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To my young mind, being a woman felt inherently frightening and full of danger. The solution was to not be “one of the girls”.
I recently read two brilliant books by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; We should all be feminists and Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. The books present a fresh take on what Feminism actually stands for.
As I was reading through these two gems, I found myself nodding along with the narrative in its entirety. I had the good fortune to listen to the audiobook in Adichie’s own voice, and it was an experience to last a lifetime. When you listen to an author narrate their own book, you get to feel the intensity of the words in the pages as the author intended them, and it is magical! It is my humble request to all the women and men out there to read these books as soon as possible. Life is a race against time after all, the sooner we get to the good stuff, the better!
Although both the books are filled with profound life advice, there’s a quote in particular from the book Dear Ijeawele, that had an astounding impact on me – “Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive.” And it is this quote that made me think of my own journey of becoming the woman I am and the overwhelming challenges I faced along the way.
I grew up in a typical Indian middle-class family, surrounded and bounded by the typical middle-class restrictions. Be nice, dress appropriately, don’t answer back, don’t talk to boys, and many more such inane rules and regulations.
From a very early age, I remember associating being a woman with somehow being weaker, physically, psychologically, and socially. Having been a victim of physical, verbal and sexual abuse early in my childhood, and having watched the women around me suffer through the same, a focal point of abuse, lynching, sexual harassment, rape, honour killings; to my young mind, being a woman felt inherently frightening and full of danger.
So I did the only thing a child, who is constantly afraid of the innumerable atrocities that befall a woman, can do – I dissociated myself from my own femininity. I inculcated within myself traits that were considered to be more masculine. I dressed like boys, I played sports, I picked fights and bad mouthed people, I dropped the tenderness of a growing girl and tried to copy the brashness of my male counterparts, my brothers, my father, my male friends. I actually forced my parents to call me a boy and would get supremely upset if they called me a girl.
This was through the ages of 3 to 9 years old. If reading that number worries you, it should. The ideologies formed in children’s minds are a reflection of everything that goes on around them; if you think they are too young to understand abuse and fear, think again.
I became someone who was notoriously termed as “tom-boyish”. The sad thing is, I took pride in it. I used to remove myself from the clique of ‘normal girls’ by insisting time and again that “I was not like typical girls”. I chose to hate the colour pink on principle, because it was associated with or rather represented being a girl. My mother had to suffer some terrible tantrums while I was growing up. She would try and fail to instil supposedly womanly values in me. Cook, clean, bathe regularly, wear traditional Indian clothes.
I wore jeans and tee shirts, I refused to step inside the kitchen, calling out my mother for discriminating against me because I was a girl. Side note, she never actually discriminated. She was teaching my brothers to cook and clean just as much as me, I just refused to pick up that broom or take up that ladle because I believed that I was being stereotyped into the role of a normal girl.
On the surface, all of it seems sort of normal. All teens go through phases of rebellion. What I never told anyone, least of all myself, that the driving force for my childhood tom-boy persona, was the fear of being a woman.
I remember, I never wore clingy tee shirts or mini skirts, or typically girly clothes, because I could feel hundreds of strangers’ eyes travelling up and down my anatomy, violating the energy around me and making me nauseous. The handful of times I did wear traditional Indian clothes, like salwar kameez and sari, I remember feeling absolutely naked, with no armour of baggy tee shirts to hide my curves. I remember trying and failing to incessantly cover myself with the dupatta. I remember having to choose which part of me to protect with my school bag, while traveling by buses and local trains. should I wear it in the front ? Or back? Will it be enough to stop that hand from groping? Or that elbow that would jam into my chest so hard that I would forget to breathe for a second?
Being a tomboy was my defence against having to accept that fear. It was logical to my younger self, if I didn’t look like a girl, I would not be treated like a girl; nobody would hurt me. If I didn’t wear that stunning black dress, those perfect red shoes, or that shimmery blush pink lipstick, I would be safe. I never grew out my hair past shoulder length, I never made friends with girls for fear of being typecast with them, I never took the slightest bit of pride in my inner or outer beauty.
The extent of fear was clearly exhibited by my fervent desire to have a breast reduction surgery throughout my teenage years, so that people would stop staring. It’s not a joke, I researched for appropriate plastic surgeons and hospitals for years on end. I ran away from my femininity in a bid to protect myself from the abuse.
It was much later in life when I was introduced to the concept of feminism, and voila! At last there was an actual word that I could use to categorise and describe my feelings. Yes. I am a feminist! It was liberating, to know that perhaps now I could be free of this fear; that I could actively do something to change things, to make things better for myself and the women around me.
Feminism meant that I am free to feel safe and secure in my own skin as a woman. Feminism meant that I am free to wear clothes that I want to wear and not the ones that I have to wear. Feminism meant that I am treated like any other human being. Feminism brought on with it, the golden age for women empowerment in all sections of the society.
However, like everything else in this universe, we have corrupted Feminism as well. Nowadays, unfortunately and maybe even unintentionally, the word ‘feminism’ has become equivalent to ‘feminazi’ or the ‘anti-men squad’. Somewhere in our battle for women’s rights, the true meaning of the word, and the movement, has been lost. Feminism DOES NOT MEAN hatred for men.
Men and women have physiological as well as psychological differences and equality is not about these being the same. Feminism is equality of opportunities. Feminism is women empowerment and uplifting femininity, feminism IS NOT devaluation of men and destruction of all things male. I wish I could shout this out into the faces of that section of women and men out there who have so grossly misrepresented the entire movement that it has ended up becoming a joke. It is deeply disturbing and highly inappropriate, the direction today’s feminism has taken.
I am 30 years old now, and I still have trouble at times, feeling the entire spectrum of my own womanhood. It is a tragedy of the times that we live in, that we might never be able to change all that we wish to change.
However, we can change our part of the world, slowly but steadily, and make our part of the world a safe space, a better place for the girls who are stepping out into womanhood. The first step to achieving this goal is understanding the battle we are fighting. After all, what is the point, if at the end, we are slaughtering ourselves in the battlefield?
Photo by Ana Madeleine Uribe from Pexels
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