Woman, Femininity and Feminism

These thoughts are inspired by a few recent posts in blogland around feminism, being a woman and negotiating gender roles in intercultural contexts.

Although it’s an offshoot from the main discussion (which is very robust :)), it got me thinking about how I identify as a woman in a highly personal  way.

I have never been a feminine or girly girl. Like most adolescent girls I was extremely uncomfortable with my body growing up. I developed a terrible posture (which I still have) spending my teens hunched over in baggy trousers and t-shirts trying to cover my curves. I never had the confidence to learn about makeup, and privately rolled my eyes at girls who did (hmmm…so I obviously had some issues). The result? I always felt like the plainest girl in school. It didn’t help that I was one of only a few non-white girls, so I never had the faintest chance of coming close to normative standards of beauty.

This personal horror at anything feminine far outdates my teen years. I was 4 when my younger brother was born. I remember my mum had bought me this brand new pink outfit featuring a rather restrictive skirt (a skirt!) to see the new baby in. Of course, Dad made me wear it when he took me to the hospital for the first time, and I was so mad with both my parents for making me wear this ridiculous outfit I refused to look at the baby (ok, maybe I was jealous and insecure too, but all I remember is how ashamed….yes, ashamed….I felt at wearing a pink skirt and looking so bloody girly).

I also grew up acutely aware that my parents  come from a country where gender differences are entrenched in ways that can be very restrictive for girls (i.e. for me). Children are highly sensitive and pretty intuitive, I think, when it comes to these sorts of differences. I heard my mum use a more deferential term for ‘you’ when addressing my dad, and this didn’t sit comfortably with me. When I was 9 my mum took me to their home country, in South Asia, for the first time. Coming from a spotless, tiny and quaint Australian town, the dust, the people, the poverty was absolutely overwhelming.  Girls my age were vigorously handing washing clothes for their entire family outside during the freezing mornings. They were cooking, they were cleaning toilets, they were looking after their baby siblings. And what was I doing? Being a bratty foreign kid with a lot of culture shock and giving my mum a hard time. I saw, with observant 9 year-old-eyes, just how differently women can be treated. And for a presumptuous 9 year-old, who thinks her-way-is-the-best, this was wrong. Like wrong. I hope I have more maturity, cultural sensitivity and understanding now (I certainly hope I have less ethno-centricism), but there’s no doubt the experience was highly formative. I’ve said this before, most of my friends hadn’t even been to mainland Australia – forget about overseas – and I struggled, in grade 4, to explain to my friends just how lucky and privileged we are, how most of the world has to work much harder just to survive day to day.

From then I became very interested in social justice and feminism. You know the scene in Mary Poppins where the mum is encouraging her female domestic helpers to become suffragettes (“our daughters’ daughters will adore us…”)? Loved it. After visiting South Asia I became even more conscious of not appearing to feminine, especially in front of my family. I didn’t want to appear weak. I spent hours in the shed with my dad. I didn’t want to remind them I was a girl, in case they treated me differently. There were days in high school I would wake up feeling so trapped by body, ashamed by its weaknesses, and secretly wishing I was a boy. (While I wasn’t a girly girl, I wasn’t sporty or physically…uhm…’gifted’either. I’m tall compared to all my female cousins, but compared to most of my western peers I usually get labelled ‘the smallest girl in the room’).

Ironically, my parents are the ones who taught me that girls can do the same things as boys and that women deserve the same respect as men. They’ve never treated me any differently to my brother (except for making me wear a skirt when he was born). I wouldn’t have known what the terms feminism and social justice mean at such an early age if my dad hadn’t spent many hours sharing his views world politics and ideology. And he never taught me to think of feminism as a dirty word; he taught me it means women are equal to men, and we should fight for the social changes necessary to make sure they are treated equal to men.

Still, I couldn’t shake off that nagging feeling that being woman, having a female body, with breasts and thighs and curviness, demeans me in the eyes of others. When we eventually moved to a larger city where extended family lived, I spent many anxious nights worrying about how all my cousins are male and how I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them in games of cricket. (Of course I couldn’t, I’m completely uncoordinated and terrible at sport!) Thinking about it now, I almost had a misogynist, hateful attitude towards my own body.

