At the age of 10 I had a way of walking I’m certain had been with me since I first learned to walk. There is nowhere I could have learned it, and I hadn’t given it any thought to have learned it in the first place. But it was called to my attention at 10, because it was “provocative.” And it wasn’t brought to my attention by men, but by women. Girls, in fact.
It was one foot in front of the other, a hip-swinging walk. And it was not okay. And the girls let me know this immediately. “Stop acting so stuck-up!” “She thinks she’s a model.” “Why do you walk like you’re all that?”
Of course, I didn’t think I was “all that.” And at the age of ten, being rather sheltered from all things overtly sexual, I was thoroughly bewildered and confused. This was how I naturally walked, and it wasn’t something I could change because I had no idea what I was doing wrong. It weren’t as though I could see myself walking and compare it to others. Eventually, though, I did learn to “fix” it. What’s interesting is not only the accusation of sexuality that I never implied, but the fact that I was not allowed to be sexual. These were girls who wore lipgloss, tight jeans, and midriff tops. They weren’t stereotypes–they were whole complete people, who cried when I wrote them sad stories and were fiercely loyal to each other–but they played into stereotypes. They gossiped, worried about their weight, talked about boys, copied each other’s homework, and had serious mean streaks. And consequently, they categorized and forced me into a stereotype. I studied and read and wrote and dressed conservatively (thanks mom) and contributed greatly to class discussions and was overall smart (though they were too!) and therefore was not allowed to demonstrate any kind of “grown-up” confidence.
Ten year old girls don’t walk the way they do to be sexual. They walk that way because that’s how they walk. When the girls cornered me for long legs and swinging hips, it was the confidence they attacked. I’m sure they had some idea that it was interpreted in the world as symbolic of some sort of sexual power, but it only just forming in our understanding. As far as they were concerned, this was power play. I was not a part of their clique.
“You can’t walk like that.”
I was a sweet kid. It’s hard to believe now, and it frustrates me when I remember it, but it’s frightening how soft I was. Watching the girls, I forced myself to change the way I walked because I genuinely believed there was something wrong with me. I walked like them instead. I remember the process, asking a friend of mine, “Do I walk weird?”
“You walk so gracefully, like a swan.” she said. “Don’t listen to them; they’re jealous.”
“Swans are clumsy on land.”
Looking back, there is so much about this that disturbs me. It was my first introduction, I can see, to the sexual interpretations of others forced onto me in a dangerously she-was-asking-for-it-like manner, while I have no involvement and no desire of involvement. I didn’t intend for anything–I was just living my life. I couldn’t intend anything; for crying out loud, I was ten. And yet this is so deeply ingrained into the mentality of society that it was pushed onto me by none other than ten-year-old girls, who themselves had no idea what they were doing, but had somehow come to understand the significance and had learned to police “sexuality.” And I “fixed” something that didn’t need to be fixed to appease to the fabrications of patriarchy, unwillingly, tearily, and self-destructively.
Growing up, the prevalence and instillment of the incident became clear. Everyone thought like this. At 12 I had a red dress I loved wearing. Still conservative, mind you, my mother picked out my clothes. But one day I put it on, and she told me to change it.
“It makes you look pretty. I don’t want… you getting the wrong kind of attention.”
Even then, I wanted to scream.
Did I mention this dress covered everything? Everything? Full-length sleeves and full-length skirt? It doesn’t even matter what it covered. I wasn’t wearing it to be sexual: I liked it because it reminded me of the dress one of the characters of an adventure book I was reading wore on the cover. I felt like riding dragons and finding ghosts in my dreary castle. It also doesn’t even matter if I were wearing it to be sexual, had I not been 12: it doesn’t give anyone the right to involve themselves without my permission.
My mother doesn’t tell me I’ll be raped, but she sure as hell implies it. “You could be kidnapped,” she says. “And… used. For business.”
I would say my mother is paranoid about sex trafficking, but she isn’t paranoid. She’s right. What she isn’t right about, however, is suggesting that being “unpretty” would somehow save me. And while she didn’t make me accountable for the possibility of rape (though it disturbed me greatly that she consistently hinted my life would be utterly and entirely over) she did make me liable for others’ interpretations of what “message” I was sending by the way I dressed.
My mother meant well. She was terrified to death of losing me, a defenseless child, to predators. When I hit my late teens and was not so defenseless, she promptly allowed me to “dress pretty” again. Before class, now a young woman of 17, I walked past the mirror in my bedroom and slid into a well-fitted black dress that zipped on one side. I tugged up the zipper and it stopped, leading me to believe I’d zipped it all the way. In actuality, the zipper had stuck at the curve of my breast, exposing the black lace of my bra.
