Sunday, April 25, 2010

Femininity and the Feminine Mystique
( The Birth of Venus (Botticelli) is a classic representation of femininity. Source: Wikipedia.)

I want to dedicate this blog to Julie Bodhi Deepika from Belgium whose mails inspired me to write this essay.

While surfing through Wikipedia , I came upon an old story from the Bible, as told by Rabbi Joshua:

"God deliberated from what member He would create woman, and He reasoned with Himself thus: I must not create her from Adam's head, for she would be a proud person, and hold her head high. If I create her from the eye, then she will wish to pry into all things; if from the ear, she will wish to hear all things; if from the mouth, she will talk much; if from the heart, she will envy people; if from the hand, she will desire to take all things; if from the feet, she will be a gadabout. Therefore I will create her from the member which is hid, that is the rib, which is not even seen when man is naked."

This article, I think represents a patriarchal view of what a woman should be in their eye. A woman should not hold her head high; should not wish to pry into all things; would not wish to hear all things that man could hear; should keep her mouth shut against all the mischievous acts of a masculine world; and should talk less and leave desire to take anything, and even will not envy. It sums up that femininity, then, simply means frilly, flouncy, flippant, frivolous, and fluff-brained.

There are significant gender differences in how women and men socially construct the meaning of femininity in their lives, particularly concerning the intersection of gender, sexuality, and power. Freudian psychoanalyst theory says as women lack the visible genitals of the male, they feel they are "missing" the most thing central necessary for gaining narcissistic value and therefore, they develop a sense of gender inequality and penis envy, which in later periods, has related to power relation between gender. Freud said a little girl when observing the difference between the genital organ of her father or brother and the similarity with her mother, can notice her status of being the second sex, the less dominant sex. From this time of noticing, a girl possesses envy towards the male role model and tries to compare and identify herself with the male role model as the power holder.

According to Freud, sex is the most powerful instinct in humans. This tendency later develops into an Oedipus Complex and an Electra Complex. Being a woman, I can say that this ‘penis envy’ is not at all a significant point for femininity. It is not a proper place to discuss this topic in detail, but I referred to this Freudian psychoanalysis theory, as I have an idea that the formation of genital organs in male and female might have a link with their masculinity and femininity. The male genital is projected outward whereas that of a female remains inward. These structures may create the different characteristics among both genders. Femininity, so an introvert in nature to which some psychosnalysis termed as ‘passive’ while the extrovert masculinity for its outward projection of genital organ as ‘active’. Gerard Hendrik Hofstede, the Dutch scholar (I have discussed and compared his theory with that of Ashish Nandy in one of my earlier essays ) described these differences as ‘Quantity of Life’ and ‘Quality of Life’ repectively.

I solely believe that both masculinity and femininity are different but they are always complimentary to each other. We can’t say which one is superior and which one is inferior. In Samkhya Upanishad, the philosophers of the Vedic period named these as Prakruti and Purusha. But in their concept, Purusha (masculinity) is passive and Prakruti (femininity) is ‘active.’

‘Samkhya philosophy’ also described the creation of life with this Prakruti-Purusha concept. According to this philosophy, this Prakruti is an all pervasive but complex primal substance which is transformed into multifarious nature. The original entity is not found in its original form but remains in a state of equilibrium, and in a non-modified condition. This eternal and infinite principle is lifeless and consists of three inter-reliant and interchangeable elements called the ‘gunas,’ which consists of three parts: sattva, rajas, and tamas. These gunas are not the qualities but rather the constituent parts of Prakruti. They give complexity to Mula (original) Prakruti.

But Purusha is inactive and passive, but also alert and infinite and eternal. Under the inscrutable influence of Purusha, the equilibrium in Prakruti is disturbed and the whole universe of unlimited permutations and combinations comes into existence. The first modification of Prakruti, primordial nature, is called Mahat or Cosmic Intelligence. It further involutes into two forces, 1) Akasha, the primal matter, and 2) Prana, the primal energy. Akasha forms the material basis and Prana the energy basis of creation. From the interaction between Akasha and Prana are formed five delicate elements, crudely translated as Ether, Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. In various proportions, these are the constituents of all the material existing in the universe. As can be seen, even Mahat or Intelligence is matter consisting of three gunas and five elements.

