Who would be a woman?

broken girl

Society and the weaker sex

When I was seventeen I was sexually assaulted at work by my male colleagues. I wasn’t shocked or surprised – it was something I’d been led to expect.

When your own father calls you a “bitch on heat” it’s unremarkable when other men act as though it were the case. From the moment my periods started, his behavior towards me changed. I was threatened, slapped and hit; called a whore, a slut, and the colorfully veterinarian “bitch on heat” – all of this a good four years before I even had my first consensual sexual encounter. I was made to feel ashamed of my sexuality well before I knew what it was. The culture of women as representatives of male honour isn’t confined  by faith or nationality.

Lessons in a cornfield

I had a sheltered upbringing on an isolated Irish farm. I didn’t even know any swear words until we moved to England; my education began when the older Pitt sisters took me, an eight-year-old, into a cornfield and read porn to me. Although much of it went over my head, it filled me with an inexplicable unease. I didn’t like it and couldn’t understand why they did.

I was a tomboy, happy walking the dog, playing outdoors and climbing trees. My interest in boys took the form of a competitive streak when it came to bike racing and marbles and an appreciation of their helpfulness in teaching me to fish. I considered them my equals. I hadn’t yet learnt how wrong I was.

Make-up maketh the woman

A play-date with the younger daughter of my mum’s best friend saw us experimenting with a bag of old make-up her mother had given her. I’d never seen such wonders before – my mother didn’t wear make-up. Time flew as we primped and decorated, giggling and holding the hand-mirror for each other to admire our handiwork. We were between eight and ten – starting to notice that women wore high heels and slashes of colour on their cheeks.

In the car on the way home, my happiness evaporated as my father bellowed about the evils of make-up while my mother sat silently in the passenger seat.

“You look like a prostitute. Is that what you want?” he demanded.

How could I answer? I didn’t even know what a prostitute was.

Shouldering the burden

Life became complicated as everything I did had unforeseen sexual connotations. When I walked the dog alone after a squabble with my sister I was “asking for it.” If I wore the wrong clothes I was “asking for it.” Quite what “It” was I still wasn’t sure, but I knew it had something to do with rape. When I found out from Crimewatch reconstructions what rape was, I swore I’d rather be killed than have that done to me.

At twelve, I was groped in a crowded stationary shop. I froze – simultaneously terrified and ashamed. I waited until we were outside before telling my mother;

“Why didn’t you say anything?” she asked in a too-loud voice.

I had difficulty meeting her eyes, “I was embarrassed.”

I didn’t tell her about the guilt inside that told me it was probably my fault. I’d already absorbed my expected sexual role.

That same year, my mother told me my father had tried to rape her. I’d heard the entire incident from my bedroom – the raised voices, the thuds and thumps of a fight in a confined space, the hysterical barking of our West highland terrier.

As I grew, so did the shadow sex cast over my life, menacing and omnipotent.

Nowhere to hide

I was fifteen when we moved to Oxford, into a guesthouse my parents bought. One of the renovations they undertook was the installation of satellite TV – there was a high demand among some of our clientele for porn channels and this was a bonus for my father who stayed up late, alone in the sitting room. One evening I surprised him on the guest stairs, watching through the window as a woman undressed next door in the prosaically named “Home for unmarried mothers”.

I felt a need for privacy and security, valuable commodities to someone navigating puberty in a house shared by strangers, but my father refused my pleas to fit a lock on my bathroom on the grounds that he wouldn’t be locked out of anywhere in his own home – the existence of the seven lockable guest bedrooms upstairs notwithstanding. There was nothing I could do. As a female I was powerless and vulnerable. I began to wish I’d been born a boy.

I began to see myself as a victim of my sexuality and was less able to view it as something over which I had control. 

It’s never far away

But what can you do? It’s impossible to go through life thinking the worst of every man you meet. You’d be a nervous wreck. Many men are deeply ashamed of the way some of their gender regard the “fairer sex”. But time and again, incidents play out that remind you exactly where you stand. The boss who helped you move when you got a work transfer, and thought that meant he could put his hand up your skirt. The boyfriend who said there was nothing he could do if his older brother wanted to “get intimate” with you…

For many young girls, their broader future is already mapped out, dictated to them by society, culture and the media because of what’s between their legs rather than what’s between their ears. And it all starts much earlier than you might think. While our individual circumstances may differ, society views all women through the same restrictive lens.

23 Comments

  1. Another beautifully written post right on the button!

    I was a teenager in the late sixties so I’m not surprised by the allegations against many men associated with Jimmy Saville. It was the norm then for men to sexually harass girls in the office and what made it worse for me I went to a strict Italian convent school. My mother never told me about the facts of life she was embarrassed and just gave me a scientific article from a magazine which I failed to grasp. Sexual education at school was based on the nuns reading from the bible and then a basic non explicent as to how…from a sex education leaflet.

