I was always an awkward child. I was short, skinny and for some reason, from the age of four, pretty locks gave way for a more practical short school boy cut. I was the girl always found huddled over five stones or marbles with the boys, playing with old discarded tins clips and fighting over who’s turn it was next to ride the rich kid’s bike. However, while the smears of mud on my face, bare feet and scuffed knees made me one of the boys… my distinct feminine shape, which started developing at the age of nine betrayed me.
I was an early bloomer. I got my first period at the age of nine, much to my horror. I remember the experience vividly. I discovered the red stain, and then chaos erupted around me. My grandmother, who I lived with then, referred to it as “getting aged”. She immediately sprang into action, shuffling me into the bathroom while calling for a cousin to ask a neighbour for “slingaberry” leaves. She filled a bucket with piping hot water, mixed in a concoction of boiled leaves and turmeric and bathed me from head to toe. I was given a thick sanitary pad, she briefly explained how to put it on and then told not to leave the room for five days. I was also instructed not to “look out of the window at any boy because I will start to smell”, which probably explains my paranoia about bad body odour!
My mother arrived that evening, much to my relief, but by then my wide-eyed grandmother had already forced me to drink a raw egg mixture, which she explained was customary. My mother, the more modern progressive woman, gave me a book detailing the changes I would start to experience, and a very scientific illustrated explanation of the birds and the bees. No doubt, my girl cousins found this rather amusing and giggled at it during family gatherings. However, it did give me a sense of power over them, as they were all not yet “aged”.
Within a month, my body started developing. I had distinct breasts and had to start using training bras. My hips pushed out and suddenly my buttocks looked more pronounced. My family always jibbed at my “Zulu shape for an Indian child”, but I didn’t realise just how uncommon it was among the girls in my community until then.
As I developed, I also discovered the boys I often played with weren’t so comfortable with me any more. One winter’s evening during the July holidays, I walked over to the usual group and asked if I could play. One of the boys turned up his nose and said, “go play with the girls”. Heat rapidly rose to my cheeks, and I planted a thick solid blow to his nose. He went running home in tears, and I called back “you go play with the girls, cry baby”. Nobody else dared to make any further comments. No doubt I certainly won that round, but the feeling was empty as reality dawned. I knew I no longer fitted in with the boys I grew up with. But, I didn’t either with the girls!
As I grew, so did my hair and before I knew it, I looked and sounded like a girl. Even though, all through high school, college and in my career, my closest friends were still male. In fact, I made my first close female friend the same year as I got married. I somehow just related better to men, I liked their frank discussions and the fact that I never had to guess where I stood with them. If we had a fight, we’d buy each other a drink and move on. Women however, seemed far more dramatic. Most were scared of me. I never knew where I stood with them, and I always had a sneaky suspicion that there was more to the “nothing” they would claim.
Yet, in spite of my proclivity towards male friendships, I was also acutely aware of the fact that I was still a woman and that my gender created invisible walls between them and I. I knew that they would be picked first for games. They were given cool toys like remote control cars and electronics, while I was stuck with tea sets, and given the fact that I started drinking coffee ever since I got “aged”, tea sets became the bane of my existence. I saw how they were allowed to eat lunch and walk out of the front door to play, while I was expected to pick up their dirty plates and wash up the dishes before I could go outside again. I was also expected home by a certain time, whereas they could play outside a little later. And the older I grew; the inconsistencies in the way my male friends and I were treated often set us on different paths.
My male friends were taught to drive while they were still in school. They were exposed to broader career options like engineering and architecture. They were allowed to go to woodwork class, while I got my cheeks pinched for missing a stitch in needle work class. My male friends were applauded for their achievements while I was constantly asked when I was going to get married. And when I told people that I was studying to become a journalist, the common reaction was, “so dangerous for a gurl…”
Thankfully my parents were always liberal. My father raised his daughters with a firm hand and a belief we could stand toe to toe with any person, irrespective of gender. However, society, while ready to send a community to the moon, is still not ready for equality among the sexes. And to a certain degree, I can understand their apprehension. Equality, for many, equates to women sporting beer bellies, with unshaven legs and their children; snot-nosed and neglected. There’s also a fear that women will no longer need men or want to become the “man” in the relationship. On the contrary, equality among the sexes does not mean the morphing of women into men. It also does not have to result in the emasculation of men. I mean, a man should never feel less of a man just because he washed up after dinner or took the laundry of the line, right? I am hoping his masculinity isn’t that tender! It does however mean having to address the injustices.
For example, why are men paid more for the same jobs that women do? Why are women still crashing into glass ceilings when wanting to rise into the ranks of CEOs and directors? Why are women still expected to work an eight hour day and still come home and pull a “mommy shift”, while her partner expects a cooked dinner, clean house, content children and a cold beer while he catches up on TV, “because he is too tired from working an eight-hour day to help”? And why, for the love of justice, are girls’ toys pink brooms and dustpans, while boys’ toys are vocational like fire suits and power tools?
Now, to be clear, I am not saying that we ought to ignore our uniqueness. For instance, I love high heels and lipstick. There are some jars that I just can never seem to open. We are physically different. If I raised my hand to my husband’s face, it would bruise his ego more than his cheek. If he had to do the same, he’d need to call 911. I am smaller in size, I bruise easier. I cannot physically match his strength. There are just some things he is better at because he is wired differently, and there are some things that I do better because of my femininity.
I love being a woman. I love that my husband is a man. But I should not be punished for being female any more than he should be celebrated for simply being male. If anything, equality among the sexes should not force men and women to forego their individuality. It shouldn’t also use their individuality as a means of separate development. DM