“I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” – Maya Angelou
“You can’t play with us. You’re a girl.”
Girl. It spits harshly off his tongue as though my gender is a direct, detestable offense to his playground territory. Tears brimmed my delicate eyelids and I walked away, sensitive to the idea that inherently, I was an outcast. Undeterred, I secretly brought my Aurora soccer club jersey to school the following day. I slipped the mesh green “28” jersey with “Heather” on my back with pride during our lunch break. Come hell or high water, I was going to play – with the boys.
When recess commenced, like a first class ticket, the jersey bought me leverage and I was suddenly allowed to join the match. Insecure, it was the first time I ever muttered the word, “shit” – largely to fit in with the other 3rd grade posse kicking the ball around with me. Girl, or not, I just wanted to play.
The complexity of humanness strikes me when I watch a homeless man hold a cardboard box sign that reads “needing food.” I’m in the back-seat of my dad’s car, as he drives us home after a long day of school and sports practice. We’re eating the snacks he’s allowed us to purchase at 7-Eleven. Lance even has a freshly-printed pack of Pokémon cards, so you can be sure he was some kind of happy camper. I glance at this man, outside my window, probably even a few years older than my dad, and I ask myself, “who is he?” He’s not just a man. He’s a person, who happens to be hungry.
Yet, for some reason, I, a young girl, got to be in a warm car, with food, on the way home. I realize then that whatever – or whomever – I was wasn’t the full story. We aren’t the sum of our gender, of our incomes, of our jobs, of our status, of our families, of anything. We move between boundaries, definitions, and experiences, recognizing that our lives give expression to whom we become. I think about these things as a young girl because it seems to be the only way I can make sense of the world. What else am I supposed to think, when I see a hungry person on the side of the road?
I hid boxes of Kleenex under my bed. My best friend since the 4th grade was developing fast, already adorning large bras at the age of 12. To keep pace, I stuffed tissue into the small trainer bras that I was able to wear. I was preoccupied with my body and fixated on the fact that I didn’t have the slim, full-breasted look like my friends. Or in the magazines I saw at the grocery store. I was a flat-chested girl, with glasses, and face sprinkled with acne. I thought I was an ugly girl.
Sometime around the age of 16, I heard a sermon about submission. Not through the lens of Christ, but to men, specifically and most emphatically, men. My obedience, to a man, was equated to my reputability as a woman. It didn’t make sense to me. But, the Bible said something like it – so it had to be right, right? The legalistic nature of this, and many other morality clauses of the sacred texts would haunt me for years.
Eventually, the gospel broke through. Eventually, I saw the beauty, strength, and possibility of womanhood because of the message Jesus came to share. Before this, though, I experienced the real dangers that moral extremes bring to the expression of womanhood. Women are not meant to be controlled – but we are. Women are not meant to be sidelined – but we are.
A mentor of mine recently told me that at 83, and over 60 years of marriage, “there is no way in hell that I could have sacrificed my own inner strength for the sake of my husband.” She went on to say, “Our submission and partnership is built on a mutually exclusive commitment. I follow God – not my husband. I honor him. I listen to him. But, our relationship is give-and-take. God did not make me to be quiet. He gave me things to say. And dammit, I’m going to say them.” Her words brought healing. Her words brought permission to give life to the voice inside.
My life changed when I went to Mississippi and Alabama for the first time as a freshman in college. On our trip, to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, I spoke with two women that deeply informed my understanding of growing up and becoming. The first woman provided her testimony of survival at a rural church in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Her church had been burnt by the KKK in the 1960’s and she had then spent her life building reconciliation and forgiveness throughout the community – for people of all colors. The second woman was named Roslyn. I met her in Birmingham. I don’t remember much about the conversation other than that she appreciated a warm sandwich more than anyone I had met in a long time. She was in between jobs, trying to make ends meet, and she wasn’t going to give up.
One night, I stayed up late at the church that was hosting our stay. The sanctuary lights remained lit and I entered the sacred space. I stared at a portrait of Jesus for 30 minutes. I questioned everything I had ever been told. Womanhood, I realized, was much like the way God has formed our lives. With clay, He works like a potter, molding us, forming us, building us up. My life was also shaped by my own fingerprints. What did I want my life to say? Who would I become?
I didn’t become a Christian that night – I already was one. I became an independent thinker.
New Orleans, Louisiana is crowded, noisy, and bursting at the seams with fruity hurricanes, mojitos, and Jack Daniels, most noticeably during the long, lazy week of Spring Break. With two car-loads of my college girlfriends, we had made the trip down to the Bayou from Arkansas so I could work on my senior thesis. And, you know, do everything else that comes with Spring Break shenanigans. One night, we enjoyed a drink or two (and perhaps more) and were singing “Tik Tok” by KeSha on a random karaoke stage. I was energized and happy. With some of my favorite people, we were soaking up the last few months of our college experience.
Our show-stopping tune of karaoke finished just after 1:00am and so as I exited the stage, I noticed the drunken stupor of the crowd had risen. A particularly inebriated man, probably in his mid-40’s approached me hastily. He squeezed my butt and smiled. I didn’t say anything. He slurred ,”hi” and then wasted no time to proposition me – not before acknowledging that he had a wife and young baby at home.
I flipped out. Crying, distressed, and visibly upset, I walked back to the open air of Bourbon Street. I was mad he grabbed me. I was disrespected, as was his family, and it left an incredibly foul taste in my mouth. I was infuriated that he presumed he could do whatever he wanted.
