In my 32 years, I’ve known many women – myself included – that have struggled with juggling notions of femininity and the gender specific ‘roles’ they are meant to play within the spheres of their own lives.
Women trying to live up to the unfair definitions and expectations of a nurturer, a housewife, a working mother, a businesswoman, a spinster, a lesbian, and the list go on. These days, the question of gender roles can make for quite heated discussions. Men and women and the respective ‘roles’ they’re meant to play are not as black and white as they once used to be
For women, our femininity – and by extension our womanhood – has come to mean so much more than a role or an aesthetic. Even now, as I write these words, all over the world women are crafting new meanings of femininity and reshaping the roles that we can play in the modern world. Today being a woman means you can be whomever you want or need to be, or to use the words of psychologist Walter Mischel, “ …perhaps nature is bigger than our concepts and it is possible for a lady to be a hostile, fiercely independent, passive, dependent, feminine, aggressive, warm, castrating person all-in-one. Of course which of these she is at any particular moment would not be random or capricious – it would depend on who she is with, when, how, and much much more.
There is no one way to be a woman. I simply believe that we should celebrate all the many things that make women up; all the unique characteristics, experiences and intricacies that makes someone so distinctly themselves. So instead of telling you what qualities I think make for an amazing woman, I’ll share with you the amazing story of one that I have the privilege of knowing.
Fugee School is a non-profit education centre for refugee children living in Malaysia and Nawa is one of our star students. As a Somali refugee her life has been one filled with uncertainty and instability. Her younger years were spent in Ethiopia but as the social climate grew increasingly dangerous, her family decided to flee to Saudi Arabia, eventually becoming aliens confined to limbo in Malaysia.
For those who don’t know, refugees are not recognised in Malaysia. For families like Nawa’s, this means parents can’t get legal employment and their children do not go to school. In order to make ends meet, Nawa – despite her academic progress – left Fugee School to take a job packing CDs instead. Her family was happy with the new arrangement, as their culture didn’t champion education for girls. The school, however, was not. After many attempts Fugee School convinced Nawa to give education another chance. This was one of her most important life decisions, she gave it everything she had and she flourished.
After receiving everything that Fugee School had to offer, Nawa became a student teacher – a period in which she continued to learn as well as share the knowledge she had gained with others. A few years later Nawa was accepted into a special refugee programme run by Nottingham University Malaysia. Can you believe that? A girl with no formal or certified education was now a tertiary level student in a premier university.
Of this, she said: “Life hasn’t been easy, I’ve had my ups and downs. However, I am thankful for it because it has made me who I am. I have fallen several times but each time I have come back more resilient.”
At Fugee School, we call her life journey ‘The Nawa Effect’, it’s about a girl who is adamant about “not letting life push me down, neither society or anyone can stop me from doing what I love and achieving my dreams”. Her fighting spirit is infectious, her bubbly and positive character rubs off on all the other students. “Just because we are girls doesn’t mean that we can’t be heroes. Be your own HERO!”
Beyond the labels and clichés we cling to, we can create our own individual positive, empowering definition of what being a woman means. It’s a definition that changes from woman to woman, and one that is being constantly rewritten.
I like that in my definition it is perfectly possible and okay “for a lady to be a hostile, fiercely independent, passive, dependent, feminine, aggressive, warm, castrating person all-in-one.” It’s empowering that every woman has the opportunity to discover and become the woman she wants to be. Nawa’s story shows us that it’s not only important, but necessary, to be your own kind of woman.