Book extract

Pumla Gqola is unconvinced by society's ideas of what girls should be

06 August 2017 - 00:00 By PUMLA DINEO GQOLA

We have all always known girls who did not act or think the way they were supposed to, even as children. I do not just mean the badly behaved outcasts. I mean those who were not quite convinced by ideas of what girls should be.
I was one of those girls. My little-girl self enjoyed many things that supposedly did not go together. I loved climbing trees, crawling into cupboards, and scurrying up anything that had a foothold and somewhere to place my hand. My passion for using my body to explore my surroundings did not temper my interest in more conventional girl interests.
I loved playing with dolls, playing on the swing, baking mud cakes with my sisters and drinking delicious imaginary liquids from our tea sets. In role-play I would imitate my mother and father equally, depending on the mood I was in. My favourite superhero was Hulk. It still is, although I developed my appetite for girl superheroes quite early on, hoping one day to discover one that looked like me.
Sit with my legs closed
While our parents allowed my sisters, brother and me to explore what we liked, when my grandmother visited I knew that the positions I found most comfortable were inappropriate. Gently at first, but later with some degree of irritation, Nkgono would instruct me to sit with my legs closed all the time.
I have always preferred to sit with my legs close to my body, or with my legs parted or in a variety of poses that feel comfortable. Sitting like a girl still feels restrictive, although these are the positions I assume in public spaces now. Alone, or in my own or the homes of my friends, I continue to sit with my legs close to my upper body. I learnt the lessons my grandmother imparted. Where I felt comfort, Nkgono saw danger in various guises.Perhaps she was thinking of how this unfettered comfort in my own body would make me vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Many women are taught to try to carry our bodies in specific ways in order to be safer from sexual violence. Or maybe, the danger she saw was that I would eventually turn into an adult who was not a woman in appropriate feminine, respectable ways to marry.
She must have known from her own life how little room there would be for a girl who had the ridiculous notion that sitting was about comfort for girls. Nowadays, I choose to think that she was trying to cushion me from a string of vulnerabilities she suspected awaited me when I stepped out into the world.
From her lived experience, she understood that it was not a country and world hospitable to someone like me. Sebabatso Ramapepe was born between the world wars in Lesotho, in a colonised country called a British protectorate where girls' education was not guaranteed. She had moved to marry my grandfather, Sakiya Gugushe, and together they had moved to Johannesburg. As a woman who has several times packed up my life to move across the country or to countries on another continent, I know something about the angst and thrill of the unknown departure to start a new life.
Still, my own movements happened after 1994, and I had middle-class safety nets in the form of multiple degrees, scholarships or employment. My Nkgono was barely an adult when she left Lesotho, the only country she had ever known, for another country to live with a man she hoped to build a happy life with. I am both awed and stunned by the courage and wilfulness it took to be this woman in the first half of the twentieth century. It is obvious that her life very directly made mine possible - not just in the biological sense, but in ensuring the kind of woman my mother could become, and as I grow older I am surprised by how much of Sebabatso is in the fabric of my view of the world.
Once she had settled in Crown Mines in Johannesburg, with her teacher-turned-clerk husband, and as she became a mother, I cannot imagine the terror of watching the dawn of apartheid with five small children, the vulnerabilities to white men's violence and black men's sexism. Now I mull over the things I do not know about her as a young woman, what she was able to create in a context that sought to contain her. She can be forgiven for wanting to shield me from a racist, sexist world that did not care about what Blackgirls wanted, and one that violated them as a matter of course.
Predatory white railway officials
When I asked her why she insisted on correcting my sitting, her answers did not satisfy me. I do know that as she corrected me, she would tell me to sit like a girl. When I read the exquisite short stories of the pioneering South African feminist author, Miriam Tlali, in which she writes often about women characters travelling between Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Lesotho, I often wonder about my grandmother's trips.Tlali's women characters constantly negotiate how to escape the snares of opportunistic, predatory white railway officials in inventive ways. They are wonderful examples of feminist imagination - unflinchingly attentive to how racism and patriarchy create specific areas of vulnerability for Blackwomen under apartheid. But her stories are also feminist in the kinds of strategies the writer puts at the disposal of her characters. Sometimes when I read Tlali, I wonder about my Nkgono, older, making and remaking that journey from one home to another.
