I have been wondering, asking myself a couple of questions these past days. The crux of my wanderings: what makes me a woman? When does one become a woman?
Is it when she is when she is conceived? When the X cells of the woman merges with the X of the man; and voila the new being becomes a blood clot, or something like that, with the potentials of becoming a being? If at that point something happens and she is not grown into full existence; accidental or planned, is she a human being? Is she a female human? Or is it when her Mum or whoever carried to full term gives birth to her? When the doctor looks between her thighs and layers of flaps covering a small hole and not a tiny stick, sees a vagina and not a penis, then declares that it’s a girl?
Then, she begins to grow. At a younger age, unaware of whether she is male or female. She wants to do things that everyone does; to climb the trees, to play the football, and also to tend to her doll. Sometimes, she does not care about the doll. When that happens, does it make her less female? Does it mean she can be for instance more male, a tomboy? This stage of potential, of inertia, of everything just lying there with the possibility to be molded or shrunk like the cursed tree; does it count?
Truly when does a girl become a woman? Is it at puberty, when she notices hair under her arms and on her vagina? When she sees all these changes that make her look more like her mother? When she wakes up and begin to notice that her breasts ache even as they grow? When they become magnetic force that pulls the men’s hands to it, to be groped, even when she does not want? When her butts seems to have an extra layer that shakes left and right, rolls up and down as she walks? Or is it when her panties are now so small that they are strapped between the middle line of the butts, like a catapult? Or when they become the objects of slaps from moving bike men? Or when their eyes follow its movements, left and right? Is it when her own mother says; don’t wear that cloth, don’t you know you are becoming a woman? Unsaid in that statement is the talk that she is a woman and being a woman brings responsibilities, like how your dress, and how it has the power to trigger an erection in a man?
Does she become a woman when the cramps below her belly prepare the way for her monthly flow? Shy drops initially, then daring enough, as sure as the day, as sure as every cycle? That blood that her mother calls menses. That blood that when she noticed it her mother said that “she has now become a woman, and that if any man touches her, she will get pregnant?” That blood that says so many things without speaking a word. That they say is a sign of fertility. That blood that when you see it, you are not so happy but you are happy to see it anyway. It is the guest that you don’t quite feel like seeing yet, you pound yam for it and cook the sweetest of vegetable, then serve ‘it’ in your best plates. That visitor is one that women have for a great part of their lives. My eleven year old cousin anticipating her period asked me: “for how long will it go on?” “For thirty years or more,” I replied. She exclaimed: “thirty what?” In fact, it is a marker for the way her life runs many ways. Pre-menstruation termed as the “non-reproductive” days; the menstrual days are the reproductive days, days when if she perchance has sex with a man, she may get pregnant; and then there is menopause, when she is dry, when the blood stops flowing. You know, I’ve been wondering, is she more womanly in any of these phases?
Wait a moment, I am beginning to think; is it when she starts to wear makeup? When she trades all her tennis shoes and slippers for high heels? When she makes hair that announces her arrival, making heads turn and men feel a bulge down there? Is that when she becomes a woman? When she makes something tick in them? Does that ticking affirm her womanhood? What is the difference between a lady and a woman? Between a lady and an African woman? Fela Anikulapo Kuti, famous Nigerian singer sings in Pidgin English:
If you call am woman, African woman no go gree, she go say: I be lady. She go say market woman na woman. She go say I be lady. She go say him equal to man. She go say him get power like man. She go say everything she do, him sef fit do. She go wan take cigar before anybody? She go wan make you open door for am. She go want make man wash plate for am for kitchen. She wan salute man, she go sit down for chair. She wan sit down for table before anybody. She wan take piece of meat before anybody. Call am for dance, she go dance lady dance. African woman go dance, she go dance the fire dance. She no him man na master. She go cook for am. She go do everything she says. But lady nor be so. Lady na master?
Is there a difference between a lady and a woman? Fela thinks there is. And it is not a function of age but a question of how the woman behaves, a social definition. A lady according to Fela is the one who does her things her own style, refusing to fit into the stereotypical cage that the society hewn for her. For the lady, the cage does not exist. But the woman, lives according to the societal codes already written for her by the society.
