Reflections from Indonesia
By Rayta Amanadefi Pradata
“What does it mean to be a woman?”
This has been a question I have unconsciously asked myself throughout my life. What should a woman be like? What will being a woman make me become?
As a small child, I liked cartoons and kinds of toys the boys liked. I would watch Naruto every night and collect toy cars on my mom’s shelf. When I was 4, my friends were mostly boys as I didn’t share the same interests with the girls. As a result, people would mistake me as a boy except at school, which was the only place where I wore a skirt. Yet back then, I never felt really offended. I enjoyed interacting with my male friends and the fact that I was the only girl never bothered me.
However, over time, I began to receive judgment from the people around me. At first, I didn’t mind, until people started approaching me and saying,”You don’t act like a girl.”
I started realizing that these small remarks slowly became big things.
Like how my female friends wouldn’t want to play with me because I didn’t dress as a Disney princess at Kindergarten Book Day. I felt the pressure to be a girl and that I had to comply with the numerous rules of being one.
As I grew up, I have always been told to “act like a girl” and made to like things that were associated with being “girly” and prevent liking things that boys liked, just so that people knew I was a girl. And I did so.
At primary school, our teachers would scold us with the words, “you are a girl,” whenever we misbehaved, or acted in a way that did not reflect “being a girl.” For example, one time my friend, who was writing untidily, got scolded with the words, “Write neatly. You are a girl.”
But at the same time, these “girly” personalities have always been associated with crying, being weak, and generally being inferior. That was why we had to make up for these negative values, by pleasing others, keeping our manners, and being obedient.
Moving on to secondary school, the classes at my school were separated based on gender. So I mostly only interacted with girls. I thought this could empower us and create a more conducive environment for learning, but in fact, gender discrimination only felt even more real.
As we grew older, we had to be more aware of our position in the society as women and more responsible for our roles as future wives. We were told to behave at all times, while the boys could get away with anything.
Moreover, our class would frequently be compared with the boys’ class; the teachers would often say, “Even the boys are tidier than you!” or “You girls talk louder than the boys!”
Once a male teacher said to my class, “The people in hell will mostly be women and not men because they like to gossip,” treating religion as a shield for men’s superiority. I asked myself, was that really the only definition of women these men could extract from the words of God? The tendency to gossip? How prone women are to being thrown to hell?
At first, I didn’t feel anything about these kinds of remarks. I thought being well-behaved and polite was what being a girl truly meant, and I accepted that fate. But as a result, I had to accept all the other demeaning traits of femininity, such as being “a coward” and “a crybaby.”
Through that I started seeing that women were only seen as only fit for dressing, cleaning up, cooking, and producing children.
It was and still is seen abnormal for a woman to be able to lead.
Furthermore, I started realizing that people talk so negatively about the traits that define femininity that women are ashamed to be women. It’s as if being a woman that “acts like a man” is wrong, but being a “true” woman is also wrong, therefore being a woman as a whole is wrong.
To be acknowledged as part of the community, women had to be likeable. Being nice is a must, but what matters most are first impressions and this relates to how women have to be “pretty,” so that people like them. That is why women care so much about their appearance.
I have always been bewildered by the so-called “standards of beauty.” In my part of the world, generally, the description of a “beautiful” girl always includes having fair and clear skin, straight long hair, and a slim, tall figure. As a result, women strive towards this one standard, fitting themselves to unrealistic shapes, while overlooking all the other wonderful values they have in themselves.
In contrast, there isn’t an equally pressurizing standard of appearance for men.
In the real world, especially in being a leader, being a woman comes with the paradox between being “likeable” and being assertive. Being a likeable woman means complying with all the requirements people see as necessary to being a “real” woman. We are often pressured to be likeable just so that we can be heard.
The traits that people expect of a “real” woman include constantly giving in to others. When a woman is assertive in her intentions, so that people don’t take her lightly, she is seen as a “mad angry beast on her period.”
Moreover, the word leadership itself is seen as a masculine word, associated with all the masculine traits, such as rationality and productivity, which are contradictory to the feminine traits.
So when we come back to the question of “what does being a woman mean?” some would think about answers related to love, inner beauty, and feelings. I think it’s different for every woman.
But we live in a world where we women have to adjust to masculine traits, especially when we are in positions where other people would have to look up to us. The world works as if having feminine traits is a weakness or vulnerability.
It also seems that being feminine comes with the need to be protected, because she is considered incapable of looking after herself. The expectation for women to be obedient is an obstacle for them being able to live a free life, let alone lead.
It’s easy to ask “why can’t we just accept who we all are as we are, without minding what other people think about us?” But the problem is that the majority of society is still stuck in the idea that women have to be likeable and well-mannered, so that how well we choose to follow these standards will affect our outcome in life.
Women are still expected to show masculine traits when we “risk” ourselves by stepping up as leaders. We tend to ignore how our own femininity undermine the masculine traits we try to achieve.
Being a woman has made me think deeply about pain. I have realized that the femininity in me has made me reflect more and have the patience as well as the capacity at heart to endure pain, and then to think through it, especially during this pandemic.
And this is how I think femininity is a foundation of the masculinity we expect of leaders, giving us some space away for ourselves in the middle of a world that is moving too quickly.
Our introspection allows us to understand others in a more deeply connected way, giving us the capacity to become a different kind of leader, who actually leads from the heart.
We may still have difficulties in accepting ourselves just as we are. But what is important is to acknowledge the existence of the inner values each of us have as women, and to continue supporting each other in that respect.
I think we can all start by accepting that femininity is not a weakness, but a space for each of us to grow in a world that forces us to shrink. In that way, we can slowly move through the rough courses of prejudice together.
RAYTA AMANADEFI PRADATA is a student at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.