I am on a search trip for what a woman is really like.
– Dana C. Jack
I am carefully slicing narangis (sour oranges), a gift from a friend whose narangi trees have gone into overproduction this winter. The slicing is careful work but I am enjoying myself. By adding sugar I will transform these very sour narangis into golden marmalade. When doing tedious kitchen work, it’s a good time to listen to music and hold silent debates with myself.
Today the topic of the debate is: Am I a woman? What is a woman?
What does it mean to be a woman? Do breasts, wombs and uteruses a woman make, or do learning to talk, walk, dress guardedly like a woman, make a woman? Loving the very men they fear, make a woman? Craving sometimes, yet cringing at male power? Is that what makes a woman?
I finish cutting the oranges and measure three cups of sliced oranges (all seeds removed) and three cups of sugar and a cup of water into a pot and set it on the stove and wait till the citrusy mixture slowly comes to a boil. The kitchen and my hands smell orangey. I turn down the flame and keep stirring.
So if somebody possesses breasts, a uterus and a vagina, could they then say they were a woman?
And if a biological woman’s uterus and vagina and breasts are removed, would they then not be a woman?
If I feel I am a woman, am I a woman?
One feels, therefore one is?
The marmalade mixture is simmering gently and its opaqueness is transforming into translucent gold. I keep stirring. Making marmalade is a labour of love and time and effort. I know only too well about labours of love and time and effort. On my resume I should add: three decades of experience as housekeeper, cook, cleaner, childcare worker, and socially legit sex worker.
Does all that make me a woman?
What if I had been raised differently? As a man. Would I feel differently about who I am?
Maybe because the definition of womanhood is so elusive, we don’t even agree on how to spell the word anymore: Womon? Womyn? Wimmin? Womxn? Womyn is trans-exclusive. Politically incorrect. But womxn is trans-inclusive. I read online that Dictionary.com added womxn as a valid alternative spelling in 2019. But the alternatives are still highlighted in red by MS Word’s spellcheck function.
Perhaps a woman is a cultural, social, political construct. Just like a man is. Hmmm: not very satisfactory. It has little to do with biology. I am a biological female but I’m a woman because I’ve learned to act/behave like one? Because I conform to the set of rules and roles, norms and expectations associated with being a woman set by culture/ society?
It’s time to add lemon juice to my marmalade mixture. The acid in the lemon juice will help release the pectin and set the marmalade. I perform the set-check: drop the mixture on a steel plate and let it cool. If it sets, good. If not, keep simmering. Keep stirring.
Finally, my marmalade passes the set-test, and I transfer the hot marmalade into glass jars. Screw on the lids. And set the jars of gold in a saucepan of water on the stove to seal and sterilize them. I’ve been at the stove for more than two hours.
Aren’t I anything more than my gender then? “The spirit is not gendered”, writes Ruth Vanita in her collection of essays on gender, sexuality and culture in Gandhi’s Tiger and Sita’s Smile . With reference to the female ascetic, Sulabha, in the Mahabharata, Ruth writes: “Sulabha, in a learned discourse, demonstrates that the self is the same in all beings, and is changeless. Since the same self is in both (women and men), she (Sulabha) does not belong to any man, as the self cannot be possessed by anyone.”
Bravo! Sulabha. My kind of person you are!
So the self is not a woman-self or a man-self. The self may be a product of material influences: biological, cultural, political, religion, social class. But what about my deepest, innermost self? My soul? At birth I was declared female. And mostly I’ve been ok with that label. I don’t feel I am the wrong gender, or in the wrong body. I mostly feel I’m living in the wrong world.
Am I a woman by default then?
Ruth sums up Sulabha’s primary argument (from a spiritual perspective) that a woman’s gender alone does not define who she is: “… the body develops in the womb where it acquires a sex, but the self/spirit is not gendered. The body changes constantly, so the body is not always gendered in the same way, that is, bodily gender is not a fixed or static even thing (italics added).” Nice, don’t you think? Gender is not a fixed identity. It keeps evolving. We are not the same person (our gender expression keeps changing) we were in our past. Sulabha was a spunky ascetic, refusing marriage, roaming the world alone, winning arguments with learned and powerful men. Not very womanly even by contemporary standards. In fact, we, in our times, have strayed even further from the fearless idea of personhood or selfhood espoused by people like Sulabha.