I believe the role of femininity can be explained in no other way. Femininity is thus considered as Shakti or a source of energy in ancient Indian Philosophy. It is a regrettable and astonishing fact that while discussing ‘femininity,’ we discuss Christian ideology or psychoanalysts’ point of view but never any day has anyone discussed the idea of this Indian philosophy.

It is correct that the word femininity has not been heard very often as compared to the word ‘feminist.’ I have observed that in the West, only the Christian religious scholars discuss more about ‘femininity’ while the feminist scholars did not like to utter this word ‘femininty’ partly because of stereotypes as opposed to archetypes. They were dedicated to the proposition that the difference between men and women is a matter of mere biology and some of these feminists tried to avoid the word altogether or whenever possible, denying femininity a reality of Nature’s design and making.

On the other hand, throughout the millennia of human history up until the past two decades or so, people took for granted that the differences between men and women were so obvious as to need no comment. They accepted the way things were. Patriarchal society also used this hypothesis as an issue of the gender power battle with male hegemony and adherence to traditional male and female roles. For centuries, the concept of ‘femininity’ has been used for transforming patriarchy, making females to be subordinate in a masculine world. Femininity has always been used with a double standard by patriarchy.

While a nude art or its artist receive appreciation for the aesthetism from society, at the same time, the model has also been criticised for lacking the modesty of femininity. In the name of sexual objectification, both patriarchy and feminism have never adored femininity in any real sense. They impose many taboos and regulation on femininity in the name of keeping it safe and secure.

It is no doubt that due to feminist movement and discourse, we now have the opportunity to express ourselves; to make ourselves more visible in social perspectives; and to embrace our sexuality and sensuality. As Julie relates: “But still, women also have issues. For instance, many girls and women in Western don't totally accept themselves as they are because of the beauty standards the media and society imposes on us. The focus is so much on outward appearance rather than inner beauty.”

And she goes on: “Women also experience so much pressure. They want a career, be independent, have a household, kids, etc., etc....And manage that, ALL at the same time. Still, every woman wants to be feminine and beautiful with her dresses, jewelry, and modest attitudes. They want to be very beautiful and soft, but at the same time, strong. And that kind of women I see as my inspiration -- a humble, kind, loving woman, but at the same time, strong and intelligent.”

In earlier articles, I have discussed these matters in detail to show not only how both patriarchal society and the feminists make the rules and regulations and create the new taboos to make women more controlled in the name of ‘freedom.’

But still, women are subjugated and controlled in the name of ‘modesty’ and are also ignored in the social perspective. Their term of femininity is misunderstood and misused either by patriarchy or by the apostles of the so-called radical feminism.

Personally, I never find any difference between modern femininity and feminism if we consider feminism as a goal to make females strong enough to mark their identity against becoming invisible by those who want them to be. We should be thankful to our predecessor feminists who have made patriarchal man turn into a new masculine entity who believes in gender equality.

I believe femininity is related to ‘shakti’ and being ‘shaktified’ (I borrowed this word from my friend Wahkeena Sitka’s article ‘What Is Shakti?’). We could include power of intelligence (buddhi), compassion (daya), and divine love (bhakti) in our femininity. I also believe that this femininity has a wonderful power.

In our de-gendered times, a really feminine woman is a joy to behold and you can love and unleash your own unique yet universal femininity. We are here for gender sensitivity to proclaim the differences between men and women with a kind of pretence that we are all the same. Too many women have been de-feminized by society.

To be feminine today is to know how to pay attention to detail and people, to have people skills, and to know how to connect to and work well with others. There will be particular times and situations in which you'll want to be more in touch and in tune with your femininity. Being able to choose is a great privilege and a great skill.


  1. Simone de Beauvoir in her The Second Sex has discussed these things to some extent, but no any Indian Scholar ever tried to interpret these issues in light of Indian Philosophy, Thats i call an indigenous approach to Femininity, Indian Academias for decades trying to interpret Indian women characters from these 'alien' perspectives, I am happy that you are doing very well in the field

  2. your writing always provoke thoughts. Thanks for sharing this.


