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the fabrication of “femininity”

We are assigned a sex at birth, because of the genitalia we are born with, and then we are heaped with expectations of how to exist, because of what lies between our legs.

We do not get to choose the sex we are assigned.

If we are born with a vagina, we are assigned as “female” and we are raised to be “feminine”. We can define femininity as the features and mannerisms that are considered to be characteristic of the female sex. The parameters of what “femininity” entails vary from society to society, culture to culture, and religion to religion.

With a specific focus on Tanzania, how we define femininity is influenced by the dominant religions of Christianity and Islam, as well as some of the remnants of our ancestral cultures that were not wiped away by slavery and colonialism.

Perhaps the first marker of femininity that comes with our assigned sex is the name we are given. If we are born with a vagina, we are assigned a “female” name. After we leave the hospital walls as “girls”, the families we end up in socialise us to be “feminine” according to the societal parameters they believe.

Our socialisation starts with how we are taught to look. As female toddlers we are put in dresses and pretty shoes, our hair is grown long and decorated with bows and ribbons, some mothers even apply eyebrow pencil and lipstick to our faces. Hence even before we know how to speak, we are being taught how to dress “feminine”.

This is of course before puberty where our bodies start to biologically change, growing breasts and hips. Usually by this point we are familiar with the multitudes of beauty standards that we are faced with, from our skin tone (see article on colourism here), to our shapes and figures, to our hair, and to our facial features.

Femininity becomes associated with beauty – usually based on Eurocentric, Western and imperialistic standards. Short hair is considered “masculine”, long hair “feminine”, curviness is a huge plus, but not too curvy, because fatphobia places skinny women on a pedestal, the size and shape of our lips, our eyes, and ears are expected to match those of the photoshopped images we see on our screens, and being able bodied garners more desirability than having disability.

In summary, how “feminine” we are seen goes hand in hand with how “beautiful” society considers our physical features as women.

Our socialisation continues with how we are told to act. As female toddlers, we are given dolls to play with so we can mother them, and we are taught to spend time in the kitchen, doing the chores and being servants of the household.

Male toddlers on the other hand get to play with toy cars, and toy planes, and are encouraged to be the “men of the house”. We start being told it is okay for girls to cry, to be soft, to be fragile, but boys shouldn’t cry, they should be strong, because that is “masculine”.

As we grow older, our success as women is not dependent on our various academic degrees, nor our jobs, nor our accomplishments - but on whether or not we are married and have kids. Being single or being childless is regarded as not being “feminine” enough. Femininity therefore goes hand in hand with being a “wife” and being a “mother”, and we are taught to work up to this goal post.

We are raised to be women that men would want to marry; that men would want to make wives out of. We are trained to be submissive; to cook, to clean, to not speak up for ourselves, to obey, to be quiet. We even have to train our voices to sound a certain way – if someone tells you “una sauti nyororo”, it means you sound sweet, you are soft spoken, “feminine”, versus if someone tells you “unaongea na besi”, it means your vocal tone is low, and it is masculine.

And if we dare to divert, if we dare to go against these standards and these expectations of what it means to be “feminine”, we are criticised. We are told to act more “lady-like” or we will never get that ring, as if that is the only thing we should strive for.

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And the ring must be from a man of course, because another marker of femininity is who we are attracted to. We are taught that as women we need to be attracted to men, and to want men to love us. Women who are attracted to other women, are henceforth not considered “feminine” at all, in fact, they are ostracised as being immoral. Our society also ostracises men who display “effeminate” tendencies, such as being attracted to other men. All of this because of the genitalia we are born with.

For those who are heterosexual and are attracted to men, we are raised to see sex as taboo; it is not something that as women we should talk about. In the extreme cases, you find some cultures practicing female genital mutilation so that women don’t enjoy sex, because it is regarded dangerous; instead, they need to just give up their bodies for the pleasure of men. In the less extreme cases, we are taught that sex is something we have to wait for until our wedding day.

Our virginities are tied hand in hand with how valuable we are as women, and therefore how many cows we get for our bride price.

We just got our first woman president of Tanzania. And yet, there were people who didn’t believe that Mama Samia Suluhu Hassan would become president. They believed the country would hold elections to choose a man to replace the late president. As if just because Mama Samia is a woman, the country would go against its constitution.

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Even after she was sworn in, some people went as far to make comments that “she is a woman but at least she has some masculine tendencies - she is not too feminine” – and you have to ask yourself, what does that mean? What does having authority, being strong willed and being bold, have to do with being “masculine”? Even scientifically speaking, vaginas are stronger than penises, the former gives birth, the latter can barely function when it is hit a little too hard.

How feminine or how masculine we are is clearly based on sexist parameters, and structures that aim to control women under patriarchal guidelines. It brings one to ask the question, why must we assign characteristics to the sex assigned to us at birth anyways? Why not just assign characteristics to who someone is individually as a person? Instead of, so and so acts feminine, why not just say, they act like themselves? After all, Kiswahili is a language that does not even use gender pronouns. In our day to day dialogue everyone is referred to as “they”. Maybe our language is trying to tell us something.

Gloria Majule

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