With International Women’s Day on the horizon, it’s only relevant that this, a feminist-activist kind of column, note with pleasure the advertisements for Gul Ahmed floating around these days. It’s refreshing to see popular culture bearing messages of confidence. Be who you are, the models in the advertisements urge, lacing up their joggers underneath shalwars, shushing the “kaali hai” whispers and letting their curly hair fly free. It’s liberating to think that some girls will see these advertisements, and in spite of the thin models and the frizz-free crafted curls and on-point berry lipstick, feel like they belong in the mainstream narrative of beauty. It’s hard to be a woman, no matter what your privileges are.
Womanhood is complicated, because patriarchies make it so. Have you noticed how people on social media, whenever they praise their mothers, always include “strong” in her list of attributes? Everyone’s mama is beautiful (of course they are and I mean it sincerely) and strong. I think the same of my own mother, I try to be one myself. But why do all the mamas have to be strong? It makes me wonder, because why can’t us mamas be easy-going, spontaneous, happy? Because we’re too busy picking up everyone else’s slack and getting no praise or credit for it, that’s why. That’s why nobody’s mother is described as a free spirit. There just never is any room for it.
My long-term nanny is leaving us to marry. She’s been using one kind of fairness cream or another for years. She doesn’t need it, being quite lovely with a beautiful golden complexion and long dark hair, but who am I to tell her that, being fairer than her? I’ve never been called kaali, or sanwali, or that damning with faint praise word, ‘wheatish’. What would I know, coming from my place of fair privilege. But I do know how pernicious our obsession with a particular kind of beauty is. As someone with curly hair and glasses I don’t fit inside the paradigm either. But one way or another I don’t think any of us do, so why must be all conform to the cult of slender, straight haired, pink-lipped charm? The only people who look like that are a handful of television actresses. The rest are all impostors. We’re basically pretending to be someone else our entire lives, starting with the day some little twerp tells you your arms are soooo hairy and gross. My daughter, a newly-minted eight, has been told this already. She then looked to my own indifferently depilated arms and I hope she believed me when I told her she was beautiful the way she was, and that nobody was allowed to say that her body was gross. There is nothing wrong with being hairy, or, as it is for boys, not being hairy enough. People think my toddler son is a girl because he has soft curling brown hair, and thought my girls, with the self-same hair, were boys because they wore red t-shirts and denim shorts. Nothing is ever up to a mythical standard, so why bother trying?
Then there’s all the new lawn, and all the attendant derision directed towards the ladies who buy it. Yes, it’s overpriced. The hype is ridiculous. The fantasy of it is overblown and impossible—visions of trailing chiffon dupattas on the beach and aesthetically pleasing forays down the stairs of crumbling Italian castles mean nothing to the average buyer, who really just wants something fashionable to wear to tea parties. But whether you’re buying expensive designer lawn or normal old Gul Ahmed, you’re a woman, and when women buy things it’s always seen as frivolous and silly. Ladies going shopping, so cute. Ladies love clothes! Tee hee! Never mind that you need new clothes each summer because lawn deteriorates with a million washings, or by the time you’re done buying everyone else their summer clothes you only get two joras. Or that nobody says anything when men buy things, whether they are ludicrously expensive mobile phones or cars or tickets to watch cricket. I can bet you that most of the people who bought those twelve thousand rupee PSL final tickets were men. But no, women’s spending is only justifiable if it’s on groceries, the children or the house. Everything else—basically themselves—is extra.
This this Women’s Day, let’s look inwards and try to see the complexity of situations. It’s not as simple as saying well, women hop on buses and work in offices all the time now. It’s not as simple as saying “don’t respond to online harassers”. It’s also not as simple as an advertisement that tells you to be proud of your difference. You can’t explain a woman’s existence and the hundreds of struggles they face by saying not all men, or not all women. Let’s at least try to develop a vocabulary to express the experience, let’s try to be allies. Let’s try our hand at real solidarity.