What does it mean to be a woman?

Being a woman is definitely more than just discovering one’s femininity through a love for soft fabrics and the joy of wearing nailpaint.

Written by Anuradha Varma | New Delhi | Updated: March 9, 2017 11:44 am
Could a society in which males and females hold equal places ever exist? Ironically, perhaps it is not biology that is the implacably resistant counterforce, but our culturally attuned minds. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

Recently, when I picked up my niece from the park, she told me she had spotted someone from the “common gender”. She asked if they couldn’t see themselves in the mirror, and didn’t they know they were really male? I told her they felt like women from the inside. But, that got me thinking…what does it feel like to be a woman on the inside?

A lot of reading and some soul-searching provided no answers, except one…you just are! When US President Donald Trump was believed to have asked women in his office to dress like women, it became a Twitter hashtag with people sharing images of women as firefighters, soldiers and astronauts, with the message that if you are a woman, you are dressed like one, however that may be!

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In The Danish Girl, actor Eddie Redmayne plays real life transgender Danish painter Einar Wegener, a man who could reportedly “withstand storms”, but as Lili Elbe, becomes a “flighty, superficially-minded” mess who is prone to crying with or without cause. He felt he was two people in the same body battling it out …but are the opposing sexes really so different? In The Pregnant King, a book by Devdutt Pattanaik, King Yuvanashva, who accidentally becomes pregnant and bears a child, is called Mother by his son and says it is far sweeter than being called Father. When he asks Arjuna how he spent a year in hiding as Brihannala, a eunuch, the warrior prince said he may have been dressed as a woman but he had the heart of a man. However, his year in female form taught him about the unrelenting male gaze, “To be a woman is like becoming a prey, her every move watched by hungry predators. Every glance of man is a violation. No one is spared. No one. Not mother, not sister, not daughter. It is only fear of dharma that keeps men in check.” In fact, some feminists believe that being at the receiving end of predatory gestures and battling the glass ceiling are rites of passage to being a woman.

This may or may not be true, but being a woman is definitely more than just discovering one’s femininity through a love for soft fabrics and the joy of wearing nailpaint. When transgender Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Olympics champion Bruce Jenner, remarked that she wanted to wear nailpolish not for a brief instant, but till it chips off, even as she made her debut as a photo-shopped fashionista, there were enough voices claiming there’s more to being a woman than surface gloss.

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It’s also not just a brain thing, as some researchers have us believe. In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine writes that cultural upbringing has a large role to play. She writes, “In other words, the social context influences who you are, how you think and what you do. And these thoughts, attitudes and behaviours of yours, in turn, become part of the social context. It’s intimate. It’s messy. And it demands a different way of thinking about gender.” She comments, “Could a society in which males and females hold equal places ever exist? Ironically, perhaps it is not biology that is the implacably resistant counterforce, but our culturally attuned minds.”

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So, what is it really? As the only woman in an eight-member team at work, I can say some clichés play out in real life. My colleagues, as men often do, forgot my birthday. They made up later, though, and were duly apologetic, but I brushed it off, saying, “You’re guys, it’s what you do!” And, as women, we do what we’re best at—being women—whatever that may mean to each of us!

(The writer is an editorial consultant and co-founder of The Goodwill Project. She tweets @anuvee) Views expressed are personal.

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