It was an ordinary Saturday afternoon. My daughter sat next to me on the sofa in our living room, focused on a playing a game on her iPod. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed how she was sitting-legs loose and open. Sharp words formed in my mind: close your legs and sit like a LADY! Thankfully logic kicked in before the reprimand actually escaped my lips. Z continued playing her game happily, oblivious to the gender policing I came perilously close to dishing out. I pondered what I almost did to my child, disappointed in myself. The knowledge that I danced at the line of putting my own daughter through the rigid expectations I suffered through left me both shaken and relieved. I was relieved that I questioned myself before speaking; shaken that after all this time I continued to internalize the messages I received as a young girl about my position as a female.
It wasn’t always that way. Though I can’t recall my Mama clearly speaking of feminism or even identifying as a feminist, she vociferously insisted that I always stand up for myself and never accept the notion I was less due to my color or my gender. Mama went out of her way to reinforce my sense of self and let me know I deserved respect based on my humanity. However once I hit puberty and became deeply involved in church, my Mama’s message was replaced by one from my peers, family and faith. Respect and decent treatment were not my birthright. No, instead they were conditional, based on my ability to live up to the expectations set for a ‘lady/good girl/virtuous woman’.
On the playground kids sang a rhyme accented with and signs:
“Good girls sit like this(legs crossed tightly)
Bad girls sit like this(legs open but not completely spread)
And girls who sit like this(legs completely spread apart) get this(penetrated by males) like THIS(fingers snapped)!
I didn’t want my peers to think of me as a girl who got penetrated(because only ‘hoes’ get penetrated outside of marriage). So by eleven years old I took those rhymes to heart, making sure I sat and looked like a ‘good girl’ and a ‘lady’. My peers and female relatives also criticized the way young girls and women walked. If the gap between your legs was deemed too wide when you walked it would be assumed you were sexually active. Only ‘fast’ girls had sex. So I learned to monitor my walk as well, desperate to not be thought of as ‘fast’. There was more. My body parts were supposed to have the fluidity of concrete. Ladies don’t jiggle, my female elders said. I was to keep my breasts from bouncing, my hips from swaying and my butt from shaking; everything was to be still. There was to be no music in my walk; no pep in my step. I remember all the times my female elders snapped at me, accused me of ‘switching’ and ‘trying to be cute’. I remember how frustrated I felt, how I wanted to scream back that I wasn’t making my ass move that way intentionally; it just did on its own as I walked. But ladies don’t scream, and Black American Princesses don’t talk back. So I obeyed, seething inside. I wore girdles to contain and suppress my curves, encased my legs in pantyhose because the elders said bare legs were ‘indecent’, crossed my legs tightly and avoided red lipstick and bold eyeshadow. I played the role. As a female it was the only way to attain respect. I could be the virgin or the whore; there was no gray area in the world of my teens.
Later I would come to understand. I would discover the word ‘patriarchy’, and see that all I’d been subjected to was part of it. But what made me so uneasy about it all-and continues to-is the role that women play on enforcing it. It may be men who wrote the holy books and lead the institutions, but it is often women who serve as the Enforcers. I saw this in both the Black Baptist environment of my family and the conservative Sunni Muslim community I later converted to. It is the women who critique and judge each other based on our ability to adhere to whatever the definition of a ‘virtuous woman’ is in our communities. Under the guise of helping, we engage ‘mean girls’ behavior that is both cruel and traumatizing. So when the words initially formed in my mind that day I thought I would be ‘helping’ my daughter. I had to check myself, and I’m glad I did. Instead of teaching my daughter a better way I almost began the process of doing to her what was done to me. But I know better. I know that I cannot be complicit in perpetuating a patriarchal mindset that teaches her to devalue herself and to be ashamed of her femininity. I can only do so through confronting my own adolescence and facing the ways that it continues to effect my own psyche. It will not be quick; nor will it be easy. It is mandatory though. For the sake of daughter’s future and well-being I cannot allow myself to join the ranks of The Enforcers.