When femininity doesn’t fit into a box

Our society is obsessed with defining what it is to be a woman. A woman can defy her culture’s rigid ideas of gender roles only to ram right into a modern-day secularist on the street bemoaning her lack of living up to the liberated female, adorned with degrees, tight jeans and high heels.

It is difficult for people to simply allow a woman to be who she chooses to be, that we justify forced hormonal treatment for those that do not fit the female definition. As in the case of athlete Caster Semenya, compelled by the IAAF to undergo hormonal treatment so that she performs more like a woman is expected to perform in sport: Like a girl.

We cling to one consistent idea of what it is to be female.

Femininity is normally defined as soft, nurturing, beautifully pleasing to the eye, graceful, compassionate, polite, and composed.

All good qualities. But qualities that present no challenge to any authority presuming to rule over her too.

Is it any wonder that in a history such as ours riddled with male-domination, more often than the other way around, that we continue to define woman as a willing, cooperative creature, (that doesn’t run too fast)?

Women do it too.

Just the other day I saw a post on social media celebrating women stating that ‘our softness and compassion is our strength.’ Evocative and uplifting, this instagram-influencer meant to inspire.

It follows the same silky thread of femininity such as ‘motherhood is the essence of womanhood’ or ‘there is no love greater than a mother’s love.’

These are empowering statements for women everywhere giving them an esteemed role in society and an identity to mould themselves around.

That’s wonderful. Except, they are just statements. With no real underlying value other than that which we have given it. Statements which derive its value from the preconceived ideas of what society believes to be feminine.

Reality is slightly more gender-neutral

The truth is compassion and tender-heartedness are human qualities not only female qualities. Everyone has it to some degree and not necessarily related to gender. Continuous exultation of these narrow ideas in this way, only perpetuates the amiable, cooperative image of woman that influences decision-makers in the legal system and in society.

A woman unable to conceive is no less a woman than one who has birthed an entire football team. A father is just as capable of great parental love as any mother.

On the other hand, men are perceived to be more stoic, logical and strong. All qualities that support the authoritative positions they hold in society outnumbering women almost two-fold.

Where do we get these ideas from?

I don’t know. Here’s one possible explanation. Humans have a driving need to label things in order to understand them better and navigate the world by being able to identify and differentiate between objects. Otherwise how else would we communicate with one another?

So it starts with using obvious physical differences to identify woman from a man. Later, we start to wonder whether these differences mean anything. With limited knowledge, we draw conclusions on a single major difference between men and women: women are capable of conceiving and carrying a child to full term and nurturing the child after its birth.

We take it as conclusive evidence that the gods or nature has bestowed upon woman the very qualities it takes to rear a child: compassion, softness, and emotional intelligence. And assign these qualities almost exclusively to women.

We also think that having these qualities is mutually exclusive with more masculine qualities such as logic, critical thinking, and strength.

Most mothers will tell you that they learned how to raise children on the job. It wasn’t always something that came ‘naturally’.

Civilisation and gender roles

When we begin to build our societies requiring systems and procedures, we delegate to women the tasks that fit those perceived qualities influenced by her reproductive abilities. We even produce religious texts that prove what we knew all along and to cast away any lingering doubts about a woman’s place.

Here, she is confined to for aeons to come. Tending to the home and hearth, kids and dinner. All other activities of society are deemed inappropriate, unsuitable and not fit for her nature. Perhaps even dangerous for the foundations of society itself.

To soothe her complaints, because nobody wants to be around a nagging broad, we praise her position as wife and mother and create different versions of the sacrificial and almost martyr-like woman whose only goal is the betterment of society through serving her household. And reproducing the next generation.

Modern superwoman

Today, women strive to live up to these legendary versions of the ideal woman while trying to pursue her own interests. It is a monster juggling act of full-time home responsibilities, care-giving and career commitments. Not to mention maintaining impossible modern standards of beauty too. Defying the ageing process and the body’s refueling signals, we are accustomed to aiming for the unachievable and battling shame when we don’t.

These notions of the feminine woman are so ingrained that it still baffles people to meet a woman that doesn’t want children or who has committed to a career opting out of traditional family life and the juggling act. Secretly, we wonder about her true sexual orientation or mental health. Worse, we may judge her as selfish, inconsiderate and thoughtless.

Radical women are choosing to go grey naturally as they age, eat till satiation, and go make-up free.

Radically choosing to be normal and human.

Masculinity interrupted

Interestingly, men don’t face similar barriers or obstacles on their path of self-actualisation. In a society that places economic value and thus economic power in roles outside of the home, men tend to move out into the world at large without ramming into a myriad of social expectations.

Only when men want to move into roles inside the home do they face a social backlash that castrates their masculinity.

Where a woman is selfish for pursuing her own interests and opting out of family life, a man is looked down upon for wanting to be a full-time father and husband. Diminishing his masculinity for doing what is viewed as a female role.

