While the world hunkered down and prayed for relief from the pandemic, Isabel Allende wrote a slim book titled, The Soul of A Woman, which encapsulates her experiences and observations over seventy-eight years of life as an avowed feminist.
Allende was born in Peru, raised in Chile and now lives in the US. Her childhood and youth spent in Latin America turned her into a feminist in kindergarten, as she writes in the book, when her mother was abandoned by her husband and left to fend for herself and their three children. The culture there was--and remains to an extent--a blend of Catholic conservatism (no divorce, no abortion, till quite recently) and rampant machismo that pushed women firmly in an inferior position.
When she was growing up, Allende did not have any exposure to the strong wave of the women’s emancipation movement going on in America and Europe, but, as she writes, “I became obsessed with justice and developed a visceral reaction to male chauvinism”.
Her rage and rebellion that got her expelled from her Catholic school, did not, however, take away her fear of spinsterhood, so she married at 20, had two children, but realised her true calling when she joined the staff of a feminist magazine called Paula (also the name of her daughter, who died many years later, which was the trigger for Allende’s moving book, named for her) and understood the power of words.
Chile went through a brutal political upheaval, and the country endured the horrific dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. It is not brought up in this book, but Allende had to live in exile in Venezuela for many years before moving to the US, when she escaped from Chile with her husband and children. Her first two husbands do not get any space either, though her third husband, Roger, does. She married him when she was in her seventies, and for all her declarations of independence, she also believes, rather quaintly that women should get “get married, because a husband, no matter if he is a moron, looks good.”
Though she is against the Eurocentric feminine ideal—young, white, tall, thin, and fit”, she does “jump out of bed an hour before everybody else to shower and put on makeup because when I wake up I look like a defeated boxer”. Vanity and feminism are not necessarily inimical, and male vanity, she writes, “goes deeper and is costlier” because of the “extreme measures they employ to impress women and make other men envious, their luxurious toys, like cars and their toys of supremacy, like weapons.”
Allende was among the successes of the Latin American literary boom, but also believes that women writers were not given their due. She notes with some amusement (though it must have been hurtful at the time), that after she had written over 20 bestsellers, a Chilean male writer commented that she was not a writer, she was a typist. When asked if he had read any of her books to form this opinion, he said, “Over my dead body”. This is the overly hostile attitude that women had to put up with from men raised in an unapologetically male-dominated culture.
In this book, Allende’s sharing of her experiences of aging are reassuring for women who live in a society—even a post-women’s movement one—where women are forced to chase youth, because aging threatens terrifying loneliness. Allende writes, “Objectification of women is so predominant that we don’t even perceive it, and in our youth it enslaves us. Feminism has not saved us from that servitude. We can only get rid of it with age, when we become invisible and are no longer objects of desire.” She claims that after menopause, life gets easier, “but only if we minimize our expectations, give up resentment, and relax in the knowledge that no one, except those closest to us, gives a damn about who we are or what we do.”
When she writes about patriarchy and how it has damaged the world, she is not saying anything new, but it is still valuable and helps readers organise their own thoughts, inspired by her words of wisdom, distilled from years of living life to the fullest, and then put forward in a pithy style.
Allende feels sympathy for the old, the poor and the disenfranchised, but the life of freedom and ‘sensuality’ that she has built for herself comes from the power of a successful career and financial comfort. There seems to be no escape for women (even men) who do not come from privilege—either inherited or earned; for them old age could mean ending up “dependent, poor, and rejected”.
She writes of human trafficking, genital mutilation, destructive misogyny and violent crimes against women and her sorrow and anger are communicated through her writing. In 1995, she had travelled to India, and mentions an incident that left a deep impression on her. She and her companions came across a group of women and one of them thrust a bundle of rags into her hands, which turned out to be a baby. As she was immobilised with shock, the driver pushed the baby back into the hands of the woman and dragged Allende back to the car. “It was a girl, no one wants a girl,” the driver told her.
She was haunted by that unwanted little girl and it led to the creation of her foundation, whose “mission if to help other girl liker her: girls nobody wants; girls who are sold into premature marriage, forced labour and prostitution; girls who are beaten and raped; girls who give birth in puberty; girls who will be mothers of other girls like them in an eternal cycle of humiliation and suffering; millions of girls who die too soon and millions who don’t even have the right to be born.”
She brings up the ancient fable of the Caliph of Bagdad, who tells a thief that he will be spared the harsh punishment of having his hands chopped off if he can answer the supposedly unanswerable question: What do women want? The clever thief replies, “Women want to be heard. Ask them what they want and they will tell you.”
In Isabel Allende’s opinion, women want: “To be safe, to be valued, to live in peace, to have their own resources, to be connected, to have control over our bodies and lives, and above all, to be loved.”
So many silent women in the world are just waiting to be asked!
The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.