Visual by Akruthi Akula
Almost a hundred years ago, Virginia Woolf wrote that a woman required at least two things to write great fiction—enough money to support herself and a room with a lock and key. In other words, a certain level of independence and autonomy is required in order to actualise one's intellectual potential. Woolf was pointing out in her important essay A Room of One’s Own that women rarely have access to a safe space, a place where they can be free or think freely. In fact, far from having a room of her own, the average 21st-century woman may not even have a body of her own—a body that is free and autonomous, a body that is completely within her control.
The female body is a battlefield; an entity of which many patriarchal forces seek to gain control. Governments, corporations as well as societal norms regulate the female body in many domains. Think of the deliberate conditioning and powerful influence of the cosmetic industry, and the limits and demands they have succeeded in placing on the female body’s form and appearance. Though an element of choice remains, women face severe social and professional consequences for resisting these manufactured norms.
On the other hand, states and governments may deny women entirely control over their bodies. In many countries, women are still considered the property of their husbands and fathers. Reproductive health care services such as contraception or abortion may be prohibited. On the other hand, certain groups of women may have to undergo forced sterilisations and abortions. Depriving female bodies of reproductive rights in any of these ways is a sustained attack on their bodily autonomy. It is also important to note that this deprivation may not always be legal.
In the medical domain, female individuals are not treated as autonomous individuals, despite respect for patients’ autonomy and their voluntary consent being an important component of medical ethics. In bioethics, personal autonomy means that the person can act freely and voluntarily, with intentionality and understanding, and without external mitigating or controlling influences. In practice, even when women have the constitutional rights over their body, they may not have the final say in critical decisions about their bodies. Decisions related to reproduction are rarely left to the individual who undertakes childbearing, but are often taken by their husbands and families.
However, the most blatant way that bodily autonomy is violated is probably via the many forms of sexual violence, ranging from sexual objectification to sexual assault and rape, domestic violence, sexual coercion and sexual trafficking. Any and all forms of sexual violence violate the bodily and sexual autonomy of the victim. The body is the most fundamental space over which an individual should have autonomy, and when this space is intentionally invaded, it is an invalidation not only of the person’s autonomy but also their personhood.
When a person’s consent is considered immaterial, their bodily autonomy is violated, invalidated and null. This is not only in the sexual context, but also in the medical domain and the socio-political realm. Feminist thinkers, philosophers and activists have been working on these issues for centuries. Feminist attempts to reclaim control over their bodies is perhaps seen most clearly in the encompassing slogan of “My body, my choice”. But considering our placement in the patriarchal situation, is bodily autonomy even possible for someone who inhabits a female body?
Immanuel Kant gave two criteria without which a life would be devoid of meaning—rationality and autonomy. For Kant, a life without these two values would not be worth living. Bodily integrity is autonomy in terms of the body. It is the idea that the physical body of an individual is inviolable, it is self-owned, and that human beings have full ownership of their own bodies. This idealisation of bodily integrity does not exist for female bodies. For a woman, physical autonomy is far from reality, it is a myth.
Woolf, V. (2004). A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Books.
Varelius J. (2006). The value of autonomy in medical ethics. Medicine, health care, and philosophy, 9(3), 377–388.
Christman, John, "Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Buss, Sarah and Andrea Westlund, "Personal Autonomy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Campbell, L. (2017) Kant, Autonomy and Bioethics, Ethics, Medicine and Public Health, 3(3), 381-392.
Simran is a philosophy student and French teacher, with a Bachelors in Philosophy from Fergusson and Masters in Cognitive Science from IIT Gandhinagar. Their recent research work in Feminist Phenomenology culminated in a thesis titled "The Impact of Sexual Violence on Female Embodiment". Simran’s current research interests are feminist phenomenology, feminist linguistics, ethics and queer philosophy with a focus on sexual violence and sexuality.