Now that’s hardly feminist.

There were other things too…I resisted learning to cook because I didn’t want to fall into gendered stereotypes (my brother has always been the better cook). I was rather gung-ho about showing my family I would never become a quiet submissive daughter or woman. You know, just in case they hadn’t realised. I was quick to scream ‘traditional’ and ‘sexist’ at every turn, even though most of my white friends came from households which had much more restrictive and openly-expressed gendered (and racist) stereotypes. Like men do all the handy work around the house and fix up cars (my mum’s always been more ‘handy’ around the house than dad!). And direct threats of “I’ll kill you if you ever get with a Lebanese boy”. Etc.

It’s silly isn’t it? Thinking I would lose my parents’ respect by appearing feminine. It wasn’t just about fighting South Asian gender roles either. There’s a pretty active tradition in Australia of demeaning ‘hot’ women as ‘bimbos’.  Plenty of guys at uni had no qualms about checking out good-looking girls, while standing outside tute rooms wondering aloud how they were ever going to pass. Because surely they have no brains. (And these were the new-age sensitive guys doing Arts courses at an institution well-known for liberal arts; imagine the lads over at Engineering?!)

My mum always encouraged me to dress up a bit, to wear nice things and bright colours that showed-off my figure. Instead of just hiding it, which for a long time was the aim of the game for me when it came to clothes. At uni I finally felt more confident and comfortable ‘being a woman’, and having that reflect in my appearance. But funnily enough it wasn’t until I took a gap year and went to South Asia again that I became truly comfortable being more feminine. When I finally recognised that people wouldn’t demean me for embracing my womanhood, and for looking – gasp – nice. I spent most of that year travelling alone. And when you’re travelling alone in India, you never, ever forget that you’re a woman. Nor can you hide it, no matter what you wear. But I also spent a lot of time with my family attending weddings (big fat weddings), and having amazing, strong female cousins doll me up in colourful saris (no way would I ever show that much stomach at home: wedding or club), beautiful jewellery and graceful makeup. And did anybody think the less of me for it? No, they all said I looked great. Did seeing my body remind them that I was some weak, pathetic female who is supposed to quietly submit to male authority? No, they were all actually in awe that I would travel by myself and said I was “tougher than I look”.

It’s taken me a long time to sit comfortably with my body, and truly understand that physical differences do not translate into differences in personal worth and social status. That I can be feminist and feminine at the same time. Feminism doesn’t mean turning into a boy! My partner L has a rather romanticised (and hetro-normative) view of sexual differences – that one sex completes the other. He thinks it’s crazy I used to hate my body for being female. I’m not so sure about the idea of the sexes complimenting each other (“you have what I need to propagate myself and spread my seed…a womb”) because it comes dangerously close to socially-prescribed gender roles. But I would be deluding myself if I didn’t admit that our differences are pretty central to our sexual attraction for each other. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I did dress up for L, appear more feminine at the start of our relationship because I equated this with attractiveness. Obviously my ideology and my feelings are not yet completely in sync. But hey, I’m only human: there is room there for confusion and inconsistency I hope 🙂

29 Comments

Filed under Adolescence, Beauty, Cultural Difference, Feminism

29 responses to “Woman, Femininity and Feminism

  1. lkafle

    Truth revealed here on feminism, masculinicity left untouched !!!1

    • Yes masculinity is definitely left untouched!
      Unless I get in touch with my masculine side, I’m not so sure I can give such a personal account of it 🙂

  2. americanepali

    Great post. Although I didn’t have any culture shock trips to a foreign country as a nine year old, I too felt similarly about my body. I was never one for make up, I loved climbing trees and building things, and even though I’m the thinnest in my immediate family and my mother also encouraged me to “wear bright clothes and show off my curves” I just never felt comfortable being too “revealing.” It has taken me a bit of travel in my twenties to open up more about myself and my identity.

