Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Posts tagged ‘Messages for girls and women’

This way of being a woman is not working

Sometime back, I came across a post by a woman sharing about how hooked she was to social media, that on one occasion, her husband hit her because she got into bed with her phone, and she couldn’t put it down.

Interestingly, many women commenting on her post found it ok for her to be hit for not paying attention to her husband, particularly while in bed. There was very little alarm raised over the fact that she had been hit. She seemed more concerned about her addiction to social media, than the violence meted out on her.

Reading the post and the comments that followed, got me thinking about how society has created an image of “the good woman”, and the idea that a woman who fails to fit in that image, should be ready to face male-perpetrated violence.

We learn very early as girls that we need to behave, dress and look a certain way with all men, including our fathers, brothers, male neighbours, spouses and even male strangers, with the threat of male – perpetrated violence if we don’t.

I too, was taught from a very early age to expect physical, emotional or sexual violence from men, if I failed to conform to this idea of being female.

When I was a young girl, I was fond of taking meat from the pan as it was cooking. To discourage me from the habit, our house help often threatened that if I carried the habit into marriage, my husband would one day buy me an entire goat, and demand that I cook it all and eat it all at a go. That apparently would be his way of punishing me for this behaviour that was very unbecoming of a lady.

Our house help was not the only person who threatened me with crazy things that my husband would do to me, if I didn’t fit the “good woman” image. Many times when I overslept, my mother threatened me that no man would entertain such sleepiness. She often told me that one day my husband would return me back to her, because I had overslept, and the children were not bathed or fed, and the house stayed dirty.

In this case, my husband would be returning me to my mother for more training, because if I was not a “good woman”, my mother would be to blame, for not providing adequate training. Never mind that these would be my husband’s children, just as they were mine, or that I was the product of both my mother and father.

We learn to expect violence for not conforming to gendered ways of being female. A lot of people don’t even recognize how they teach girls and women to expect abuse in relationships. I’m sure that was not my mother’s or the house help’s intention. They just wanted me to be a “good woman” who fit in society.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been taught to expect physical, sexual or emotional abuse for failing to conform to certain ways of being female.

Girls that talk too much or question a lot are told to control their mouths, otherwise they will get hit for answering back their husbands. Women are told to teach their daughters not to sit on their fathers’ laps, or to be affectionate towards their fathers, because “men have very little sexual control”, and even a father could rape his daughter. Girls are taught to sit “properly” with their legs closed even in the presence of brothers and uncles, because of this “sexual control issue” that men have.

In a previous blog post I talked about how the lives and bodies of women are dictated and policed. From how to dress, where to be at certain times, and who to be with at those times. Sadly, when women face violence, the first thing society checks is whether they conformed to the standards set for them by society.

The problem with this messaging is that it not only centres the lives of girls and women on fitting into the image of a woman that will find a man to marry her, but it also creates a situation where violence against women is normalized. It also creates a society where women are constantly facing blame or blaming themselves for the violence and the abuse that they face.

It’s high time we cultivated ways of being male or female, that do not create such imbalance between genders; where one gender learns to cater to the other, while the other learns that it is ok to be violent to the other.

It’s high time we abhorred all forms of violence, and discouraged both its perpetration and receipt regardless of gender. No ifs, no buts, because this way of being a woman is not working, and it cannot be sustained.


Why can’t I just say I’m on my period?

Recently, my period started while I was on an out of town work trip with a male colleague.  Because I hadn’t carried any pads with me, and I wasn’t familiar with the place, I asked my colleague, who was more familiar with the place to direct me to a supermarket.

He innocently asked me what I was going to buy, and rather than say that I was going to buy pads, I beat around the bush trying to look for a suitable response; one that would not make either one of us uncomfortable.

After the incident, I wondered why I couldn’t just say that I needed pads.  Had I been in need of lotion, a pair of sandals, painkillers or anything else that I might have forgotten to carry for the trip, I would have easily said it, but not pads.

The incident puzzled me quite a bit because I am generally quite open to talking about sex and sexuality issues without a sense of discomfort, yet it was difficult for me to tell a male colleague that I needed to find a shop to buy pads.

I couldn’t understand why I was so afraid of creating an uncomfortable situation, but upon deeper introspection, I realised that it wasn’t my discomfort that I was afraid of, but that of my colleague.  I wondered why I was so concerned about not making my colleague uncomfortable about something as natural as a period, and noticed that we have actually been socialised to avoid making the male folk uncomfortable with what oozes from inside the female body every month.

As girls, we were taught to avoid making boys uncomfortable about our periods.  We were required to hide pads from boys, not talk about periods around them and woe unto you  if you stained your dress and the boys noticed it. I remembered how we often stained our dresses, because we could not easily take out pads from our bags, and go for a change.  Instead of being met with empathy when we stained our dresses, we were made to feel dirty and careless for exposing the ‘filth’ that came from inside of us.

Periods _ what guys think it looks like

I realised the discretion around periods did not exist in the absence of boys, when I went to a girls only high school.  We talked about our periods, and the accompanying physical and emotional discomfort with ease.  We comfortably flushed pads out of our bags as we were going for a change, and openly asked our desk-mates if they had extras when we forgot to carry our own.  We rarely stained our dresses, because we had the freedom to just walk up and go for a change, but even when we did stain, there was never a fuss made about it.

I confirmed that indeed the discretion around periods only applied to male presence when I started working.  In work places we are required to be discreet about our periods because if you happen to be in a foul mood, or make mistakes as a female leader, that may be attributed to periods and hormones.   We learn to be discreet about our periods because we don’t want to be considered incompetent, irrational and ill-tempered co-workers or leaders.

