When I was seventeen and preparing to leave for university, my mother’s only brother saw fit to give me some advice.
“Just don’t be an idiot, kid,” he told me, “and don’t ever forget that boys and girls can never just be friends.”
I laughed and answered, “I’m not too worried. And I don’t really think all guys are like that.”
When I was eighteen and the third annual advent of the common cold was rolling through residence like a pestilent fog, a friend texted me asking if there was anything he could do to help.
I told him that if he could bring me up some vitamin water that would be great, if it wasn’t too much trouble.
That semester I learned that human skin cells replace themselves every three to five weeks. I hoped that in a month, maybe I’d stop feeling the echoes of his touch; maybe my new skin would feel cleaner.
It didn’t. But I stood by what I said. Not all guys are like that.
When I was nineteen and my roommate decided the only way to celebrate the end of midterms was to get wasted at a club, I humoured her.
Four drinks, countless leers and five hands up my skirt later, I informed her I was ready to leave.
“I get why you’re upset,” she told me on the walk home, “but you have to tolerate that sort of thing if you want to have any fun. And really, not all guys are like that.”
(Age nineteen also saw me propositioned for casual sex by no fewer than three different male friends, and while I still believe that guys and girls can indeed be just friends, I was beginning to see my uncle’s point.)
When I was twenty and a stranger that started chatting to me in my usual cafe asked if he could walk with me (since we were going the same way and all), I accepted.
Before we’d even made it three blocks he was pulling me into an alleyway and trying to put his hands up my shirt. “You were staring,” he laughed when I asked what the fuck he was doing (I wasn’t), “I’m just taking pity.”
But not all guys are like that.
I am twenty one and a few days ago a friend and I were walking down the street. A car drove by with the windows down, and a young man stuck his head out and whistled as they passed. I ignored it, carrying on with the conversation.
My friend did not. “Did you know those people?” He asked.
“Not at all,” I answered.
Later when we sat down to eat he got this thoughtful look on his face. When I asked what was wrong he said, “You know not all guys do that kind of thing, right? We’re not all like that.”
As if he were imparting some great profound truth I’d never realized before. My entire life has been turned around, because now I’ve been enlightened: not all guys are like that.
No. Not all guys are. But enough are. Enough that I am uncomfortable when a man sits next to me on the bus. Enough that I will cross to the other side of the street if I see a pack of guys coming my way. Enough that even fleeting eye contact with a male stranger makes my insides crawl with unease. Enough that I cannot feel safe alone in a room with some of my male friends, even ones I’ve known for years. Enough that when I go out past dark for chips or milk or toilet paper, I carry a knife, I wear a coat that obscures my figure, I mimic a man’s gait. Enough that three years later I keep the story of that day to myself, when the only thing that saved me from being raped was a right hook to the jaw and a threat to scream in a crowded dorm, because I know what the response will be.
I live my life with the everburning anxiety that someone is going to put their hands on me regardless of my feelings on the matter, and I’m not going to be able to stop them. I live with the knowledge that statistically one in three women have experienced a sexual assault, but even a number like that can’t be trusted when we are harassed into silence. I live with the learned instinct, the ingrained compulsion to keep my mouth shut to jeers and catcalls, to swallow my anger at lewd suggestions and crude gestures, to put up my walls against insults and threats. I live in an environment that necessitates armouring myself against it just to get through a day peacefully, and I now view that as normal. I have adapted to extreme circumstances and am told to treat it as baseline. I carry this fear close to my heart, rooted into my bones, and I do so to keep myself unharmed.
So you can tell me that not all guys are like that, and you’d even be right, but that isn’t the issue anymore. My problem is not that I’m unaware of the fact that some guys are perfectly civil, decent, kind—my problem is simply this:
In a world where this cynical overcaution is the only thing that ensures my safety, I’m no longer willing to take the risk.
As women, when we’re children we’re taught to enter the world with big hearts. Blooming hearts. Hearts bigger than our damn fists. We are taught to forgive - constantly - as opposed to what young boys are taught: Revenge, to get ‘even.’ Our empathy is constantly made appeals to, often demanded for. If we refuse to show kindness, we are reprimanded. We are not good women if we do not crush our bones to make more space for the world, if we do not spread our entire skin over rocks for others to tread on, if we do not kill ourselves in every meaning of the word in the process of making it cozy for everyone else. It is the heat generated by the burning of our bodies with which the world keeps warm. We are taught to sacrifice so much for so little. This is the general principle all over the world.
By the time we are young women, we are tired. Most of us are drained. Some of us enter a lock of silence because of that lethargy. Some of us lash out. When I think of that big, blooming heart we once had, it looks shriveled and worn out now. When I was teaching, I had a young student named Mariam. She was only 11 years old. Some boy pushed her around in class, called her names, broke her spirit for the day. We were sitting under a chestnut tree on a field trip and she asked me if a boy ever hurt me. I told her many did and I destroyed them one by one. I think that’s the first time she ever heard the word ‘destroyed.’ We rarely teach our girls to fight back for the right reasons.
Take up more space as a woman. Take up more time. Take your time. You are taught to hide, censor, move about without messing up decorum for a man’s comfort. Whether it’s said or not, you’re taught balance. Forget that. Displease. Disappoint. Destroy. Be loud, be righteous, be messy. Mess up and it’s fine – you are learning to unlearn. Do not see yourself like glass. Like you could get dirty and clean. You are flesh. You are not constant. You change. Society teaches women to maintain balance and that robs us of our volatility. Our mercurial hearts. Calm and chaos. Love only when needed; preserve otherwise.
Do not be a moth near the light; be the light itself. Do not let a man’s ocean-big ego swallow you up. Know what you want. Ask yourself first. Decide your own pace. Decide your own path. Be cruel when needed. Be gentle only when needed. Collapse and then re-construct. When someone says you are being obscene, say yes I am. When they say you are being wrong, say yes I am. When they say you are being selfish, say yes I am. Why shouldn’t I be? How do you expect a woman to stand on her two feet if you keep striking her at the ankles.
There are multiple lessons we must teach our young girls so that they render themselves their own pillars instead of keeping male approval as the focal point of their lives. It is so important to state your feelings of inconvenience as a woman. We are instructed to tailor ourselves and our discomfort - constantly told that we are ‘whining’ and ‘nagging’ and ‘complaining too much.’ That kind of silence is horribly violent, that kind of insistence upon uniformly nodding in agreement to your own despair, and smiling emptily so no man is ever uncomfortable around us. Male-entitlement dictates a woman’s silence. If we could see the mimetic model of the erasure of a woman’s voice, it would be an incredibly bloody sight.
On a breezy July night, my mother and I were sleeping under the open sky. Before dozing off, I told her that I think there is a special place in heaven where all wounded women bury their broken hearts and their hearts grow into trees that only give fruit to the good and poison to the bad. She smiled and said Ameen. Then she closed her eyes.