Tove Jansson

I’ve lived in Sweden on and off for about 6 years, and this experience gave me the opportunity to hear about women whose lives I would probably know nothing about had I stayed in my faraway home country on the other side of the Atlantic.

One of them is Tove Jansson, a Swedish-speaking Finnish author, painter and illustrator who created a series of books and comic strips about the adorable and incredibly nuanced and subliminal Moomins.

When visiting bookshops in Malmö, I remember often seeing the hippopotamus-like-but-not-quite creatures on paper without having any idea of what exactly they were or meant.

Recently, upon researching documentaries about childless women for the Empty Uterus Youtube Channel, I came across Moominland Tales: The Life of Tove Jansson directed by Eleanor Yule.

Having recognized the characters, I clicked on play. And how happy I’m that I did, as it was an absolute pleasure to learn so much about Tove’s life in just under an hour.

I’d have watched the documentary regardless of her marital or reproductive status, but to my greater pleasure, it turns out that she was childless.

At some point, the documentary features a scene where the narrator reads out a passage of a letter that Tove wrote to her friend, Eva Konikoff, in 1941, when she was 27 years old. It was just a little paragraph, but the letter looked so interesting that I searched online for her correspondence and found a bigger piece.

So here go some of her thoughts on marriage and having children:

All the reasons I don’t want to get married came up. One man after another, and Pappa, Faffan, came first. The whole male solidarity and protective pedestal of privileges, their weaknesses, inviolable and fenced in by slogans, their inconsistency and charming disregard for the feeling of others proclaimed with no trace of nuance as they beat a big drum from morning to evening from the safety of their boys’ network and connections. I can’t afford it, I haven’t time to marry any of them! I’m no good at admiring and comforting. Of course I’m sorry for them and of course I like them, but I’ve no intention of devoting my whole life to a performance I’ve seen through. I see how Faffan [father], the most helpless and instinctive of men, tyrannises over us all, how Ham [mother] is unhappy because she has always said yes, smoothed over problems, given in and sacrificed her life, receiving nothing in return except children war can kill or destroy with negativity. A men’s war!

I can see what would happen to my work if I married. It’s no use; I have all these feminine instincts to comfort, admire, submit, sacrifice myself. I would either be a bad painter or a bad wife. And I refuse to give birth to children who can be killed in some future war . . . Can we not be together without making demands on each other’s work, life and ideas, continue to be free beings without either one having to give way?

And here goes the documentary.

 

Bacha Posh

Today I watched the documentary “She is my son: Afghanistan Bacha Posh, when girls become boys” and learned about the consequences of a deep-rooted belief, in Afghanistan patriarchal society, that “Every woman must have a husband beside her. If not a husband, a son will do.”

And what happens when a couple has only daughters and no sons? Apparently, the daughter will do, as long as she dresses in male clothing, has her hair cut short and uses a male name. By doing so, she is allowed outside the house by herself and she can start working to help the family make money. These girls are known as “Bacha Posh”, which means “dressed up as a boy”.

This is a documentary directed by Alexander Avilov, which is available on YouTube and on the RTD documentary channel. To those interested, I’d say: Stop reading this post, press play and watch it now. The whole thing. It is worth it.

In less than half an hour you’ll have a glance at the lives of four girls: Fazilya, Asiya, Najla and Amena. My head starting spinning from the very first minute. I was, above all, interested in what the girls themselves had to say, how they felt and how they coped with the imposed gender-swap, so I typed the words of a couple of them here (mixed with the voice-over of the narrator for context).

Narrator:

Asiya likes the freedom that her boys clothes bring her. Freedom that her female friends can’t enjoy.

Asiya:

In Afghanistan people don’t have the same rights. In other countries men and women are equal, but that’s not the case here. Maybe that’s why I became a Bacha Posh. Women aren’t able to do what men are. Even sports! A man can play sports, but if a woman does, people say it’s a disgrace. A woman must stay at home and take care of children. People don’t want women to work like men. At school, they don’t let me be.