  3. Great post. Thanks for sharing so deeply about your journey. 🙂

    I resisted my body more due to lack of money (you get t-shirts for everything, so that’s what I wore) and being overweight. I’m still overweight, but I’m learning that I can love my body and (with a few shopping breakdowns along the way) find clothes that I love on my body and feel feminine in.

  4. kay

    Interesting post Taswin! I too have had issues growing up with body shape and weight, though not so much with femininity. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m slightly messed in the head in this regard and have quit looking in the mirror and getting on the weigh scale.
    I can relate to getting miffed when I see fellow girl-children in Nepal getting neglected. When my parents decided that they would only have one child, my father’s mother kept obsessing over the fact that my parents didn’t feel the need to at least ‘try’ for a second child in the hope of having a son. This went on for years! As a kid, I remember her coming up to me many times and saying ‘but don’t you want a younger brother?’
    What irks me the most is when I see fellow Nepali men of our generation adhering to gender stereotypes as prescribed by the ‘culture.’ I feel like saying ‘come on! You’ve had a decent education and have had far more opportunities than your parents to be open minded and you still adhere to such nonsense??!!’ I compare them with my dad [who’s from a much older generation]–If he grew up in a traditional household with a doting traditional mother and he turned out to be so egalitarian than Nepali men of subsequent generations have no excuse!

  5. lkafle

    haha @taswin12 !! sure i would one day , let me be free to express my total masculine views on here on your masterpiece blog

  6. Nice post Taswin,
    I think not just you, for most women adolescence is a difficult time in life, I know I was very awkward and gawky with my body then, plus the fact that I had bigger boobs than most girls my age didn’t help (thanks mom!), although I was pretty feminine, there was a certain uneasiness I felt during that period with myself, come to think of it, I’ve never been truly happy or comfortable with my body, I’ve always had big boobs, even when I was skinnier, so that always made me self-conscious, and later after I gained wieght, I kept missing my older body…*sigh* ….I guess it’s all part of being a woman…:-)

  7. Hey Taswin
    I have been reading your blog and commenting as I go =)
    I was still in Kathmandu when the first signs of puberty hit me. I was not the first of my friends when my breasts started growing or when I first got my periods. But I think I was pretty early agewise in my family. Aunties made comments, I remember that. Though I don’t remember what they said.
    I remember tying a tie over my breasts hoping that squashing them like that would make them seem less conspicuous. It did not really work and I was so very frustrated.
    I did not tell my parents when I first got my periods. I think I actually managed without them figuring out for a few times. We lived with my dad’s parents. And while my parents did not care about the period rules, my grandma did. Oh yes, she did. The four-day rule every month was bad enough but I was so scared that they might do the “lock in the room for 12 days” thing. I asked my mo to lie about how I got my periods when I was over at my mom’s parents’ place (we had spent a month there earlier) and that they had carried out the necessary rituals. I do not know what my mom told my grandma but I didn’t have to do the 12-day thing.
    I think I saw those things then more as not wanting to grow up rather than not wanting to grow up to be a woman (perhaps because they meant the same thing?). Also, I did not have older brothers or male cousins in the house growing up so I did not really have an immediate gender and age based reference to compare my situation to. Plus, I am not particularly perceptive. I struggle to put my feelings to words and struggle even more to value them.
    I was not girly in high school or even Uni. I am not particularly feminine now either. However, today I am certainly the most comfortable I have ever been with my body since childhood.
    Oddly enough, I have never equated how I feel about my body and my attractiveness to my self worth. I am grateful for that. I am also grateful that guys find me attractive often enough without me ever really making an effort.
    I did not dress up for guys. I was probably six months into my first (and the only till date) relationship before I started prettying myself up. I am far more stressed about how I look and what to wear when I have meet ups with girlfriends I have not seen for a while than I am around boys.

