When I was younger, I wanted to move like a dancer, like a poet, like the kind of tree that sheds those helicopter leaves always twirling in centripetal chaos. This was before my body changed into womanhood. Before curves filled the safety of my flatness. Instead of dancing in the streets I learned to hide from the heavy gaze of men. I learned to come home before dark rather than play in the sparkling twilight of city lights and children’s laughter ~
I learned to shrink rather than expand into the core of me. If I could not move my body, I learned to move my mind. And so I am here. sedately typing this on my phone, legs crossed in perfect femininity, eyes averted lest I make the mistake of smiling inadvertently at a stranger and reap the consequences of that fleeting eye contact.
I learned that good Pakistani girls serve tea such that their hands never make contact with non-family men. Handle facing him while I carefully held the saucer – so careful, always so careful. I did not know then that care is needed when handling the power men violently wish I did not possess.
I learned what was proper for hands, for breasts to be covered fully by a dupatta. I learned control. I learned sabr (patience) and izzat (respect). These are both required for restricting the movements of women.
Later, I learned that this restriction was not unique to my experience. That there is a history to this, a strategy, a plan. Women’s bodies have power. So do their words, especially in the naming of things. Patriarchy, toxic masculinity, heteronormativity, docile bodies, misogyny, intersectionality – these are but a few that have restored movement in my body, in my breath, in my being. I know now what is happening so now I know how to move back to my center. To restore balance that has been so strategically destabilized.
I choose how to move now – eyes once shyly averted now state intentions boldly back to say “do not try me today. I will burn you smoldering where you stand.” Though there remains shrinking from unwanted contact, there is now movement in the tongue, so full of simmering rage, it smokes on its way out.
These days, I am working on becoming the helicopter leaf blowing joyously in the wind – it will take time but on days like today I hear the shimmer of its promise, waiting for me to dance twirling towards the sky. I will only ever choose to float up.
* This was written in honor of Ruth George, a young woman killed on my campus at UIC three days ago for ignoring the catcalls of a man who then followed her into the parking garage and raped and murdered her. I am still processing that fury, so the call for posts was really appreciated in trying to get this out.