Here is a small exercise to start this conversation with: Take a piece of paper and a pen, in the next 3-5 minutes list down all the different identities that you think describe you. Now, look through the list and think about what came to you first and why? Have you left anything out? If so, why do you think so?
I was doing this exercise a few months back, and it made me think about all these different tags and labels we carry with us. It made me think about what it is that creates and holds our identities – is it my surname, my body parts, what I feel about something, how I act toward others; and then, is it also about how someone else looks at me, perceives me, treats me, abuses me – do those tags help me describe what I have experienced? Or do identities only showcase what I have internalized?
Here I am, a Dhaka born and bred, Muslim, middle class, not-so-young, female-bodied Bangali. That would be the first layer of identities for me. But rarely does anyone consider me as an ideal representative of any of those labels, mainly because I don’t seem like the “typical” version of what they expect. Apparently, I walk like I am not from Bangladesh, I dress like I am not middle class, I don’t have enough wrinkles or grey hair for my age, I don’t practice Islam, I don’t speak enough Bangla – the reasons why I should not be the proud owner of any of these badges have always been paraded around me. And yet, all those identities are deeply ingrained in who I see myself as. Sometimes, I like to pin them on me specifically to remind others that even within one identity, we can have diversity.
Similarly, I spent a lifetime navigating how I was not “woman enough”. I ran around too much as a child, played too many sports, I have always had too much temper, been too stubborn, and then later too independent. I am definitely not woman enough today, without a man and without children.
So, you are a cis-woman? That’s how many feminist- queer spaces would like to tag me. I always nod in response to this question, deliberately not wanting to use my voice to agree to this. Because that agreement feels like a bit of a betrayal of the experience I have had of owning my identity as woman.
Growing up as a girl, I learnt early on that certain aspects of my behavior were always going to be tagged with the fact that I had a female body. It never occurred to me to want to change that physical body of mine, but it was always clear to me that I had no intention to play by the rules that came linked to this body. I didn’t know what gender meant, but most girls will tell you that they recognize gendering from a very young age. And many will probably also tell you, that they did not want to be tagged with it, or be constricted by it.
I was no different. My childhood and teen years were all about challenging these norms – I was “one of the boys” – I climbed trees, rode bicycles down our neighborhood streets, played football in the rain, punched the other guy when they bullied me. Even as my body changed, I was determined that it would not stop me from doing any of these things. Sometimes, I wondered if I willed my periods into being such a little burden, or I just made myself never acknowledge any cramps or pain, because that would mean having to “give in” to my womanhood. I loved my short hair and trousers, I stood in the crowded buses heading home after coaching classes, stuck in hours of traffic, and gave my seat up for other women; I jumped out of the car to push it up the slope at a train crossing when the engine suddenly shut down. I would even go yell at the bus driver who ran into our car on a busy highway. I grew up with all the intentions of being “as strong as a man” could be. No less. No different.
As I neared my thirties, it slowly dawned on me, the toxicity of many of these masculine attributes I had internalized and adopted. I had never learnt to be open and vulnerable with people, I never spoke to anyone about my problems. I was the one who had the solutions, the one who fixed it all – whether it was the leaking toilet, managing the finances, or ensuring food was on the table – I was determined to be all of it. I had to be a woman who was better than even a man. So, anything a man could do, I had to do more.
Through the process of breakdowns and exhaustion, that I also did not give myself space to manage, I finally had to acknowledge, that what I had been doing was actually only fitting into the heteronormative norm. This patriarchal notion, that the masculinities embodied by someone were strength and independence.
The more I discarded my femininity, I could prove to the world how I was not “just a woman”. I was rational when it came to making personal decisions, I managed my emotions through self-pep-talk, and the only way I expressed my hurt and frustrations were through anger. Vulnerability, just like my periods, was not going to get me down.
With this acknowledgement came a conscious effort trying to understand what femininity could be for me. I started to explore what other aspects of mine and the society gave me pleasure and joy – whether being “girly” could actually give me avenues to be other things that I had denied of myself. This wasn’t an easy process though. When you have learnt to be independent as a way to showcase strength, learning to reach out to people, recognizing and respecting your own feelings, felt like a pretty impossible task. Finding joy in the ‘mundane’ feminine roles, like setting up the house, cooking and feeding others, putting on make-up, gave a whole different meaning to what self-care might look like for me. One year, I decided my goal would be to ask others for help, to acknowledge the vulnerability. It could be as simple as asking someone to pick me up, or to message someone that I needed an ear to listen to me. Consciously practicing empathy, being available to listen to others, being able to describe how someone, anyone can hurt me – it took me sometime to recognize how powerful I felt stating these things out loud. But most importantly, how much peace it gave me to be able to acknowledge these experiences for myself.
So, today, I do take pride in how independent I am in all the masculine sense of the word, like how I can manage my personal and business finances and investments. I am similarly proud when someone comes to my home and mentions how ‘homely’ it feels. Recently, a friend was telling me that I embody a maternal form of care, in how I pay attention to people and how I look after them. Then they turned to me again and said, but also, you make us feel safe and guarded, like you would protect us, like a father. I take the most pride in feeling like I am able to hold and embrace both these aspects within me.
So, now, when someone looks at my long hair, lipstick lips and colorful clothes, turns to me and says: so, you are a cis-woman? I feel that little girl who never wanted to grow up to be a woman smirk and nod her head – my womanhood is far from anything that could be heteronormative and cis. My femininity is more than my appearance, and it is a challenge to what masculinity represents, it is my boldness embracing the strength that patriarchy denied me. My femininity is as queer as it gets to be!
First and Multidimensional Queer Women’s Collective of Bangladesh