To Be A Woman: Lesson 1

I am a life-long student. This a report of the lessons I have learnt.

I learnt that I should always sit with my legs together. That a lady does not sit with her legs apart- it is bad manners, they said. I learnt that shame was lodged in between my legs. My brother learnt to sit with his legs apart. That a man only sits with his legs wide spread-it is a show of dominance, they said. He learnt that power was lodged between his legs.

They taught me that my womb defines me, but I had no say in matters concerning my womb. That motherhood was to be my top most aspiration. That, and to be a wife. I learnt to compete for the attention of men. That competition was healthy if I emerged as the most beautiful, and to be desired by a man is the true affirmation. My brother was taught to aspire to greatness- and that his greatness was measured on the basis of his physical and intellectual strength.

I learnt the prices of taxis by heart. The streets that have lights and the importance of walking in pairs. Did you know that catcalling has nothing to do with cats? I learnt that too. I learnt that earphones are not only for filling my ears with my favourite tracks, they are also a prop. Especially if I am walking alone and the cat calling starts. I learnt that I am to take in whatever vile words that are thrown in my direction because they are only complimenting my body, and I should either appreciate it or ignore it. That I had to smile when I was asked to smile, and by no means would I ignore a man if he said hello. I learnt to stare straight ahead and appear undisturbed, even when fear or disgust filled my heart when the ‘compliments’ were given to me. Also, compliments don’t have to be welcome. I do not have to appreciate them. But I must accept them.

They also taught me that the definition of consent varies. That it was a blurry concept, with boundaries and borders that shifted constantly. I can give my consent, but sometimes it is immaterial -and that I don’t get to decide whether my sexual relations were consensual or not, society also has a say. Victim blaming- that is another new word I learnt. That what I wore, how I walked, how much I had to drink, what I said to him, my behaviour, my physical location, the nature of our relationship, whether or not I was walking alone, what time I was out, and any other excuse can reduce or completely invalidate my consent.

The lesson continues- beauty standards change just as fast as the fashion trends. Tight jeans come with thick curves, push up bras come with upgraded up scaled breast sizes, my skin must get lighter, my hair straighter, a gap between my thighs is very highly recommended because Kylie Jenner has one. My lips must be full, not thick. God forbid I have fat under my arms or ‘tires’ on my waist. Stretch marks are a no-no. My body must be hairless. I learnt that pain is the price of beauty. That, and a thick wallet. High heels make me look classy, forget the damage they cause to my back. Corsets make my waist thinner, who needs to breath anyway? Comfort is overrated. Surgery is not only for saving lives. It is for preserving youth. Most importantly, I must not age-at least not physically.

I learnt that my level of achievement is not necessarily warrant equal pay. That I would be a employee at work and an unpaid employee in my own home. My hours would never go from 8 to 5, and time off would be an alien concept. I would get home from one job, slip out of my heels and into an apron. Cook, clean, change diapers, provide emotional support, do the dishes, do the laundry, put the kids to sleep, and have mechanical sex so he can go to sleep. I learnt to never complain. I strived for the super-woman status. I aimed to do it all. Work, birth, nurture, seduce and still look effortlessly flawless. I learnt to numb out the exhaustion.

I am still learning, but the lessons are changing. I am learning to embrace myself. I am learning the power of my voice. I am learning that I can choose, and that I have a right to choose. That my body is mine, not ours. I am learning that it is okay to ask for help. That every woman is superwoman because of the abilities I have, not how much I can take on. I am learning how to fight back and stand my ground, and that I am beautiful beyond measure, flaws and all. Most of all, that I am not a victim, I am a survivor.

Nafula Wafula

Nafula Wafula is a fierce advocate for gender equality and human rights, passionate about Pan-Africanism and social justice. She is currently the Vice Chair for Policy and Advocacy at the Commonwealth Youth Council.


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