Young Girls and the Trap of “Somewhat” Rights

Do you ever notice how menstrual sanitary equipment is to be kept out of sight at all times but when you ask your brothers to clean their pubic hair off the toilet seat they tell you shut up and your mum says it’s natural, they’re boys? Do you ever want to tear your own eyes out?

Growing up female, you are conditioned to know, as soon as your first day in school, that there exist rowdier and stronger beings, and the wisest route to survival is staying out of their way. You start your interaction with the opposite gender with a subconscious policy of non-engagement. You don’t even wonder why a ‘one-boy, one-girl’ seating arrangement in class is a punishment — a strategy with no intelligent rationale meant to make students chatter less. It works, because you know you’re not to talk to boys. Girls that refuse to internalize this are the ‘bad’ girls — the class-disrupters, the unusual and annoying ones. It is not long before this sentiment congeals into apprehension, avoidance, and most precariously — acquiescence.

Everything about femininity is deliberately embalmed with fear and shrouded in a rough cloak of mystery. Everything boys do is ‘natural’ — they will beat each other up and call it play-time, they will be foul and aggressive and it will be adolescence. But things even more organic — and innocuous — like menstruation, are clandestine. Girls will shop for personal hygiene products and put them in brown paper bags so no one knows what they’re buying. Baby bumps must be concealed, even when the effort is pointless.

The system trains girls to live in constant denial of their own actuality.

The system seeks to perpetuate itself by trapping girls into becoming an accomplice to their own subjugation. The idea is to make out female rights to be a male subsidy — an allowance made by the intrinsically superior gender to keep households peaceful and functioning. A variant of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls ‘feminism lite’ is what seemingly progressive families sell to young women as the desirable ideal of womanhood — attractively called moderation. You can go out, but wearing this and not that. You are provided with the best of education, but learn to put up with your brothers.

This is problematic because girls grow up believing that this inadequate provision of rights is a generous handout to be grateful for, even when the right to mobility and to public space should not be an allowance. Still, how many times have you been told — and how many times have you agreed — that you should not venture into part of the city without your brother? How many times have you needed to recruit your male family members into a plan you wanted to execute, because all public places are designed to shift the epicenter of power to the men present? The indoctrination works because the system ensures it does. There is always an excuse for male behavior — sometimes just the fact of their gender — and no excuse is good enough for similar female behavior. Opprobrium comes more easily if the offender is female. The lack of accountability for male misconduct — at home and in litigation — makes sure there is constant fodder for the strengthening of the impression that this ‘adjusted’ brand of female freedom, that only serves as placation of the status quo, is for the best.

At home, female achievement is only valid if it is conspicuous. Often, boys have their academic achievement judged to lower standards. There is the tendency to draw outrageous equivalences between a boy who attended an expensive crash course and got an A and a girl who landed a distinction after sustained, organized study throughout the year. The male gender is a versatile instrument — it is both a justification for incompetence and a default achievement on a CV.

The precocious intelligence of girls is not an accident. They are made to be alert to the boundaries circumscribed for them, to learn to live within the fence where their agency terminates, to be presciently aware of the consequences if they do not. They have a voice, but not as loud or brash as their brothers. Their anger is mollified by the faux assurance that it is justified by not worthy — please stop arguing, you know he won’t, he’s a boy. Households everywhere are concerned with diffusion of the problem — not correction. The cost is always female.

This often manifests as an omnipresent need for girls to explain themselves. How many times has it been problematic to stay a couple hours overtime in your university library even when your brothers can return from tuitions at ten in the night? Girls, no matter how little (or old), will have more check posts to cross to have their demands approved. There is more accountability for them, and to harsher standards, the premise being that they are more vulnerable. Outside their homes, work places and institutions make sure the latter remains true. The scapegoat in such a landscape, with a topography that prioritizes and advantages men, are more often than not women.

All of this — this societal architecture constructed to make females renounce femininity in public and apologize for it at home — is a misplaced, appeasing, and bankrupt apparatus meant to offer ‘protection’. But what does it protect? Underage girls are still raped and maimed and the system shamelessly finds ways to use even this fact to reinforce its preservation.

What does it destroy? Female mental health. Female esteem. Female productivity. It does all of this very implicitly — telling girls that they have the “appropriate” amount of rights, that compromise is unavoidable no matter how basic the right. In select circumstances this contention may be valid, but mostly it is not. The predicament is that this is even an admissible didactic, one that is widely used to belittle and disintegrate female emotion and outreach. Borrowing again from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — being empowered is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not. There is no middle ground, no compromise. Girls should have the full glass, the full dance.


(Featured Image: Higher Level Art, Cincinnati, Ohio)

Alizah Hashmi

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