Because of the illusion of fixity with gender identity, expression and gender-roles as binary constructs (‘Men are like Mars, Women are like Venus’ kind of thinking) I too ended up spending most of my adolescence and adulthood as a woman in a state of alienation from myself (something I couldn’t understand or explain except as constant restlessness), and as a result, I lived with constant confusion, low self-esteem and low-grade depression. But over the years I became clear about one thing: given a choice to change my gender, I’d refuse to do it. Why? Why would I not want to be a man in a world stacked from bottom to top with male privilege? Who wants to be Dictatorial? Domineering? Arrogant? Puffed up with Self-importance? Besieged by Low Emotional Quotient? Yes, it sounds reductive I know (‘all men are not like that’, etc.), but the very idea of a becoming a cis-het male is akin to enacting more hell on earth.
I would like to quote at some length from Dana Jack’s classic and well-researched book, Silencing the Self: Women and Depression , a must-read for anyone who is interested in understanding their own or other women’s depression under malevolent patriarchy. Dana represents an accurate picture of my own struggles during my years of self-silencing:
‘Not only does depression negatively affect thought, feeling, appetite, and sleep; depression silences a woman’s self-expression, vitality, and perspectives – her very self (italics added). A veil of numbness settles over the self to form an invisible shroud. The burial of her authentic self is accomplished by the internalized presence of the male gaze. Identifying with the male gaze is an act of fundamental aggression against the self. But the woman feels in control when she, as object, gains approval by losing weight, wearing the right clothes, acting loving and patient. The fundamental self-alienation underlying this illusory control contributes to a woman’s depression. She hugs her resentment tightly within herself (and) lets it out in little intense spurts, angry outbursts that leave her feeling ineffectual and childish, and are often seen by herself and her partner as evidence that she is immature, stressed or neurotic.”
Sounds familiar! Every time I lost it, a woman who had been trained for years to be compliant and patient, I was made to feel immature, stressed or neurotic. I blamed myself for my anger outbursts. I was self-absorbed to complain. After all my life was no more ‘routinely unhappy’ than most married lives.
To return to Dana Jack. In Dana’s words: Having put the “authentic self into solitary confinement,” way back in late adolescence, as an adult I lived with an “inner sense of defeat, (where) the whispers of my authentic self that sent disquieting messages to (my) awareness became less and less audible.”
And believe me, just because you read books on Feminism and mental health and get a diploma in Women’s Studies, and attend consciousness-raising workshops, doesn’t mean you can hear the disquieting messages of your inner self any better. Or even if you do hear them, acting upon them is scary. The depression lingers. You understand it better after reading all the books and attending all the workshops, but it takes years of stubborn scraping of the debris to make the depression manageable. It doesn’t vanish. It becomes manageable.
Spinning Straw into Gold: Re-claiming the authentic spiritual-sexual self
The meaning of a dream I had many years ago had kept eluding me. Not until I arrived at post-menopausal middle age did my muddledness begin to diminish somewhat. Outwardly my sexual and reproductive life as a post-menopausal woman was over. Thank God. But in that dream, I am a bride, surrounded by gaily-dressed wedding guests and photographers. However, there is no groom at my wedding. Somehow the groom’s absence doesn’t bother me. I’m all smiles, getting married to nobody.
So who was I getting wedded to? I guess I was marrying myself: my saner, deeper, inner self. Or to use an unfashionable and over-used term: God? But what a blessing it was to wed nobody but myself. I understood the dream in the sixth decade of my life. It was the most memorable gift of late adulthood: my groomless wedding, indecipherable to my rational, conscious mind, but envisioned by my prescient unconscious mind more than a decade ago.
