“I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves”: Mary Shelley.

“I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves” — Mary Shelley.

8th of March — Women’s Day — -Comes around every year, doesn’t it?

Does anything change from one year to the next?

Maybe it does for some or many.
Maybe it doesn’t at all for others,
And the status quo remains.

Let me start with a short extract from the play, ‘The Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen (1879). This play was written at a time when women were completely subservient to their husbands. (Please read and reflect upon it from your perspective and space)


Nora asked Torvald Helmer.

‘What do you consider is my most sacred duty? And when he answered, ‘Your duty to your husband and children’, she demurred.

‘I have another duty, just as sacred — My duty to myself…. I believe that before everything else I’m a human being — just as much as you are….. Or at any rate I shall try to become one. I know quite well that most people would agree with you, Torvald and that you have a warrant for it in books; but I can’t be satisfied any longer with what people say, and with what’s in the books. I must think things out for myself and try to understand them.’

I would like to focus on a couple of lines from the extract.

‘My duty to myself.’

Nora considered this duty just as important as her duty to her husband and children.

I narrate the following personal story with a purpose.

From August 2007, my body was giving me signs that all was not well.

First, while speaking at a parenting session, I felt something happening to the left side of my face with flashes of light in the left eye.

I was lucid and hence continued speaking. I had had a TIA i.e., a Transient Ischemic Attack. The family physician suggested a Master Health Check-up which I did and got a clean chit in all areas including gynaecology.

Second, about a month later, I had a minuscule bleed. After investigations I was diagnosed with cancer of the endometrium (lining of the uterus). Within the week, I was operated on and had a radical hysterectomy. Along with the gynaecologist we also had an oncologist for the surgery. The prognosis was excellent, well differentiated, first stage cancer. No chemotherapy, no radiation.

As mentioned earlier, the purpose of the narrative is to emphasize the statement, ‘My duty to myself’.

There are two highlights here –

  1. Being sensitive to one’s body, noticing changes and taking immediate remedial action.
  2. Communication with spouse and family — no point trying to be a martyr.

This prevented so much more pain and suffering for me and the family.

We women, often put ourselves last. Think of everyone first.

Here are a few reasons / excuses that I have heard:

  • Grandchild has board exams. I will look into it after the exams are over.
  • Son / daughter is getting married. There will be time after the wedding.
  • Husband is going through a difficult time at work… and so on and so forth.

It is not only about health, there are so many other areas of one’s life, like food — for example eating last, eating left overs or for that matter not eating at all, spending on oneself and the list can go on where women put themselves last. Of course, this could be a learnt
or expected behaviour.

During a workshop a teacher asked me, ‘Whom should we put first in life — others or self? She asked the question as she and all of us have heard ‘others first’.

I asked her to recall the instructions given on an aircraft ‘pre-flight’ — when the air pressure drops and oxygen masks come down. The instruction very clearly says — ‘Put on your mask first and then help others.’

So, there you are ladies — the answer.

I have a duty to myself first, only then am I in a position to fulfil my duty to others joyfully.

The other statement that Nora makes is ‘I must think things out for myself and try to understand them.’

Down the centuries, the female gender has been dependent on the male father, brother, husband, son.

I would like to believe that things are a little better now, but honestly I am not certain at all.

Take for example, are we ready for the death of the spouse. I know many would think that it is a bad omen to think/talk about the death of a spouse or that such thoughts should not be harboured. However life is uncertain and death is a reality. When I said ready, I was not referring only to being emotionally and mentally ready.

Do we have the knowledge and skills to manage our lives independently? Finance, and banking, nominations, legal matters, making a will, using technology for basic needs, passwords can be a nightmare OR is it that somewhere at the back of my mind, I have already identified a crutch to fall back on and continue to be dependent.

I speak to all of us, me included. I am nowhere close to being ready. Let’s say it with Nora — ‘I must think things out for myself and try to understand them.’ Followed by action.

And while we are talking about Women’s day, let’s spare a prayer, a thought and reach out in ways that we can, to the girl child, the oppressed and suppressed women around us.

Happy Women’s Day and every day too!

Phyllis Farias