I was new to the village, only having had moved to Ruramira the day before as my community’s first ever Peace Corps Volunteer. Successfully, I made it through my first night, and decided to introduce myself to the local government authorities. The office was a mile walk from my blue-green home. Putting one foot in front of the other, I absorbed the rolling mountains, the ubiquity of bananas, trees, and the songs of chirping birds. I lived in a beautiful, breath-taking community in the Eastern Province.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a man, Mugabire, joined me abrasively on the side of the road. I would learn later that Mugabire was Ugandan (and thus the reason behind his perfect English) and was often in trouble for causing issues with other individuals, especially women. I was new then, though, and I didn’t know this. Aggressively, he spoke and followed me on the long stretch of rural road.
“Hello, which country are you coming from?”
“Hi – I’m from America. The United States of America.”
“You’re in Rwanda. Why?”
“I’ve come here to learn about Rwanda, to make friends, to support this community, and to teach English at the local secondary school.”
It of course, all sounded quite rehearsed, but like I mentioned, I was a newcomer.
“Are you married?”
“Please. I want to sleep with you. I will marry you.”
Slightly alarmed, I pause, don’t say anything, and begin to look upon the horizon for people who might be nearby. I curse myself; it’s 11:00am and nearly everyone is working their fields, away from their homes. He presses further.
“Give me sex. I want your pussy – “
I interrupt this time and speak with every drop of boldness I have in my voice, “Please. Go. Leave me alone.”
It’s escalating and he calls me a bitch.
I start to run.
When I reach the local officials’ office, I’m crying hysterically. When I tell them this man was Mugabire, the shake their heads. “Oh Mugabire…Oh Mugabire…”
With 30 bright, young women singing self-made songs of hope and autonomy, my body feels out of balance, like I am flying. I’ve taught this girls’ group (GLOW – Girls Leading Our World) about periods, sex, confidence, relationships, public speaking, domestic violence, and identity. I’ve been teaching them for months, and I realize that in the process, I’ve been just as much of a student of them as they have been students for me. As they have worked to establish their voices at home and at school, they have released me of my own assumptions about men, about women, and about the unity of people together.
This group of women has brought together unique forces in our ecosystem of our community (the headmaster, local authorities, fathers, mothers, and brothers) to celebrate their successes as a recognized organization at our school. Their mission is to show that shared leadership is the only way forward in a society.
I close my eyes as the traditional Rwandan beat catches my ears. My soul dances, and I thank God that I was born who I was.
On a date arranged through online networking, I’m propositioned for sex in less than 10 minutes. I’m also asked when I last “put out” for someone else. This excuse of a person asks me three times to sleep with him as I sit across the table. Casually, he admits that he lied about certain parts of his online profile, and quickly, my instincts tell me that I could be sitting adjacent to a rapist.
I firmly respond with a hard “no.” In a flurry of goodbyes he attempts to punch my face. He calls me a “f****** bitch c***.” I run. Around the parking lot, I hide behind several cars that glisten under the night lamps. When I reach my car, I lock the door, and I shake without any possibility of stopping. The harassment continues via text message and I cannot feel safe. I am exposed, as if my dignity is torn apart. I am a woman. A mighty, gritty woman. Yet still, in a matter of minutes, someone else has been given license to threaten every piece that is holding me together.
Recently released from rehabilitation, I’m tasked with spending time with my brother for three days straight. He is getting clean, and to do so, he needs extra support to make sure he gets there. I’m recently returned from Rwanda (read: jobless) and my parents are all responding to their own working commitments and so, voila! Lance and I spend extra time together –more than we had spent together in the previous five years.
We start by doing what we do best: eating. Slowly though, like strangers getting to know each other for the first time, we go on long walks and dig through old notebooks and journals we wrote when we were younger. We laugh hysterically. We also cry together. We discuss hard things. Emotional things.
In the middle of a green belt, on the edge of Denver, I share parts of myself that at the time, I hadn’t yet revealed to other people in my family. My brother asks questions, gently, ever so kindly and hugs me after we finish our walk.
I won’t soon forget the way he looked at me. With the corners of his own pain so fresh on his heart, I could have understood if my own pain would be too much of a burden. But for him, it wasn’t. He listened, acknowledged it, and assured me that I was going to be okay.
Womanhood, in its optimal place, is a kind of freedom to be liberated; to be honest; to be open. My brother taught me that. A man. A gentle, kind, brilliant, passionate, man. That’s the beauty of this earth you know, that we all get to learn together like that. Everyone is a teacher.
It’s 2016, and I’m learning each and every day about what womanhood is all about.
For me, it’s never been dainty or distant. It’s not a journey of perfection or working far too much. Womanhood is releasing the notion that we have to save the world all by ourselves. Becoming a woman calls for incredible grace, a damn good sense of humor, and an ability to listen, see, and celebrate people. Tolerance – of anyone, male or female – is a sad expectation. Celebrate. Exploring my own feminism builds a trust in the communities we become a part of. It empowers men, recognizing that men are equally wonderful, interesting, and capable. Men do not hate women – and vice versa. And so, we must work together, to remove seeds of misunderstanding, hatred, and contempt. We have to call out discrimination, inequality, maltreatment, and hatred when we see it – male or female. And in a world, where women (and men) are harassed, we must do everything we can to stop it. We must be willing to acknowledge the dignity and value of others, even if that scares the hell out of you.
Being a woman propels me forward in this pursuit. For myself, for my future children – for all of us. It’s a worthy, worthy fight, my friends.
“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” – Maya Angelou