The Womanhood Paradox by Mala Manshukhani

What does it truly mean to be a woman? Even after six decades of existence, I often find myself wondering what the essence of womanhood truly is.

It always makes me smile when I see senior women dance like no one’s watching, at some of the events I conduct. They bust moves, throw their heads back and laugh and just have a great time. On one such day, a really jovial lady came to me and giggled, “You know, Mala, I haven’t danced like this since I was in school! It wasn’t considered very ladylike to do this. Now when I’m a grandmother, and in my 70s, I feel free to do this again!”

The awesome dancing daadi’s words did make one thing very clear to me—for us women, it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t!


Think about it. As soon as a girl’s old enough to hold a conversation, she’s told to be a certain way. Sit like a lady; don’t laugh too hard; don’t talk too much; be elegant, sophisticated, smart. “But if I don’t talk, how does one know I’m smart?” Oh shush, rule #1 is to not ask too many questions!


It only gets more interesting as it gets paradoxical from here one. You too would be amused when you often see women being told such contrasting things about what they should and shouldn’t do, even they get confused. What does society really want from them?


One of my favorite such contrast is when women are told to dress presentably, but do it just a little more and you’re dressing to impress people… and not in a good way! From dressing to a certain style of living, to career choices and the lack of it… refraining from judging women seems like a rather difficult task!


It’s hard enough for society to accept that women have a mind of their own, let alone that no two women think alike. Some of us are plenty happy being homemakers, while some wish to work in a more formal office setting. And both of these groups of women will be bracketed under unambitious and overambitious. So then, my question is, who is an ambitious woman? What does having just the right amount of ambition mean?


Talking about judgmental I spoke to friend the other day. Recently divorced, she’s concentrated her energies into setting up a new household and life for herself. Finally at her happiest best as a single woman, she chooses to see the lighter side of things when people learn about her separation. “Oh no, you poor little thing,” they say to her. “Life must be so difficult for you alone!”


I asked her if that doesn’t irk her, and she shrugged. “They’d say the same thing if I was widowed or never married!” she laughed. “All of us would lead fulfilling lives in our own way, but somehow society thinks we’re complete only when we have a partner!”


What’s truly heartbreaking in such situations, for me, is that the sisterhood doesn’t always triumph over such judgements. Women actively participate in perpetuating the myth of the two extreme sort of their own kind. You’re either too coy or too boisterous; too submissive or too controlling; too much of a conformist or too rebellious.


There’s never going to be a right version of you—liked and appreciated by all alike. So what’s really the point of trying to check a box?


If there’s one thing you can learn from the dancing daadi’s adventure is that you’ll realize what you want; sooner or later you will. Wouldn’t you rather just do what you feel like right now instead of living in the womanhood paradox? Try to just be you for a day and see how satisfying that feels. They say well-behaved women seldom make history. I say you do you!