What does it mean to be a woman?

The_awekening_of_SHAKTI

The title of this post may seem at first glance to be deliberately provocative, but that’s not my intention. It is simply a question that any male writer that attempts to write convincing women must ask himself. To be more specific, the question I grappled with before I began the ‘Hastinapur’ series was this: What would it have meant to be a woman in the Mahabharat era? And how can one adapt it to be relevant for women of our times?

In my search for answers, I read as many point-of-view retellings that I could lay my hands on. I read and re-read Yajnaseni (Pratibha Ray), The Palace of Illusions (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni), and two other Telugu books that spoke about Kunti’s laments. I made notes, highlighted paragraphs, and wrote exploratory paragraphs on what I thought were the key themes that each book professed.

Glancing back over my notes at a later time, closer to writing my own book, I was surprised to find that none of the books contained women who were proud of being women. Though these were supposedly independent, control-taking characters, things always happened to them and they reacted, often by pitying themselves in dramatic dialogue (as in Yajnaseni) or by resignedly making allusions to an already sealed fate (as in Palace). I am not saying these aren’t good books; they are, but I couldn’t bring myself to like or sympathize with the main character because of her passivity.

The other curious thing I noticed with feminist retellings in general is that they’re too keen to project the woman as someone who could accomplish all that a man could. So Draupadi will be a sword-bearing, horse-riding ninja who can obliterate ten goons in hand-to-hand combat. She will be knowledgeable in war strategy and statecraft. In other words, she kicks butt. She’s not only a woman, these books inform us, but she can also do anything that a man can do and be at least as good at it.

But why? Why must Draupadi ride horses and participate in debates about politics to be known as an independent woman? Why must a woman aspire to excellence in male pursuits in order to be counted as equal? Last time I checked, men are not required either to give birth or to breastfeed their young. Why is this expectation placed on women, then? Why do women place it on themselves?

So I decided to write about women who take great pride in their femininity, who are proud of their bodies, of their emotional make up, of their sexual desires. I wanted to tell the tales of women who never felt the need to compete with men at their games to feel equal to them, whose identities came from things such as love, care, motherhood and tenderness. I wanted to write stories of women who, for once, did not apologize for being female.

Do they ride horses and take deep interest in the running of the state? No. Are they still strong characters who take action and shape events around them? Most definitely yes.

To those of you who have come here and have read this far, what does being a woman mean to you? Have you felt this constant push to prove yourself against men? Did you have to mold at least part of your identity to conform to that expectation? There is this underlying theme in modern feminism whereby women who are ambitious, driven and ruthless are celebrated, perhaps at the cost of those who are empathetic, accommodating and kind. Do you agree with it? Are we in the danger of losing track, slowly, of what it truly means to be female?

 

Comments

  1. With every generation, women excel over men in many activities that were formerly considered to be the domain of men. So, I don’t see what’s wrong with women egging others to become stronger. Women maybe better than men at certain activities but that doesn’t mean that’s what they’ll have to do. Why not explore new boundaries and achieve new heights? Don’t modern men take pride in their cooking skills at home?

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    • True. But with men and cooking, there is no expectation that you should be good. If you’re good, great, it’s a bonus. But no one will take your case for not being a good cook. However, with women, there is an expectation that they should be more like men – and this comes across more fiercely from other women. Being ‘one of the boys’ is a compliment for a woman, whereas if you tell a guy that he’s ‘one of the girls’, he will flip. Women are forever egged on to become more rational, more logical, more independent, whereas guys are never told that they should cry more, for instance.

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  2. sharath probably every woman should ask herself this question too. My perception of femininity may be different from my mother’s. 🙂

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    • You’re right, Parwati. If I am permitted an opinion, I am more inclined to agree with the feminism of our mothers than what passes off under that label today. But that’s a whole new debate, I suppose.

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      • You are absolutely right. Someday when I am emotionally more stable I would like to tell their stories. The stories from the generation of my grandmother.

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  3. Bhagirathi Kumar says:

    Everyone is equal, whatever roles they play. But given the unequal world, a woman has to do things to take charge of her life and not be at someone else’s mercy.

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    • Hi aunty, thanks for leaving a message. My gripe is why only women are asked to work on their perceived flaws whereas men are freely allowed to get away with theirs, even with an indulgent smile and words to the effect of: ‘Men are like that.’ I am hoping that women will soon stop apologizing for being womanly so that this exploitation will stop, and then maybe we can look at how we can complement one another rather than forever be at loggerheads?

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  4. Finally, I read someone who has the guts, gumption and b**s (couldn’t quite get a better word for it) to say what I have felt all these years. Why, just why do women have to do all that men can do to prove themselves to be equal to us, and funnily enough it is other women who encourage them to do so…

    In any case, coming back to the point you make about the so called ‘feministic retellings’ of this epic, I have read only The Palace of Illusions and have to completely agree when you say that to a large extent, Draupadi resigns to her fate in life and seems to be blaming all that is happening around her to various other extraneous factors. The author seems to want to get readers to sympathize with her protagonist’s fate when I would rather have readers empathize with her. In any case, it is the author’s prerogative to choose what mood her work should take.

    And that precisely is the reason I loved The Winds of Hastinapur and am eagerly looking forward to the next one in the series – the fact that this series provides a fresh breath of air to the woman’s point of view on this great epic without being feministic or preachy about it in its approach to the story itself.

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    • I found Palace quite insufferable because of that, and even with Yajnaseni, with due respect to Pratibha Ray, was one long lament of Draupadi about how much she’s suffering. While I agree that suffering is important to build sympathy, I’d rather see a character deal with suffering in dignity and stoicism, and watch her take action to surmount her obstacles.

      But then Palace is universally liked, so I suppose there is no accounting for tastes. Either that or the women of today identify with victim mentality more than they do for proud, purposeful action. One can always hope for change, though. Right? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. @Sharath, now if you say something like “the women of today identify with victim mentality more than they do for proud, purposeful action” and I agree with it, both of us run the risk of being branded male chauvinistic pigs. But then, if it helps generate some buzz (positive or negative) around you and your books, that is good news for you, isn’t it? 🙂

    On a more serious note, I do completely agree with what you say because on more than one occasion, even I have felt that women do play the ‘victim card’ more often than not.

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