On Being And Becoming A Woman

The process of becoming a woman and learning what "Women" must and must not do starts early in our lives.

The process of becoming a woman and learning what “Women” must and must not do starts early in our lives.

I found out what it was like to be a woman when I was ten. My best friend’s mother owned her own beauty salon and on some days, after school and summer camp, we’d grab lemon-yellow popsicles and crayons and head on over to the parlour to hang out while her mum worked.

Lolling around on zebra-striped couches and watching the hot pink interior of the salon got too boring for us at certain points, we’d smash crayon heads into the couch, trying to drown out the monotony of black and white, throw our popsicle sticks on the mean old manicurist who shot us death glares, or stare out the window watching the summer sky turn to black.

It wasn’t hard to see that our laughter and voices in the midst of fake giggles, hair drying noises and an endless medley of top 2005 Bollywood hits were the only genuine thing around. It wasn’t hard to see the endless, futile race against life’s forces the adults were running, with hair dye, plucked eyebrows, and wrinkle-lifting, anti-aging creams that never made sense to us.

It wasn’t hard to see that their lives were even more monotonous than our predicament. Day-after-day, the ladies would walk and talk about the same old things (weddings, kitty parties, soap operas, designers), smile plastered on smiles, and go on with their endless twittering. I couldn’t understand why nobody wanted to talk about Ninja Turtles and whether or not Michelangelo would’ve liked to know he’d got a cartoon character named after him. I couldn’t understand why those ladies didn’t go outside and play, or watch a movie, or read a book. Why would anyone waste three to four to five hours in one place just to make herself look pretty?

I found the answer in a salon chair. There was a rather large salon chair that would swivel around and make creaky noises as we played on it. I was too small for it. My best friend and I always felt too small and confused in that hot pink adult world, but that chair made us shrink even more. Our sneaker-clad feet couldn’t even reach the floor; the feet that did touch the floor wore sandals, khussas, chappals and stilettos.

One day, a bride came in to get dolled up. She wore a crisp cotton top and jeans, had a mass of curly hair like an aura around her, a hooked nose and a book in her hand whose title was a word too big for me to understand. She smiled at me in my disheveled shorts and t-shirt, with my messy mop of hair, squirming around in a chair that was too big for me. I watched as she got ready, fascinated by this lady unlike all the others, who walked in caked with makeup, that looked so normal.

The bride looked at me then, and it was scary how she had become a clone of all the other brides I’d seen before…

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They took her book first, then had her put on an opulent, gold spangled dress, did up her make-up, straightened her hair and pulled it back, hooked a nose-ring into her hooked nose, and then covered her head. They gave her stilettos to wear. She reached for the book, but her mother, hovering over her through it all, gently pushed it away, “No, sweetheart, now you can’t.” The bride looked at me then, and it was scary how she had become a clone of all the other brides I’d seen before, her personality wiped out, and a moment of understanding passed between us.

I looked down at my sneakers then, and I realized that they might someday grow into stilettos. I realized that when my feet reached the floor, they would be subject to pedicures and other techniques to hone them into a perpetual state of daintiness. They wouldn’t hold scars and burns and blisters from a life of running outside, but turn pale from being indoors, with indents of heel straps having dug into them. I realized that maybe I wouldn’t be me when I grew up.

Growing to fit the ‘socially desirable’ box

When we go from those sneakers to stilettos, it is because of a long, difficult process of social conditioning. We are made, apart from whatever else we might be or might have been, into the socially desirable stereotype of the South Asian feminine. There are a lot of things that we can’t be, because it doesn’t fit into this box. This box in which only the submissive, reticent, loyal, obedient, beautiful (beautiful as determined by social and cultural perceptions of beauty), loving, graceful, and kind belong. To be wild, even slightly risqué, outspoken, domineering, rebellious, clumsy, tomboyish or even bit of a goofball is undesirable because that isn’t how girls are ‘supposed’ to be.

To be wild, even slightly risqué, outspoken, domineering, rebellious, clumsy, tomboyish or even bit of a goofball is undesirable because that isn’t how girls are ‘supposed’ to be.

Girls can’t play soccer on the roof while a dholki is going on downstairs (I’ve done it quite often); girls have to dress up, look pretty and behave when guests come over, girls have to keep their rooms and themselves neat and tidy, girls can’t fall over in heels (I do it all the time), girls should wear makeup, girls shouldn’t talk back, girls shouldn’t go out at night. These are admonitions some women might receive because they have trouble being ‘women’ or ‘feminine’ and embracing a stereotype, or being the general rule because that’s not how they are. Growing up in Pakistan, we all undergo a process of domestication and objectification, to some degree.

How it Happened by Shazaf Fatima Haider, a satire about the arranged way of life traces the expectations of women in marriage, and how these expectations have to be met by internalizing the expected qualities in to the girl whose sole objective in life is (apparently) to get married. Here their lives are about marriages, because for a long time we really did serve only this purpose.

