International Women's Day,  Projects

International Women's Day: "Woman"


That word scares me a bit.

I don’t know what it means to be a woman.

No, wait. Scratch that. I do know what it means to be a woman. But I don’t fit.

Years ago, I was writing a weekly column for a newspaper. One day, someone asked me if I was a feminist. The question stumped me. I knew I was all for equality but I had never really bothered with the concept of feminism before. I knew the very definition of it had altered so fast over three decades. But this was a good idea for a column and hey, those were in short supply.

So I did what most confused young women do. I called my mother.

I mean, this makes sense right? When in doubt, call the woman who had the greatest impact on you?

“Mama, are you a feminist?”

“I don’t know.”

“If you don’t know, how am I supposed to know?”

“What is a feminist?”

“Well, I don’t think it’s strictly limited to the suffragettes and the burning bra business (which as my friend puts it, is terribly expensive on the lingerie budget).”

“See, we never (in the 1970s socialist self imposed government rations society of Sri Lanka) thought about that – we were too busy trying to survive. And it didn’t matter if we were women, we had to go out and work and do what we could to put something on the table.”

“Isn’t that being feminist?”

“We never thought about that – we did what we had to do. We still do.”

“Aunt D. is a feminist though, right?”

“Yes, but she went to the States when she was young and stayed there and fitted into the system. They didn’t have the same kind of problems we had. We had a war and political unrest right on our soil, we had poverty and rations on top of that and inequality and the inability to keep our universities open (the government kept shutting them down). We had no jobs. They had wars they opposed that were fought elsewhere and most people panicked about Communism.”

“But you both do what needs to be done. You both are strong. You both are stubborn enough to say ‘This is what I want to do, this is what I am going to do, I have family and a career.'”

“Then I suppose we both are feminists – I just never had time to consider where I fitted in, what label I had. You did what you had to do.”

“So what about me and N (my sister)?”

“I suppose you both must be ones too.”


While I can’t speak for my sister,  never in my life did I ever think I was a “feminist” or I was a “woman” in terms of it meaning “unable to do something”. And no one drove this point further home than my father.


My father is a mature individual (though even as I type these words, I attempt to hold back my laughter at the mere idea that poses) but in no way shape or form would you consider him to be macho. Nor would you consider him effeminate. No, my father was a man who worked with his brain mostly. He is useless with technology – the person with the IT qualifications in our family is my mother. He is also useless with any kind of handiwork -carpentry and that sort of thing. Spatial awareness is not his strong suit. He loves cricket, played it but played terribly from all accounts. He also claims to be musical though he forgets the words and seems to constantly hum the wrong note. When he dances, he only moves one foot.


My father is good for a few things: supporting his girls, being able to laugh at himself, being social, being enthusiastic and snoring. He’s very good at the snoring. On occasion he surprises us by dispensing good advice – this happens once in a blue moon.


With my mother juggling PhDs, a teaching career and a household and the constant mixture of pride and pressure you felt when you found out she learnt three languages while studying her Honours degree and therefore knows five in total, my sister and I felt fairly confident that for the most part, we could tackle anything. That gender most definitely wasn’t a problem nor was it a barrier.


Our mother taught us that nothing was out of our reach though she hates it if we know something that she doesn’t (like economics or how to bake bread – she’s very competitive). Our father taught us to not take ourselves so seriously.


Gender was never an issue within the family so to us it never was either. So it often shocked us (and still does) when we ventured out into the world and found all these barriers put up due to our gender or our ethnicity/nationality. We saw no need for them and we found it perplexing why anyone else would. To us gender was something as nondescript as stating our height. To me, gender is fluid. I mean, I love being a woman but my gender is my own and if I were to wake up tomorrow and decide I didn’t want to be one any more I would fail to see why anyone else would find that odd or confronting.


But you go out into society and there are these ideas wafting around. That you have to be this size, this skin colour (oh god this skin colour issue never seems to die, does it?), this age, this class, this income bracket and even worse that you have to think, behave and act a certain way or you are not a woman.


In Sri Lanka for instance, you are expected to go out get a degree, come back, get a job, live with your parents till you get married, then work and have kids and keep house. And when you do get married, you must have dinner parties where the men go sit on the verandah, smoke, drink scotch and talk business and politics and cricket (and invariably get everything wrong) and the women sit in the living room, drink fruit juice and soft drinks and sherry and talk only about what their kids are doing (doctor, engineer or lawyer to keep up appearances), how hard it is to get domestic help, where did you get that lovely skirt (which typically is just a compliment to hide how hideous you think it is), and to complain about how annoying their husbands are.


So no I do know what women are expected to be or what it supposedly means to be a “woman” – but I don’t fit. I don’t mind that.


Though I can’t deny that it would probably make my life a whole lot easier if I did fit.


So today I’d like to toast the women who don’t fit. Who break out of these kind of nonsensical stereotypes that don’t make anyone happy. Who do it even when it is scary. Who do it because they have to. And I’d like to toast the strong men and women that stand behind them and raised them so that they couldn’t possibly conceive any other way of being. Who think of themselves as human first and therefore just as capable and deserving as men or anyone else is.


If that makes us feminists, then so be it. We don’t mind the word – we rarely think about it. Our badge of pride is ourselves. Don’t mind us, we’ll just be quietly (or not so quietly) living our lives in this corner over here.



  • Annie

    What an inspiring article! I was brought up blissfully unaware of what it means to be a “woman” – feminism seemed a bit of an anachronism, maybe something to do with how many women were CEOs. But then I moved to Zambia last year, and have had such a shock to the system in seeing how entrenched gender disparities are. For the first time I have a sense of how many threats still face so many women, and how many threats face those women who try to change that.

    But having read lots about women’s rights recently, I can see that it’s hard to explain the issues without sounding melodramatic or angry or in a way that really connects with people who don’t have a point of reference for why feminism is so important. And then I read your article, and wanted to say how much it stands out among the writing on this issue, and what an engaging, balanced and thought-provoking piece it is. Thank you.

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