I enter an overcrowded cafe on a wet Parisian morning that is brimming with people and the strong smell of coffee. I take off my now drenched overcoat and hang it comfortably on the back of my chair. I toss my hair and sit down, adjusting my polka dot dress. I order an espresso and open my bag to take out the book I am reading, resuming from the point I left it at the night before.
The woman sitting on the table next to mine, who has been eyeing me slyly for quite a while, now stares at me, unabashedly with surprise and disbelief dripping from her face.
I know that look. I know that disbelief. The disbelief at a woman, dressed like I am, could actually read. The look doesn’t surprise me anymore, I have seen it way too many times. Though every time I sit at the receiving end, I wonder at the polarity between red lipstick and reading.
In a world where everything fits neatly in either of the clearly demarcated dichotomies of one and another, in a world where classification begins and ends in either good or bad, man and woman, rich and poor – it can come as a shock to many of us when we see something or someone, attempting to or successfully transcending these boundaries to exist in free floating spaces. The thought that someone or something could steer away from being straightjacketed into these existing spaces with limiting boundaries and limitations scares us.
Anything and everything that refuses to be bundled within these non-porous borders, or to be categorised within a certain ‘type’ is seen as a threat to the long-existing power structures, that operate and feed on these boundaries and differences.
For as long as I know, I have been offered fixed models of ‘femininity’ – an already problematic word. Who defines femaleness? Why are certain behavioural aspects ascribed exclusively to ‘femininity’, expected to be followed, without noise (unsurprisingly) by women. A woman is either an ‘angel’– the perfect woman, or the ‘seductress’– a neat opposite of the former. Every existing mode of behaviour is either rejected or comfortably bracketed under these two.
A woman can either be a ‘home maker’ or a ‘home breaker’, can either be the faithful wife waiting for her husband to return from work, or be the mistress, the seductress, a threat to the well-received woman at home, can either be the silent observer, the woman with a sense or a raging voice, of feminism, utterly meaningless and loud.
These spaces, this dichotomy has not only created models to live by and adhere to, but has succeeded in creating fractions and frictions within woman themselves – a smart tool to prevent the woman from being united and fight against the larger, pressingly important, oppressive structures of patriarchy, sexism, racism and capitalism among others.
What Frantz Fanon said about racism perpetrating and encouraging friction between Africans themselves, especially between the men and the women, to prevent a collective rebellion is exactly the way all power structures exist and thrive in the world. The oppressed, unknowingly, engrossed in the fight among themselves, pull down one another (in this case women) and conveniently forget and misplace the larger oppression, happy and satisfied, reeling in the boost to their smothered egos, by competing against their fellows and emerging victorious in battles that are perpetuated by the oppressors.
Remind me again why do women who choose to have a baby consider the woman who refuses to bear one as a threat to her existence?
Born in this structure of differences, I learnt at a fairly young age that I could choose either one of the models offered, banishing the other vocally. Any attempt at questioning the difference was shushed by the women around me.
The differences existing within women themselves became apparent and visible to me over the years. A woman could only choose between the available models of ‘femininity’, ‘femaleness’ and ‘womanliness’. The available models are neat and convenient circumscribed spaces, for instance, the beautiful but dumb ‘bimbo’(a term that all of us have grown up using, mindlessly, without understanding its larger significations), to the coy woman without voice, to the angry feminist marching on the road, who refuses to shave her body hair among many others. Any attempt to exist beyond, above or between these delimited spaces is rejected because of its potential threat to the power network.
At 15, torn between strict models of existence, I decided to refute all my instincts about ‘dressing up’, fearing it wouldn’t be in sync with my good grades. I later realised it was also an attempt – a terribly failed attempt – at becoming a ‘tomboy’, another archetype, to be accepted more readily to the already male child obsessed Indian society.
At 19, when I had the urge to buy my first lipstick, I feared I would be considered frivolous and petty by my ‘serious’ group of friends, so I tried coming up with excuses and reasoning that could allow me evade any criticism or shunning.
This conflict of emotions and loyalty existed, till one day, tired of straddling between unnecessarily differentiated grounds, I decided to do what I wanted to do, without the fear that plagues us all – the fear of being judged.
I loved reading and writing, but that did not stop me from loving dressing up or buying make-up.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest roadblock in achieving an existence free of these models was laid down by the women around me. Too engrossed with strictly adhering to either one of the ‘types’, they found it hard to synchronise the differences that I was trying to synthesise.
What has red lipstick got to do with reading books? What has manicured nails got to do with my discussing theories with my own peers?
Any attempt at explaining any of these, or even talking about it fell on deaf ears, with responses that were proof that the false dichotomies of our existence had succeeded in burying the hope for revival for us. The fact that I had to fight the structures was compounded by the pain of contradicting and fighting my own fellow women.
A friend who did well in her job always spoke of how she hated dressing up and going shopping, was proud of her flawed skin, which she believed was indicative and directly proportionate to her knowledge and IQ. Another friend who loved dressing up conveniently gave up on any attempt to participate in even family discussions, aware that she would not be taken seriously.
The Parisian cafe incident is certainly not an isolated one for me, or for many women around the world.
Ironically, the book I was reading was Audre Lorde’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You, a collection of essays, speeches and poetry. A lesbian feminist author, Lorde talks exponentially about race, sexism, capitalism and the very problem of the oppression of womankind, women themselves.
It will take time, maybe years and a whole lot of effort, to let our sisters know and understand that it is okay and acceptable, to go above and beyond the existing models of femininity, to form a new model for themselves, exclusively, or to refuse to live by any model at all.
The differential structure is so ingrained in our beings, that it will take years of unlearning and learning to understand that it is okay not to choose between red lipstick and book, between high heels and writing, between a piece of jewellery and a pen and ultimately between pink and blue.
It is okay to float free, to taste the addictive taste of freedom, to be able to decide for yourself and to encourage fellow women and sisters to chart their lives, the way they want to, because it is not just about surviving these boundaries but to conquer them.
Mahima Kaur is a literature major, an assistant professor, and a freelance writer who is as stumped by the current circumstances as anyone else.