Day 4 of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence: Redefining Strong Women

I was 16 and in high school. Awkward as can be. Some of my friends have fully developed and seemed to be so sure of themselves and their sexuality.  They seemed to know how to flirt effortlessly. They knew how to wave their hair the right way, walk the right way, and say the right things at the right time.

Not me.

I grew up around strong women who defined how a woman should be for me. My grandma from my mom side is a simple woman with big dreams. Selling siomay (dimsum) and taoco (fermented soy beans) in the wet market and supplying it to supermarkets, she dreamed of sending all her children to university.

She did.

And to Germany too nonetheless.

My other grandma from my dad side was really small in stature but you would never notice that when you are in her presence.  She raised 8 children while running a dairy farm with my grandpa. She raised a beautiful vegetable garden, cook up a storm for everyone every single day, sew all our clothes and at the same time, she also somehow managed to find the time to start a co-op in the area and received a presidential award for it. Despite her small stature, she had the ability to fill the room with her ideas and energy.

I have 6 aunts from my dad side, and two from my mom side. All are portraying the same image. They are all hard workers, smart, witty, and brave.

From a very early age, my cousins and I (which mostly are also girls), were taught to do all these things too. We learned to gossip about boys while keeping our hands at a steady rhythm cleaning my grandmother’s freshly picked cloves.

We learned to dance and sing along to MTV videos without spilling the milk we were packing into small plastic bags to sell.

Surrounded by all these women in my life, you would think that I would grow up comfortable being around woman.

I did.

In my house.

Within the confines of my family.

But outside of that, the women I was surrounded with were different.

The women around me knew how to put on flawless make up including the ever elusive no make-up make up. No one ever taught me to put on make-up.

The women around me knew just what the latest trend is and how to look effortlessly trendy.

But we never had any fashion magazine lying around the house.

The women around me knew how to laugh coquettishly while all the women in my family would simply just burst out laughing.

The women around me knew how to keep boys on their toes, but no one ever taught me how to deal with boys, except for the one mantra my grandmother always said in loop: “Make sure you are never dependent on anyone but yourself.”

So when my hormones kicked in and boys started to seem interesting, I didn’t know the first thing about getting them interested in me as more than just friends. I had a lot of male friends. Some of my very best friends until today are still males. But that was just it. I was one of them and not exactly their object of desires.

I spent my youth in a constant battle with myself. When boys showed interests in me, I felt like they have betrayed our pact of friendship. When they didn’t, I felt undesired and it brought me down. When I felt down, I turned it into anger.

It was a time I never wanted to go back to.

I was 16 and my best friend at the time was a very sexual girl. She flirted with men who were 10-15 years older than us. She would hit up with strangers we met at cafés, movie theatres, clubs, anywhere really . She was everything I have never known before.

In a world where sex is a universal social currency, she was rich and I was darn poor.

Hanging out with her was an exciting experience for me. She would break all the rules without blinking. If she needed a new dress to go to a party, she would just stole one from the nearest department store. If she saw someone she liked, she would roll up her skirt, opened up a button, and walked up to the person. She was oozing with confidence and sex appeal. Or in short, she was oozing with everything I never knew.

I remember talking to my grandma (of all people) about it and she told me that there is a time in every woman’s life where you just bloom and attract bees (I think she meant boys). The difference between each woman would just be the number of bees you attract.  Some attracts many, some attracts a few, and some would just attract one. She stopped short from telling me which category she thought I would fall under.

One night, my friend and I went to a café we’ve been frequenting because she was interested in one of the band members there. As she was talking to them, I decided to go to the toilet. As I entered the cubicle, one of the café’s  staff forced himself into the cubicle I was entering. I’ve always thought he was hot and cute but the fact that he just showed up and forced himself into the cubicle scared me senseless.

I told him to get out. He grabbed my waist instead.

I told him to stop. He kissed me instead.

I pushed him away, he grabbed my breasts.

All the alarms have gone off in my head but yet, there was a nagging fear of reacting stronger. What would he think of me if I screamed? What would my friend say if she knew I cried just because someone kissed me? What is happening to me right now is nothing compared to the stories of her sexual adventures. As my brain was doing this gymnastic, my body was reacting to the touches and I felt betrayed. In the end, it was the embarrassment and anger of my body’s betrayal that pushed me to give it my all to push past this man and ran out. I kept running until I found a public phone and called my dad.

It was 2 am in the morning. Two hours past the time I told him I was going to be home. He picked up the phone and all I could say was, “Please pick me up.” He did. He showed up in record time and picked me up.  He stayed behind the wheel without a word. Clenching his fist as I sat there quietly. He stopped at the side of the road to get me hot chocolate. I waited for him to ask me questions or to get angry. But he never did.  As I lay in bed that night, he came into my room and kissed my forehead, “Thank you for calling me. I am glad you did.” And that was all that was ever said about that night.

My friend never bothered checking in on me that night and when she asked me about it the next morning, I was too angry to answer. I was angry at so many things. I was angry at myself for not standing my ground. I was angry at the man for forcing himself onto me. I was angry at my friend. I was angry at my body for betraying me. But despite all the things I was angry about, I was grateful that I had sense enough to call home. I was grateful that my dad didn’t ask for any explanation or blamed me for being stupid.

Fast forward 20 somewhat years later. As I am writing this, I can vividly remember the brain gymnastic I did that night.  Along with it, I also remember all the times in the past 20 years that I had sex that I didn’t really enjoy but went through with it anyway. I remember all the times I gave up saying no because I felt l didn’t have a choice.

Why did I feel like I didn’t have a choice?

Why did I go along and had sex I didn’t really want?

Was it the need to belong? Or was it the need to feel desired?

Was it hormones? Or was it my insecurities?

Why was I so scared of breaking the peace of everyone around me?

Why did I feel the happiness of others is more important than my own?

My grandmother from my mom side said she never loved my grandpa. She was in love with someone else, but was forced to marry my grandpa instead. She used to tell us how every sexual intercourse felt like rape. It never used to make sense to me why she would agree to feeling this way all her life. But now I think I can understand her better. It was the feeling of not having a choice. It was the need to be a good daughter and follow her parents’ will.  It was the feeling of having to be strong and not complain.

I grew up among strong women. Strong amazing women who are crazy as shit and who love their kids to the edge of sanity. I grew up among them and became one of them.

But now I realize that maybe we are defining the word “strong” all wrong.

Maybe being strong doesn’t mean enduring our pain without complaining. Maybe being strong means that we can endure the consequences of speaking up. Maybe being brave should mean being brave enough to claim our own happiness.

Writing this down has not been easy even after all the years that has passed and where I am today.  There is still discomfort about airing your own dirty laundry.  There is still worry that I might be hurting others by writing this. There are still insecurities because this time, I don’t have my dad who could come and keep me safe.

But it’s time to discuss this more openly. It is time for us to reflect and discuss why after all that has been done in the women’s movement, many women are still doing a brain gymnastic when faced with violence.  Why are we still not comfortable talking about our experiences with violence? Why are we still not able to create a safe zone for women to talk, to speak, and to share their experiences?

We still have a lot of homework to do. And we need to start doing it now.

In our name, in the name of our foremothers, in the name of our daughters, in the name of our sons, in the name of women and girls everywhere.

#speakup #hearmetoo #tellyourstory #shareyourstories





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