October 26, 2009

Becoming Woman


ALL I KNEW WAS that this non-profit group called MARAA was organising some sort of performance on gender and sexuality. A friend told me about it and even offered to pick me up. Work lay unfinished on my table, but what the hell, I decided, I could always catch up later. And that’s how we found ourselves at Jagaa, which calls itself “a community space created to serve the arts, technology and social change communities in Bangalore.” We climbed up two flights of metal staircases to find a fairly large group of people, sitting, standing, leaning on the banisters – and listening attentively to the performers – a group of people variously called hijras, transvestites, transgenders or Aravanis (The Indian concept of third gender is somewhat different from Western conceptualizations – read here).

My Kannada is not good enough to catch the nuances, but the emotions could not be missed. They sang of the families they had built for themselves, among people they could be themselves with – when everything else is denied to them. We have no mothers, no fathers, no sisters, no brothers, no work, no family, no home – except our own community, they sang, and even through through the underlying sadness, the sense of pride in the community was evident.

Then, a slightly built woman in a white kurta and jeans, began the ‘main’ performance of the evening. She started telling her story, a powerful one that kept everyone in the audience enthralled, despite the absence of any props or instruments. Told in the first person, in direct and evocative Tamizh, this was the story of a young boy’s journey to understanding his own nature and the long road to his finally becoming a woman. The life of the Aravani community, their challenges, their origin myths and their family dynamics were all part of the story, but the most powerful part of it was her longing to be a woman, and the desire for it which is so powerful as to enable her to endure the ritual castration, done by a traditional healer without anaesthesia. The performance was all the more gripping for its blunt edge, though laced with plenty of humour and witty dialogue.

So gripping was the story and its telling that I assumed it was the performer’s own story. Only at the end did we learn that the performer, Pritham Chakravarthy is not herself part of the community, but a theatre activist and researcher who has spent considerable time researching the stories of the Aravanis, and brings them to a wider audience through her story-telling.

One question remained at the end of the performance, which I was somehow reluctant to ask, but now regret not asking! Something which came up repeatedly during the performance was the attraction to objects traditionally viewed as marks of the Indian woman – saris, bangles, flowers. In urban India, at least, the markers of femininity themselves are in a state of flux.  In that context, is the Aravanis’ ideas of womanhood a constant or how is that changing? In other words, how closely is womanhood for them linked to the outward symbols of femininity and in particular, to these symbols? Do they need the ‘display’ of womanhood or is it simply enough to feel woman to be a woman? In this context, I thought blogger Deborah’s piece on the cluster-concept of being a woman was worth reading.

5 comments to Becoming Woman

  • Informative and interesting. Thanks.

  • Sheila

    For people who are “seen” as a gender that they do not feel is accurate, displaying their gender and being read by others as that gender is very important. If I am a woman and people always see me as a woman, then I can wear clothing that is not traditionally woman’s clothing and still be safely a woman. However, if I am male bodied and want people to see me as a woman then it can be more difficult to be read as a woman and harder to challenge clothing/adornment norms.

  • apu

    Sunil – glad you found it worthwhile.

    Sheila – yes, that is part of what I was thinking too, that do you feel the need to “prove” your identity if it is denied to you.

  • NM


    Apologies for the long disjointed post. Too many thoughts jostling around in my head.

    I think we might want to distinguish between ‘prove’ and ‘perform’. The stories that Pritham performed (I was somewhere in the crowd, like you), only one struck me as a ‘proof’ story: the one where she performs the castration on herself to prove a point to the people questioning her ‘real’ identity. The rest of her stories told us about intersexed and transgendered identities through the performance of very specific gender roles. So, the question I asked myself was not necessarily whether I needed the display (as you put it) of womanhood, but: how will I know what ‘feeling’ like a woman is in the absence of symbols that mark me as a woman? It’s actually quite easy to point to secondary sex organs (breasts, vagina etc) as cues to mark the sexes, but there is such diversity even within these so-called fixed characteristics (as the physicality of Pritham illustrated), that I am forced to acknowledge that much of Pritham’s performance as a transgendered individual reminds me of my own ‘fixed’ identity as a biological woman (identified and identifiable as such).

    What was also striking about Pritham’s performance was that we were perfectly willing to believe her transgendered identity when she performed it for us, and then, we were perfectly willing to believe her ‘straight’ ‘biological’ identity when she disclosed it to us. Nothing changed except a few simple words. Yet, our perspective shifted planes. To me, it underlined our insistence on the stability and categorization of identities, our insistence on the ‘right’ performance of these identities, and the privilege of a few identities (over others).

    And we have to look no further about this process than our young commentator, Amisha. She is clearly getting cues that dressing more feminine will mark her as a woman and therefore, of interest (to the heterosexual male gaze). Now, we can debate on what those feminine qualities are, whether they are desirable,and the societal influences on them. But mostly, I am reminded of a transgendered friend of mine whose insistence that she knew she was born in the wrong gender, when at the age of three, he put lipstick on his lips, and realized that it fit who she was on the ‘inside’. As a biological straight woman (identifiable as such) who has a visceral dislike of lipstick, this is not the yardstick by which I measure my ‘womanhood’. But it’s easy for me to dislike lipstick only because my performance as a woman is believable and hers isn’t. And my performance as a woman is believable only because it falls within the range of acceptable behavior and hers doesn’t. So, ultimately, the responsibility of the reification of gender roles and identities falls back on us, the guardians of acceptable performance. And I, for one, am glad Pritham was able to shake our foundations enough to see that they are based on fairly flimsy ground.

  • apu

    NM, thanks for that. I did not raise the question of proving identity solely in the context of Pritham’s stories, but also as a general question to the way the aravani community in India dress – “like women” – what benchmarks are chosen to represent “womanhood” is interesting. While one of Pritham’s stories was about proving one’s identity as a woman to the outside world (by castration), there were repeated subtler references to the process of identifying as a woman (to oneself) – similiar to the story of your friend, who knew she was a woman because she wore lipstick. I like your lucid explanation of this – “As a biological straight woman (identifiable as such) who has a visceral dislike of lipstick, this is not the yardstick by which I measure my ‘womanhood’. But it’s easy for me to dislike lipstick only because my performance as a woman is believable and hers isn’t. And my performance as a woman is believable only because it falls within the range of acceptable behavior and hers doesn’t.” Yes, Pritham’s performance does make one think about how gender is so much more fluid than is commonly believed.

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