Thursday, March 05, 2009

Womanhood, Othering

It may be doing development work for women, it may be because I no longer see exclusively from the privileged position of a bourgeois female, it may also be because I have experienced being in the position of ‘Other’ that I am sensitive to every perceived slight to my womanhood. Having grown up with a strong figure of a mother – who spoke her mind as she wanted and cared little for what others thought – I only realized later on that my model of femininity isn’t the norm. I also realized very late in life that I am afforded many advantages, even as a woman, because of my privileged position in this societal context.

It is only when you travel overseas, stripped of the context in which others perceive you, that you fully realize what it means to be the ‘Other.’ In postcolonial literature, the colonial ‘Other’ is not and cannot be the metropolitan ‘Self.’ Colonial relationships are unidirectional with one determining and imposing standards on the other. In our (still) complicated relationship with the United States for example, one is developed and one is not. One is mature, the other immature. The Other articulates a lack of what the Self possesses – wealth, democracy , freedom. In this unidirectional relationship lies hierarchies of power.

The same principle can be applied to the relationship of men and women. Othering has been easily adapted in feminist literature for obvious reasons. In biblical imaging for example, a woman is nothing but an appendage – a complement and helpmate to the fully-formed man. She can never self-articulate independently. Her being, her identity is forever pegged to the standard set by the male Self. If she wants to attain the same level of ‘Selfhood’ the male possesses, she must strive to be as masculine as possible. Her being woman can never be the standard.

I was 20 when I was harassed by an old man, probably in his 50s, in a park in Madrid. In the Philippines, my demeanor, the way I speak, my very appearance may have accorded me some protection against such an act. But as it was, I was young, female and not white in a park chatting with my equally young, female friend. Having only rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, I sat uncomprehending as the old man spoke rapidly while he swayed unsteadily on his feet. There was no mistaking the tone of his voice. I responded in English, telling him I could not understand what he was saying. As he ranted for a few minutes more, I was comforted by the fact that it was still light, and there were other people still in the park.

Probably incensed at my incomprehension and my blank face, the old drunkard finally gave up and walked away. I looked to my friend who spoke Spanish. Without hesitation she told me he just wanted to know my name and where I lived. As I looked blankly at him, or probably because I didn’t behave in the welcoming way he expected, he remarked that I was stand-offish and that he knew I was a Filipina servidora, and didn’t I want to marry a Spaniard?

I may have been too young to fully process what had happened. What was novel was the feeling of inadequacy – that there was something wrong with me for being female, for being young, for being Filipina, and for being a servidora. In that particular context, all four identities took an equivalence. The underlying connotation, communicated by his tone, was something akin to being contemptible and unsavory.

In the Philippines, we come to expect to be treated with decorum by the underclasses. In a highly hierarchical society such as ours, a person of perceived low standing – a waiter, a janitor, a maid - would behave a certain way to remind us both of each other’s position. We may be so gracious and polite as to treat the Other with respect and courtesy – but get offended when he behaves in an ‘uppity’ manner. We are offended when the Other acts out of place and so we react to reinforce the hierarchy between.

Having lived for sixteen months in a different societal context, I was stripped of layers of my identity which accorded me a privileged position - my (over)education, my not belonging to the Filipino underclass, my skin color. In Australia I was an Other. Young, female and Asian. In the white man’s imaginary, an Asian woman behaves a certain way. And in Australia, if you’re Filipina and look Chinese or Thai at the same time, you may well be someone’s mail-order bride and all that implies.

I had drastically gone down the ladder of positional power. It is a refreshing, novel perspective. For the first time I knew what it felt to be invisible, in a certain professor’s class, among certain peers, in the supermarket. Australian idealism values equality, multiculturalism and giving people a fair chance. These are ideals, however, and do not always apply.

Perhaps the most enlightening has been discovering aspects of my femininity that were previously matter-of-fact and unproblematic. Having met males from all over the world during my studies, I was constantly reminded, in small, inconspicuous ways, of how I was not behaving as I should. Progressive males will re- assess, and you literally feel a change in their behavior. Regressive males will then proceed to patronize or ignore you altogether. Being patronized was a novelty I would not soon forget.

A Filipino male is usually protective and careful of a crying woman. I had never before been made to feel like a simpering weakling as I showed emotion in the class of a (bigoted) Scotsman. I was female and was reacting irrationally to images of violence in the Middle East. Growing up, tears had always been a sign of empathy and a way to communicate distress. For the first time, and what a novelty it was, tears were a sign of inadequacy to the unemotional, rational male.

Perhaps the most difficult lesson I had to learn, having been in a relationship with a young man who probably got into a relationship with me to fight off his latent misogyny (among other things) and because he said he wanted to be with a woman of substance for a change, is to assert my womanhood without crushing the male ego. Oh and what a fragile thing it is.

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