This hints at the true value of women in society

Whatever her contribution it is not equal to that of a man. Which is why we continue to struggle with gender inequality across all spheres of life. We still have unequal wages. We struggle to envision her as a capable leader of our countries. We continue to define her nature, capabilities and position in society despite the fact that women have proven time and again that gender is no basis for ability, contribution or role.

Anything associated with the female gender is not taken as seriously as it would if associated with males.

Computer programming was a predominantly female industry in its early days mainly because people associated it with menial office-type work more suited to women. Only when it boomed did males enter the industry and dominate it.

Frills and ruffles, seen as a very feminine piece of clothing was at first a unisex piece of clothing. Today female engineers wouldn’t dare wear frills on the job for fear of not being taken seriously by her male colleagues.

Frills, like femininity, are seen as too frivolous for ‘serious’ workplaces.

What is a woman if she doesn’t fit the definition of femininity?

What we perceive as feminine and masculine are simply qualities that we assigned to a specific gender. In reality, these are human qualities that every men and woman are capable of emulating.

There are men and women who embody qualities on the feminine end of the spectrum and men and women on the masculine end. These qualities hardly influence sexual orientation, skills or any of the numerous other things we associate with gender.

I am in no way propagating against femininity or soft-natured women who love frills and heels.

I’m saying it’s totally possible and normal to be feminine and logically analytical at the same time. It’s possible to be masculine and nurturing. The list goes on forever.

Let’s be more aware of how we perceive each other

Sometimes when we look at men and women only through these preconceived ideas of gender, we may fail to treat them as human.

Metamorphosis and negative spaces: Knowing what life should NOT look like

I hit rock bottom a few years ago. Depression. Growing self hate. And eventually resentment towards others. Completely lost. I didn’t know who I was. I’d like to say that I turned it around, made myself proud. But I continued to fall and scrape my face on new lower levels of rock bottom. Like some sort of horrific video game of inverted qualifying levels. Each wrong choice qualifying me for a lower level of even greater despair. It is a bottomless black pit.

I was an amazing person. And then one day she was gone. And there was only a shell. Ironically, my compassion, supernatural empathy and resilience was what led me to this dark place. These should have been the very qualities to lead me to my personal success.

What happened? I was missing one key quality. Self-love. Self-compassion. That inner guidance system was completely muted because I listened to all kinds of guidance outside of myself, including but not limited to religion, family and society.

Yet life is great and God is greater. Even on the wrong path you find reflections of the path you should have taken. IT calls to you. People come into your life to nudge you towards that inner light, to remind you of who you really are.

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An editor reached out to me a couple of years ago, across miles of Atlantic Ocean, to write a piece on Muslims in Botswana. This was a time when I was starting my fiction-writing journey and I submitted a short story to her anthology. She very kindly asked me why I submitted fiction when she specifically asked for a true-to-life non-fiction piece. She could have just left it at that and gone her own way. Instead, she encouraged me to find my true voice by telling me the old adage, the truth will set you free.

I was so afraid of opening up, that I had tremendous anxiety while I wrote it. I had to dig deep, confront inner demons and obstacles that told me not to do it. Fears that told me I shouldn’t stick my neck out like that. Yet, everyone knows that to be a writer, I need to be able to express myself. And if I want to connect with others through my writing, I need to do that in an authentic way. Years of being told to be quiet, to not rock the boat, to not express myself was being undone. My desire to be more than I was, was greater than my fears.

I knew then, that it didn’t matter whether it got published or not. It was clear that it came my way to help me find my voice. To connect to who I really was at a time when I was lost. Adrift in a choppy sea of life trying to keep my head above others’ expectations of me and rules for my life, with no rescue in sight.

Was it a coincidence? No. In hindsight, I see that I had begun to express a desire deep within me to live a happier life. It may have been mere whispers. Perhaps at a sound frequency beyond human hearing. It was a true desire and the universe responded. Finding my voice opened a window that let some light into my dark pit. I could look out this window and see a different path where wildflowers grew. Scattered. Bushy. Unrestrained. God-forbiddingly wild. And oh so colourful and bright.

Again, it wasn’t a straight line learning curve. I didn’t leap out of the window into my future. As a self-proclaimed visionary, I could no longer picture any type of future for myself. I spent many more months that stretched into years, gazing at possibilities. Sometimes inspired by it, other times trembling in absolute fear of it.

There were many other people since then whether they know it or not, some I was fortunate enough to know in person and some who I’ve only seen on YouTube videos, that helped me to find my way. Please, all you wonderful people don’t stop inspiring others. You never know whose life you are saving with a kind word to a friend, a motivational video or blog post.

I recently found my scrap-book from when I was 17 years old. I posted some artwork from it last year here. That young woman had big dreams. Massive. She wanted to make a difference to the world. She wanted to teach people how to fish, not give them fish for a day. She was all about empowering others.  Even in her darkest times, what gave her joy was seeing others succeed at what makes them happy. (Perhaps because she wanted that so much for herself too.)

