Being Woman Social Stories

Life itself is a long experience of how we come into this world and make a living and then how we die. This is something each individual has to go through. The only thing that matters is the time some may have a long life while some may have a short life in this world. Now, in this life, we go through certain experience that shapes our lives and makes us a different person. Before I further go to express my feelings as a woman and experiences I have been through I would like to introduce myself.

My name is Pema Lamu Rumba, and I’m pursuing master’s degree from University of North Bengal. I have been born and brought up in Darjeeling, a hill station in India. I come from a nuclear family with my parents and my elder sister. My relatives lives nearby and thus they comprise my immediate neighbors. The locality where I reside have people belonging from various ethnic backgrounds and that gave me a chance to know about different traditions and cultures. Since childhood I have seen how women are perceived in different families. What strikes me the most is that people tend to teach girls in their families about what women have been in the past rather than what we are at the present. People still try to teach young girls how women have been subjugated throughout history and how they were given inferior position in the families. I personally think that the society should give more importance on the achievements and capabilities of women and should allow girls from young age to build up leadership skills.    

The word ‘girl’ being tagged biologically is natural and it would be peaceful and beautiful if it was only a biological aspect. However, the tag of a girl is social more than biological and it is so burdensome that it takes most of our lives to free ourselves from that burden. The society we live in is an important part of our lives. It is not possible in any way to completely isolate oneself from the society. The customs, norms, ethics and values of society always binds us particularly girls. People tend to put restrictions on us about how we talk, or whom do we talk to, where we go and whom do we meet and what types of clothes do we wear and even how we eat. The scale of such restrictions or pressure is not uniform and it varies from culture to culture or sometimes from one family to another family.

In my experience I have seen my mother taking the major household responsibilities and she manages to take care of each of our needs. Yet I feel we as a family members fail to do the same for her. My experience as a girl is normal and ordinary if I were to compare with any other person of my age. Education is the most important thing in my life as being a student is my identity other than the fact that I am a daughter and a sister. I do have a lot of commonalities with others but there are indeed some experiences of my life till now that shaped me as a person and made me realize that I was being treated differently because I am a woman. When I recall such memories I feel more confident because I didn’t let myself down and I overcame being more empowered. I have always wanted to be a woman who doesn’t think about how things would be different if she were a man. However, certain incidents have made me question about my existence as a woman.

The most recurring thought that makes me feel that I am not a man is the fact that we don’t have a son in my immediate family. This feeling comes more from my relatives and other people around me than from within me. Most of my experiences of being treated differently are related to this thing.

The first time I realized that the society doesn’t treat men and women equally was when my aunt told me that my parents would be all alone in their old age because they don’t have their own brother. Their mentality was so rigid that they were very much confident about my family’s future. When I told my mother about the statement my aunt had given, she said that, education and later on a stable job would prove my aunt wrong. I was not able to understand my mother properly then, but now I see her point. Though I have taken this statement as a challenge and I try to prove it wrong but I feel somewhere back then I started questioning my existence. It is due to such words I wished I was born as a boy and even prayed to have a baby brother. I have heard similar cases from my friends who are single girl child or who don’t have their own brothers. We often talk how relatives tend to ignore us in family functions.    

However, the household chores have never been a gender divided issue in my family. I have seen my father, uncles and brothers doing the household works and running errands. They equally do the work and often take such responsibility during family occasions. My cousin brothers also equally do the work along with me and my sisters. I feel that my brothers and sisters are more liberal in matter of gender equality. We share a close bond and are more comfortable with each other. I think the differentiation among the boys and girls is slowly losing its grip from our family.

If I have to compare the relation between me and my brothers with the relation between my father and his sisters, it is very different. They have limited topics to discuss and are more conservative than us. I remember an instance where my aunt stopped me from giving my portion of food to one of my brothers. She told that I have been forgetting my values and that I was not supposed to give the food that I had already tasted. Her words shocked me because I was totally unaware of such norms. I wanted to clarify and asked her that if I was a boy and did the same thing how would she react? Then she told me that brothers are allowed to eat from the same plate. Her answer again challenged my existence as a woman. One of the main things that I totally dislike is how women themselves try to restrict other women. I try to change such practices and maintain my dignity as a woman in the family. But the family pressure of not questioning and carrying the tradition always binds me.

My parents are well aware of the fact that our relatives do comment and criticize us for not having a son in our family. However, they have been so supportive and protective that my father often remarks, “I have never felt bad for not having a son, all is want from you both is to study hard and make us proud”. I guess his words and my mother’s support and care is what gives me strength to overcome any kind of weakness.   

Few years back I had another experience with sexism. I overheard a conversation between two school boys in my way to home. As I remember, they must have got their results that day and they were more or less satisfied with their results. It was all good until one of them told that a girl had topped in their class and then he laughed. To my surprise, he said that the girl must have been lucky to get the first position. According to him, girls try their best but they usually don’t top the class. I restrained myself but couldn’t when the other one commented, “girls do study a lot, but they can’t top, just can’t.” I was in a public transport so couldn’t defend much but I told them that I doubt their assessment. I was disturbed from that incidence for quite a few days and it made me realize how a girl’s achievement is questioned by the people. And I find that women have to face such assessments all through the life. We still have a glass ceiling in terms of our careers. People become curious than being happy and proud when a woman takes her own lead in any aspect of life. A woman tends to get questions regarding her strength, power and dignity. A woman being strong is taken as a negative aspect. Society wants us to be just loving and caring rather than being strong and independent.  