    • Hi Koisok, welcome and thanks for your comment!
      🙂 I liked your description of tying a tie around your breast. I never went that far but I certainly did develop a BAD posture trying to hide them.
      I also didn’t tell my mum when I first got my period. We were in Australia so I was never expected to avoid anything (nor did I know of that tradition), but I was really young and remember feeling so ashamed and confused that my body was turning into a “woman” while I was still a kid (I certainly associated growing up with “becoming a woman” :)). I didn’t want anyone to know. Mum found out of course, and I surprised myself by crying to her about how I didn’t want it (I’ve never been particularly intimate with my mum).
      I visited Nepal again when I was 14…it was definitely pretty shocking to have to front up and tell people I had my period so they knew to avoid me (“But I’m not dirty!” I wailed to my mum, “that blood lines the uterus and actually keeps babies alive! Don’t they understand?”). We were there for 2 months and the first time I didn’t tell anybody, but Mum said people would be angry and offended if they found out. Funnily enough, as I’ve gotten older, I’m more comfortable ‘outing’ myself while visiting Nepal (I could still never ever do it in front of my family here). It’s like there’s this certain type of social shame/perception of dirtiness associated with menstruating in Nepal, but at the same time because it’s talked about openly it’s very different to Australia, where people would consider it distasteful to publicly say “I’m menstruating” (it’s a natural process after all!). I guess this is linked to feeling more comfortable as a woman…I don’t feel I’m dirty or “na chhuni”, but I also don’t feel like its shameful to draw attention to myself while menstruating, at least in a cultural context where you are expected to do so. In Nepal at least, I can politely refuse tika or ask somebody else to pour me water without turning red all over…though it took many years of accepting my ‘womanhood’ to get to this stage.
      ps I agree with you about clothing, I dress up waaay more girlfriends than I ever would for L. Keeps him on his toes 😉

      • Oh. I am certainly more comfortable outing myself when I go to Nepal now than I did back when I was living there [though that certainly doesn’t stop me from planning travel dates rather than family time during those days ;)]
        (I moved away from Nepal, say, maybe 6 months to a year after I first got my periods. So I didn’t actually do most of my growing up there. )
        For starters, I am older now. Not outing my periods would perhaps garner more comments at this age, you know!!
        In addition, it is not my way of life anymore. Nor do I see myself going back to that way of life. It just does not, feel like my battle to fight. So I do what I would do when I travel. Show people/culture the respect, try my best to fit in, have an excellent time and come back home and be content that I have a pretty choice life =)
        You know what? I don’t actually think, even as a kid, I ever thought I was “dirty” or “na chune” per se. I saw it as a rule that I most certainly did not like or agree with but had no choice but to follow.

        Being outed when you didn’t know what was going on with your body (as no one ever explained it to me) nor wanted it to happen was hard. I also remember stressing extra that it might happen during Dashain and other major festivals. Because then I would have to step aside and not actually take part in the festivities and such. That, for a kid (which I was at age 11/12), was pretty heartbreaking.

      • You’ve said it perfectly – when it’s not my battle to fight, it’s hardly my place to feel shame or anything else.
        Wow, it would have been hard being ‘outed’ without knowing what’s going on with you. At least here you have sex ed from like, kindergarten (I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know babies didn’t come from a stork!!), so at least I knew what was happening to me physically. But having basic ‘scientific’ knowledge does not, unfortunately, always prepare you emotionally. Being confused is all a part of growing up I guess 🙂

  8. koisok

    Feminism: I will put my name down as a feminist because sexism exists and it needs to end. However, I struggle big time with balancing what I want/makes me happy with eliminating certain things from my life I find sexist.
    For example: I had never been to a Nepali Hindu wedding ceremony as an adult (or even an adolescent, come to think of it) and had a very romantised idea of what it entailed. In the last year, I went to two. I was really put off by how sexist I found them to be. I now know I would not want to be the bride at my own Nepali wedding! I have had conversations with Hindu males (not Nepali) about this. Heck, I was not even criticising all Hindu weddings, I was only criticising the two I had been to. And I was shocked at how some of them defended them as tradition and got into a rant about how sexist white people/Muslims/whoever else are. How others being sexist makes it okay for you to be so too, I do not know.
    This led me to googling weddings/marriages and I found most wedding ceremonies to be rather sexist (or perhaps I am reading too much into them?). I do not actually want any one of those for myself.
    However, I still want to get married and have a ceremony. And more importantly, I still want people to consider my ceremony to be real (for me, social/familial acceptance is the top and perhaps the only reason for actually having a ceremony) and not hocus pocus. How do you align those? Perhaps I just have a little bit more of growing up to do still.

