Feminine in English (Oxford Dictionary) is defined as having qualities and an appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness. In German, one of the definitions of feminine is too soft/weak. In Russian, a set of characteristics traditionally associated with women come under the definition, and one of the characteristics is readiness for sacrifice. In Arabic, a synonym for the word feminine is not strong enough, along with delicate, classy, beautiful.
As a single woman in her forties who has left youth behind, and who has and never had an “innate” desire for motherhood that seemingly comes naturally to our lot, I see myself turning time and again to the question about what is feminine and what is femininity? Is the feminine in me linked to my appearance, a set of qualities, or to missed motherhood?
At a social visit, where I went wearing a new and radically different look—from decades of long hair to a short-cropped haircut, it wasn’t just accepted or commented upon, not by my female associates. I was told that celebrity women cut their hair short in the forties to look young—a trend in Hollywood, apparently.
It just so happened that I had turned forty-one that year and crossed the line that justified this new look—justification is usually a longwinded denial of reality, and short hair of ageing.
Till then it hadn’t occurred to me that I needed to look young now that I was in my forties. That’s when I decided that if I cannot age comfortably then appearance as a concept linked to femininity is one that I shall not accept. To imagine youth and being young as beautiful, and anything other than that as a reality that must be denied is subscribing to propaganda of the beauty industry.
One part of my question about what the feminine in me is linked to collapsed like a melting glacier, shrinking my dilemma by one third. While shedding part of a problem is welcome, losing sea ice is not! If we wish to refer to the Earth as Mother Earth and feminise nature then this analogy is appropriate.
Assigning characteristics to nature, to women, or to any group of individuals for that matter is a way to subscribe to generalisations and to straitjacket diversity. That’s why the trouble with accepting people who are transgender, queer, or homosexual.
We romanticise nature as being beautiful, pure, nurturing, healing, and therefore feminine, while we ignore that nature is also furious, destructive, violent. Does that make her masculine at such times? For one who has lived through a tsunami or an earthquake, nature is not beautiful and healing.
I see purity and beauty in me, as much as I witness in me fury and violence. This either makes me both feminine and masculine, or it renders characteristics redundant in describing gender.
This left me with the third part of my question—motherhood. Across the world, motherhood is celebrated as the pinnacle of a woman’s life. By giving motherhood a miss, was I shortchanging myself, or was I defying nature by not fulfilling the role it had assigned me in the cycle of life?
I like children and I enjoy their company. A child’s wonder and curiosity are more enchanting than the self-assured worldliness of us adults. They keep the simple as it is, while we take the joy out of the simple with our complexities.
Despite this appreciation of children, I was not inclined to motherhood—whether through adoption or childbirth. I am not an anomaly; there are others like me, and this makes the desire for motherhood in women a questionable belief: Another generalisation that makes it hard for us to accept our diversity. Black lives do matter; LGBTQ is a gender; He is human first, an African migrant later; She was a girl till we made her a Dalit girl.
Without appearance, stereotypes, or motherhood to define femininity, where lies the link with the feminine? Perhaps, in being afeminine—no, this isn’t a spelling error.
The afeminine woman does not strive for equality with men, she endorses equity (fairness) towards all beings. She does not punish or pardon a criminal, she helps develop a culture of inner-transformation (example: Kiran Bedi, who the NY Times called an idealistic reformer). She shows that courage lies in resolving differences, not ignoring or perpetuating them.
When she—the afeminine woman—calls out to her daughter to clear the table, she tells her son to do the dishes. She teaches both her daughter and her son to respect modesty as a virtue. She does not try to be the linchpin of the family, but instead encourages tolerance, interdependence, and moral sustenance. Dignity of labour, for her, encompasses her role as a homemaker, and the kitchen is as emancipating as her desk. Motherhood is a matter of personal choice, appearance is a happy countenance, and qualities that matter are those that help develop her character.