Kiran Bedi (IPS officer): For me, being a woman is being specially gifted. An internally-empowered woman has the potential to contribute to society in innumerable ways. A woman who becomes an asset to herself is an asset for the nation and her society. I have been able to make a difference much more because of being a self-dependent woman. But this edge came through sustained and dogged perseverance in questioning the status quo. The results have been worth the fight.
A woman’s growth is the product of several factors which determine whether she becomes an asset or a liability to herself and to society. Some are within her control and some are not, like her family, the mindset, financial status or the educational background of her parents, their religious belief — all of which shape her future.
A woman in our society is as free as she believes herself to be. I chose to be free for I was groomed to be so. And later, continued to train and treasure my sense of freedom. But all along, I had an option to surrender, seek protection and become dependent. Society accepts women’s dependence more naturally than their independence. The latter is exclusively her choice. It could well be treated as defiance!
A woman’s body needs special care. She is vulnerable physically. But it is her mental strength which provides her the real physical protection.
Mahasweta Devi (writer and activist):
I find such a question neither intelligent nor of much use to the way I write or work. I feel, quite strongly, that these gendered notions of the body have been thought up largely by the middle classes who are seldom in touch with the people. One is born either a woman or a man, and it is positively idiotic to make a fuss about this. Perhaps if such questions were put to women like Tapasi Mallik, raped and burned in Singur, then the senselessness of these queries would be made even plainer. When I started writing, it was my only means of earning a living. The Bengali literary establishment was then entirely male, but even so, I did not feel either constrained or empowered by my body. Nor was this ever an issue in my activist life. I have travelled to remote villages and towns all over the country, often on my own or with unfamiliar men. I was born with a female body, and now that I have grown old, no new little bits seem to have sprouted anywhere (aar notun kichhu to gojay-tojay ni)! So I must be a woman still.
Soma Biswas (athlete):
For a long time now, the only thought I have had about my body is that I have to keep it in shape so that it helps me win my events. I know that in India and Bengal, women and girls doing weight-training or benchpresses still face a lot of raised eyebrows, but that has never bothered me. There are times when I feel a little strange in the middle of other women of my age, but this is not to be taken negatively. It is just that their calling and mine are very different. I don’t feel restricted in any way for having the body of a woman. We are taught from an early age to deal with the restrictions that our bodies impose on us. I don’t feel men have an advantage over women because they are built stronger and ‘freer’. In any case, I compete only with women, so a comparison of my situation with a man’s has never occurred to me. Such comparisons are useless, and indulging in them make women look weaker than they are. All women should work towards making their bodies fit and strong, whether it meets with the feminine stereotype or not.
Leela Majumdar, the Bengali writer who turned hundred last month, was commissioned by AIR to broadcast a series, in 1947-48 , for Mahila-mahal on the “natural and ordinary problems” in the everyday life of a girl growing up in a typical, middle-class, Bengali family. She created Manimala, the story of a “very ordinary girl” whose grandmother starts writing to her from when she turns 12, continuing into her marriage and motherhood. These translated excerpts are Thakuma’s advice in response to some of Mani’s more bodily resentments and anxieties.
“So have you really started wearing a sari now' I am glad to hear, though, that you’ve kept a few frocks for when you go off to play. Your mother can’t be given all the blame either…Do you think she actually enjoys turning her little girl into an old woman' But you know what, didimoni, who has the strength of mind here to become a subject of discussion' The way you’re shooting up each day in all your beauty, like a palm tree, all the neighbours are making her ears ring with their comments. But I understand very well the essence of your complaints. As you grow in years, all the oldies are gradually drawing you into their fold, and isn’t this what you don’t want to go along with' Such is the system for you, but look at how things are, in the same house, with Goopi. He is a year older than you, but what a little boy he goes around being still, and nobody seems to mind at all. Yet, if you have to go somewhere, then they will not let you walk alone, and might even send that Goopi with you. Doesn’t this make you quite burn with rage'… The reason why he is sent with you is this: not everybody in this country has learnt to respect women yet. People will bother you in various ways if you’re walking alone, but they will not say anything if Goopi’s with you. This is infuriating, but it also makes me laugh.
“All this makes me think, you should try to make it possible that, ten years from now, our women too can walk alone, safely and fearlessly, as women do in other countries. Toughen your body, so that you can even deal a few blows if needed. And much more important, be courageous in your mind too, so that you aren’t afraid of Fear.