“Nahida, you look gorgeous!” my instructor exclaimed in third period psychology. “Come here.”
“What is it?” I asked, walking up to her desk.
Without warning, she reached out and yanked the zipper upward, closing the dress completely. I stood for a minute in shock.
“You’ve been walking around flashing everyone all morning,” she guessed grimly. And then, I won’t forget the look she gave me–more than just disapproval, it was blatantly, almost hatefully, accusatory.
“I–I didn’t know,” I stammered truthfully. “I thought I zipped it.” Please, please, please believe me, please.
She had dismissively returned to grading papers. “Thanks,” I murmured and walked back to my textbooks. My psychology teacher liked me–not only as a good student but as me, personally–and I liked her, which made her reproach all the more scathing.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. The forging of a false reality by those who have no business interpreting my behavior and policing me occur even here. Whenever I write a sex-related post, men–men this time, Muslim and non-Muslim alike–submit comments that clearly assume I am attempting to ensnare them with the subject of sex, even if the entry itself has nothing to do with seduction and everything to do with my perspective, experience, and feminism. Just because you don’t see a point, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. There are other commenters who very much see the point–so I take it the problem is you, not my writing. And if there weren’t a point? Well GTFO–that’s what I wanted to do, and that’s for me to decide. You need to see your way out. I’m pretty tired of receiving comments along the lines of, “Modesty, sister!” and “STOP TRYING TO SEDUCE ME!”
I am not, in fact, trying to seduce you.
The Internet is a big place. If you don’t like the discussion, don’t participate. Don’t read. Find something else. Don’t lecture me about modesty when you’ve clearly lost yours, arrogantly believing you have any right to tell me these things or command me to stop or interpret my behavior and involve me in your incorrect interpretation by submitting such comments or that you have any say on how I should live my life or what I should write about.
The whole delusion of she must be attempting to be seductive or she wouldn’t be wearing that / talking about this is at its core egotistical. And, fine, let’s say a woman is trying to be seductive. What the hell makes you think you’re the one she’s trying to seduce? And if you aren’t, what the hell makes you think you have any right to shove yourself into her business? Your thoughts are your own: you are free to notice her, think about her, fantasize, etc.–you are not free to involve her, through actions or words that disclose what’s going on in your pants, unless she specifically consents and makes it clear. And this consent is not infinite. Or “a light switch” as they say. And this goes both ways. Were I to fantasize about a man I knew, I wouldn’t tell him this, thereby involving him, unless I was certain he wouldn’t mind hearing it. Otherwise, yes, it is harassment–I would be involving him against his will and making him feel extraordinarily uncomfortable.
It astonishes me to no end that men have a problem with this. A lot of guys wouldn’t appreciate being hit on by someone they’re not interested in–but they expect women to accept it. Would a straight man put up with being hit on by other men? If it ever happens, tell him to quit bitching. Don’t listen to pathetic excuses like “I don’t want to be hit on by someone I’m not into” or “That’s just really creepy, and I don’t find him attractive.” He’s clearly a vagina.
Like the ten-year-olds previously mentioned who categorized me–and themselves–into stereotypes, the actions and very real personalities of women are often fetishized as though they aren’t whole or they belong in compartments of sexuality, a mentality that enables men to “sample” women of each respective fantasy and ultimately objectify and limit them to these. And there are several. The “innocent girlfriend”–popular among religious men and Nice Guys–whom men protect not out of selfless care and love but for the sake of being the first ones to “corrupt” her, or to fulfill their own fetish through the limitation of her personality. The “experienced whore”–her supposed “opposite”–and then of course the deadly dichotomy, whom few women are–and when they are, they are viewed as deceitful, mind you–and destroy themselves attempting to become. Smart girls are fetishized for their intelligence, not for being whole people from whom we learn and with whom we expand our perspective, but for “Hey I slept with this really smart chick.” And don’t get me started about “beautiful exotic girls.”
We don’t revolve around you. And my personality is not a fetish.
What people don’t realize is that there is a point at which slut-shaming and prude-shaming are pretty much the same damn thing. Literally. When you shame a woman for “dressing like a slut” and therefore supposedly bringing inappropriate advances upon herself, you are also prude-shaming her for not tolerating such behavior.
Seriously, just stfu.