When I was younger, much younger, there were two simple distinctions in human beings. You were only one of two things; a grown-up or a child. Growing up, I never really felt the difference between being born female and being born male. To young me, it was just random allocation like being born with a birthmark someplace; it didn’t really matter. My male friends and cousins and I were never really that different to me at that age. They were just like me, kids hobbling across the earth laughing at silly things.
Then at the age of two and a half, I joined school. Sometimes, I wanted to wear shorts to school. I don’t know why! For a change maybe. It never really made much sense that boys wore shorts and trousers while girls wore skirts and dresses. Still, it didn’t seem like much distinction to my infant brain. Again, I assumed gender was a just small distinction in my life. At that age, we played rough games with boys and enjoyed them as much as we would playing Mud house games with girls. We were just kids, innocent and pure. Hobbling around, discovering silly things
I remember Standard 3 a little too vividly. I had just joined a new school, a preparatory (It sounds fancy but I still don’t know what exactly that means.) New places, new faces, new slang, new fads, new culture. I don’t know if it was the new school or the age we were at but something changed. I was suddenly made aware that life wasn’t all easy and hustle free. I was a lady in the making. Believe or not, It began with an elder schoolmate pulling aside from a parking lot football game ( I loved being the goalie!) and proceeding to let me know that it was uncouth and damn near barbaric that I, in my sky blue school dress, was parading myself in front of these boys. That the only reason I thought I wanted to play football with them was to get their attention and attraction. Attraction was a loaded word when I was in Standard 3 like adolescence or reproduction. Suddenly, I was uncomfortable being myself in that parking lot. I felt exposed, naked like my dress was too short or my hair was too shaggy. I didn’t know if I wanted the attention. I was a child I couldn’t possibly discern my emotions at the time. The truth is my dress wasn’t too short, my hair was always nappy and shaggy and those boys didn’t care that they were playing with a girl; they were just happy they had a big goalie. Needless to say, I have never played football since. I began hobbled around overthinking silly things.
My Standard 5 teacher must have regarded herself a saint, ranking with the Mother Teresas’ when she said this to us. She called a female forum one lunchtime. We were crammed into a classroom while the female teachers hovered around us and silenced for some life advice. Then the saint stood before us and proceeded to tell us that we NEEDED to be careful how we carry ourselves especially *wait for it* around our fathers. Yes! She said that we were and I quote, “Too old to be hugging our fathers. Or even be in a room alone with them.” That If we kept ‘being close’ to our fathers, then we would be raped. Yes! I left that room knowing that if I hug my father then I shouldn’t be surprised if he rapes me. I was smart then but not that smart. Naivety was still a close friend of mine. So I stopped hugging my dad. (And I really love my dad) I became obsessed that all men wanted to rape me and if I gave them a chance, they would. I was always on the lookout. I would not be left alone in a room with men and if I was I lamented until this was corrected. I was now hobbling on, paranoid about silly things.
I begged my parents to take me to boarding school when I was around 11, mostly because I hate housework. They obliged. Boarding school reinforced this distinction between how we treat girls and boys. Even though our school was ‘mixed’, we did everything with a measure of distinction. We never saw things from the same perspective even though we were all age mates going through similar life experiences. I was now at the age where girls were blamed for boy’s lack of control and wayward boners. I remember one weekend two boys took to fists and kicks all in the name of a fair lady. Of course, there was a disciplinary meeting but it was only attended by us, girls. We were accused of stuffing our bras to attract boys (We did not! Ok, a few did but that was hardly a reason to carry out a physical inspection of our breasts in an open field like we were prisoners hiding contraband after Family day in the Yard). We were taught how to little ourselves so we would not distract the boys’ education. We weren’t to sing in class, our sweet voices distracted them. We weren’t to walk too fancy (I don’t know what that meant but I believe they implied that there was a limit to how much sway your hips could have.) We weren’t to unbutton the top button on our shirts no matter how hot it was, our soft skinned flat chests distracted them. Our jeans were too tight, our skirts were too short and our shirts too translucent. Oh, and my favorite, they made us all buy bras at 11 even though you were as flat chested as the boys you were protecting. They also blamed the girl for the fight. I have never seen a better expression of female oppression than I did that day on her face. Given she was asleep on the other side of the school in the girls’ dorm when two dimwits decided to decide her fate over a brawl. She didn’t even desire any of them. She had just matured earlier than us all. She had hips and breasts at 11 but that was hardly her fault. She was punished. The boys, nothing, not even those who fought for women. (Yes! This kept happening.) We made ourselves more conservative for the sake of the minds of young men, too fragile to control themselves, too privileged to be taught how to. They didn’t care that the boys played a perpetual game where the one who spanked the most of us won. We just hobbled around boarding school, worrying about silly things.
