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.
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.
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.