Navigating the Boundaries of Identities

“If every path you take comes back to you, then you will never move ahead” (Kung Fu Panda)

I never thought that potatoes and onions would ever attract my intellectual curiosity, but lately, these two legumes have turned into a giant metaphor about gender and politics. Potatoes as a cornerstone of political analysis appeared long ago when Karl Marx wrote about French peasants as potatoes in a sack. Marx didn’t think highly of the French landed peasantry as an ingredient in his recipe for class revolt. If anything, this highly individualistic, entrepreneurial group symbolized everything he didn’t like: citizens who would never unite as a class to defend their own interests. He turned his attention instead to the industrial working class. He hailed factory workers and their potential for direct action with flattering metaphors, none of which were vegetables.

A gender perspective on Marx’ metaphor about potatoes and peasants exposes a gender bias in his assumptions. As feminist scholars have often noted, he had only one gender in mind: men. Taking his analysis one step further, we can raise the unflattering analogy to an outright insult. The exterior of the potato holds its main nutrients, seeds, and cellular complexity. On the other hand, the innards are dismissed as uniformly bland. Drenched in gravies, curries, sugar, and spices, their true flavors are hidden. As the ultimate culinary chameleon, the potato’s essence is kept hidden from view.

My latest thought about women is that we are not potatoes but rather a flavorful collection of onions. The complexities of private life are much more exposed for women. Each of us carries around layer upon layer of identities.

Being a woman is just one way I see myself as an onion. Peeling away other identities to arrive at this is not only possible, but it can be done without crying. In fact, for many women who join in a demonstration or successfully rally around International Women’s Day, the creation of a oneness that is united across all differences is an empowering experience.

The world’s women and girls have become more than vegetables thrown together into a sack. We have peel away layers of our many identities until we found a common identity. Our consciousness as women is almost primitive, primordial, and fundamental enough to let us join hands with strangers from different nationalities and to pledge allegiance to each other’s causes. Whether we are English, Mohican, Zambian, or Burmese, we manage to find a common bond at our core as wives, mothers, sisters and women. We often rally around each other’s issues with one voice, no matter the various issues we hold most dear.

It feels good to be an onion. It feels even better to know that you are in the company of others–in fact, a little more than half of the world’s population. I credit feminists for forging this mass sisterhood. We picked an identity that is one of the biggest categories of the human species. Maybe the more we have, the more we know that we are still growing. I wish that men could cross over the gender line, so they could understand how much fun it can be to be female.


For an elaboration of this idea, read the article on “How to peel an onion without crying.”

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