2017 Discourse on Feminism: Handbags Offer Clues to Women’s Youth and Longevity.

From Wazir Jahan Karim, July 14, 2017

“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players” the Bard once wrote, his prose in the comedy “As You Like It”. In much the same way, a woman's handbag is her stage, and items she keeps on her person, the players in the storyline of her life.

At first the teen - the contents are a cell phone abuzz with messages and shared pictures; a tube of polo mints; a purse with a few cash bills; a fake ID stating that she's 21 and an emergency panty liner. Her bag contents are trendy and minimalist but in youth, she commands some power over other men and women. She virtually stalks the most famous or infamous celebrities, imagines her life as one, emulates them in looks and language and expresses mild terror at being stalked for her latent sexuality. Drama, fantasy, imaginary narratives of victory and conquest form the scenes of the play she enacts of the first nineteen years of her life. But youth is a natural source of beauty and sexual empowerment and for those who count the number of ‘Likes’ in Facebook, 'Hearts” on Instagram and friends on Snapchat as an indication of popularity, they may have forgotten that youth itself, with or without the Web, provides the passport to boundless popularity and happiness.

Then comes the age of 21 and she is suddenly thrown into that state of confusion that she is now an ‘adult’. She notes that an adult has to sacrifice freedom for responsibility. She has to convert her boundless energy into study and involuntary waged work, the most dreaded and oppressive of institutions, created, she might think, by Man for Womankind . Whoever created this word ‘adulthood’ made a fatal error in calculation for the narratives of the 21 years old convey the nostalgia of childhood and passionate youth. She represents the pre-war zones of the east, convinced of her freedom, civility and sophistication. Her handbag contains two cell phones, one for her group of BFF and the other for family and ‘other’ friends’; her purse is a genuine Coach, a 21 birthday present from her BFF, containing with hard-earned cash bills; an assortment of debit cards, loyalty and supersaver cards for cafes and pubs and unpaid compound ticket fines for speeding or parking in the wrong lane. She is free from commitment but feels the drudgery of responsibility.

At 30, convinced of her need to reproduce the human race, yet vaguely reminded she is not supposed to be enslaved in waged work or infinite responsibilities over the male gender and elders, she marries to be ‘free’ to reproduce or ‘free’ not to reproduce. She feels men are supposed to care, nourish and protect women as the Godly creatures who determined the future longevity, health and happiness of the human race. But children start to take over her life and she discards this dream world and negotiates for ‘shared responsibilities’, only to receive a friendly reminder that he does earn more and has assumed his responsibility as the main-bread winner. The hand bag erupts into a ‘must visit’ American manufactured war-zone, invaded by milk-bottles, bottled mineral water; pacifiers, safety pins, face towels, vitamin pills and wet-wipes. Her autonomous identity is lost to motherhood and her personal preferences of career- building put on hold.

And yet, in the remote fields of the poorest regions of Afro-Asia , the handbag is substituted for a worn cloth slung across her sun-burnt back with a sleeping baby in it as she carries wood and water on her head for the rest of the men and children in the hut. The hut had been built from cow dung bricks which she had manufactured with other women.

Back in the city, now at 50, pondering over her empty house, if she should sell it and move into a smaller apartment, her handbag, now a designer Prada , describes the virtual reality of life and marriage and the return back to ‘lost youth’ recaptured through moisturisers, cosmetics, lip-gloss and mini perfume sprays. Now hostile to the multiple insurmountable tasks which await her at home and seething over a husband ‘lost’ to golf and gadgets, she seeks refuge in friendships and social networks in real social settings. She sees her life as rubbles in a post-war zone, needing active reconstruction into a sustainable social system of identity and belonging. The contents of her life are virtual in her cell phone, where every ring, chat, date with the girls is a reminder that she lives in these comfort zones of interactive compared-ship.

In the rubbles of the field, the disempowered landless farmer, refugee or migrant worker gathers new strength as loses her back cloth for a bag-pack and prepares to migrate to a better life. Her children have now left her ‘tent’ but join her in the new movements of migrants, laden with documents on their ‘eligibility’ and ‘credibility to belong to a new nation. As she enters the city and sees fleeting images of women hurrying before her, she observes the ‘other’ woman with her Prada handbag and wishes that someday, she will be ‘that’ woman. Her life is a window-dressing of the future.

At 60 and over, ‘that woman’ now escapes into a new chameleon youth culture, of life before 30. Facing a real crisis in productivity and marriage, her branded handbag is a dark and dangerous thing - a smart phone with a calendar of potential events to attend, including appointments with men who promise profitable investments and unlimited companionship for cash; burgundy lipstick, a colour recommended by her granddaughter to ‘make nana look cool again’; and a pill-box of medicines for an assortment of ailments and conditions .She discards unfulfilled dreams of retirement in a beach bungalow for prophecies drawn from holy books, safe friendships with aging women, peaceful visits to the local church, mosque or temple and the innocence of her grand-children, when they can find time to pay a visit.

In the village, for the women ’left-behind’ in the diaspora of seeking new lives and good fortune in the city, the elderly woman, 60 and above, is now reborn as a merciless matriarch, ruling over the aging diminutive former patriarchs of feudal society who had made her youth a living hell. She keeps her hand-embroidered bag next to her pillow. It is still in a minimalist mode, containing house and cupboard keys as she now controls her own cash, jewellery and other movable assets. She impassively observes younger women straddle their babies on their backs with cloth slings and contends herself that her life is now complete, redefined through her female consciousness of autonomy and freedom, of being a singular and not a plural being. Younger village women and men walk into her house daily to pay their respects and her grand-children compete for her affection. Her husband waits patiently for his food to be served. She has at last found her own comfort zone within the confinements of a territory under her control.