    Reply
    • While we like to think we’ve “come a long way” since then, scratch the surface and things look depressingly unchanged. When the news is full of the Church of England’s refusal to ordain women priests and stuff like this, I could still be sat here in a ra-ra skirt for all the progress we’ve made…

      Reply
      • Funny enough when I saw that on the news this evening I thought of you. :)

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  2. I’m sorry but your father was a horrible person. He did not respect you at all, or any other women it appears.

    Reply
    • He’s the only one who should feel apologetic Catherine. Thanks for your comment.

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  3. Superb writing once again – and something that every woman should read x

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  4. Thank you for the courage it took to share such a personal story. With two daughters of my own, the challenges women face have always been personal to me. My heart aches for what you have endured over the years after such horrible childhood experiences.

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading. I too have two daughters and in my darkest moments have wondered what I’ve done, bringing them into a world where they’ll face this crushing disappointment. All I can do is try to give them the strength of character to stand up to it and the confidence to refuse to be cowed by threats and discrimination. I really appreciate your comment.

      Reply
  5. This made me gulp – so painfully real. Yes, for many young women growing up – sex = guilt.
    I agree with you, things have NOT changed much for women – only on the surface perhaps. I am going to share this, and thank you for writing it, such a painful personal story.

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  6. Women have come a long way in many areas but sex is still sex and men are still men. We need to teach our children to respect themselves and others. It is very difficult when the harassment starts at home. Thanks for sharing this.

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  7. I don’t know how this one slipped by, Aisha. This is a really important piece. I’m dumbfounded by the bombardment of sheer verbal garbage, horrible accusations and horrendous acts perpetrated against you. That you were able to rise above such absolute cr@p is a testament to your strength, determination and inviolable inner compass. Sadly not everyone has such a strong girl inside themselves to get through to adulthood and come out on the other side. That’s why your raising your voice is so important. As for your daughters (your son, too), please take solace AND hope because already you and your husband have shown them a far, far different future than you ever were.

    Reply
    • As ever, thank you for the unfailing support Linda.

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  8. You wrote so bravely and eloquently about something I have tried so unsuccessfully to explain to men for years. Only women can truly understand the inherent violence that surrounds us daily, but this article illustrates it brilliantly for others. I’ve lived in 3 countries (Ireland included) with 3 different religions, and I agree that in each one, women’s futures are all “dictated to them by society, culture and the media because of what’s between their legs rather than what’s between their ears.” The worst part is that as women, we also play a large role in enforcing these beliefs and traditions. We have to recognize it if we want to change it.

    You wrote about feeling shame when men would harass or abuse you. I never felt I deserved it, but instead I felt fear. Fear that fighting it and standing up for myself would have worse consequences than just shamefully sitting and taking it. Even though my mother tried her hardest to teach me pride in my own self-worth, as a pre-teen and teenager I was never sure enough in my self to call the verbal and physical violence for what it was. I remained silent or laughed nervously, thus encouraging it. For that, I am very ashamed.

    I hope for our daughters and for future generations we can make change. Thank you for adding to the awareness that has to come before change can happen. You have a powerful voice, and I hope that you now see the power in yourself as a female and agent of change.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for your personal and poignant comment. The inherent violence that women live with is something I’ve felt for a long time but that I never heard discussed as a problem in itself, only a problem women had to guard against. It always struck me what a gulf of difference there was in this respect between growing up/existing as a male and as a female. Would men tolerate an existence like this? I’m not sure – but I bet punishments for sex crimes would be greater and there wouldn’t be such a high price to pay for the victim. Rape is a recreational activity, a weapon of war and a method of discipline much more often than it is a crime.
      I’ve yet to meet a man who can understand how this implicit threat, fear and shame can combine to keep a woman silent – there’s a disconnect when it comes to understanding why women don’t speak out, and that always carries a hint of recrimination.
      I agree with you that, as women, we play a lage part in keeping this imbalance going. I hope that by talking about this, the next generations will see it for what it is and work to bring about the changes we never could in our lifetimes.

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  9. I wish that these experiences and concepts were less universal among women.I found myself nodding way too often while reading your post.

    Thanks for sharing. Lets keep discussing them. Just because it’s the way things are doesn’t mean it’s the way things have to be.

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    • Absolutely! The discussion doesn’t stop until the issues are understood and tackled. It continues as long as the problem exists.

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  10. This story breaks my heart and it reminds me just how lucky I was to be brought up in a family and country that values women. Don’t fear for your daughters, teach them that they are wonderful and should feel proud to be girls. If you believe you are an equal then people are more likely to treat you that way.

    I hope time and new experiences in Canada can heal your hurt, and make you realise that being a woman is really a blessing! Unfortunately, you can’t change what sex you were born.

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  11. Awww.. that’s a sad story. I went through a lot of hard times too in my own childhood and teenage days (but I got over it) My boyfriend helped me through a lot! I hope your life is going (much) better now!

    Reply
    • Thank you. It seems to be part of existence for most women.

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