What does it mean to be a woman? That question might seem out of the blue, but given the whole gender saga concerning South Africa’s 18-year old 800m athlete Caster Semenya, I think it’s a pretty valid one. Many women would have numerous responses to that question, as would many men. It could range from descriptions of a woman’s physique “…It means you have curves, breasts, annoying cramps, etc…” to observations on the emotional state “…Women are sensitive, emotional, caring, loving…”, to allusions to women’s roles “…She’ll most likely have children one day, be a wife, take care of a household…”, or it could come down to qualities “…She’s strong, dignified, compassionate…”
I googled “what does it mean to be a woman?” and came across some responses on Yahoo Answers (I absolutely love google and yahoo answers lol). Here are some of the responses:
– From cloeen: “To love people! Help teach my children and make the world a better place because they are in it! I am a woman with love, strength, power and will to make it! (This response was chosen as the ‘best answer’ to the question).
– From Vampyres: “Cramps and sexual harrassment.”
– From scaldy62001p: “It means having babies and taking care of them, cooking, washing dishes, washing clothes, cleaning the house, listening to arguments and being everyone’s maid.”
-From fuertas_rafagas: “To me it means beauty (in all its myriad forms, not just what society says is “beautiful”), stength, power. It means vaginas and breasts. It means knowing who we are and where we came from and recognizing all of our ancestors that helped to get us here. It means rcognizing our sisters and our community everywhere we go in the world. It means balancing power and nurturing. It means fighting for the oppressed and not becoming the oppressors. It means Goddess and Mother Earth.”
– From durb1215: “Cramps and kids
– From GENIUS: “To me it means having self-respect, having dignity, having the desire to be fruitful and multiply. It means teaching others, such as young girls, how to be a woman also. It means providing a safe environment for your children. It means having strength, willpower and grace.”
-From manuho: “It means to create the next generation”
It’s interesting to note that I checked out these responses on yahoo answers after I wrote the intro and stated what possible responses there might be. And as expected, the answers do fall under some of those categories. I think the “cramps and kids” response is a pretty universal one. But really, is that all there is to a woman? I certainly hope not.
Going to an all-girls’ high school, and then an all-women’s college, I have come across many girls and women in my time. Although we all (or most of us) identified as “women”, we were by no means the same. Which is why, on the one hand, I can understand the skepticism surrounding Semenya’s case, but on the other hand, I find it utterly ridiculous. When there are so many different kinds of women in the world, how can we come up with a box of classifications for who a woman is? For one thing, Ms. Semenya’s birth certificate clearly indicates that she’s female, and if that is not enough, wouldn’t the fact that the people who know her and have worked with her (her family, community, trainer, fellow athletes), recognise her as a woman count? Even if the gender test turns out saying she’s actually a male, this whole episode does raise two interesting questions. Is the world limiting it’s view on who women are? What is the experience of women in
I believe strongly in Simone DeBeauvoir’s statement that “one is not born a woman, one becomes one.” I think one of the key struggles a young girl or woman has to deal with, is figuring out and accepting herself for who she is. First, you have her own expectations of who she, then you have her family’s expectations, society’s expectations, and then the final bomb, the world’s expectations. The world – or should I say, the media? – has quite a limited view on what “beauty” and “being a woman” is, and this infiltrates the minds of young girls and women. By boxing up and limiting who a woman can be, we are setting women and girls up against many prejudices.
I’m sure any woman in and beyond her 20s will tell you she’s been many different women in her lifetime. I certainly have. As a youngster, I was quite boisterous and tomboyish. I even went to a psychologist to determine what was up with me. Turns out I was hyperactive. I had excess energy that I needed to burn. Had my parents limited their view of who a girl should be, I probably would have been miserable. But no, they didn’t do that. Instead, I found myself channeling that energy in different ways – swimming, skating, skiing (when I was younger), and then soccer, handball, basketball and athletics from junior high up.
Then comes the issue of women and sports. There is the general notion that women are “the fairer sex” and so, should limit their activities to things that are not so tedious and that would not blemish their fairness. Add the fact that some things are regarded as being “improper” for women to participate in, and the web has already been spun. In the Ghanaian society, as well as many other socieites, women who are involved in sports don’t get the necessary support they need. Either that, or they are regarded as being “less of a woman” or too “hard”. It is okay for girls to participate in sporting activities, but only to a certain point. Many women who are actively involed in sports (football for instance), are labeled as being “hard” or not looking feminine enough. For fear of not finding a man who is willing to marry them, or not being able to have children, a lot of young girls and women hesitate to pursue a career in sports.
I got actively involved with sports in primary school. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember exactly how I started playing football (soccer,not American football lol), but I did, and surpise, surprise, I turned out to be good at it. I was usually the goalkeeper. I had a lot of fun with it, and I remember one particular time when we had an intersectional sporting event and I was goalkeeping during penalties (for some reason, I loved the rush I got when it was just me against a player), my mum (who was a teacher in my school) and friends were all on the sidelines cheering me on. It was a really exhilirating experience, and I think in many ways than one, for me, it kind of erased the limitations that society puts on what women can and cannot do.
In high school, I did some more goalkeeping in handball and football, and also participated in basketball. Athletics was a general no-no for me. Until one day. We had our annual inter-houses sports competition, and my house needed one more athlete in order to register for the hurdles competition. Now, for someone who considered regular running/races to be a no-no, why in heaven’s name would I opt for a race with wooden impediments in my path? I have absolutely no idea, but I opted in. My logic was this. If we didn’t present someone for the competition, our house could have been disqualified altogether. If I went ahead, participated in the race, and came in last, at the very least, we would get 1 point. So, that’s what I did. And I came in last. Now, i’m sure it was quite the laughing galore, but that episode taught me (and as it turned out, many of my schoolmates) something about perseverance. Because, regardless of how many times I
knocked those hurdles over, and regardless of how many people I saw cross the finish line before me, all I was thinking was I need to finish this race.
A couple of years ago, the Women’s World Cup was held. And there was barely any news about it (not even from Ghanaian football enthusiasts eventhough the Black Queens were participating). I know many wonderful women who were exceptional sports girls in high school, and I know for a fact that if they pursued professional sports, they would have excelled. But for one reason or another, once ‘girlhood’ is over and ‘womanhood’ begins, many of us turn in our running, soccer and basketball shoes, tennis rackets and sports equipment and realign ourselves to what society thinks we should be doing as women. We are doing ourselves a huge disservice by not encouraging and supporting young girls and women to participate in sports. Sports teaches a lot of things that are applicable to life. It teaches teamwork (as in basketball & football), creativity & strategy (for determing which play would be the best), sacrifice (waking up early to practice, forgoing unhealthy but delicious treats etc), dedication, and last but not the least, perseverance.
As the responses on “What does it mean to be a woman” indicate, there is no right or wrong in being a woman. A “perfect woman” doesn’t exist. (Sorry guys, the fantasy is over). What does exist are young girls, young women, older women, and simply women, who have the option to make or unmake themselves in whatever way possible. We’re more than the makeup, clothes, curves, and whatnots that the media puts forth as who we are. We are just……Fill in the blank. What does it mean for you to be a woman, or if you’re a guy, who do you consider to be a woman? Can and should women excel in sports? The ball is in your court.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.