Amena:

Even though I’m a girl, I must become a boy. I want to do something good for my family, for my father, that’s why I’m a Bacha Posh.

Narrator:

Dressed in boys clothes, Amena goes to the center everyday to sell water. Outside of her father’s hearing, she confesses that she hates the job. It’s hard to hide from passersby that she is actually a girl. (She is bullied in the streets)

Two years ago, there was some hope to Amena’s parents. Mohammed’s wife gave birth to a boy. The family of modest means had only two months to celebrate the heir before he tragically died. Amena’s mother can’t have more children now, meaning that she will have to remain a boy for a few more years.

The person behind the camera asks Amena’s father:

How long do you want Amena to stay a Bacha Posh?

Amena’s father:

Until her sister grows up to the age of 11. Then I’ll make her a Bacha Posh and Amena will be able to continue her education.

Narrator (talking about Najla):

Girls dressed as boys is an Afghanistan tradition. It’s concealed but not taboo. But when Bacha Posh girls come of age, they go back to dressing as girls and their parents try to marry them off. Usually to a relative. Is a rare exception who refuses to start a family and have children. She wants freedom. And in Afghanistan only the men have that.

So many questions in what is now my very dizzy head. The biggest of all being: “Why?

Deep down I already know the answer and “The Second Sex”, by Simone de Beauvoir, comes to mind striking like lightning.

Thankfully, the book is carefully and proudly shelved in a special section of my personal library, which allowed me to quickly find the passages I was looking for:

Simone de Beauvoir:

In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that they do most obviously exist.

If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.

(Note to self: must read The Second Sex again)

 

Billie Jean

I’ve waited and waited for the movie Battle of the sexes until I finally watched it last night and it’s fair to say it’s been a while since a movie touched my heart so profoundly. This time it wasn’t the movie itself – which is well produced and has fine actors – but the details of Billie Jean’s story: a tennis player who, back in 1973, put everything she had conquered (dozens of titles) on the line, hoping that, by winning a match against a man, women would be seen and respected as athletes, not as “female athletes”, and, therefore, “less skilled”.

Billie Jean’s contribution to women rights is massive, has been continuous and happened both inside and outside the tennis court.

This movie is a good way to start, but if you wish to learn more about her, here are a couple of books she wrote:

 

Hello, I must be going

Hello, I must be going is a lovely movie with a simple, relatable, insightful and well-written script — with some beautiful drops of humor thrown here and there — beautifully delivered by very good actors who look, sound and behave like regular people in everyday situations.

My favorite line, which was not said by the childless woman in the movie, but by a young man, is:

Sometimes it’s just easier, you know, to be like other people want you to be. Rather than fight it.”

He tells this to the childless woman, with whom he is having an affair, when explaining why he let’s his mother continue to think he is gay, when he is not. She started thinking he was gay after he played a gay character (he is an actor).

She is really into being accepting, so I just let her think I’m gay. And she gets to be accepting.”

Fast forward 5 min in the movie, after this scene, and then it’s time for Amy (the childless woman) to say:

Don’t do it. Just don’t do it if you don’t want to do it. It’s your life, right? It’s nobody else’s.”

I could explain what she was referring to in the scene, but does it matter? Not really. As I think this line could apply to anything in life.

Even though the topics discussed in the two scenes mentioned above are not exactly the same, I felt like putting them together, putting their lines together, cause the theme was the same: being yourself. Or finding out who you truly want to become.

This young character let his mom and other people believe that he was gay and that he enjoyed being an actor. He hated it. All of it. He really did.

Some women, for whatever reason, maybe simply because it is easier for them, do the same. They prefer to let people think they are going to have a child one day, so that they don’t have to talk about their lack of desire, infertility or ambivalence in relation to becoming mothers. It’s, in a way, an acting exercise and they too are playing a role.

This is definitely my kind of movie, but not the kind of role I want to play in life.