The most satisfying spiritual and sexual experiences I’ve had were not in my twenties, thirties or even forties. They have been in my 50’s. The most insightful spiritual insights, and the most orgasmic orgasms have both arrived in middle age. These arrivals have been about forgiving myself, being gentle and loving and kind with myself. These gifts, the moments of spiritual insights and sexual ecstasy, without which I wouldn’t be able to write this essay, arrived sans the meddlesome, performance-obsessed interference of a man’s overweening ego or his dick. I imagine heaven will be like this if there’s a heaven.
Cis het men and women might interpret my dream, my claim to my self-chosen, self-reliant relationship with myself as a cop out; my self-pleasuring experiences as a failure on my part to find the right male-mate. Who cares? I am delighted by what might be called my celibate sexuality and spirituality. They are proof of self-recognition, self-confidence, self-knowledge, self-transformation, and yes, that ever-elusive self-respect I had despaired of attaining.
Such a long journey! After all the heart-sinking emotional dumps on the solitary road to selfhood, this now does feel like bahisht (heaven).
The prescience of my groomless wedding dream as my union with myself, was also the union of my heart with my intellect , that inviolable state of rapturous love that emanates when left-brain aspects of oneself unite with the right-brain aspects. Such integration. Such rapture. Nothing is amiss. I have entered the best phase of my life. I have become my swayamwara sakhi. I am my own self-chosen mate. In my sixth decade it’s time to celebrate my Self. My spiritual and sexual self.
The Urdu poet Jigar Moradabadi (1890-1960), like the Mahabharata’s female ascetic-intellectual Sulabha, knew of the improbability of the self’s union with another companionate self in this world. Jigar did point out though, how the wayward, restless, fragmented, love-seeking self could come to meet and love itself, and rest there:
aadmī aadmī se miltā hai
dil magar kam kisī se miltā hai
ruuh ko bhī mazā mohabbat kā
dil kī ham-sāegī se miltā hai
Humans meet other humans often enough
But, a meeting of hearts is a rare event
To find rapturous love, one’s soul must
Learn to reside in proximity to one’s heart
My soul is learning to reside close to my heart. Jigar went so far as to claim that the pinnacle of civilization is reached when a lover or a spiritual seeker’s intellect bows to their superior spiritual heart. He expressed this idea pithily in one couplet. I apologize for the long-windedness of my translation:
kārobār-e-jahāñ sañvarte haiñ
hosh jab be-ḳhudī se miltā hai
When the rational intellect is subsumed by the rapturous heart
In such a state of rapturous self-lessness, lovers/seekers/ cultures attain the zenith of refinement
What I’ve learnt from these mentors, Ruth, Dana, Sulabha and Jigar is this: to live an integrated life, as an older womxn, I must reclaim both my spirituality and sexuality, I must merge my intellect and emotional heart, unite the sacred and the secular within me.
It is a journey that can only be undertaken by an adamant self. It can’t be undertaken by an unrecognized, alienated, silenced, repressed self. The sexual and the spiritual are not disparate strands of ones’ consciousness. They are entwined aspects of my shy, reticent, inner self, which only surfaced when I began to understand how this self had been annihilated by heterosexist patriarchy. When I began to consciously clear the mounds of debris left behind on the psyche by the repeated inoculations of toxic heterosexist patriarchy, I began to value myself. That it took so many years to begin to figure out who or what I am is an indication of how effective the inoculation was.
But as the Farsi saying goes:
Der ayad durust ayad! Better late than never!
The solution to the conundrum of what the true self truly is, is not to be found in words. In fact, if one is looking for a conceptual answer, one should stop looking. The safar or journey to the inner self is a never-ending, ever-unfolding process.
Mostly, I end up learning what I’m not: a lot of things you were told you were, you aren’t. To me that is queerness. To upend patriarchal definitions of everything is what it means to be sexually, spiritually queer.
By the way, the marmalade tastes divine on hot buttered toast with a steaming mug of tea on a cold winter morning accompanied by Abida Parveen’s rendition of dil magar kam kisi se milta hai, when this self’s survival seems uncertain for other reasons such as Covid-19.
 Ruth Vanita (2005). Gandhi’s Tiger and Sita’s Smile: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Culture. Yoda Press, Delhi.
 Dana C. Jack (1991). Silencing the Self: Women and Depression. Harvard University Press.
Cover Image: Unsplash