When does a woman become a woman? When she is first pierced by a steel rod called a penis, pain and pleasure so well mixed she cannot tell which she feels? At a time in history, that was a big deal. The woman’s blood or lack of it could cause a small war between two families or a bloody war between two communities. Is that when she becomes a woman? These days, it does not quite matter whether the man who deflowered her ends up as her husband. Does she become a “better” woman when it is her husband who broke the hymen? Better here means, preserved, pure, and other such terms that have to do with purity. Is it when she gets married and becomes a Mrs. Somebody … perhaps. It is at that time that she is the “found” rib that has been missing from birth returned to position, in the man’s rib cage. She trades off her father’s name for a ring and a new name; it does not matter if she does not like the sound, spelling or meaning of the name. Now, she has an appendage attached to her name, a dangling limb hanging from a severed socket. If she does not bear her husband’s name, she is not a complete woman, she is a woman who still holds on to her girlhood, her eyes at the back of her head casting glances at a past that should be forgotten. It is also marriage that makes the society think of her as responsible because she is taking care of a family.
So, tell me when does a woman become a woman? When she gives birth to a child and become Iya Lagbaja*, Mummy Tamedo*; when she becomes the mother of a child and is addressed by the name of her first child? When she starts attending Parents-Teachers’ meetings, when she starts cleaning up after the children or when she starts packing lunch boxes? Does she become a woman when she can attend to the needs of her children and husband at once yet unruffled? Is that when? Responsibility is a key characteristic of women; they are the burden bearers, the ones that carry the troubles of the world on their heads and drag theirs with their hands, that’s for those who remember to take theirs with them. Some others, just get weary with the burden on the head, and drop theirs along the way, is that what makes a woman, her sacrifices? Is womanhood about a life of sacrifices, when she gives up her own existence for her family? When she dies gradually so that she can nurse their dreams to life; becoming a womb for their dreams yet with no space for hers?
In some places, she is not even a woman until she has a boy, a son for her husband, to carry on his name, his legacy. Only then does her leg get fixed enough in her husband’s house, only then does she have any rights to any property. Girls are not children, they believe in such communities, they may be “issues,” with serious issues; they don’t even keep the family line going. In these climes, it’s only the birth of boys that make a woman a woman, that roots her legs in her husband’s family unswayable by whatever winds. Till then, she has one leg in, one leg out and the coming of another woman with a son, can automatically push her away, of her position as wife, and as woman.
When does she become a woman? When she is silent, just seen, not saying a word. When she is bent by the troubles of the world? When she says “thank you” even when she is hurt in her? When turns her ear the other way when her husband moans away with another woman? When she stays in a marriage “till death do us part” even if she is battered to that death? Is it when she gives her body to her husband totally, yielding herself to him, as a log in the hands of a carpenter? Or as the pot in the hands of the potter, being shaped, molded to the taste of the potter?
When does she become a woman? When the muscles around her eyes weaken? When the muscles around her womb lose strength, when the eggs return to where they came from? When her waist loses its shape after many children have passed through? When her voice trembles losing its alluring sound? Is it when her grandchildren gather around her, she–the mother hen, they–the chicks, and listen to stories trapped in a past, stories of a glorious past, that she only passed through but never passed through her? Now, the weight of her gait leans on a stick, her back is bent, bowed as she no longer has the strength to bear any more troubles. Her hairs starts to grey and soon start to drop, strand after strand, leaving a pore empty, never to be refilled. Is that when she is a woman? When all that is left in her eyes are faint glitters that never were?
Does she become a woman when the earth covers her up? When the grave is tagged “Mrs. Lagbaja; 1945-2000”? When her children show their respect for her by throwing up the biggest party in the world? There are numerous adverts in the papers, that she lived a glorious life, her face splashed all over, a smile photo-shopped on the image; there are words that would be missed sorely by a committee of friends. Is it when they say “Sun re o”? When they bid her to sleep well or eat what they eat in heaven, wherever that is? Tell me; is that when?
Or am I just rambling? Is the word “woman” overrated? An antithesis of man? Of everything that he is not, of all that she is? Of all that she can become, or of all that she may never be? Maybe there is more to a woman than the trapping of the word “woman,” that word so affiliated with “man.”
*Lagbaja and Tamedo: are Yoruba words for Anonymous.
The branding by a steel rod traditionally labels one woman.