*[lit. ‘bastard/illegitimate daughter’, but also commonly translated as ‘whore’, as the implication is that ‘illegitimate daughters’ become prostitutes]
I was driving my cousin home from class. We were deadlocked in traffic, making conversation to make the time pass.
He appeared, with a friend, out of the throngs of people making their way to buses, looked through my windshield, locked eyes with me and said, “ya bit al7aram” [hey whore]. His friend smiled. I looked away. That was the entire exchange. I didn’t run his foot over. I didn’t hit him with my car. I didn’t say anything to him. The only “initiation” I made was to have been staring off in his general direction.
Sadly, this is not the first time I have been called a whore (to my face; God only knows how many times I have been called that behind my back), although not in such blunt phrasing. The summer I turned 15 was one that taught me some hard life lessons, and redefined my relationship with Sudan, and with my family. But before I get to that, some background.
I live in a household outnumbered by men. I don’t have sisters, but I do have two older brothers who I have spent the better half of my life trying to impress. My father and I are, for lack of a better term, ‘besties’. The term ‘girl’ was used as an [harmless] insult at home (“eew, are you crying? You’re such a girl!”). I am also part of a male-dominated extended family. As a result, I grew up a tomboy, and have always found it easier to interact with boys. The older I got, the more tomboyish I became, and the less I could relate to my female cousins, who started to become interested in makeup, hair, and boys. In Sudan, marriage between cousins/extended family is a fairly normal practice, but as someone who grew up abroad, I didn’t comprehend it. More than that, I was disgusted by it. That, apparently, was my problem.
15 years old and completely uninterested in anyone around me (in that way), I became everyone’s confidante. I spent my summer in hushed (and not so hushed) conversations with my male cousins, about everything. But to the society I was in, it was strange for me to be spending so much time with boys. My family tried to get me to spend a little more time with my female cousins, but eventually they gave up. Unbeknownst to all of us, word started to spread. “Why was she spending so much time with these boys? That’s that European influence. Her parents should really have a talk with her. I heard she….”
Rumors went flying, and eventually, they reached my mother. She pulled me into the kitchen one afternoon towards the end of the vacation and let loose a hysterical tirade of thoughts, commands, and admonishments, many of which went by too fast for my brain to understand. In the beginning, I kept repeating, “Mom, what are you talking about? I don’t know what you’re talking about!”, but then I just stopped talking altogether. I waited for her to finish. The gist was, stop spending time with boys.
“They’re not boys, they’re my cousins!”
“I don’t care.”
I was irate. I was hurt. I was confused. I was dumbstruck. In all my tough-exterior tom-boyishness, I cried. Hard. I couldn’t understand why my mother didn’t trust me, why she would believe these ridiculous rumors over her own daughter. But at 15, I couldn’t see the tremendous pressure she was under having to hear these things about her daughter, probably from people very close to her, that she knew weren’t true, that she knew were based not on fact but on twisted perception of her daughter’s personality and upbringing. In her panic, she saw the only solution was to cut it off at the root, to punish me to appease the community – to protect me.
I spent the next couple of days a recluse. I refused to talk to anyone, especially my mother; I ate just enough so that people wouldn’t nag. I begged my father to send for me to come home. My mother, on the other hand, treated me normally, as if nothing had happened.
She asked me to go with her to visit an auntie, and in “I have zero f*s left to give” mode, I silently obeyed. We arrived at the auntie’s house, and I was sent to my cousin’s room to “hang out”. I was silent, despite my cousin’s constant chatter about this and that. Eventually, she noticed my complete lack of participation, and asked me what was wrong. I didn’t say anything. She asked again. “Just forget it”, I replied. She pushed and prodded, assuring me that whatever it was it would stay between us, that it would make me feel better. The floodgates opened, and I spilled out the story of what happened with my mom and what she had said.
“I can’t even believe it! It’s like….. She was basically calling me a whore!”
Time stopped. I blacked out for a couple of seconds, and when I came to I was seeing red. “WHAT?!”
My cousin went on to explain how I actually do kinda sorta give that impression. “You know, you just spend a lot of time with the guys….. you can’t blame her”.
I walked out of the room, suffered in silence through the rest of my vacation, and vowed never to come back to Sudan.
In many ways, the random stranger who called me a whore without provocation or probable cause is not much different than my cousin who confirmed the rumors of my whorish ways; he was just brave enough to say the words. At the time, I expected more of my cousin. I expected that as my family, she would put me first, that she would believe me over others, that she would see me for who I really was. I was shocked by the stranger’s bold statement (which he yelled loud enough for me to hear through closed windows and playing car stereo, which means he must have really wanted me to know) because I couldn’t understand what would make him say something like that. But I never stopped to question – how did they see me?
Let’s look at the facts:
At 15 years of age, I was a girl who lived in France (they invented kissing!), and spent all her time with boys, claiming to have no interest in any of them (yeah, likely story). I wore pants and short sleeved t-shirts and no scarf at an age when most are starting to cover up. I didn’t assume the posture of a young lady, often sitting on the floor with legs crossed, or leaned back in a chair with one arm over the back. All the makings of a ‘woman’ who was way too comfortable with her body to not have used it for sex before, many times. Makes sense.
Yesterday, I was wearing a long sleeve shirt, but the sleeves were pulled up (ugh, you’re the worst). The shirt was red (wasn’t that the Whore of Babylon’s favorite color?). I was driving an SUV (probably given to you by your sugar daddy). I get it now.
We’re taught to look for the flaws in others, to label and expose them. Some believe they’re doing it as a service – to show you the error of your ways, to keep you honest. For others, they do it to keep themselves safe, to keep eyes off them and the focus elsewhere. And for a not-so-select few, it’s just a way to pass the time.
How does that work, though, when our sense of what is flawed is, in itself, flawed?