  4. chittaranjan misra8:01 PM

    Relating Western feminism to the concepts of intelligence,compassion and divine love is a bold attempt.The proliferation of critical theories have been afloat at the cost of nullification of the essentialist approaches.Restoring femininity to woman is like discovering archetypes in a world where everything is interpreted with a partisan bias,even the natural objects are taken to be socially constructed (the moment you talk about them you use language,you verbally construct them).Is there a woman,existing as an autonomous entity of femininity, independent of language and warring constructs of the society?

  5. The depiction of the origin of women in The Bible, though only a myth, is prejudiced and patriarchal. The Samkhya philosophy of Prakruti and Purush seems reasonable and your findings about feminity are logical and praiseworthy. Congrats Dr. Sarojini!
    - Prof. K. V. Dominic

  6. @ Chittaranjan Mishra: Is Western Feminism a bold attempt in ‘divine love’? I adore your point but could not find much satisfactory in my search to femininity. To discuss femininity is not at all a discovering archetype, as I have discussed earlier about science and myth in respect to femininity of a woman. However, I adore your idea, as every one has his right to express his beliefs. Personification of my opinion said, your thoughts need further mission.

  7. Dear Sarojini Sahoo,

    We once again request you to kindly allow us to publish your novel “ The Dark Abode” in English. If it is not possible kindly send us some new novel for publishing in English.

    What is Femininity. The word Femininity, is very close in our heart as we believe in women power and in Hindu religion. Woman is the mother, sister , daughter and Goddess we all respect her. We believe in Istri shakti ( Woman Power). Very soon we are going to announce some award for woman for special literature, who have achieved some thing in their life in our monthly Grehlakshmi Magazine etc. I am sure our views are clear before you.

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    Narender Kumar Verma
    Diamond Pocket Books (Pvt.) Ltd.
    X-30, Okhla Industrial Area, Phase-II,
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  8. have read the whole discussion on ur blog..but even b4 reading that once in a conference on gender issues n petriarchy i said..
    heroism has no gender..a female can b a hero far much better than a man...indeed being so much dedicated n diversified she is as maintaining the whole house, family than working outside that too keeping the softness n ... See Morefeminish attitude in touch...while working in office i would love to b respected as a women with all my innocence , softness n limits (crossing which is harrasment ) n i want all equal rights but when it comes to duty performance ..decision making n right to choose..i dont wanna be judged as women...than i am equally responsible n legible human being only....:) n if any one denies oit than he is a conservative petriarchan n who ever accepts it a feminist .... :))
    i can explain it further by Donne
    in one of his poem..he says that no doubt man is active n woman is compared n contrasted with a Compass...whose fixed hand is women & rotating hand( all in action ) is man...but rotating hand cant move n complete action without falling apart untill fixed hand is fixed there for him.. :)
    so women is ... See More

  9. How would you characterize the theoretical framework of the Indian Feminist movement? Is it completely Western, with an intrinsic dialectism intact? Or does it try to incorporate Indic philosophy and Indian historical experience (even at a superficial level)?

  10. Historical circumstances and values in India make women’s issues different from the western feminist rhetoric. Feminism in India is not a singular theoretical orientation; it has changed over time in relation to historical and cultural realities, levels of consciousness, perceptions and actions of individual women and women as a group. The male and female dichotomy of polar opposites with the former oppressing the latter at all times is disproved in the Indian context because feminism in India was initiated by men. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Keshav Chandra Sen, Malabari Phule, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Mahadev Govind Ranade, Dhondo Keshav Karve and Baba Saheb Ambedkar were few male activists , who worked against the social evils of sati (widow immolation), to allow widow remarriage, to forbid child marriage, and to reduce illiteracy, as well as to regulate the age of consent and to ensure property rights through legal intervention.