    PS: I have taken over your blog, haven’t I?

    • Please take over my blog, I’m really enjoying your comments! Probably cos I agree with you a lot – I don’t think you’re reading too much into weddings when you find most of them sexist. I used to be staunchly anti-marriage because I found the symbolism of most wedding rituals outright offensive. But I’ve softened now and like you I also wouldn’t mind having a wedding (but it would have to be secular). In our case though, I think a wedding would only work if we were getting married just for ourselves – as a public announcement and celebration of our love, but if the public don’t get the symbolism, well, tough luck! I do understand of course, that family acceptance is important. In my experience of Nepali families, most consider the wedding to be ‘real’ as long as it’s real to the couple themselves – I have heaps of cousins who have only ever had a civil ceremony with their white partners and are still considered married by all their close family members. So maybe the only way to align your two views is to believe in your own ceremony yourself…don’t for a minute give any credence to the thought it might be hocus pocus, because that just paves the way for others to question it. And no matter how ‘genuine’ your ceremony, I guess those who resist accepting a relationship will always find excuses to continue resisting.
      I’d love to know more about how you see the Hindu marriage ceremony!

      • Thinking about it, it would be about public announcement for us too.

        And you are right. I need to “own” my ideas of a wedding or a marriage. It is just that “owning” is not one of my strongest suits. About anything. At the best of times.. So it is just that much harder in a neutral at best/downright hostile at worst environment,

        It is definitely something I need to work on!

  9. Bharatiya Nari

    Koisok, if there are sexist statements in the chants that the priests do at Hindu weddings nobody realizes it because the majority, if not all, of the attendees have no idea what they are saying anyway. Its doubtful whether the priest himself actually knows.

    As far as sexist rituals like touching the grooms feet, you can eliminate that or equalize it by having him touch your feet as well.

    More and more female priests are officiating at Hindu weddings these days and I saw a TV show wherein they were saying people actually prefer these female priestesses because they do a better job and actually translate the meanings of the chants for everyone.

    So just hire a female Hindu priest and be creative with the “translation” by eliminating anything sexist.

    • Hey Bharatiya Nari

      I don’t live in Nepal or India or anywhere in South Asia. I have no desire to go back to have my wedding there either. I don’t think where I would like to get married, we have the option of a female priest. And that is okay.

      However, it is really good to know that the option exists for other people, at least.

      • @ Bharatiya Nari – that’s a great point, that often both the priests and participants aren’t fully aware of the overt (or at least I think they’re overt) sexist symoblism of wedding rituals. I think weddings take on a whole different meaning to the participants and attendees (from say, the meaning dictated by formal religious ideology), and there’s certainly scope there to overturn rules and create traditions/rituals that are meaningful to you. Very interesting to hear about the female priests – thanks for the comment!

  10. Bharatiya Nari

    “When I was 9 my mum took me to their home country, in South Asia, for the first time. Coming from a spotless, tiny and quaint Australian town, the dust, the people, the poverty was absolutely overwhelming. Girls my age were vigorously handing washing clothes for their entire family outside during the freezing mornings. They were cooking, they were cleaning toilets, they were looking after their baby siblings. And what was I doing? Being a bratty foreign kid with a lot of culture shock and giving my mum a hard time. I saw, with observant 9 year-old-eyes, just how differently women can be treated. And for a presumptuous 9 year-old, who thinks her-way-is-the-best, this was wrong. Like wrong. I hope I have more maturity, cultural sensitivity and understanding now (I certainly hope I have less ethno-centricism), but there’s no doubt the experience was highly formative. I’ve said this before, most of my friends hadn’t even been to mainland Australia – forget about overseas – and I struggled, in grade 4, to explain to my friends just how lucky and privileged we are, how most of the world has to work much harder just to survive day to day.”

