BLOGS

March 08, 2018

Three myths of womanhood

From the time I could remember, I grew up with these three words – you cannot, you need not and you should not. 

You cannot – because you are a woman, and that means you are physically, mentally, intellectually and emotionally weaker than men;

You need not – because you are a woman, and men will take care of you;

and 

You should not – because you are a woman. Your purpose in life is to be a good mother and a good wife. Aspiring for anything else is unwomanlike.

A lot of women (even in these more enlightened days) grow up with these myths drilled into them; reinforced by custom, culture, religion, society, law, fake science, books, media – virtually every source and resource. 

And these myths become so ingrained in our psyche that they become very difficult to shake off. Even when we begin to realize deep in our minds that they don’t really make much sense. 

For many women, a myth that gets broken quite unexpectedly is the one that says “you needn’t” – when they realize that the men who were supposed to take care of them cannot or will not do it, or are not around to do it. Or they simply cannot do it well enough. 

Some conventional wisdoms say that women should then learn to adjust to their circumstances. Not to covet for something that their men cannot provide them. 

Spare a thought for all the women in the Gulf region working as house maids. They all have a story to tell – stories of neglect, stories of cruel abuse, stories of extreme poverty, debt. Tell these poor women that they should learn not to “covet” for something their menfolk cannot provide and see how they respond. 

The saddest part is that these women are so ill-prepared for facing life – forcing them to do whatever they can to survive. 

The conventional wisdom also says women cannot. They simply don’t have the ability to be, to do. They are weak, weaker. Whatever differences that naturally exist between men and women, nurture skews them and amplifies them a thousand times. Such as by parents when they tell their daughters things such as, “your brother needs to be strong, so he needs to eat better than you.” Or “your brother needs to study, but you don’t need to”. 

It does make me laugh at the irony when the same conventions which say that women are weak also impose the harshest punishment on women. Think of the honour-killing in some ultra-conservative Islamic societies. Isn’t it logical that those who are considered “weak” should be dealt with more compassion when they do something wrong, I wonder. 

And ah, of course, women shouldn’t either. Even if they can. 

Because their purpose in life is to take care of their husbands and children and the rest of the family. They shouldn’t desire for more. The word that typically goes with wife is “obedient” and the word that goes with motherhood is “sacrifice”. Obedience in wife and sacrifice in mothers are seen as virtues. Anything converse are seen as arrogance, unwomanlike. 

History and mythology are replete with examples of women who sacrificed their life for their menfolk. Take Mahabharata, the great Indian epic in which King Dhrutharashtra’s wife Gandhari decided to blindfold herself for the rest of her life when she learned that her would-be husband was blind. She didn’t want to experience the joy of seeing when her husband couldn’t. The result? Both she and her husband failed to see what their children were up to.

What if instead she had realized that with a blind husband, she now has the responsibility to see for both of them? That seeing is not just a joy, but also a responsibility? Imagine how that would have changed the narrative. 

And when I speak about these myths around women, I cannot ignore those around men which happen to be the opposite – men can, men need to and men should. 

This heavy and uneven responsibility thrust upon them to be the sole breadwinners brings excruciating suffering to a lot of men. I am reminded of the countless South Asian men in the Gulf region who sacrifice their youth and life for the sake of their families back home. 

But, in general, it is the women who suffer a lot more in this unfair equation due to the extreme power imbalance it creates.

As this International women’s day comes to a close, I say out loud, with full conviction:

“Both women and men can, they need to and they should.”

So that there is a better distribution of power, responsibility, wealth, health, happiness, effort, knowledge, freedom etc. etc. etc. 

On this International Women’s day, I am happy that life is, and is getting, much better and fairer for a lot of women. 

I just hope that, during my lifetime, I will be able to see that day when gender discrimination will be a thing of the past globally, so much so that we won’t need to have a Women’s day any more. We can perhaps then rename the day “Human’s day” – a day to remind ourselves, and celebrate, the humanity in all of us, no matter what the gender. 

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