Article written by Ibtihal Ahmed.
“If you think you are a real woman, then try walking into this building,” said a defying security guard to my friend who, with a brazen assurance, attempted to walk into a public building which had seemingly strict but evasive rules for dress codes. Apparently, her outfit was not to the security guard’s liking, so he decided to challenge the essence of her identity, her sense of womanhood. This challenging statement was not just a product of anger, it was a chauvinistic approach to question how far a woman can go to get what she wants; it was an attempt at putting her ‘in her place’. Imagine, saying the same thing to a man in an overly patriarchal society!
Recently another friend of mine was texting a male colleague of hers. After her two hour disappearance she wrote, “Sorry, I got caught up cooking.” He then swiftly responded, “So, you are actually a woman because you cook!” Sarah is very much career oriented, she just has the ability to juggle the two. But what really struck her was her colleague’s twisted understanding of gender roles. Being the courteous person she is, she quickly dismissed the conversation so as not to get mired into a heated conversation which might yield more sexist statements.
There are many examples; the scenarios above are somewhat mundane in certain societies. I am not a self-described feminist; nor am I perceived by others as a feminist, because I believe in a woman’s uniqueness which obviates the needs for a political movement that often backfires. I simply believe that it is a natural disposition to want to be acknowledged for who a woman truly is. So what if a woman is emotional? So what if nurturing is a female trait? Embrace it!
But who sets the narrative? Who decides what is sexist and what is not? The scenarios mentioned above could very well be viewed normal in some societies; and in others, they are blasphemous.
In my country of origin, Sudan, there seems to be a new wave of feminism; not in the sense of the defying Western movement itself but more of a reaction and a trending frame of thought which calls not for equality – because it exists, at least in the books – but for a sound understanding of women. That is, equality in the sense of acknowledgement and respect. I am noticing that with the trend of immigration amongst Sudanese men, women are filling the vacuum and are upholding roles which were traditionally male centric. Growing numbers of women are becoming financially autonomous, hence, changing the social dynamics.
Historically, women appeared to have influential roles in many parts of Africa, things may or may not have changed. I am noticing this train of thought amongst educated and career-oriented women; but, to my surprise, these views are also becoming prevalent amongst groups of uneducated women and women of lesser social status. I cannot confirm any of these speculations unless I further explore them.
There are indeed biological differences between men and women although studies have confirmed that there is more of an overlap when it comes to certain traits. Let’s face it, we can be as autonomous as we want to be, but the truth of the matter is, social roles and dynamics, including expectations, won’t change easily. This is not a disadvantage; in fact, it is a merit, because social expectations can sometimes be bendable and changeable.
Should a woman celebrate her femininity according to society’s yardstick? Why is it that when a woman’s femininity is questioned, society does not take as much offense as when a man’s manhood is in question? Is it safe to say that we live in a male-centric world? And what if that indeed were true?
The ‘womanly thing’ to do, I suppose, is to simply be. This can happen by having a stronger voice and by upholding what we truly stand for. There are realities which we cannot defy, but society’s outlook – as long as it does not interfere with our basic precepts – must be defied. This is not to suggest creating a clash with men; I am simply asking that we leave our mark in the most appropriate context which synchronizes with the essence of our beings.
What would have been the ‘womanly’ thing to do when the security guard challenged my friend? If she had forcefully gone ahead, society would have labeled her as a deviant; if she simply submitted to his challenge, she would have been a disappointment for women who reside behind a façade of strength and are unable to speak up.