Janki Dalal spent 3 months at our project site in Costa Rica. While she expected to give back and grow, the lessons learned far exceeded any expectation that she had. Read below to hear more about one of her biggest takeaways from her time spent on-site.
Before writing this blog, I felt like I had a clear direction of where I was going with this. I wanted to talk about breaking boundaries in how we talk about femininity and how this discussion has become something I experienced during my time in Costa Rica. I wanted to write an empowering piece that made people feel more comfortable with themselves on an emotional and spiritual level. It’s easy to throw around “embrace your feminine power”, but how does one do that when it hasn’t been clearly defined? So, I went to the main source itself for answers: Google. After a couple of hours of looking up different versions of “define femininity,” I was stumped. Article after article, blog after blog, just had the same message of “understanding your feminine side”—to be fair, some gently touched the topic, but not a single one clearly defined it. I then wanted to look up the textbook definition of feminine and masculine and here’s what I got.
Feminine: having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and empathy.
Masculine: having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men, especially strength and aggressiveness.
Ok. So let’s unpack this. The masculine and the feminine come with a set of traits that generally help us categorize ourselves and others around us by gender. But these traits also color the way in which we experience the world. The masculine, globally, is given a higher importance than the feminine. There is no denying that there are biological differences between men and women, but beyond that, suppressing one’s characteristics that are socially associated with their gender has become a cultural norm that we’ve termed: gender roles. And more often than not, it is the feminine that is shamed. We see this when women are considered weak because of the association to feminine characteristics of empathy and emotion. We see this when women are objectified because of the association to the feminine characteristics of beauty and delicacy. The list goes on and on. But this isn’t just a female issue-- it is also human issue because these norms also shape the way we raise and treat males. Writer and human rights advocate, Chimamanda Adichie states it very well, “We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way. We teach them to be afraid of weakness and vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves.”
We are all born with both masculine and feminine characteristics, but are all taught to subdue our feminine side if we want to get ahead in the world. Why is it that we see embracing emotions and being empathetic and vulnerable is seen as “emasculating” when the suppression of such feminine traits are a learned behavior and not a born one? Paving a way forward in life and assuming leadership at any scale is not just about physical strength. In order to achieve gender equality, we must change the way in which we define “gender roles” in today’s culture. Because culture is always changing and culture does not make a people, people make a culture. The beautiful thing is that I saw this change taking place during my three months in Costa Rica within the community and the people I worked with.
Now, It is extremely difficult for me to condense three months in to a single blog-post. But what I’d like to share with you all is how this country made me feel important and invincible through this realization of feminine power that the people around me possessed. I am an introvert and have many times taken the backseat in certain confrontational situations. Before this experience, I internalized a lot of my feelings because letting people in was seen as a sign of weakness. Every Thursday afternoon at the FIMRC Costa Rica clinic, a group of local women would come to the clinic for a group discussion revolving around a pertinent topic. These topics ranged from self-esteem and body image to embracing your sexuality. I had the wonderful opportunity to plan and lead some of these discussions. Each Thursday, someone new who shared a difficult truth about their life story gave the rest of the women the opportunity to feel more comfortable sharing something difficult about themselves. But more than the person doing the sharing, it was truly wonderful to see how these women stood up for each other and comforted one another. This was especially beautiful to witness the day we discussed toxic relationships. The confidence that they gave one another to be their truest selves is something that I will always carry with me. Their vulnerability and embrace of the feminine is what strengthened one another.
Along with working with the women’s group, the permanent staff at the clinic became my friends, mentors, and family. The FIMRC Costa Rica Field Operations Manager, Tatiana Blanco, was my rock during these three months. She is a magnificent leader and psychologist, a fierce mother, and a kind-hearted human. The way she empowered her patients with difficult backgrounds and histories was brilliant to witness. She was a crucial member in the positive experience I had in Costa Rica because she taught me to be more comfortable with myself and uplifted (figuratively and literally) my spirits any time I was feeling down.
The doctor on site, Karen Wedel, is my superhero. Every action she takes in life is done with such grace and poise. It was a breath of fresh air to be around someone so strong and confident. She is an excellent doctor and with the limited supplies and equipment at a free clinic, she really knows how to think fast on her feet. She is also a wonderful dancer and her compassion towards others is effortless. Watching her balance dance and a career taught me to never sacrifice my passion.
I found an incredible role model within Dayan, the Volunteer Coordinator, because of how he chooses to stand for humanity regardless of societies perception of the weakness associated with femininity. He always saw the best in me (and in everyone) and was so encouraging of everything I did. He is the most accomplished person I have ever met and his talents never cease to amaze me. I have never met anyone more true to themselves and embrace all aspects of their character. It takes strong men, like Dayan, who understand that true strength comes from embracing the feminine along with the masculine, to make a change in this world for the better.
Thank you FIMRC Costa Rica for the wonderful opportunity. I went to make a difference in the lives of others, when in fact I witnessed a greater change in myself. This experience made me a more confident and fearless woman. I choose to no longer be apologetic for my femininity.