Activating Agency

In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently, to think for themselves and to make their own free choices that express their individual power and help shape their experiences and life trajectories. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and their decisions. (Barker, 2005, p. 448)

One’s ability to act is strongly affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one's experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the circumstances of the environment one is in and the position they are born into.

Through her book The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir tries to launch a multifaceted investigation into woman’s situation and discovers that woman is consistently defined as the Other by man who takes on the role of the (neutral universal) Self. A common way in which this is done is that children are raised to write of humans-in-general as 'man' (eg, “time and tide wait for no man”). Man is implicitly equated with the neutral human self in our general language.

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being… She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she "is the incidental, the inessential, as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute-she is the Other." (p.7). This declaration signals the central importance of the self for feminism. This relegation of the woman to being man's "Other" is made into the very reason for her long-standing submission to man who establishes himself as the Superior being - an idea which is further re-inforced by societal norms. (De Beauvoir, 2015)

To be the Other is to be the non-subject, the non-person, the non-agent—in short, the mere body. In law, in customary practice, and in cultural stereotypes, women's selfhood has been systematically subordinated, diminished, and belittled, when it has not been outright denied. To be unjustly subordinated, it would seem, is to be diminished in one's selfhood and to have one's agency curtailed.

For Beauvoir, 'women' as a category subordinate to man is simply a ‘norm’ imposed by society. Women's selves, then, are also in large part imposed on them by society, and in her view women would do well to take hold of their claims to freedom and choice and thus reclaim their freedom and selfhood. Because society as it is already constructed works to imbue men with agency by default. That is to say society already works for men, so men in general are unlikely to see how depriving women of their agency is something systematically done.

But women have for very long refused to demand recognition as subjects, they have refused to rebel. What is the reason behind this? What stops a woman from claiming the status of the subject? From claiming the power to act independently of male prescriptions or desires?

The answer lies in the strong patriarchal cultures we live in, where the woman internalizes oppression (or in simple words, she learns her ‘place’) and the dominant male societal narratives provide the default templates for their self‐portraits and self‐narratives. Women's appropriation of these default templates reproduce what is supposed to be the ‘norm’. Such a subordinating norm crowds out alternative understandings of who they are and what their lives are about. Subordination endangers women's autonomy in a number of ways. Not only does internalized oppression mold women's desires and alienate them from themselves; it also offers those in subordinate positions all sorts of incentives to minimize friction and ease their lot by placating those with power (Card 1996).

As Deepa Narayan (2018) in her book ‘Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women’ says “Our culture trains women not to exist"(p.8) - We are either killed before birth (female foeticide) or are trained to kill our desires every single day just to exist. Every time a woman uses “I am allowed / not allowed” it reeks of gender bias. It reminds us of the fact that most women grow up thinking unless the men in their life sanction their existence they are not alive, that they have No right to make independent choices.

Women’s existence becomes a reflection of the thoughts of the men in their lives, and these men in order to not fall from their elevated perch of power constantly remind women that as their very existence is in the hands of men. Women are told they do not need power nor are they worthy of power. “The desire for power in [women] itself becomes wrapped in fear. Any desire for power, any desire to exist, to be seen and heard, to speak up, to challenge, to be someone, to simply have a name, becomes morally wrong, hence shameful and guilt-ridden.(p. 242) Thus, patriarchal cultures impede women's agency by bestowing power on men and uses morality against women.

“As a patriarchal woman, she finds that doubt lies at the core of her being.Not only is the self she identifies with given to her by man, and therefore a doubtful indicator of who she is, but the experience through which she might discover herself is rendered doubtful, put out of play, by the patriarchal decree” ( Bergoffen, 2003, p.252)

Simone de Beauvoir labels women “mutilated” and “immanent” (Beauvoir 2015). Socialized to objectify themselves, women are said to become narcissistic, small-minded, and dependent on others' approval. Excluded from careers, waiting to be chosen by their future husbands, taken over by natural forces during pregnancy, busy with tedious, repetitive housework, women never become autonomous agents. Indeed, they are content not to assume the burden of responsibility for their own freedom. Cast in the role of man's Other and at the mercy of feminine vices, women succumb to bad faith and surrender their agency.

This early training which kills the ability of girls to articulate their thoughts, later limits their sense of well-being as well as their confidence. Constant suppression, negation and criticism, overt or subtle, sow doubts about themselves - their thoughts, their intelligence, their minds and their actions. (Narayan, 2018, p. 69). They start under-valuing their own self-worth, their own power of reasoning and intellect. Plagued by self-doubt, women stop having an opinion on things. They start looking at people around them for a validation of their own self, wanting to do anything and everything that it takes to please others so that they are accepted and liked.

Women are forced to become people pleasers - they are expected to do everything and live for others. Pleasing as a moral life principle simply means do not exist for the self, but exist only for others. (Narayan 2018, p. 123). They get absorbed in the needs of others taking away their sense of self. Society trains women to always live for the needs of others, even the choices they make are almost always made thinking of others and putting their family & others above themselves. Pleasing in essence is a training to forget yourself, to give up your agency to maintain harmony in society. A woman is always taught that her preferences are not important, that being assertive is shameful and that it is better to let others make decisions for her.

This, in a nutshell is what theory calls subjection to the male gaze - the view from the "superior" masculine perspective which is always judging, rating, berating woman.