“A man’s life is of more value than a woman’s. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions. Our lives revolve in curves of emotions. It is upon lines of intellect that a man’s life progresses.” Lady Chiltern in An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde says this, and while this is incredibly sexist, it does ring true. In the Victorian era in England, and even here, very few women served a larger purpose than perhaps marriage or even a decorative purpose, and for some this is still the case. It is acceptable for some, but in this time period, others want more than just the man, and because the customs and traditions of today are those lingering from an older time period where women’s lives barely had any scope, it becomes difficult for the ‘others’ to gain more.

Hurting yourself by pleasing others

In some ways, in one way or another in the life of the South Asian woman, we become objects.  I feel afraid that these overshadow the woman herself, that in the attempt to compromise for and please other people she might be doing some really bad damage to herself. A domestic abuse website, Chayn Pakistan, speaks of the social desirability of keeping a marriage and compromises on the part of woman, as being a factor in the woman not seeking divorce. So she must strap on those stilettos even though she will teeter, because a life filled with lessons about submissiveness, loyalty and obedience doesn’t allow for running shoes to run away from the marriage.

Daughters have to be somebody, not somebody’s, but we are taught the exact opposite. This is the general rule for which of course there are exceptions but from which most women are not exempted. We belong to others; we are defined in relation to others, we cannot simply exist on our own as individuals in a society that is urban and traditional, modern and backward, all at the same time so that while women are sent to university, their degrees for the most part just serve to decorate a drawing room later. A big part of this life is about being moulded into a good wife, mother, daughter, sister, daughter-in-law, cousin, niece etcetera, even while compromising oneself.

A big part of this life is about being moulded into a good wife, mother, daughter, sister, daughter-in-law, cousin, niece etcetera, even while compromising oneself.

In the documentary Miss Representation, it is pointed out that through a greater emphasis on the female body, beauty and grooming, there appears to be less political efficacy in the female herself. Because, when women spent 5 hours in a beauty salon, like the regulars at the one mentioned previously, they give up the opportunity to perhaps do something more substantial, like read or watch a documentary, or think about something other, something more than mascaras and curls and breakouts and manicures.

The universality of Blanche Dubois’s character (Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire) rings true in the struggle of all women to be and remain beautiful, in the futility of this struggle because to be beautiful is defined in terms of youth, radiance, thinness and vitality which may wane overtime because so much of it is taken away by the years. Clear skin, perfect figures, thick hair is taken away by age and pregnancies and yet, the ladies at the salon, talked about skin-tightening, eye-bag removing solutions because their lives, and the lives of many, are consumed with the need to be desirable, to get rid of signs of the cracks in their masks (faces too caked with make-up to be called faces).

And this is because Women need to be desirable – not free thinkers, not agents of historical or social change, but desirable, Barbie dolls, objects, to fit into society. In some way or another, this patriarchal paradigm imposes itself or manifests itself onto or within a south Asian woman’s life, if not in a violent and oppressive manner where honor killings happen and rape is an endemic, then in subtler and less life-threatening ways: like the subtler socialization process.

The girl-child is often restricted in comparison with her male counterpart. While the males of the species are conditioned into rowdy, untamed members of the Cricket Cult, the females are tender, soft, and delicate, discouraged from eating much and made to groom (repetitively), conditioned into a submissive, meek state. The modern girl child is still engendered into a domestic entity, given dolls instead of cars, Cosmo (with questions like this on the front page “Is he really into you? Take this quiz to find out, now!”).

The entire clan keeps a watchful eye on her, discouraging raucous behavior and repeating the admonishment, “Be a good girl”, while the males run around tearing off the pink bows perched atop the crowns of the females. To this the clan murmurs, chuckling, “Boys will be boys.”

Hunting skills are discouraged in females; rather, she is made the gatherer. While the elder brother goes out to buy the meat, and the naan, she runs around and collects and brings to the dinner table what is inside her area of confinement (i.e. her den and the area around it), namely cups, glasses, salads. She also prepares the meal, a rare occurrence in any species, and any burns, cuts and welts procured are added to by more burns, cuts and welts by the next meal because the responsibility for the meal is solely on her shoulders. This is training for when she finds a mate. This is the primary focus of her conditioning, to be groomed into a “suitable girl”, in order to find one day, “a suitable boy”. Not perhaps, a suitable job or a suitable apartment, because Vikram Seth didn’t write about that.

The suppression of deviant attitudes and actions is rampant. There seems to be even a fear of deviance because it is perceived as something dangerous and negative and that deviant behaviour will necessarily bring about harm. A girl can’t be interested in books more than make-up or couldn’t care less about marriage because the books will give them “funny, flighty” ideas and the fact that she’s not interested in marriage, and might be more intent on working, is because she is a lesbian. Deviant attitudes and behaviours work against the image of the South Asian feminine. This isn’t how a woman should be because it might lead to immoral behaviour and bring dishonour to the family name. A great deal of burden falls on the girl-child in terms of family honour. She is to bring honour to the name perhaps because she carries the name for a shorter period of time.

It’s suffocating how social conventions define our boundaries and therefore limit our mobility and freedom of action and choice. What women are free to do is defined by other people, by centuries of socio-cultural and religious tradition. Be reticent, not outspoken. Be modest, never overly sexual. Stumble across in discomfort, even if you were meant to walk in other shoes.

Image of feet in sneakers via Shutterstock


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