Defining femininity

Sayan Supratim Das | SIPA Class of 2018

It was late in the night. August had just about died in the arms of September. 1994 was swiftly moving towards embracing its maker. I was sitting next to Baba (my father) watching Steffi Graf compete against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in tennis under the New York sun. For the next two hours as he explained the game to me, I remembered Baba proclaiming how feminine but relentlessly persevering both players were. From that moment on, every time someone mentioned the word ‘femininity’, the image of Steffi Graf striking that forehand with strength, moving like a gazelle all over the court, painting the baseline like a ballerina would, with a face glowing with laser sharp focus, came to my mind. But over the years Baba has also taught me that this was just one end of the spectrum.

Femininity for me has always been defined by men. These men responsibly understood that an education in womanhood was a privilege, both for them as teachers and me as a student. And so Ma’s (my mother) femininity never came from traditional sources. My grandfather never protested that Ma, who by choice wanted to be a home-maker, did not know how to cook. However, she had the ‘option’ to see this ‘chore’ as a life skill, if not as an arsenal for a home-maker. This option later grew to become a passion which she passed on to me. Baba’s definition of femininity never adhered to popular Indian culture. Ma determined the direction of the home economy and to this day she sits at the head of our dinner table. Baba never gave it to her. Ma never demanded it. It just was this way from the time I could remember. Her femininity was not determined by her being a home-maker. She defined it herself. This allowed me to understand her femininity in the way she led a troop of dancers during a performance at our annual festival. Yet I also found femininity the way she would cautiously fold her saris, holding the fabric with her long graceful manicured fingers at the end of the day. She made me realize that her presence in the kitchen and her avatar of being a former business woman both defined her feminine traits. There was never an option. Femininity was all encompassing.

My education in femininity was also defined by role models who invariably have been women. My love for tennis began by watching Steffi Graf long before Roger Federer became my personal icon who furthered my education in femininity (his tears at victories and losses showed me true masculinity did not equate itself with stoicism). He also taught me grace and poise were not the domain of women alone. I first understood national pride when an eighteen-year-old Indian, Sushmita Sen, won an international pageant (long before pageants became the Trump-land of misogyny and sexism). This was a time when India needed young icons, and I learned fame came with responsibility. I appreciated the value of breaking barriers when an Indian-born NASA astronaut, Kalpana Chawla, went to space and when the Indian actress Priyanka Chopra walked away with a lead role in a mainstream American network show with posters all over Time’s Square.

These lessons, from home and away, brought me to a few conclusions. Femininity, like people, is subjective. It has various definitions. These definitions are personal. But most importantly these definitions have to liberate women, rather than restrict them. Today I find femininity in my friend who writes the most sublime verses, has the most independent of voices, speaks in a honey-dewed tone, while wearing bow ties and who just happens to have married an equally wonderful woman. I find femininity in a police-woman who runs across the street to stop a biker who flouted a rule. I found femininity in the giggle of my course administrator in my last graduate degree, yet this trait also shone when she would put on her straight face to get work done. I have begun finding femininity in the obvious and in the unconventional. It exists in the thin waist of a woman visible through the folds of a sari (the traditional male gaze), and it lives in the sweat-laced face of an Olympic athlete with a medal around her neck.

I now understand that femininity exists in me when I tear up watching the advertisement about mothers made by Procter and Gamble for the 2012 Olympics, or when I put my arm around Baba’s elbow and walk in a crowded space unaware that this might be a trait more common to fathers and young daughters. I find my own femininity in a night club when I dance to both the male and the female voice without as much as a thought. I recognise the collective femininity of my male friends when we meet after months in the long, rich and warm embrace which defies cultural expectations of what friendships should be. I refuse to associate warmth, kindness, and compassion as traits exclusive to femininity. I however accept traditional definitions of femininity when it is chosen by women for themselves. So if a woman expresses her femininity in a bikini or a burkha, or with hair shortened or curled, in a dress or a pair of jeans, in six inch stilettos or tennis shoes, with eyes full of kohl or face bereft of make-up, in her powerful strut or her need to be a passive, almost meek participant in life, it is her prerogative. We define for ourselves our own versions of femininity.

Femininity, thus, is found in agency. And this agency lies within us. It demands responsibility as much as it demands openness of thoughts.




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