Who are you? why are you here? I have struggled with this question and my identity so much because I was given an identity from the moment my gender was revealed. I am a girl, an African girl born into a Christian home and that gave me three different identities and a purpose almost instantly.
I was brought up with a load of expectations from my family and society. By the time I was ten I knew I needed to learn to clean, cook and dress in a certain type of way because of my gender. I knew I would get married at some point and be a dutiful wife and mother. I knew I could be whatever I wanted -as long as it was ‘girly enough’ and socially acceptable. These rules were a bit tricky. I was allowed to run track which was more of a boy’s sport but not allowed to play video games for the same reason. Evidently, my wild, tree-climbing, nature naturally led me to a lot of trouble since I was rarely behaving ‘like a lady’ but I soon got the hang of it. You can be whoever you want as long as it doesn’t make others uncomfortable and it isn’t too new.
I was constantly reminded of my weakness as a woman. I, apparently, couldn’t handle my emotions, if I started liking someone my future would be instantly ruined. I wasn’t expected to be comfortable around boys cause that was evidence I was loose, cheap and had whore potential. I was to understand that I kind of had the same rights as the boys and this reflected in my brother coming home at seven pm from playing video games but if I dared walk into the house past 6 p.m I’d have to explain which ‘men’ I was entertaining. As a woman, I was crowned with the burden of keeping the family’s reputation intact. I was not allowed to make ‘mistakes’ and if I did, the world was not going to forgive me.
“A man is a man”… “even your brother can abuse you.” I was taught not to trust any man and constantly wondered why these women were married if men were so bad after-all. I also wondered if my brothers were these ‘beasts too’ and if I would give birth to sons who would share the same traits. I also watched as the women in my life ask questions like “What was she wearing?” or “was she the only girl in the house” when they heard stories of girls who had been sexually assaulted. Listening to them made me realize that if I ever made a mistake, or something tragic happened to me, seeking them out would be a suicide mission. I was scared of the world since I had been convinced the world was out to get me. In light of this I went against my curiosity and need to go deeper and I followed the rules.
At thirteen, I had truly understood the nature of the world I lived in. I had understood the social structures and my position in it. The effect of my gender to the type of life I would have was clear to me. I had a duty and it was as simple as ‘ being a respectable woman’.This was the goal and I was groomed to achieve it at home, in school, and in church. Of course, there were a few variations to the description of this respectable woman but she seemed to have the same foundation. A respectable woman needed to be grounded in a conventional religion, she needed to dress appropriately basically not showing off her ‘vulgar’ curves to the world. She needed to be hardworking in school aim high although the set standards were low for her, she needed to get through high school without being pregnant: She needed to be pure meaning no boyfriend, no sexual feelings and no talking about such things…
By the time I was turning sixteen all I had was years of bitterness. I had followed the rules and I didn’t get that perfect satisfaction. Following the rules of the society hadn’t prevented me from getting physically, emotionally and psychologically abused by people, including women whom I had thought I could confide in. Even after following the rules as much as I could I had failed the huge chastity test since I wasn’t even a virgin. Nobody had the time or patience to learn that I had lost more than just virginity. I lost myself as I tried to fit into all these identities that were being pushed down my throat without consent. While it was a man who had beaten me down and taken my ‘dignity’ away it was the women who were to protect me that had stripped me of my character, life, and spirit.
The concept of being a victim of constant abuse was made more painful when I realized that I had to handle it on my own. I couldn’t tell my mother or my aunts or sisters or teachers or the preachers because they would judge me, ask all the wrong questions, look at me with pity and use me as an example of a woman who was not respectable. I was alone because the same people who told me to chase my dreams were the same people stopping me from achieving them, the same people who took away my trust in men were the same ones pressuring me to marry one.
In my twenties, I found the strength to explore my identity for myself. Somewhere between all the self-hate and guilt, I learned the concept of self-love and discovered life isn’t as black and white as it had been put out to be. I started living my life which meant dressing to please myself, going out late, having close male friends, being expressive about my sexuality, and having strong opinions about things. I’ve learned that it’s possible to have love and be successful, that women are not emotionally weak, and that, not all men are abusive. I’m slowly learning to unlearn all the stereotypes that have come in with gender roles, social norms, and the biased expectations.
I think it’s time we stop teaching women and girls to watch their behavior, it’s time to teach young girls the truth without being biased, time to give men a chance to be ‘better’ instead of simply branding them wrong and trashy, I think it is time to let girls be themselves… There is no right or wrong way to being a woman as being a woman should simply mean being yourself and this should apply to all genders. If the world doesn’t accept this I’m comfortable with being considered a shameless woman for being true to myself.