As the world marked the International day of menstrual hygiene on 28th of May, I thought of the discretion around periods and what that means to girls and women.  While we have rightly focused on ensuring that girls do not miss school due to lack of sanitary towels, we need to question the discretion around menstruation, and the negative meanings given to a process that is only so natural. How did menstruation come to be attached to being dirty, incompetence, irrationality and poor leadership?  Why can’t we talk about pads the same way we talk about lotion, painkillers and sandals?

If men had periods

Image Credits: Image 2

When did we hit the sky and start climbing down?

Image converted using ifftoany

Like many women, I was given a set of rules and advice for just about everything as I was growing up. One of the most important ones was on education. I was encouraged to study and until there was nothing left to study. The phrase ‘the sky is the limit’ was one that I heard too often as I was encouraged in that direction. Later I was told ‘forget the sky, there is no limit’.

On relationships and love, I was advised to not even focus on that, until I was as highly educated as possible. Children on the other hand, were to come after I had everything in place; a good education, a promising career, and an equally if not more educated man, in a well-paying job.

On money, I was encouraged to study hard, to secure a job that would earn me lots of money. Money would buy me independence. Independence would buy me respect from my husband. The need for independence was exaggerated with the constant reminder that there was no dignity in begging a man for money to buy underwear.

Looking at my life, I think I made a perfect student. I followed this advice almost to the letter. I studied to almost no end, putting aside all barriers to my pursuit for education. There was no sky for me, no limit, and no stopping. My ambition was to soar to no end. Of course that meant that relationships and love often had to take a back seat.

In some cases, as I was soaring to the skies and beyond, I allowed a lovely gentleman to hop into my parachute, only to drop him when I realised that he could be weighing me down, and posing a hindrance to my possibility of reaching beyond the skies.

Still following the advice consistently, I made my own money; not much, but enough to make sure that I was never begging a man for money to buy underwear.

As I gained independence through education and a career, I was applauded at every step of the way, until I got to a point where I was now advised to stop. The language of too much creeped into everyone’s vocabulary. I was becoming too educated, advancing too much in my career, getting too independent, too vocal and too radical. This was confusing to me, and I wondered what happened to there being no limit to my success.

I was advised to stop because men would be intimidated by my education. They would be intimidated if I progressed too much in my career, if I became too political or too vocal. I learned that I would be way ahead of many men in my generation, and I would have an immensely difficult time finding a suitor. The language changed and I now needed to settle.

Ofcourse i am not worried

Women that had been used as role models to encourage me, were now used as examples to discourage me. These women I was told, focussed on their education and their careers, and ended up single or divorced.

From this point on, the advice went downhill. I wondered whether I had reached the sky and beyond. Was this what it looked like beyond the skies? Was it time for me to start coming down? How come no one told me that I would reach a point where I would be required to come down?

When I attend bridal and baby showers, it hits me that it is indeed time for women to come down. It hits me that society did not mean it when it told us to climb as high as we could. In bridal showers, I hear brides to be getting advice on how to play dumb, how to lower their ambitions so that they do not threaten their husbands, not to display too much independence and to be submissive, and to make it her mission in life to please the man.

You can have ambition but not too much

In the middle of all such advice, comes all the paraphernalia that is required to aid this process. From lingerie for every day of the month, to books with sex positions that even a snake would have a hard time contorting, to cook books with dishes from around the world, with ingredients that do not even exist in the dictionary. All these are meant to make a man happy, to keep him faithful and ward him from all distraction. We are told that if we do not do these things, there are many women out there ready to worship the very ground our men walk on.

In one bridal shower that I attended, the bride to be got a flask, and small white neatly folded towels. I thought that the flask was to welcome the man with tea when he got home, but I learnt that the flask was for bedroom use. She was advised to always keep it by her bed-side with water that was just the right temperature; not too hot, or too cold. After sex, she was to use the nice towels to clean him up. She was also advised to make sure that she hand-washes the towels herself, with a disclaimer that ‘these are not the kind of things you give a house-girl to wash’.

At that point, I couldn’t contain my discomfort. I asked who was going to clean her in return. I asked whether the groom to be was likely to be getting advice on how to worship his wife during his stag night. I argued that he was likely to be dancing with a stripper, with his friends urging him to do all kinds of things with her, to ‘enjoy his last days of freedom’. I complained about the imbalance in this equation, where the woman was expected to give and give to no end, and the man receiving to no end.

My short speech was followed by deafening silence, and looks that made me remember a phrase that I commonly used in my primary school compositions; ‘I wished the ground would open up and swallow me alive’. I was given looks that I interpreted to ask the question, ‘who is your mother?’


I was admonished for being too educated, which apparently, as I was informed was the problem with today’s woman. Today’s woman, I was told, thinks that her education or money makes her equal to a man. This woman, I was informed, thinks that her education, career and money is grounds for her to go against nature.

At this point, I wanted to add that I grew up being advised to go against nature by soaring beyond the skies; to go against nature by flying, despite the fact that I had no wings. But I did not wish to embarrass the bride to be further, so I asked to be excused.

As I travelled home, I reflected on the whole episode and the shifting nature of advice given to girls and women, and how it is all centred on insecurity. As young girls, we are told to secure ourselves through education, careers and money, so as to earn the respect of men. Once we do that, we are told to stop and begin settling, so as to not make potential suitors insecure about our success. As we get into marriage we are advised to be constantly insecure, to be our guard 24/7, and to act on our insecurities by giving to no end and to center our lives on pleasing our men.

The question that ringed constantly on my mind was when did we hit the sky and start climbing down? I wondered for how long we would continue passing these messages to our daughters, nieces and younger girls. Can we teach them that life is not just about finding, keeping or gaining and maintaining the respect of a man?

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