She so much wanted to contribute to the world she forgot to save herself. Piece by piece she gave away herself away. She gave others the gift of complete acceptance but would never accept herself. She would speak up for others but would never express how she truly felt and what she truly wanted. Society makes us think that this is a good thing, but I’ve since learned that the very people who want you to give up who you are in order to be who they want you to be, would never do the same for you. What’s more, they would not help you when you fall into that black hole of despair and desperation having lost yourself completely. And further, they had no right to expect me to be anyone else but me.

 

 

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quote by Buddha

 

I have begun making changes. Deep, soulful changes that require absolute courage and resilience. But I know I have those things, I’ve seen them in action for others. I just need to use it for myself for a change.

Will I ever be free of those dark emotions, and dark pits? They have dragged me down so many times before it is hard to believe I will ever be completely free of it. So I’ve accepted them as part of my life. I’ll go even further to say that I am grateful for those dark emotions and shadows that linger on the edge of my consciousness, as they are guideposts to tell me that I have made a wrong choice somewhere. That I thought something or chose something that was not true to me.

In my journey to self-love and self-compassion so far, I have learned what it means to change the world by starting with yourself. I have learned that you can do anything, but not everything. In fact, it was exactly this mindset of ‘I can do anything’ that led me to do things I didn’t want to do, and keep on doing them longer than I should have because I was actually good at it. I’ve learned that my compassion is not complete without compassion for myself.

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It is easy to regret the past fifteen years of my life, lost to bad choices. However, I consider myself an artist. Of sorts. I love how art reflects life. In art, there is a concept of negative space. In simple terms, negative space refers to the space around and between objects that allows it to stand out clearly. Images like the one above are commonly used in fun psychological tests. Depending which negative space you see first, determines which object stands out for you. (Did you see Katniss from Hunger Games with the bow and arrow first, or did you see the larger image of the profile of her face?)

If I zoom out and look at my life as one massive artwork, of light and dark spaces, I can see that I have been exactly where I was supposed to be.

All those wrong choices, mistakes and lessons learned, they were dark for a good reason. They were the negative space around the object of my life’s artwork. While I was there, I was figuring out what I don’t want. Who I don’t want to be. And painted it black. (or white – depending on which colour you choose as your negative space) And so I was shaping and creating my life.

It is the same space and thought, which Rumi, Buddha, Kahlil Gibran and many others referred to when they spoke on the topic of pain and sadness. You cannot know happiness without knowing sadness. It takes knowledge of one, to know the other. Or in terms of negative space, it provides the contrast for you to know what happiness is not. And more specifically in my case, who I am not.

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Why art is good for the world

Photo credit: ©FFDwrites

 

I am a  product of a society that valued left brain logical intelligence. A graduate of a school system in a developing african country chasing economic GDPs of the future, that dabbled in creativity but applauded and sought to churn out mathematicians, scientists and accountants. A Muslim individual from a global collective seeking to find its worthy place in modern society and who lost sight of its creative instincts in the likes of the poets Rumi and Rabia and the free thinkers and artists of the medieval Golden Age of Muslim Spain.

Following your own path is a daunting one. It means going through the woods alone. At night. In the middle of a wretched winter. While the rest of the flock stay warm and dry in the barn. This is the path of trials and tribulations where you discover yourself.

I’ve always loved words and writing. I would repeat words and let it roll off my tongue. I liked it so much that the English language didn’t have enough words for me, so I learned foreign ones to taste a culture through its words. But I hid what I loved under what seemed ‘reasonable’ – reporting. Not reporting with words, no. Financial reporting. I ended up in the world of finance and accountants, where I suspect many closet-creatives hide. It seems to be the default career choice for those caught unsure of their next step after high school.

Through the numbers, my passion called to me. It spoke through the joy I found in writing reports, business plans, emails and letters. My heart soared when we were handed essays for university assignments, while most of my friends and classmates groaned. Anything to do with words appealed to me.

Yet it took many years for me to hear what it had to say, which was to follow this path to whatever destiny awaits.

Getting started was difficult. I had severe mental blockages and deeply rooted fears. This was more of a problem when it came to writing fiction as it seemed less important and unnecessary. I had no issues with non-fiction writing and journalism having successfully written these in the past. Passing on information was useful, telling stories was not.

Instead of trying to untangle the mess of psychological knots formed over more than three decades, I did a simple mental persuasion. I searched for evidence to outweigh my fears. The irony of resorting to logic to unlock my creativity did not elude me. But juxtaposition is the beauty of life in motion.

For art to be good for something, it has to be useful. (Remember, this is pure rationalising. In truth art is expression, is the end in itself) I discovered that what I valued most about words and writing was what it achieved: communication.

Art in all its forms; movies, books, photographs, pictures and stories is the human experience in a tangible form. Then it is converted back into human experience through emotions evoked by the artistic piece. It becomes communication on an emotional maybe even a spiritual level.

And with that I took my first tentative steps onto my own authentic path. I do not know where I’m headed and the woods are cold and dark. There are times when the light breaks through, and I see the flowers that grow on the wayside, flowers I haven’t seen before. They are beautiful. They take my breath away.

Daily Prompt: Discover