I didn’t want to be a woman either. I was after all a product of my environment and I associated ‘woman’ with vulnerability and low status. I was proud of being a ‘strong woman’; ‘strong woman’ was something other than a ‘woman’. ‘Strong woman’ seemed like protection from exploitation and abuse until it became obvious that it was just another form of exploitation and abuse, exploited for being a responsible caring and thoughtful person, an engaged citizen and community member.
Strong woman isn’t a compliment. It’s an acknowledgement and reinforcement of the stereotype that women are weak, sentimental and liable to fall apart at the first sign of trouble. It’s also a con. When you’re husband figures out that you are a ‘strong woman’ he doesn’t pay the rent because he knows that you will, he doesn’t hustle to pay the school fees because you will, he just doesn’t have to step up to the plate and take responsibility with you.
My father and the villagers used ‘strong woman’ to job me for decades, expecting me to take up responsibilities of a man without any of the benefits. I spent so many years believing the con and struggling to prove just how strong a woman I was, till I broke, quite literally. As the pressure built up my resentment grew, I resented all the demands and expectations. I became everyone’s go to person when there was a problem but had no one to go to myself when I needed a lift.
Feminism may have empowered me to accept that a woman’s way was an acceptable way but I didn’t know what that meant anymore. I was confused. What does it mean to be a ‘woman’? Not what the world says a woman is but what am I? What sort of woman am I? What sort of person am I? What does it mean to be ‘strong’? It took a while for me to realize that being strong wasn’t about doing what boys did or doing it better than the boys.
When I decided to be a ‘woman’ as opposed to a ‘strong woman’ I threw away the baby with the bath water. As soon as my kids grew up I shed all responsibility and with it all discipline. I gave in to self-pity, I felt deflated, exploited and consequently I let myself feel entitled. I had decided I wasn’t strong, I had decided I was weak but I’m not and I wasn’t. But real strength isn’t about physical or even emotional strength. Strength is bending and not breaking when the wind blows.
I’m not a ‘strong woman’, I’m just a responsible person that cares about the world I live in and the people I live with. I am uniquely ME – with both feminine and masculine qualities, just like everybody else. That means I can be vulnerable sometimes and cry, hurt, panic, make mistakes, forgive, love and grieve. I can be feminine.
I’m vulnerable not because I am feminine but because I am a puny human being in a vast complex self-directed Universe. And I can live with that.