    Outlook India. Com has enlisted chronological Feminist movement of India as in post colonial period as below:
    1946-52 : Telengana agitation in which women were trained as guerrillas.
    1972 : Shahada and anti-price rise agitation in Maharashtra with women in the forefront
    1972 : Anti-alcohol agitation in parts of western India. Self- Employed Women’s Association ( SEWA ) set up by Ela Bhatt.
    1973 : Anti-price rise agitations in Gujarat.
    1974 : Nav Nirman agitation.
    1978 : First national conference of socialist feminists in Bombay.
    1979 : Stri Sangharsh formed in Delhi.
    1980-83: Campaigns against dowry.
    1987 : Campaigns against domestic violence and rape.
    Early ’80s : Establishment of Centre for Women’s Development Studies.
    1985 : Agitations in solidarity with Shah Bano.
    1986 : Movements against Muslim Women’s Bill.
    1987 : Agitation against revival of sati system in Rajasthan
    Late ’80s : Struggle for a safe environment, demonstrations against

    early ’90s : Union Carbide after the Bhopal gas tragedy.
    From the above list, you can assume how much role model Indian Feminists had to pay only by themselves, ( as in Western the women did) to achieve the goal. Women in India did not have to struggle for basic rights as did women in the West. In her book ‘Feminism in India (Issues in Contemporoary Indian Feminism)’, Maitreyi Chowdhury writes "the concept of 'feminism' is unique within the context of Indian culture; it cannot be directly compared to feminism in Western culture. Instead, this issue should be viewed as one of 'human rights' within Indian context."

  11. Read your article. Informative, open, very interesting and could be enlightening too. Where you start defending & projecting your Femininity..that is where Feminism starts. So its not necessarily only women can be for can be too and are...myself included. As to Freudian (or Woody Allen's objection to it) I think the whole focus (psychoanalysis stuff incl.) on genitals is misdirected. Its historical. And that absurd religious concept of ..woman from man's rib thing.
    By "historical", I mean through ages when woman was being treated as subservient it started reflecting in her body-language. A great example...and rather a crude one and do forgive me for that...the Afro-Americans in States who have been inhumanely treated because of their skin color even today reflect that "inferiority complex" in their body-language...which of course is a remnant of centuries ill-treatment..Look how much white-skin is appreciated in our part of the world...So the fact is that equality factor is still not there 100% even in the most progressive places. Scandinavia..Norway-Sweden are leading I think in this respect...

  12. According to scriptures, Eve is created from Adam’s rib to amuse him so “A woman should not hold her head high; should not wish to pry into all things; would not wish to hear all things that man could hear etc”. But if eve is created from other part say head or even Adam is created from eve’ rib than one can arrive at the same conclusion easily, under patriarchal view.
    एक उर्दू का मोहावरा हॆ "ख़ुदा जब हुस्न देता हॆ नज़ाकत आही जती हॆ"
    फिर ख़ुदा जब किसी को कमज़ोर या ताक़तवर बनादेता हॆ तो उसमें वो सारी बातें पॆदा करदी जाती हॆं के बोह सर उठा कर न चले etc चाहे कोई पसली से पॆदा हो या सर से.
    Peoples usually obeys the law “Survival to the fittest”, most fit sentence assicated with Charles Darwin.
    Freud no doubt a great psychologist, but his every theory is not supposed to be true. He developed the concept of conscious, subconscious, which is great, if Pioneer of hypnotism Dr.Mesmire know this; he could explain his theory of mesmerism emphatically, but in those days concept of conscious, subconscious was developed.

