By Humeira Kazmi
February 11, 2015
My last piece on TV shows/soaps, the ones that demeaned women, received some brilliant feedback including comments from strong women saying they avoided such shows because:
They didn’t have that much time to waste, and
They didn’t want to appear mindless to their daughters by watching so much on-screen nonsense.
Although, none of them specified but I’m sure they did the same when their sons were around because smart women are capable of making smart choices in all situations. It did, however, make me think of how many such smart women were really out there. Smart women who weren’t only brave enough to speak their minds but also realized the power of their words. And were these women always this way – from childhood onward – or was there a silent pause in their lives before they decided they’d had enough and it was time to speak up?
Martha Mendez-Baldwin, a psychologist who specializes in child and adolescent behavior and an assistant professor of psychology at Manhattan College, and Deborah Cihonski, a Chicago-based psychologist, were cited in a recent study about a very real phenomenon called ‘losing their voice’.
Losing their Voice study deals with how and why even the most audacious girls become quieter or exceedingly cautious of what they say as they step into adolescence. Later, it becomes even more difficult for them to assert themselves in various situations since they have lost their touch of voicing their mind. Experts say it happens mostly because of low self-esteem. Various factors lead to low self-esteem in women – one is how women talk around young girls.
That’s right, ladies. Your words shape the women of tomorrow so be careful of what you say to them and around them while they’re still saplings.
"Sometimes, women inadvertently send messages to their daughters by focusing on their weight and their appearance. [They say] ‘Oh I need to lose weight’ or ‘I don’t look good’ or ‘I need to get Botox to remove these wrinkles,’ and then that sends a message to the girls that they need to focus on their appearance and that their self-worth is connected to their appearance," Mendez-Baldwin says.
I stared at her quote, thinking how blatantly loaded our culture was with totally not-so-subtle messages that basically told the girls to shut up, and they aren’t all about Botox either.
Let’s take a look at how we systematically crush our girls, shall we?
As she steps into adolescence, she is burdened with the sense of ‘being watched and monitored’ constantly. All of her person and personality is suddenly open to scrutiny and questioning. Her posture, her hair, her complexion, her features, her character, her physique, even the pitch of her voice is dutifully judged by Mom and Grandma plus any available and concerned female contact with extreme fervour. Everyone wants to correct her.
She is handed the societal mould of the Perfect Girl and she is expected to fit in seamlessly and quickly before anyone notices she’s only human with flaws of her own. (God forbid!). And every time she fails, she is thrashed for the ultimate dishonour and disappointment that she personifies and brings to the mother. Hai, Meri Tarbiyat Mein Kami Thee! [Insert tear-fest]
There are rules and she must know them all by heart. Why is she wearing her hair like that? Why is she not? Why is she wearing that dress and why not this one? That’s too much make-up for her age but not enough for the occasion. This is the occasion for this so do it! This isn’t the occasion for that so quit it! And no, it doesn’t matter what she thinks because she is sheep. She must follow!
She is instructed to hide her true self, her true personality, for if she lets it shine, it just might blind her suitors and we don’t want that. No! We want every matchmaker in the country, every eligible bachelor drooling (from a respectable distance lest there be scandal) for our girl.
She is told to keep her thoughts to herself: don’t talk back to your father, don’t talk back to your mother, don’t talk back to Auntie, don’t talk back to Grandma, don’t talk back to Bhai, in fact, don’t talk to boys at all. And by talking back we never mean the actual talking back in the rude sense as that’s not even conceivable. When we tell her to not talk back, we simply mean don’t you ever dare ask any questions! Just do whatever you’re told to do so that there’s peace in our kingdom.
She is presented with examples of bad girls and good girls from her surroundings, within family and friends. Look at her, she’s so beautiful, everyone loves her. She’s fair. You should be fair, too. Look at her, she is opinionated, everyone hates her. None of the aunties like her. You don’t want to be her!
This is her early training in bashing her own kind when she is tutored in the art of destructively comparing herself to other girls around her, to not share her secrets of success with them for fear that they might benefit but be deceptively sweet enough to be privy to all of theirs. Did you ever notice how we even refrain from sharing our best recipes? Oh, I add nothing to it, just a pinch of cinnamon. (And by cinnamon I mean ten pods of cardamom, a bagful of brown sugar and half a cup of vanilla extract but I’d rather die than tell you that!)
Needless to say that all this is done in the name of grabbing the best prize – the handsomest boy whom every girl dreams of but only Mom or Grandma or Auntie were lucky enough to ensnare for their little doll. Her dignity is defined for her in simple terms – you’re only worth the husband you land.
Her first female role model, before she discovers Barbie, is Mom. Mom’s main worry is to keep her hubby happy. There are a number of things that can make Hubby unhappy but most of all it is Mom-in-Law or any other female equivalent of a toxic relative. If MIL is not happy, then, Hubby is not happy. If Hubby isn’t happy then Mom is a failure as a person. Is SIL happy? Because if she isn’t happy then MIL isn’t happy and then Hubby isn’t happy. The cycle continues. Mom’s entire worth rests in her success as a dutiful wife and daughter-in-law. She gets the blame for her kids’ misbehaviour, and she skilfully shifts that blame onto Hubby’s DNA so that in the end – it’s all the kids’ fault. So, yeah. The environment for the future mother in the making is very cordial as you must’ve noticed.
As our young girl steps into womanhood, she is yet again burdened with unreal pressures – birth a son or else! Now, it’s not just about her dusky complexion. She’s expected to and responsible for playing God. However, this isn’t a demand made by mothers-in-law alone. The mothers are just as terribly guilty. Every time a mother instructs her pregnant daughter to specifically pray for a boy, she’s telling her yet again of how grotesquely unwanted her own gender is.
Our young girl learns to tear her own kind down early on to score men and the consequent honors bestowed by society. She never learns to stand up for women, including herself, simply because she never learns that she (a woman) is something worth standing up for.
As a woman, she is expected (and she expects) to be entrusted with the responsibility of raising good men and women for the future but how can she possibly do that when she doesn’t know how it’s done. Besides, as maybe unfortunate for her to belong to the human race, she possesses a brain that has the capacity to see good from bad. The day she realizes what crap the main women in her life had been feeding her in the name of propriety and honour, she loses all respect for them and herself. She is disillusioned and there is no escape from it. But since that’s the only way of being she has ever known, she finds herself incapable of breaking the cycle. She doesn’t know how.
Don’t do this.
Be good to your daughters. If they have to be a reflection of you, then let that reflection be the one that inspires beauty and courage. Make an informed effort. Cherish your little women and teach them how to be true to their hearts and live like life isn’t a crime but a gift to be enjoyed and to be shared.
There’s strength in unity – even for women.
Humeira Kazmi blogs about life, writing life, and her own books. Humour is the key ingredient in her pieces.