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The myth of the strong woman

When I asked my mother, she first snapped at the absent teacher, but then explained how in our world, a boy child is valued far more than a girl.

SOHANA MANZOOR | New Delhi |

Years ago, when I was about eight years old, I heard a teacher say that a woman’s lungs are stronger than a man’s. It sounded strange even to my young and untrained ears. When I asked my mother, she first snapped at the absent teacher, but then explained how in our world, a boy child is valued far more than a girl. And it starts at the cradle – people rush in when a baby boy cries, but not a baby girl. Hence her lungs are stronger because they get more exercise.

The explanation still did not make sense. I was yet to understand what being a woman meant. In our country, most girls are raised with the expectation of fairy-tale marriages. A dream is spun for her with hopes of beautiful dresses, jewellery, a loving husband, and children. She is also taught that however educated, she cannot be happy or fulfilled until she is married. It’s as though that fairy tale is meant to compensate for being taught that girls are softer and lesser than boys in every sphere of life.

After marriage, with her dreams of a happy household, the girl suddenly is faced with the politics of her in-laws. In most cases, she needs permission from her husband and in laws to even visit her parents. She is tested in various ways by her new family members. These tests are mostly demeaning and often abusive. Her life is dictated by the expectations of others in her new family – including when to have children, whether she can continue her studies, or have a career.

However,if she complains about these ordeals, she is told that the happiness of a woman lies in making other people happy, not herself. The definition of “happily ever after” suddenly changes – it was never he happiness that was intended, but that of others – her husband, her children, and her in laws. People nod in approval when they find such a selfless woman. In other words, a woman’s selfhood must be sacrificed for the welfare of the society. The ideal existence society intends for her is on of selfabnegation.

When I was growing up, I heard people describe my maternal grandmother as a woman of great prowess. She had given birth to fourteen children, including two that died in infancy, and managed her huge household with capable hands. She rose early in the morning before anybody else and was the last one to go to bed. As a child, I only saw her as a loving nanu who readily fulfilled my wishes. But now when I look back, I also see that she was a woman who was denied her own dreams. Married off at age 12 and unable to fulfil her own desire for higher education, she devoted herself to raising her children to be successful in life. That was the best that she could have.

Many would say that times have changed now, and women have become independent. As I look around, I see that things have become even more difficult when women are working and taking care of the household at the same time. She is continuously urged to be perfect, even more of a goddess than her mother and grandmother. If something goes wrong with her children, it is invariably her fault because she did not give them enough time. Few notice her financial contribution to the family and even condemn her for buying sarees or personal items with her earnings. I haveheard educated men make snide remarks like, “Women work becausethey are not happy with their husbands’ earnings,” or “Working women make bad mothers.”

To be successful as a woman means withstanding societal pressure from all quarters and having to brace themselves for each day as if nothing is wrong. Women are supposedly the weaker sex, but the reality is that to be independent and successful in a patriarchal setting, a woman has to be far stronger than her male counterparts. To establish herself, she has to encounter far more obstacles than a man. A strong woman, then, is one who has endured extreme difficulty, even harassment or abuse, and learnt to live with it as best she can. Have you wondered why these women are sometimes referred to as crazy or eccentric? A sane man apparently cannot imagine leading the life of a woman because that life is too restrained and limited. And yet a woman is made to live such a life because she is not a man.

By hailing these women as “strong” and worthy of admiration, society recognizes their suffering with grudging respect, while also endorsing and  perpetuating their ordeals: “She is a strong woman and she can bear anything.” Just because women have bravely borne ill treatment doesn’t mean that it is justified. It is high time to look upon a woman as a full human being, not just as somebody’s mother, wife, sister, or daughter who will sacrifice her life and ambitions for the “greater good”of society.