    Freud’s theory “sex is the most powerful instinct in humans” is not supposed to be 100% correct, most psychologist don’t take it as it is, similarly , the concept that “The male genital is projected outward whereas that of a female remains inward”, it merely assign the position of man and woman during sex act, it don’t reflect the superiority, or inferiority of male or female.
    In construction a nut is fit which out ward in hole which is in ward (Ironically it is also called male and female”, to erect the steel structure, both are supposed to be equally important, if both are inward of outward, the structure cannot be erected. So you are absolutely correct in saying” I solely believe that both masculinity and femininity are different but they are always complimentary to each other. We can’t say which one is superior and which one is inferior”.
    In animals world ( sorry I have limited knowledge), female animal is not slave of male, a female monkey bite a male monkey if he try to sex with her against her will. Yes by their biological deference, only female is pregnant bears all hardship and give birth and feed milk. Male animal is not mentally so strong to make female as slaves.
    Psychologists say that early life especially first may be 10 years are important of a child, than he judge everything by his past experience. So the case may be with male dominating views which are as old as history, and they are like developed cancers which re-emerge after repeated surgery. I remember an old memory when Prince Charles married with Diana. Diana father’s said “Diana has few friends but she did not spend any night with any friend”.
    To be socialist (SURKHA) was an honor, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution was in progress, and was highly popular. To get a high status in society even landlords of those days declare themselves as socialist, but their mentality remains same.
    Same is the case of with liberals, with increasing popularities; everyone who wants to be popular called them as liberal, but their mentality remains unchanged. If his female dog involved in sex with neighbor’s dog, they become furious.

  13. sorry for being late as my windows of pc was corrupted,i said in your earlier article,feminine and masculine quality is complimentry to each other,no doubt in our shastras women are depicted as shakti or energy.

  14. May be we need to look at 'femininity' as 'femininities'. Beyond being compared to masculinities and beyond binaries. Recognising the multi-sectionality of femininity.

    Further, femininity should not get trapped within hetero-patriarchal boundaries. Or it cannot be translated to feminisms.

    It would be nice, if you could give an opinion and further elaborate on my comment.


  15. I would like to talk more about your article at another time. Many indigenous cultures in the Americas valued the female above the male for adivce and decision making. In one culture, women made the decision whether or not to go to war. In others, women were not expected to marry as we understand it in the Christian West. They could pick a partner, tire of him, and go on to another. This absolutely HORRIFIED the Christian settlers. The things done to these people were so horrific and I think some of the rage toward them had to do with their very different attitude toward women, particularly as captured female settlers, as well as children) often refused to leave the tribe that had caputred them. Some even ran away to the tribe.

  16. I just read your article on feminism and feminity and it brought to mind a very funny interaction between my sister and her then young daughter. Skye has a cousin named Jimmy. He is younger than she and she was bout 4 or 5 when this interchange occurred. Skye and Jimmy bathed together. Afterward, Skye came to her mother quite upset. She said "Mommy, poor baby Jimmy is deformed!." She went on to describe his penis as the deformity. So much for penis envy!

  17. Let bloggers say anything because they have right to express themselves in their own ways. all are different from one another in knowledge and experiences of life and about life.I found your writings
    shows that you have got perfect quality of a writer. I really enjoyed your blog a lot.spellbound.
    interesting. I do not want go in what is right what is wrong because male and female both are made for each other.people will differs from one another according to their taste. congrats!! see my blog also please.

  18. THe last paragraph was truly insightful and also a great reminder to me.

    I was feeling lost, then i forgot about ebing lost, but i;m back on track to finding my self again!

  19. Respected madam,I am a regular follower of all your writings and opinions. Unfortunately in our society the word feminism/feminine is a hypothesis postulated by the men dominated world. Those who are not in favor of the norms and will of male persons are defined as abnormal /psychopath /prostitutes etc. It is just because that the overwhelming orthodox traditions and rituals which snatch the only one way benefit from women by attributing the words like SATI,SABITRI etc. The sole importance of the rituals and traditions especially near about in every religion is only to quench the male egos.As per your description about the superficial and surfaced idea of some Oriya poetess to define the term "prostitute" is quite apt and explicit,correct as described by you. In fact some people use the word feminism and they associate the world of poem and literature with it just to get some praise and reward only. In real practice and in real realistic world even they cant not digest or engulf the real meaning of equality of gender and women right.Among them some people use the word feminism as if women are some endangered,threatened species in the world that they need mercy and pity to be saved.These ideas are really ridiculous and out of the realistic thinking.So the superficial and pseudo idealism regarding the feminism must be discarded and re corrected.
    with respect and regards
    DR.Subhransu Sekhar mishra

  20. I would like to say one can not survive without opposite sex in this world.God has created both with mixed attitudes.Attitude is depend upon situations.Situations are changeable in our life.So with due care enjoy with each other.Cooperate with each other.