    Forget this “cultural sensitivity” nonsense. When something is wrong, it IS WRONG! Your blank slate 9 year old self was right. As you grew up and received a liberal education you became brainwashed with “cultural relativism”. If the brothers of these girls were not out there with them doing just as much hard labor then that is indeed wrong and there is no skipping around that or trying to make it pretty.

    • As usual in my posts, I was confusing issues in this paragraph and referring to different things at once.
      I know it’s wrong for females to be treated differently to their male counterparts. I knew that as a 9 year old and I know it now, and that was part of the confused point I was trying to make – my experience as a child has strongly influenced my feminist leanings now. But as a 9 year old, I couldn’t really separate domains (actually, you could argue I can’t separate them now, since I confused them in this post!): “The way they treat girls is wrong, therefore all their stupid rituals in the morning are wrong, therefore all their bland meals of rice and dhal are wrong”…therefore they are just wrong, period. You get the point. I was completely contemptuous of Nepal and its people. An A-class snob. I remember having huge arguments with my mum. “Why can’t they just clean up the county and give everybody water and food and take everyone to school like they do in Australia?” I was so angry at the poverty, because I didn’t understand it. My very first hour in Ktm, on the rickshaw from the airport, I almost burst into tears at seeing all the street kids and people with missing limbs on the streets. Then I saw my elderly maternal grandmother – who looked older than anyone I’d ever seen – and I literally did burst into tears, it was all to overwhelming, telling the concerned family that I wasn’t used to “all the dust in the air”. It was pretty embarrassing, crying in front of strangers and not really knowing why. So the anger was also a defence strategy, so I didn’t have to feel sad about it. To her credit, my mum patiently explained how things like different food every night (which is what I was used to) and basic education and running water at home take money and resources, and not everybody has these things. I don’t think cultural sensitivity is about making excuses for unfair behaviour. For me, at least in this context, cultural sensitivity and critical thinking are about recognising that things which I may have relegated to “culture” or “traditional attitudes” (like, “they’re just dirty people who don’t want to send their girls to school and who just want to eat boring meals everyday because they won’t try anything new”) are actually shaped by a whole bunch of social, economic and structural factors. And that I’m bound up in this economy which keeps some poor and some rich (and in the global scale of things, most of us in the west fall into the ‘rich’ category). I was in grade 4 so I wasn’t exactly reading Das Kapital, but I’ll tell you what, their poverty brought my privilege into stark relief. It was painful realising that, while the boys weren’t worked as hard as the girls…I wasn’t worked hard at all.

  11. About the weddings: As I said, I am not particularly perceptive. Plus, anything remotely social sciences related I have done was Classical Studies back in high school. So a lot of symbolism type stuff just flies through my head, it has to be pretty obvious for me to pick on things.
    The first wedding ceremony happened where I was living, not in Nepal. They are both Nepali. I am not sure whether they found each other or if it was an arranged marriage or what. The priest was the Indian priest at the local Hindu temple and the wedding was his version of a wedding interspersed with a few additions (and subtractions too, maybe?) from the elders to Nepalify it.
    When I got there, I found my hang-out-during-Nepali-functions buddy. We were introduced to a white male (who was the bride’s friend but wasn’t friends with her other friends’ at the wedding) by the bride’s dad. We were to, you know, take him through the wedding ceremony (because we knew so much ourselves!!!) and give him company.
    I remember cringing (a lot!), shrugging and sometimes just giving humourous explanations and commentary as me and my friend attempted to explain things away (which was hard because we really knew (and still know) very little).
    At one point, the priest man, it seemed, started playing a game and was being light hearted and humourous. He was asking the bride if she would stop getting takeouts and start cooking healthy food for her husband and some other really odd stuff like that. At this point, she was still happy and smiling and was answering in the affirmative. While I could feel myself warming up , I thought, what the heck, her life, her choices and she looks so bloody happy so why does it matter.
    And the next thing the priest man said was (and I am paraphrasing) her parents were not her parents anymore and her in laws were her parents now and she had to love and respect them. The bride was visibly upset (she really didn’t see that coming) but she was up on the stage/podium with 200 odd people looking at her! What was she going to say/do? Her parents had tears in their eyes and her mother in law a very smug face. Heck, my own mother and a few of the other Nepali aunties were pretty teary eyed (my mom confirmed that she had shed a tear or two at that point when I asked her later on).
    That didn’t last long, things went back to being happy soon enough. Maybe it doesn’t happen at every Nepali/Hindu wedding however, it happened that day and that really left a very bitter taste for me.
    Every woman I talked to (and I have only talked to a few women from my mother’s generation) about this accepted that they had been made to feel this sentiment during their own wedding and they have felt this at other people’s weddings too. Most men, on the other hand, didn’t get it. And that is fair enough because they are not women, however, to rubbish that it actually happens or to find excuses for it is just ridiculous!
    Note: This has nothing to do with the bride’s (or anyone’s) actual relationship with her husband or her parents or in laws. I am sure things are fine and perhaps, the husband is very egalitarian. Or not. I do not care. That is not the point.
    To me the issue is with the sort of precedence you are setting by beginning your life together with a wedding like that.

