Saturday, February 2, 2013

Of being a woman...


Maryam Sakeenah

In her article 'The Balancing Act of Being Female', Lisa Wade talks of how as a woman one has to conform to expectations of behaviour in varying situations; how it is a daily battle to play up to the demands an oversexed society puts on women. From dress to demeanour, all is sized up and judged for social appropriacy: when being flirty may be appealing, and what crosses the line into 'asking for it.' At the workplace it ought to be 'proper' but not in the least 'prudish', and a slight misdemeanour may just spill it over into inappropriately 'cheeky' and hence wholly undesirable.

It is a lot of pressure which most women agree to subject themselves to as they dress in the rightly sized heels to convey the attitude the occasion demands. Often, the pressure from the society is not recognized as it is mistaken for the woman's freedom and natural right to look good and feel desired. However, this may make women spend more than their ability to get that right sort of look to make them win the nod of approval from a society that objectifies femininity.

On the flip side, the pressure it builds on women who may look different, to conform and look like who they are not, is brutally oppressive. One of my teenaged students stopped me on my way to class, sniffling and holding back the torrent of tears, desperate for help. She said she wished to end her life because 'everyone hates me and makes fun of me because I am ugly and I am not feminine enough.' The girl was a brainy, hardworking one scoring excellent grades usually, but suffered terrible pressure from peers because she did not dress or wax or style her hair like other girls her age did. I was revolted by our collective inability to accept human beings as they are without trying to smooth the rough edges to make us all clones of the ideal stereotype set down by society.

The ideal stereotype is reinforced relentlessly through advertisements and the entertainment industry that creates images that exercise enormous influence on our minds. Grotesque billboards stare down at the city telling us how 'Slim is the in thing', while T.V commercials tell us that not having the latest brand of cellphone or the fairest skin tone makes one highly ineligible for marriage; and that people who stutter stand no chance at all for their appalling, socially incorrect inability. The images, stereotypes and values created by the entertainment, cosmetic and the advertising industries are brutally insensitive and build pressure on women to look, dress, act a certain way or be condemned to social marginalization. The materialist-commercial ethic  values physicality over and above all else, and this is far worse for women due to the commercial obsession with the woman's body for selling soap or cooking oil or cellphones.

The pressure this builds plays havoc with individual lives as it smothers the natural diversity of human beings. God made us in varying shapes, sizes, colours and personalities simply because that is how the world was meant to be. The colours made by God are painted in a tawdry plastic hue in one unvarying, flat stroke of sameness. Women mutilate their own bodies to feel more accepted: botox, nosejobs, liposuction and plastic surgeries have been steadily on the rise in this society.

In the context of all this, the Muslim veil takes on significance. For me, it has always meant a refusal to subject myself to judgement by a commercialized, oversexed society. It is immensely liberating from the pressure of having to conform to the social standard of how I ought to look. It is a refusal to allow myself to be judged merely by how I look or what I wear, a refusal to be subjected to the lustful stare of an onlooker. I spend far less on my clothes, hair and makeup than most women in my income bracket. The veil for me is liberty. Breaking me free from the fetters, it raises me onto a more spiritual and intellectual plane, and this defines my social interaction while deflecting attention away from physicality.
But then again, to be judged as more pious and holy than my veil-less counterparts is equally disconcerting. I wish we could just learn the simple lesson that human beings are more than the sum of all the clothes they wear.