The male gaze, thus accompanies women everywhere they go and that too from an early age. “She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life,” says Berger (Berger & Dibb 1972).

While men are free to make and enforce norms that give them free agency, women are left to choose from a limited set of options largely defined and picked out for them by men. Even as far as religious text goes, men have traditionally held the power to interpret these and determine what a woman’s way of life should be (See for example Sharmila Rege’s collection of essays and extracts from B.R. Ambedkar’s writings titled ‘Against the Madness of Manu’ ).

“The Second Sex … point[s] to the ways in which we flee the vulnerabilities of lived relationships. Patriarchy codes this flight … [it] teaches women that they must be generous and must not take up the risks of [demanding] recognition … [it] teaches men that they must demand recognition and refuse the risks of vulnerability.”

“... the concept of recognition is theoretically located in the interface between individual and community.” This is not a neutral interface - it consists of culture and habit! Respect and recognition are “premised upon the notion of human worth.” And culturally, patriarchy transmits the bias that it is males who ‘naturally’ deserve recognition. (Chandhoke, 2009, p. 141)

As Virginia Woolf points out “it was the relic of the sense of chastity that dictated anonymity to women even so late as the nine­teenth century. This was the very reason that Currer Bell, George Eliot, George Sand, all the victims of inner strife as their writings prove, sought ineffectively to veil themselves by using the name of a man. Thus they did homage to the convention, which if not implanted by the other sex was liberally encouraged by them (the chief glory of a woman is not to be talked of, said Pericles, himself a much-talked-of man) that publicity in women is detestable. Anonymity runs in their blood. The desire to be veiled still possesses them.” (Woolf, 1977, p. 56)

While tracing the history of England referring to the works of Professor Trevelyan, Woolf reminds us that history barely mentions women. Nevertheless, in fiction and poetry women have been the favourite subject of men. Their existence is presented only in relation to men. Appearing as rulers of kings and conquerors in Literature, Woolf (1977) recounts that women in reality were instead being traded as slaves in marriage. They had no agency or the skills to read and write. If women were denied material and other conditions required to reach a state of mind that would allow women to write, Woolf resolves that women could not possibly have manifested their creative talents.

“Indeed, since freedom and fullness of expression are of the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women. Moreover, a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes. And this shape too has been made by men out of their own uses” (Woolf, 1977, p.84) - Language existed but it was built by men and it was inadequate for women. The biases of one gender percolate into language itself and thus women find themselves at a loss to express themselves, cause the very tool of expression is so inadequate and ill-equipped.

The structures imposed by society further impede any form of self-expression in women. To be a human being is to have some form of agency to have some kind of existence. Although human existence is an ambiguous interplay between transcendence and immanence, yet men have been privileged with expressing transcendence through projects, whereas women have been forced into the repetitive and uncreative life of immanence. According to Beauvoir this overwhelming association of women with immanence prevents women from claiming their own freedom.

Furthermore as Dr. Deepa Narayan (2018) states women are trained in seven cultural habits of non-existence. These are deny the body; be quiet; please others; deny your sexuality; isolate yourself; have no individual identity; and be dependent. (p. 9) We inhale the dos and exhale the don’ts. We absorb these cultural values early, unknowingly. They seep into our body, our mind, our morality and our spirit. They are our foundation. Our belonging. Our core. Our culture. Our compass. (p. 5) It is this deep training that eventually leads to the collapse of women and an unequal culture survives on collapsed women. It is a political strategy to keep women imprisoned in their place of an inferior being, of non-existence, and generation after generation this culture of non-existence is kept in place so as to maintain stability in society. It is a nameless cultural open secret. An open secret that oppresses in its very openness.

It is time now to take action against and change this regressive cultural system design. to break down this systemic oppression of women. But how does one bring about this change?

One must remember that the relationship between these social structures and agency is that of an ever-evolving dialectic, where one influences the other, such that a change in one requires the change in the other. So although we know that social structure shapes individual, it’s also important to know that individuals (and groups) also shape social structure, they have the ability- the agency- to make decisions and express them in behaviour.

It requires challenging the script that was handed down to us. It’s time to change that narrative, and it will start with us.


  1. Barker, C. (2005). Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage.

  2. Berger, J (Writer) & Dibb, M (Director). (1972). Episode 2 [Television Series Episode]. In M. Dibb (Pro

  3. ucer) Ways of Seeing. UK: BBC 2.

  4. Bergoffen, D. (2003). Simone de Beauvoir: (Re)counting the sexual difference. In Card, C. (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir (pp. 248 - 265). New York: Cambridge University Press

  5. Card, C. (1996). The Unnatural Lottery. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

  6. Chandhoke, N. (2009). Equality for What?: Or the Troublesome Relation between Egalitarianism and Respect. In G. Guru (Ed.), Humiliation: Claims and Context (pp. 140-162). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

  7. De Beauvoir, S. (2015). Extracts from The Second Sex. London: Vintage.

  8. Narayan, D. (2018). Chup: Breaking the Silence about India’s women. New Delhi: Juggernaut Books.

  9. Parekh, B. (2009). Logic of Humiliation. In G. Guru (Ed.), Humiliation: Claims and Context (pp. 23-40). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

  10. Woolf, V. (1977). A Room of Her Own. London: Grafton.

#Agency #Women #Feminism #Patriarchy #Abuse


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