    • I guess it’s not just the wedding itself – the wedding is, like you said, setting the scene for the entire (patriarchal) institution of marriage. I agree with you that independent of the actual relationships between the bride, groom and the in-laws, the very suggestion that the girl’s family and the girl’s ‘ghar’ are now her those of her husband is heartbreaking. It’s asking her to give herself over completely. And in most parts of north India and Nepal, it’s not just a suggestion – it’s hard reality. Why should she have to give up her identity (basically) and assimilate and submit 100% into the husband’s family? Geez, what a way to control women….(I could write an entire blog post on this)….No wonder women feel so sad at weddings. Maybe guys do get it to a certain extent. One Nepali male friend (in Nepal) described it to me as, “at a son’s wedding, you get to laugh and have fun because you’re getting a new member to your family” – who’s expected to do all your cooking a cleaning, I might add, and transform your crappy take-away diet – “but at a daughter’s wedding everyone’s crying because you’re giving her away, she no longer belongs to you”. These sentiments women feel are of course highly personal, but I’ve noticed at the 2 Nepali weddings I’ve been to (again in Nepal) they were also highly ritualised – like when the groom’s family take the bride away singing and dancing with the band, and the bride is crying and her family is also standing around crying and glum (that kind of behaviour from each side was both culturally expected and genuinely ‘felt’). And what’s more, her female relos are crying with her but then saying things like, “Don’t cry, that’s your ghar now, they’re your family now, you shouldn’t cry” – that’s hardly comforting!

  12. Bharatiya Nari

    “Then I saw my elderly maternal grandmother – who looked older than anyone I’d ever seen – and I literally did burst into tears.”

    My extended family is not poor but still the uncles and aunties are closer to their 80s than they are their 50s. While in the West “50 is the new 30” it seems that in South Asia “30 is the new 75”. LOL.

    There is a vibrancy and a zest for life that is missing amongst Desis that I have never witnessed amongst any other ethno-group. While middle aged 55 year olds in the West are working out, looking hot and dating, our 55 year olds are sitting in the house meddling in the personal lives of their grown children and nieces and nephews when they could be out living a life of their own.

    The young people living in a joint family household, although only in their 20s, 30s and 40s nonetheless behave as broken-spirited domesticated cows. Everything revolves around ghar and parivar. I understand if one is poor and doesn’t have the resources to “get a life” – but come on! I’m talking about middle and upper middle class South Asians here.

    “The way they treat girls is wrong, therefore all their stupid rituals in the morning are wrong, therefore all their bland meals of rice and dhal are wrong”

    Bland? I don’t know about Nepal but in India the poor people are eating the spiciest food.

    Nobody expects a 9 year old to have nuance, cultural sensitivity or highly developed critical thinking skills. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Nonetheless it probably would have been a good idea for your parents to have a talk with you about the conditions you would see in Nepal BEFORE you made the trip over there.

