly as proof of its well-crafted narrative: a woman does indeed not know what she wants; she is forever confused.

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This confusion is, in fact, artificially manufactured by invalidating all those choices that threaten male dominance or even male convenience.

Women are shamed for any choice they make

When a woman decides her goal is to be independent, earn plenty of money or acquire heights of fame, she is accused of being cold and emotionless.

When she decides she does not want children, she is labelled an affront to tradition and culture.

When she decides she wants to walk out of a marriage that is no longer working, she is labelled selfish and asked to prioritise her children over her own well-being.

When she expresses her sexual needs and desires, she is labelled shameless, or worse, characterless.

And when she wants a successful career along with a happy family life – which should actually be the right of any educated individual, whether woman or man – she is told she is unrealistic or too demanding.

The ‘good’ woman

The only time a woman’s choices are validated is when they are in accordance with patriarchal expectations. The ‘respectable’ woman is the one who is completely in alignment with male needs – wants nothing for herself and displays that greatest of feminine virtues in a patriarchal society: unending self-sacrifice.

It is important to point out that the intention here is not to dismiss the choices of getting married, having children, being a home maker, or other traditionally acceptable decisions. These are all valid choices and to dismiss them would make one guilty of precisely the same thing that one is opposing – making impositions on women on how they should lead their lives. The intention is to point out that these are usually the choices that get full legitimacy.

Despite this legitimacy, even the ‘respectable women’ are used to further the patriarchal narrative of women being fragile creatures meant only for domesticity and unfit for positions of authority. Worse, they are accused of being ‘lazy’, for women’s unpaid labour at home is dismissed as economically unproductive work. No matter what choices a woman makes, they are used in creating a narrative against all of womankind.

We need a society of free choices, not restrictions 

It is time to put an end to this narrative of women as ‘confused’ creatures. To be free of patriarchal domination, we must free ourselves of patriarchal language and create new language, thereby opening up new modes of thought.

Instead of prescribing a set path for women – or for men – a truly evolved society would enable both women and men to embrace their androgynous selves and be as ‘feminine’ or as ‘masculine’ in their choices as they would like to be.

Shashi Deshpande sums it up eloquently: ‘My search has led me to the discovery that above all we are human, that what we share as humans is far greater than what divides us as being men and women. The thought that I have the same potential as any other human being has been the most liberating discovery of my life.’

Image source: a still from the film Monsoon Wedding

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About the Author

Zehra Naqvi

Zehra Naqvi is the author of 'The Reluctant Mother: A Story No One Wants To Tell' , published by Hay House India. Zehra is an independent journalist who has been writing for a decade on gender, read more...

8 Posts | 25,116 Views

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