So much of being a woman seems to be predicated on someone else’s idea of what you should be doing. If you’re in France, you can’t wear a burkini because it is liberal “haraam”. If you’re in Pakistan, you can’t wear a bikini because religious “haraam”. Either way you’re being policed and either way you’re haraam because Adam and Eve and patriarchy. You’d think at least we could choose what kind of haraam we’d like to be, but that’s not an option either because someone will decide for you. It’s plain dumb luck if their version of haraam is the one that suits you too. Women just can’t win, can they?
I think the only way out is to actively court one’s innate devil woman. If you’re doing the time, you might as well do the crime, no? I recently read a wonderful quote from Thoreau, which went “surely joy is the condition of life”. How utterly beautiful, I thought. Joy can be anything that brings you peace and happiness, and that is the bedrock of life. Otherwise you’re just breathing in and out and eating lunch and going to work, and not ever really alive, just functional. How many of us can honestly say we have joyful lives? Very few. And that’s because we are drilled from birth to conform, not to argue, not to disagree. Women are the particular target and men the more general, but the conformity narrows to a sickeningly sharp point where women are concerned. The purpose of our existence is woven into our role in society: be a good daughter, a good wife, a good mother. Being a good mother-in-law is optional, so that’s usually the place where most women go wild with all their repressed longings and thwarted power, but that’s for another column. The problem is that these roles never acknowledge or even make a small allowance for your role as you. Nobody cares about you—it’s only what you can do for other people, because giving is the true nature of the Good and Righteous woman. Only selfish harridans with lumps of coal for hearts put themselves before their children and husbands, which means you always, always put yourself second.
The psychological toll of believing that your needs are inferior to everyone else’s is enormous and more pernicious than one imagines. It’s the reason why brilliant doctors marry in their last year of MBBS and never specialise or practice medicine ever again. It’s what happens when your children are better dressed than you, or you get fat because you just never had time away from the homework and bath times to exercise and now your husband thinks Indian film actresses are so sexy and you want to drop him in a well. This happens to men too—being so immersed in your career, for example, that you have scant time for anyone or anything else. But the huge and vital difference is that men are seldom made to feel guilty for their life choices. Their self-esteem is not inexorably bound in their social connections and in the way they conduct their personal lives. Their personal lives are largely nobody’s business—men are men, and are allowed to do what they like. It is expected of them. Women, on the other hand, have no private lives. Your reproductive schedule is everyone’s business, as is the way you raise your children, the food you cook, the clothes you wear, how often you dye your hair if you do at all, how bright your lipstick is and what you can cook. Women have no private lives. They are not supposed to.
So when you are on call 24/7, your entire life, it takes a revolution to wrench yourself out of that vortex. Many women go through life aware of a dissatisfaction, but are unsure how to explain it to themselves and even less able to articulate a strategy to deal with it. The problem is an existential one: who are you? What do you want? And if you are able to discover, through introspection and meditation what that is, how will you get it? The other day my daughter asked me if I could wish for anything in the world, what would it be? She is five, so she wanted a sack full of diamonds and an everlasting lollipop but I really didn’t know what to say other than “your face, smiling at me like this”. It took me a while to realise that I can’t have it all, and neither do I want it all. I want what I have, and that’s good enough for now. It is important to add “for now”. One must never rest on the laurels of marriage, children and pretty home. One must never allow oneself to be sucked inexorably into the vacuum of the mundane, because woman or man, every force of society is positioned to do precisely this. The point of your life is not to tidily get on. It is to crash through, singing and dancing and setting off fireworks and remember that it is never too late to do it.