I, on a regular basis, hate being a girl. I hate not being permitted to do certain things, or not being physically strong enough to do some of them. My personality is pushy and sometimes abrasive, and empathy is something I have to genuinely work at. I'm a lousy seamstress and have the patience to do crafts about once a year. No matter how hard I try, I see no reason to judge my own worth based on the cleanliness of my house, the quality of my culinary delights, or the fashionability of my clothing.* The only feminine-ish thing I do is ballet, and even there, I'm not a dainty or beautiful ballerina. I dance because it makes me feel free, which means that my favorite dancing is the dancing I do alone, not for the pleasure of others. (For the record, I've never worn a tutu.)
I occasionally feel guilty for disliking my gender. As though I've betrayed some girl code or am a disappointment to my sisters who are fighting for equality or blah blah blah. But then I get told I can't attend a karate class I was counting on to keep me in shape, or I can't go to a cafe because I'll be the only woman there, or I can't play soccer. Because I'm a girl. And guess what happens to the guilty feelings?
Over the last two years, though, I've discovered a tonic that soothes my frustration and disillusionment. I saw it in full force this week.
The scene was karate class, a class I've not been allowed to attend since I arrived here almost six weeks ago. The issues revolved around the fact that it was a class of all men, in a studio with no windows, at 8:30 pm. And I work at the women's center, which means I'm influencing people's daughters and wives. Which means I have to care about my reputation if I want to keep working in this town. Which meant that when they told me I wasn't allowed to engage in the one exercise opportunity I'd found here, I was really frustrated, but (after venting into my pillow for ten minutes and praying for twenty more) I eventually had to accept it.
I've spent the last six weeks teaching a boys' gymnastics class at this same karate studio, so the people in the neighborhood and at the studio have gotten to know me. The people of the town as a whole have learned that I've been a teacher of dance and gymnastics, and that I'm hoping to offer classes in both of those; a sports teacher staying in shape is less scary than a young woman playing the siren with all those men in the karate studio. I've spent hours sitting at the women's sewing club, fighting my way through the process of learning to crochet (I am certifiably awful at it!) I've gone to lunch at home after home, played with child after child, and as I write this, there's a batch of no-bake cookies cooling on my counter, which I'm planning to take tomorrow as gifts for many of the people who've helped me find my place in this town.
And, now that said place is decently established, I was allowed to take a karate class on Wednesday. Of course, my fabulous sense of direction meant I got lost on the way, so I stopped to ask directions of two girls. They shyly offered to walk me there, and as we walk, we talked. I learned that their names were Iman and Fatima and that they are ten years old. I told them about the ballet class I'm starting on Monday, and their eyes grew as round as saucers when I demonstrated a double pirouette, right there in the street.
Twenty minutes later, we're in the middle of the karate warm-up when I see them steal into the room. There are usually a few young boys who come to watch the karate class, but it's the first time I've seen a girl come. They'd stayed until class was almost over, and each time I glanced their way, their eyes were following my every move.
Thursday night was the regular gymnastics class. This time, there were five little girls. They didn't talk, didn't ask to join, but there was a hunger in the way they watched me spotting cartwheels across the floor.
Tonight, karate was immediately after a women's English class I taught at the youth center, so I happened to be walking that direction with several of the young women I know. When I told them where I was going, they asked if they could come watch. One told me that she'd been a yellow belt, before her family made her stop. She asked if she could tie my belt for me.
All class long, I was so very conscious of their eyes on me, and I've never felt more pressure. I knew I should take it easy, because I have a healing injury and I'm out of shape and I'm new to karate, but that row of watchers (six little girls and three young women) made it impossible to give anything but my best. That row of watchers gave me something to prove.
At the end of class, the teacher asked me if I'd teach some gymnastics to these grown men, and the girls watched delightedly as the men attempted clumsy cartwheels and executed surprisingly good forward rolls. Then, as most of the men went to shower and change, the teacher glanced at the row of girls and asked if I'd demonstrate some ballet.
Picture this, please. Bulky karate clothes, at least two sizes too big. The studio as hot as a sauna, and sweat pouring off me in buckets. A newly-healed injury and a badly bruised foot, and every muscle in my body aching because I've exercised more in the last three days than in the last six weeks. Knowing that I've danced once since coming to Morocco, that I don't have my ballet slippers, that my muscles feel like jello already.
But I couldn't say no. There was such hope in their eyes. I couldn't say no.
I found “I Hope You Dance” on my iPod; it seemed fitting. I let the music pull me in, closed my eyes and let myself forget about the world and just dance. As usual, the comfortable steps took me away from aching muscles and dripping sweat. Unlike usual, the freedom was mixed with pressure. I wasn't dancing just for me. This was something bigger.
I'm pleased to report that our first adult ballet class will be next week. No men allowed. Just us, and the dance, and a place where they, too, can feel free.
Sometimes, I don't hate being a girl.
*I realize that I grossly exaggerate what it means to be a woman, and for that, I [sort of] apologize. I could continue ranting, but instead, I'll just say I'm sorry if I offended you.
**I also realize that not all of my frustrations about being female apply in every place I've lived. They've certainly grown and changed since I started living in more conservative cultures, but the core of all this holds true most everywhere. I also didn't even touch on the issue of violence, which is such a big frustration that it shouldn't be called just a frustration, and that certainly exists everywhere.