Neither/Nor-Either/Or

Embracing Authentic Self as a Woman

“Dear Sister, do not let either those who manipulate you or those who act like a guardian of your right define how you live!”

Shortly after graduating, my best friend tied the knot. Her dream had always been to become a wife and a stay-at-home mom, raising as many children as her health and finances would allow. We, her friends, were rooting for her and wishing her the best in whatever she chose to do. As for the rest of us, one of our friends became successful in business, another gained recognition as a leader in a non-governmental organisation, and I pursued a career in the media.

As a result, when some people are aware of our friendship and meet us, they complement us in various ways. They admire the leader I have become, look up to the successful businesswoman, and naturally ask me for any news or updates on the state of the world. However, the questions differ regarding our married friend, who has two kids. They ask her, “When will you begin your career? Are you waiting for your kids to get older? Why don’t you go out and find yourself a job?”

For the rest of us who are employed but single, the question, “When are you planning to get married?” reminds us of our age and how time flies. I’ve never asked the opinions of those who make these statements about success and how they define it. However, their inquiries and recommendations clearly show they have a different understanding.

Subjectivity is claimed to be a fundamental feature of the human experience by definition. Everyone has opinions, feelings, and beliefs that shape who they are. Furthermore, this subjective perspective of individuals and society greatly influences the connection between success and womanhood. The question “How do you define success?” has been posed to numerous powerful women worldwide, and each has provided a unique perspective. Oprah Winfrey, for instance, once stated that success is an ongoing process of fulfilling one’s vision and purpose in life. She emphasised that living a happy, purposeful life and staying true to oneself are more critical than celebrity or fortune.

The professional tennis player Serena Williams defines success as a continuous process of growth and improvement. She believes success comes from challenging oneself, setting new goals, and striving to improve in all aspects of life. Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, defines success as achieving balance in one’s life. She emphasises the importance of well-being, self-care, and avoiding burnout. The youngest Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, sees success as advocating for change and equality. She believes that success is achieved by standing up for what one believes in and working towards a more just world.

‘Neo-definition’

Despite understanding that success is subjective, I believe women’s success is defined too narrowly these days. Previously, having children, starting a family, and being a stay-at-home mother were considered the societal definition of success for women. However, successful women today are often seen as those with careers and employment. The perception of womanhood remains a primary topic of discussion and argument regarding women’s rights. In the past, society defined every aspect of a woman’s life, from how she should talk, move, eat, work, and even what she should like, love, and think. To address this, advocates for women’s rights emerged to challenge the inappropriate definition of women. However, little did they know that in their efforts to correct this, they would inadvertently make a similar mistake, albeit in a different way.

In earlier times, society could respect women if they exhibited kindness and accommodation, had children, and maintained a respectable household with a successful breadwinner by her side. Her ability to prioritise her children’s health, her husband’s happiness, and her well-being made her an excellent role model for other women in her community. How about now? I have witnessed instances where women feel embarrassed to admit that they are stay-at-home mothers or that they genuinely enjoy taking care of their families and raising their children at home. Society has started criticising them by asking, “Why would you stay at home when you are educated and capable of working in a specific field?”

Why not? What if she prefers to be a stay-at-home mother? What if she chooses to be accommodating? What if she adopts a traditionally “feminine” appearance while being quiet and courteous? Shouldn’t the goal of defending women’s rights be to allow them to live their lives as they see fit, free from the influence of social norms? Women’s choices on how to live should not be dictated by those who oppress them or claim to be the protectors of their rights. Without going into specifics, I would like to share a recent experience related to this issue. A well-known actress received an invitation to a popular late-night TV show. During her interview, she conducted herself with great dignity. Her attitude, gestures, and how she sat and responded to various discussions indicated that she possessed a solid and respectable character.

People talked about her late that night and the following two or three days, particularly on social media. Among them was a guy who admired her for her decent character. He was impressed that she never laughed or spoke loudly during the interview. He had anticipated this based on his observations of other actresses. He also found himself admiring the way she carried herself and sat.

The following remarks denounced his appreciation, claiming that admiring women perceived as quiet, reserved, courteous, and calm speakers perpetuates stereotypes. However, those individuals only criticised the appreciation without discussing the actress’s actions. In general, it appeared as though they were arguing that the woman was undeserving of praise for the character she possessed or had demonstrated. But let me ask you this: isn’t doing this, in a sense, perpetuating another stereotype as well?

My goal in mentioning this occurrence here is not to point the finger at specific individuals or hold them accountable for their remarks. Instead, I wanted to demonstrate how people who oppose those who place a heavy burden on rules and have a poor regard for women continue to define women in their way. The actress involved in the event is a well-known and successful actress. She is confident enough to act in films and even direct them. She has chosen a unique personality that is modest, quiet, and mainly fitting to the norm. So, what goes wrong there? What makes it bad to appreciate women with such character?

Furthermore, it is evident how the concept of beauty for women is portrayed and perceived in our minds and through our eyes. A specific definition of women’s attractiveness is being presented to us. Social media and even traditional media actively and unconsciously promote this new perception of women’s attractiveness. So how is this different from the past, when women’s fashion and beauty standards were determined by society in a particular way?

Isn’t it a success to build a family and raise children? Isn’t being able to live with a spouse despite all obstacles and effectively managing a marriage an achievement? Please understand me; I do not condemn women’s rights campaigners. My concern is merely with how the new paradigm of women is being distorted to the extreme, contrasting with the old paradigm.

Women should live according to their own beliefs. They are free to define their success in whatever way they see fit, and no one should hold them accountable for it—neither the people who criticise women nor those who claim to be fighting for their rights. Allow her to become a stay-at-home mother if that is what she feels is suitable for her. Allow her to take the lead if she believes she is meant to be a leader. Let her make mistakes and learn from them. As we know, a woman’s failure is often magnified compared to a man’s. One woman’s failure is sometimes used to generalise about all women, disregarding that failure is a human experience that can impact both men and women. However, the phrase “After all, she is a woman” tends to define and limit women’s potential unfairly.

Beyond that, women are demanding and fighting for numerous rights. It includes achieving equal pay for equal work, being treated with equality and respect as human beings, having their human rights acknowledged and protected, exercising their free will, feeling safe and secure to walk any street without fear, accessing necessary healthcare services, seeking justice for any wrongdoings they have experienced, and obtaining education, among other things. Moreover, women are often seeking peace, as they have been or continue to be victims of violence and conflict in unstable regions around the world.

I understand that there are myths, misperceptions, and ways of thinking about women that need to be addressed and discussed within our cultures. However, in doing so and advocating for women’s rights, we must ensure that we are not unintentionally undermining the rights we seek to uphold. Therefore, dear sisters, when the world supposedly pays more attention to you this month, let me remind you not to let anyone control or dictate your life. Make sure that you become the best version of yourself. Be a wonderful mother, a remarkable worker or employer, and an exceptional leader. Set your goals in life, and embrace modesty in a way that feels right for you.

Never measure your looks, achievements, behaviour, or life decisions against other people’s conceptions of who you should be—whether it’s the so-called old norms or the ideas of the new trends. Neither/nor or either/or, be the way you are.


12th Year • March 2024 • No. 127

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