Friday, November 29, 2013

Who owns my body?

As Indian women (or is it women in general?), we’ve been taught that taking care of others’ feelings is our job. This includes listening to unwanted advice, shape-shifting our own behaviour to fit other people’s beliefs, and complying with norms so we don’t offend. But who are we truly responsible for? Only ourselves? Ourselves and a little bit of others? Ourselves and others equally? Others, at the cost of our self? 

As I get tangled up in these questions, I get a little bit of relief when I read Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s “Boundaries.” In this book, the authors talk about what personal boundaries are. Just as a fence around a physical property demarcates its boundaries and tells us who the property belongs to, our being also needs boundaries. “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.” The authors say that when we know what exactly we own and are responsible for, we are free to make choices about our “property.” And if we don’t know our boundaries, then we don’t fully own our lives. The only options available are what others let us have. 

As I read on, I have a heretical thought. Do I own my body? Do I own the right to do with it what I want? To have or not have children? The answer seems obvious, and yet not so obvious. I think my body is my own, but my womb seems to be a collective entity. From strangers to far-flung aunties, everyone has an opinion, a stake in it. And is my brain mine? Can I think these thoughts that many others are not thinking? 

I think some more, with the brain that I hopefully own, and read on. I come to a place where the authors say: “We are responsible to others and for ourselves.” What this seems to mean is that we are responsible for helping others when they are in need, but we are not responsible for the normal burdens that each of us has to carry. And then later on, they go on to describe all the things that do fall within our boundaries and that we are really responsible for. These include our feelings, our thoughts, our beliefs, our choices and our values. Which, in turn, means that other people’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs, choices and values are theirs and distinct from our own. 

So, if I am contained within, and my body is my own, and my thoughts are my own, and my choices are my own, then I also have the freedom to direct my life in the way I think is best for me. Isn’t responsibility really our ability to respond, which means we can choose. What I really need to take responsibility for is changing the belief that causes me to internalize the external pressure to have a baby. I need to truly believe in my right to maintain the integrity of all that I own – my thoughts, my values, my actions. This is my internal struggle. 

But there is an external, societal aspect as well. We are judged at all the major intersections of our lives – whether we get married or not, whether we have kids or not, even whether we have a second kid or not. Somewhere behind all this, is the nebulous position of a culture that operates from the belief that women – their bodies and their being – are property, owned first by their families, and then by the larger society.

When we question norms, and assert our right to think for ourselves, we risk being looked upon as deviant. But without taking that risk, we can’t move beyond being considered “belongings,” defined only in terms of our roles instead of the thinking, feeling people that we are in ourselves. And who have the right to say - It is my body and what I do with it is none of your business. 


  1. Wow – This is one hard-hitting read. Yes, society does want women to have kids early, and at least two kids, right? And if you don't comply, everyone does seem out to judge you, right? I feel that far too many women live out their lives as per the societal plan, without giving this decision the due thought it requires, because, hey, isn’t that what you do after you marry – have kids? Sadly, many only realize what it means to have kids after they have kids, and then, though the far-flung aunties are happy, maybe the woman is not. But then it’s not right to talk about this, right? Which woman wouldn’t be happy tending 24*7 to another human being and putting her own dreams on a back burner for the next 20 years? I’m also saddened when couples take decisions to have kids and then seem to live and behave like they actually don’t have kids, barely giving the time and attention that young babies need.

    I think this is a personal decision. Give two hoots to society. It’s a decision that only the husband and wife should make. After all, they are the primary physical, financial, and emotional caregivers, NOT the far-flung aunties. It isn’t just the woman’s decision, because it’s her womb. It’s definitely as much the husband’s decision. And I feel it’s important for the two to be on the same page for such a life changing decision. Research reveals that when one partner is forced into having kids when they’re not ready, it isn’t good for the longevity of the relationship too. On the other hand, planned and welcomes babies do so much better in the world. Here’s to choice!

  2. Yes, everyone's so quick to give advice. They seem to know exactly what you should do with your life. And can't even think there is something beyond this "one true way." Yeah, every woman should be happy doing that, right ? What could bring a woman more joy than being a mother? When I read JessicaValenti's book, for a moment, I was taken aback when she says motherhood is not the most important job you can do. If I think about it, it's what I think too. But on an emotional level, it felt different - I felt like she was saying something you are not supposed to say, not supposed to even think.

    Yes having a baby & then not giving them enough attention is just sad.

    I didn't mean at all that it is just the woman's decision. Yes, they both have an equal say. The point I wanted to make was about how our bodies are our own. All this unnecessary advice giving comes from a system where the woman is seen as second-class and not having any identity of and from themselves.

    Yes, here's to choice :)

  3. I read your blog and I agree that this is a personal matter. I'm very impressed by your blogs; you're writing so well.