Though some of my relatives are patriarchal and tend to support sons more than daughters, they have been part and parcel of my life. We tend to get together during family occasions. My most disturbed experience of sexism is from one of my own relative. I have always got a negative vibe from her and her treatments are actually different between sons and daughters. After one family dinner I talked to my mother about how sharp-tongue she is towards me and my sister. Then my mother said that she (my father’s sister-in-law) have always been like that. My mother told me that, shortly after I was born some of the family members were not very pleased with my arrival because I was second girl child. It was during that time my aunt told my mother, that those who only have girl children are actually childless. For her only a son would complete motherhood.   

I clearly remember those words and I started to think, how could she said such harsh words as for the fact she is a woman and a mother herself. Above all, I can’t begin to imagine what my mother must have been through at that time. We still live in a society where a son completes a family and having a son is considered as the most victorious thing in the life.

At present the real division between the male and female in our family is seen in the decision making process. My mother, aunts, sisters and I have always been in the secondary position during such times. The major decision in the family is mostly taken by my father, uncles and brothers. In such times, I feel that my opinions would be better heard and appreciated if I was a son in this family. I often get criticized among my relatives for questioning and raising my voice in matters which they think is exclusively for men. Keeping aside those criticisms I try to fight for my space and even tell others in the family to raise their voice. As I believe until and unless we help ourselves no one can help us. The initiative should come from within.

My mother says that I am really fortunate to have brothers who understand and care for me. I am really grateful but being grateful is not only my responsibility. I firmly believe that women having been looking after the family members taking the role of a mother, a sister and a daughter. And I think that most men are not as grateful as they are supposed to be, at least not in my family. If the husband is earning and the wife is taking the responsibility of the house, she is not any less than her husband. She should also be given the same respect, self-time and care. So, if a woman is being listened and appreciated it is not something to be thankful, rather I believe it is her right to be heard.

The feeling of being a girl is mostly experienced during the first menstruation. We get to feel the changes in our body physically and emotionally. I consider myself fortunate because I had the access to sanitary napkins and help and advice from my mother and sister which is most important during such times. Also there are no restrictions of living separately or not going into the kitchen and prayer room during menstruation in my family. So, it was not a huge life changing experience personally for me as I was told that each and every girl go through menstruation. I could see my mother and sisters menstruating every month and that happened to me as well. So, I handled my menstruation quite calmly.

The other side of menstruation or as I would like to say, ‘the dark side of menstruation’ hit me when I heard my friend’s experience of her menstruation. It was so different than mine and I found it really disheartening. So this friend of mine had a lot of difficulties and she could not receive proper help and advice. She told me that when she got her first menstruation, she had to go to her relative’s house for that entire period. There she was given a separate room with limited bedding on the floor and basic facilities. She had to take bath everyday and she was not allowed to enter the kitchen and prayer room and dine with others. She said that because of such isolation and improper diet, her mental health was damaged. She still doesn’t handle the menstrual cycle quite normally. Thus I could see the difference in ways that we perceived our menstruation and the changes it brings. It made me realize that how menstruation which is so common damages so many life experiences. From that moment on, I have always tried to change people’s perception about menstruation and how family members could help young girls in such times.   

There is not a certain stage where a girl will be marginalized and one cannot grow out of it. In reality it gets even worse with time and I think the only way to tackle with such difficulties is to have a strong mind-set and work for empowerment.  

The above mentioned scenarios aren’t the only times I’ve experienced sexism or that I was treated differently for being a girl, but they are the ones that have shaped me as a person. With the education that I have received and the knowledge about women empowerment I fight for my rights. It is the 110th year of celebrating International Women’s Day this year and women have come a long way of struggle. We still come across cases of rape, molestation, physical and mental abuse, dowry deaths and marital rapes. Thus, it is still going to be a long and hard struggle, but I firmly believe that women have the strength, intelligence and patience to fight until we get what we deserve.

I do not agree with the ideology of people that women need to be soft, gentle and caring. Women can be tough physically and emotionally and that is completely normal. I feel in the process of binding and marginalizing women, the essence of being a woman have been lost.

I ask myself and wonder what does it takes to be a woman? Why do we need to be extra careful and more soft spoken than men rather than being independent and empowered? Well, given the rules and regulations and expectations to be fulfilled a woman’s life is a continuous struggle for her worth and dignity.

I see women around the world leading in various aspects of life be it politics, economics, military, art and theatre, academics, sports or in any other aspect. Women have being in the forefront and seeing such empowered women I feel we should not constrain ourselves. When any women takes her lead and becomes successful, she gives hope and strength to million others. This makes me realize that I am blessed to be born as a woman who is a life-giver. I do not feel any less for being a woman and thus I consider my struggle a fortunate one.

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Pema Lamu Rumba is a guest lecturer at Sikkim Alpine University, passionate about inspiring through academia. With two months at the university, she teaches sociology, focusing on relevant standpoint perspectives. Pema believes in the power of knowledge, motivating herself and others to embrace learning. Currently, she's updating her computer skills. Beyond academics, she loves exploring cultures and languages.