As we lived in boarding school, we began to grow up, become women and men. Adolescence, they called it. By standard 8, the proportion of those who had hit puberty tramped that of those who had not. (You already know I had not) As we grew, we floated apart and girls banded together to gossip while the boys banded together to ogle at us or whatever else they laughed about behind our backs. We began to realize that some of us were prettier while others were smarter (the latter did not matter much) at the time, beauty became something you work at. I found myself alienated because I did not want to learn how to use makeup, or texturize my hair or shorten my skirt. I learned that women should be malicious and conniving and we were always meant in perpetual competition. Who’s smarter, who’s prettier, whose parents are richer, and who gets the most male attention? Everything was a competition and I was losing. It became harder to keep female friends. It wasn’t hard making them because it was always a plot. Suddenly I was introduced to a stereotype that I did not fit into. A stereotype that I grew to hate, which at the time meant to hate all women. Now I was stumbling around, caring about stupid things.
I have to say, I was excited to join high school at first. It meant primary school was over. No more bullying, silly competition and gossiping, right? Wrong!! I was bullied more than ever. People loved to make stuff up about the introvert and spread it around. Don’t even get me started on silly competition. That didn’t really matter, I was used to it. My first function out of school, however, shone a light on something that had never bothered me before. That puberty we talked about earlier, she visited me all of a sudden in the first year of high school. From the infamous flat chest, I moved to a double D cap. I had no sports bra phase, it was horrifying. The worst part was watching boys I had known a long time ogle at my chest. Most just conversed with my breasts. (Yes! We see that!) It carried on to be a large part of my life, men talking to my breasts instead of me. A discerning factor even but not something I believe I should have to go through. From a young age, I have had to tolerate men’s blatant objectification of me. Always having to prove that I am more than my breasts and thighs. But here I am stumbling by, noticing people do stupid things.
Growing up hit me hard after high school. All the ‘You could be great’ speeches changed tone and message. First, ‘you should be great but remember your family life. Your family life depends on you!’ Then, ‘you are great but are you a good wife? Can you cook for your future husband? Can you clean a house after he ignorantly walks around? Can you pick his clothes off the floor he left them on and clean them the way he likes it? How much dowry will you fetch? When you will be ready to put yourself second and help your man succeed? Are you moral enough to be a wife? Will you make him happy?’ Suddenly, the subject of my life and all I do is the man who I am yet to meet. I am not only judged for all my actions, I am judged with respect to this fictional character I am not sure exists yet. I wonder if he is receiving this pressure. Does he have to go home every weekend to assure his people he can still cook chapatis? Does he stay in on Fridays because he may embarrass himself out of a good future wife? Does he not eat breakfast even though he can afford it to look good for me? Does he have to explain to relatives why he lives alone yet he is childless and unmarried? The answer is No. Because apparently he was born with that privilege. The privilege to never second guess playing football. The privilege to never worry about what he is wearing and how it makes other people feel. The privilege of hugging both his parents throughout his life without someone putting insane prejudice in it. The privilege of growing up not having to worry about tempting others. The privilege of having care-free, competition-free relationships with other men. The privilege of never catching a woman sexualizing you in the open. The privilege of following his dreams and his career wherever they take him without second-guessing how it will affect me in future.
I do not have that privilege, never have. Yet those that have all their lives fault me for being a feminist. From a young age, it’s always been about what I shouldn’t do because girls don’t do that or how I should think because I am a woman. Let me just confess in the case of all those memories above it felt like I was being told that I think too big, feel too big, act too big, for a girl. It felt like I was being told that I am on this earth to compliment the male; we cannot be equal, or equivalent because you are second. It’s not just the memories these things are subtlety whispered to me throughout my life. And they call me a feminist but I just know that it’s not true, it’s not right and it’s not fair. So yes, I guess I must be a feminist because I refuse to think smaller, I can feel no smaller than I have already been made to feel and I can act no smaller for the male than I already have. I will settle for no less in my life but equivalence. Even on the smallest scale, I wish for the day that we realize it’s not about being equal, but being equivalent, of the same importance. Maybe, we teach men to control themselves from a young age. How about we don’t allow them to get away with stupid things like objectifying women the minute they hit puberty. How about you let women live their lives without assuming the greatest thing she could do is reproduce and cater for a man. How about we stop fighting all the time amongst ourselves for stupid things like male attention and admit that every woman is different.
I know we love to call feminists in this country bitter. But can you blame us? Between the culture that glorifies men and the misconstrued religion that belittles women, a woman could easily feel oppressed in this country. And it is just absurd that you expect us to take some of these things in 2017. And that’s not even touching the deep issues like rape, FGM, domestic violence and the trafficking of women; all of which are a problem in this country. Why do you still hate the feminist? Matter of fact, why aren’t you a feminist! How are you guys OK with this! Feminism may be in its third wave but a lot needs to change in Africa for some of these global goals to pan out.