As my grandmother continued to police my posture, I noticed that none of my boy cousins had to sit uncomfortably, because they were boys. Later, I understood too that a penchant for climbing was not deemed appropriate girl behaviour by others, although she was indifferent to my penchant for climbing. I was a chubby, clumsy child who climbed passionately but inelegantly and therefore fell constantly. Nkgono must have realised that climbing would soon be impractical for a girl and later woman's life.
Mama feared I would lose an eye, break a limb or crack my skull. After each fall, and sometimes before my tears dried, I would be challenging my little body to further heights. My body still bears some of the scars - on my inner eyelid, the side of my face, my knees and shins. I wear these barely visible nicks and scrapes with a joy even greater than the one I derive from my inked skin. My skin has long let go of traces of my numerous bruises and even these scars are hard to spot to the inattentive eye. But they are there. My body carries the memory of these scrapes, scars, bruises and tears like heaps of stories of joy and pain. Mine is a well-lived-in body that continues to be stretched to new adventures.
If being taught to sit like a girl had been my initial introduction to proper ways of being a girl, school drove this point home. In watching my primary school playmates, and being further socialised into being a good girl, there were constant echoes of Nkgono's words.
My friend Pamela, whose name we all pronounced Pahmehlah, disliked dresses, dolls, tea sets and playing dress up. We all disliked needlework, and the annual sewing projects made little sense. It took a lifetime to finish those dresses we produced. They were too large for dolls and too small for any girls we knew, in strange brightly coloured fabrics none of us found pretty. Remembering to fold the material we took months to sew was a nuisance. Ensuring that we lost neither thread nor needles were our first lessons in anxiety.Most of Pam's friends were boys and she enjoyed their company and games. Yet, she was required to wear her shirt under a black tunic we called "gym dress" for school uniform. She felt awkward in a dress but was punished when she arrived at school wearing grey trousers. Pam was denied permission to take gardenwork in place of needlework as a subject. More dramatically, she was often told to stop thinking she is a boy, to act like a girl, and fight her "tomboy" urges.
Girls who do what they want
Watching her collectively bullied by children and some adults brought home the lessons of what happens to girls who do what they want. So, at school, many of us hid who we really were in order to act like proper girls. But we admired Pam, and our fascination grew.
We also learnt that our full selves as girls were too much for school, and that we needed to keep those parts hidden, and to show support for transgressive girls in coded ways. A few of us remained her friends even if we never fully revealed the parts of ourselves that were drawn to her capacity to be so fully herself. And often we stood up for her when others sought to shame her back into her place as a girl, although this also depended heavily on how threatened we were by the shamers.The older we grew, the more acutely I felt this sense of injustice - as I sprouted breasts and started bleeding every month, and as the differences between girls and boys became starker. I was taught that there were good boys and bad boys. Good boys could be friends. One of the good boys wrote me my first love letter, but he was also bad in the ways that made him interesting to have as a friend when you were a girl. He was friends with Pamela too.
But mostly, girls and boys were supposed to be very different. The older we grew, the more frequent the reminders, even though we were all still little children. As a parenting adult, I marvel at how small children are until the age of 12, especially when I realise how many ideas about gender we had been taught by then, and how sexual some of these were.
Boys could have several girlfriends
Girls had to wait for boys to approach them rather than initiating contact. Boys could have several girlfriends and be admired for such prowess. Girls had to keep their virginity in check otherwise they would have to leave school, even when they were impregnated by known sexual predators. Even when hurt, girls had to control themselves. And boys who stepped out of line and were not boy enough were equally open to ridicule, but they did not have to leave school.Being a girl was a mess of emotions. I liked being a girl. But I hated how strangers sexualised me. A man in his twenties once asked me whether I had grown hair on different parts of my body yet, before I had finished primary school. This was a man who had previously treated me like a younger sister.
I had the presence of mind to tell my mother what he had said and to point him out to her the next time we encountered him. Not one to hold back when a loved one is pained, my mother tore into him, but I continued to avoid him until he moved away many years later. His comment reminded me that I was not his sister, that he felt entitled to humiliate me, and that I could very quickly move from intimacy to danger. At the same time, I was aware of how many times girls were required to keep ourselves in check, so I understood that his treatment of me was anchored in the fact that I was a girl.
It did not come from the place of love as my Nkgono's unwelcome lessons about my body did. As an adult woman, understanding this difference has helped me deal with the resentment, guilt and shame from these lessons.
• This is an edited extract from Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist, published by MFBooks Joburg, R240

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