    • Re food, in Nepal I found it mostly dhal-bhat. In many rural areas I’ve seen people just eat dry roti (some of those areas were suffering from pretty severe food shortage at that time). In Ktm (i.e. in an urban area) I remember the first time I visited, my cousins were eating rice and salt sometimes and that was it…couldn’t even afford dhal (actually I think one of the reasons they enjoyed having us stay so much was that mum bought all this food, especially meat).
      India has an amazing variety of food, a lot of my fondest memories of being there are related to eating 🙂

  13. Bharatiya Nari

    “India has an amazing variety of food, a lot of my fondest memories of being there are related to eating”

    I was under the impression Nepal had just as much variety.

    • I’m writing just from very limited personal experience here, I don’t mean it as a criticism. But given it’s larger geography, I did find food in India to be more varied – both within regions, and between them (e.g. the food in Gujarat was very different to Bombay, but within both places there was great variety). In Nepal it was dhal bhat across the board…goat if you’re lucky (and I can’t stand goat meat). Especially in the mountains, you’d stop at an eat-house and all they have is dhal bhat, not even spinach (although they had delicious fresh yogurt). I remember one morning walking for hours crossing this steep, muddy pass and the only place to eat as the rain and leeches really pelted us was at this elderly lady’s. I stumbled in, and collapsed on my pack by the stove, trying to get my feet dry. When I looked to ceiling to see the two sacks which she kept her rice in, a rat jumped out of one and scampered away. Yum. There’s a joke in that part of the country (the foothills in the west) that half the dhal they eat is actually stones. I certainly think there’s a truth to it! It’s not people’s fault there’s not enough to eat – they don’t even have enough dhal-bhat, I could hardly march in there demanding variety. I think as well I was exposed much more to this poorer, conflict-ridden side of Nepal than I was to any similar side in India (where I was backpacking and the poverty was more something that passed me by while I was eating my yummy, spicy food), so maybe that’s warped my perception.

      There are different Nepali dishes and condiments and stuff of course, but that kind of food only seemed to come out at weddings and special occasions (compared to Gujarat, where my thali came out with 7 different types of veg curry each night!). Anyway, I had a lot of problems and illnesses with food in Nepal…it was one of my pet rant topics while I was over there, but yeah, hopefully others have had better luck when it comes to Nepali food

  14. Bad Indian Girl

    Great post, and I can completely relate to the “de-goddessification” that happens to Hindu girls when they hit puberty.
    Pre-pubescent girls are considered to embody the divine, but come puberty and you suddenly become dangerous, impure and just another female body that needs to be controlled and put to good use (i.e the birthing of sons).

    I blame misogynistic Hindu beliefs for the low status that most Indian women occupy within the larger structures of family and society.

    I think the overwhelming Hindu attitude towards women is that they are good only for serving men (food, sex and emotional support) and bearing sons.
    They have no inherent value in and of themselves.

    Most Hindu scriptures like the Manusmriti seem to be unusually preoccupied with controlling female sexual impulses and ensuring that women stayed “chaste and pure”.

    Perhaps you could write a post on how such Hindu beliefs shape contemporary attitudes towards Hindu women. I’m referring chiefly to Hindu beliefs here because I do not know enough about Islam and Christianity to intelligently analyse how Islamic and Christian beliefs affect the lives of women in South Asia.

    • Hello there thanks for a great comment!
      You know, I never thought of my experiences in terms of ‘de-goddessification’…it’s a really interesting point. I wonder now, thinking back, if my mum (I never told my dad) went through a shift in her relationship with me when I first told her I got my period. If she did, I wouldn’t have recognised it at the time…probably because I didn’t grow up in a context where I would have had even a vague awareness of the ‘pre-pubescent girls embody the divine’ attitude (which as you point out is really just an excuse to control them once their sexuality and sexual powers become obvious). Not to mention the fact I was too preoccupied with hiding my body and other such matters!
      I really like your point about Hindu ideology being preoccupied with controlling female sexuality. Thanks for the post idea! I would love to write on the topic, and in particular see what others have to say about it 🙂
      (My work and personal life have been an absolute roller-coaster the last month…hoping things will settle so I have time to get back into blogging)

  15. lkafle

    Bad indian Girl, wowow you know all even upanishads manusmriti too, its great to see ur comment here , got more knowledge

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