“What is the essence of a woman?” – A question to which Sushmita Sen of India, in the final round of the 1994 Miss Universe pageant, nailed with this winning piece, “Just being a woman is God’s gift. The origin of a child is a mother, a woman. She shows a man what sharing, caring, and loving is all about. That is the essence of a woman.”
I wish more time was given to her to elaborate such a profound answer. While our society has repeatedly painted and even glorified the nobility of motherhood in various literary pieces, it has also set limits to the role of women in societal affairs. Take for instance the idea of “woman as a life-bringer”. Throughout history, the notion of womanhood is necessarily interlocked with the vantage point of reproduction – that women should be penetrated upon and should bear children.
A few years back, I looked deeply into the face of my 40-year old aging mom. I saw in her wrinkles the traces of more than three decades of taking care of 9 children, serving our dad, managing household chores, setting up family budgets, sending us to school, and being a daycare teacher. For all those years, I have never seen her taste a little bit of the luxuries in life except during a few times when better off relatives would be generous enough to give her some treats at McDonalds, Jollibee, and SM.
She is a Bachelor of Elementary Education (BEEd) graduate but she never had the opportunity to take her second chance for the Licensure Examination for Teachers (LET). Her life has been tied up to becoming the “ilaw ng tahanan” for us ever since. Consequently, in such pervading circumstances, the window of opportunity for her career advancement has shut down.
One time, on curiosity demand, I asked her, “Mom, why didn’t you take another try for the LET? That would’ve given you more opportunities for better employment.” Without hesitation, she said, “At that time, I really wanted to take the test for the second time but I knew I needed the help from review centers.The review centers are in Baguio City. And if I were to have the review, it meant I would have to leave all of you at home for months. That I couldn’t take because I wouldn’t be able to concentrate well not knowing whether you and your brothers and sisters would be doing just fine.”
Not that I don’t agree with the fact that we are a large family. I’m sure she is beginning to reap the fruits of her hardwork and dedication now.
This is not just my mom’s story but of numerous women globally. It is a part of a grand narrative in our present-day social structures on women stereotypes. Tying up women’s destiny with reproduction and being the “ilaw ng tahanan” has, in many respects, stereotyped and objectified women for many generations in relation to pursuing liberty and career advancements. No, I don’t suggest that these paradigms be considered as plain evil. Let us put ourselves into the process of deconstruction.
Deconstruction is the process of looking at our present and past perspectives, leaving no stone unturned, and see whether there may have been perspectives that were left out. And if there were some perspectives that were not considered, it would serve our society better, in the name of truth, to include them in our fresh perspectives. This is a higher ground that puts us on a better horizon to look at our societal affairs more humanely. This is not to discard the past. No doubt, in looking back into the past, we could see that our conventional mindset of women has produced meaningful and truthful vantage points in favor of women. But there are also evidences proving that we may have missed some good perspectives about women’s gender roles.
Not so long ago, my fiance (now my wife) and I attended a pre-wedding seminar in our municipal hall. One of the questions was, “Apay nga kayat yu nga agpakasar?”(Why do you want to be married?) And one male participant answered, “Wen a tapnu adda taga laba ken taga luto.” (So that there would be somebody to wash clothes and cook food.) In response to his answer, the facilitator said, “Ni pagbalinem metten ni baket mo nga washing machine ken rice cooker en.” (Looks like you want to make your fiance a “washing machine” and a “rice cooker”.)
I was surprised that this mindset of domesticating women is still alive and kicking in our present-day social interactions. I think the greatest mistake that a lot of us commit is to think that we are now in a better world with better consciousness and there is nothing more to worry about. False presumption is the greatest threat in setting social conventions for women free. And so, we ask ourselves, “How have we been raising our young boys and girls?”
On the one hand, when we overemphasize in raising our young boys that “everybody hates cry babies” and that “tough guys don’t cry”, we unknowingly raise a consciousness that men are savage beasts. On the other hand, when we impose on raising our young girls that “girls don’t shout out loud in public” and “should be demure at all times”, we indirectly teach them to silence themselves.
In the name of gender equality, when we raise our kids exclusively in these paradigms, we teach our young boys with uncontrolled aggression and we raise our young girls in a world where they cannot have voices even in the face of oppression. In this frame of vision, the woman gender is considered as weak, which is later on, susceptible for physical, emotional, and social violence.
Although provisions from our government, non-government organizations, and other institutions have set governing rules to protect women’s rights and women empowerment, we need to address first and foremost our set of beliefs and values – our paradigms on women gender roles. Let us ask the following questions:
In search for a more humane existence, it is my firm conviction that this whole process of inquiry should not start from setting limits to what is so-called “the essence of a woman” for we will only end up imposing what women should be. For me, a woman is someone who has, but not limited, to the following inherent choices:
Recently, I called my mom because of my recurring mouth ulcers. It has been customary for me to call her every time I encounter problems beyond my control especially on health issues. And why not? She is the strongest mom I have ever known. However, I couldn’t help but savor guilt feelings for those long years she has dedicated her entire life only for us her children – forgetting her own search of freedom, self-identity and happiness. It dawned on me, “Is this the essence of a woman?”
While the meaning of a woman’s life is necessarily tied up to duties and responsibilities with spouse and with children, we should not forget that she also has a duty to herself.
And so, women are called by the Author of life to be who they have ever wanted to be by choice and not by the dictates of societal pressures. They have to follow the path that will lead them to the place they are meant to be, that is, being free.