“...I can’t tell you how sorry I was to hear of your aunt’s serious illness…But to tell you the truth, I don’t feel as sympathetic as you do in this matter, however much I might feel for her pain. I hope you have understood the difference between the two. I feel bad that she is suffering and I pray for her quick recovery, but I don’t at all agree that keeping her illness and pain hidden away from all the others at home, right from when it all began, is an evidence of her patience and self-sacrifice. If she had told your uncle at the very beginning and got herself treated, then the illness wouldn’t have progressed, people wouldn’t have worried, and money wouldn’t have been spent to this extent. ...Perhaps it’s good to be able to quietly withstand the pain that can’t be avoided, and quite possible too with a little strength of mind. But don’t keep quiet about being ill. The doctors should be given a chance too! That isn’t selfishness; on the contrary, it’s your duty….
“I have heard so many women boasting about this sort of thing: ‘I suffer from a heart problem, you know. That’s why my husband doesn’t let me move a finger. He gives me my medicines the first thing after coming back from work...,’ and so on. As if this were something to tell everybody! I have conti- nually heard women compete with one another over their terrible illnesses — the greater the number of ailments, the more the glory. Diseases, like vice, should be got rid of. There is really no limit to the dreadful unfairness of destroying one’s own health.”
A couple of weeks ago, my five-year-old niece asked me, “When I grow up, will I be a boy or a girl'” I asked her, “Which would you like to be'” After much forehead-corrugating thought, she said, “Girl”. I patted her on the back and congratulated her. She hasn’t met many boys. Most of her cousins are girls, and she goes to a girls’ school. Once she encountered an ill-behaved boy at a wedding, and was bullied.
Perhaps that’s what influenced her choice. Far better to choose the gender role you know than the one you don’t.
In the past fifty years, some places and some classes have been able to overhaul their ideas of gender, which is the social expression of the ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Gender isn’t the same as sex. Sex is something you can do blood tests for; gender is a lot cloudier. It’s a collection of things we find ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’, and it’s specific to a time and place.
Two hundred years ago in India, literacy was ‘masculine’, that is, it was something that only (some, not all) men were allowed or expected to have. Having babies, by contrast, is always to do with sex: you have to have a woman’s body to do it. People nevertheless pretend that having babies is the same as wearing corsets (or saris), and the one is inevitably linked to the other: mother comes wrapped in a sari. Sexual pleasure was masculine too, and there are some in our society who still see it that way. The essential test for whether a quality or an activity is a part of sex or gender is to ask this question: could a man (or woman) do or have it if they wanted to, regardless of whether it would make them look silly or not'
That’s why we are so obsessive about teaching children to act their gender; we know it’s really a lot more optional than we admit, and the process of indoctrination can so easily fail. We usually explain this in protective terms: if a child has a female body, she’d better learn to act like a girl, because a female body is weaker, more vulnerable, and if she tries to play with the big boys she’ll get hurt, as well as be mocked by other girls. Similarly, a boy who is ‘cissy’ will be picked on by his peers. Best to give them the right sociological signals from the start: boys should act strong, and girls should act weak. However, this is all moonshine. Yes, the strongest male body will be stronger than the strongest female one, and the weakest female body weaker than the weakest male one. But at all the points in between, it is by no means inevitable that a given woman will be physically weaker than a given man.
So we load the dice: we teach girls not to do sports, or to do them in a dispirited sort of way if the curriculum requires it. We would rather they starved themselves and watched TV than bulked up and played football. A generation ago, girls were overfed with starch and sugar to fit a certain view of the female body. Today, they fight their mothers to starve, faint when stressed and have hysteria if their weight goes up a kilogram. We put weakness in their heads.
We teach them weakness is pretty, that it will help attract a husband who will protect and serve. It’s because of the weakness that he has to be around. And so her weakness produces a role for him too: the good strongman against the bad strongman, who’ll deal with the world on her behalf.
Some days ago, I saw this explained to me on the street, in a little incident I watched from my window. Boys with packets of green and blue paste were running after some girls. One of the girls screamed and squatted down in the road, covering her face with her forearms. Five pairs of hands grabbed her body, kneading the muck in with triumphant fingers. The boys’ faces were blue-black, in which their teeth formed huge white double half-circles. They were all laughing as they ran off. The girl, her face now unrecognizable, shuffled off to the pump by the road to try and rinse her shaggy green head, while another girl was captured and the process repeated. Neither of the girls laughed; they shrugged, brushed off the worst of the colour and went home.
Across the road, a girl’s face peered round a shutter, half horrified, half relieved that she was indoors and safe. They already know what it’s like to live in a woman’s body.