Prepared by: Uresa Ahmeti
“My small-non existent penis”. That’s the title of the first spoken word poem I ever wrote as a protest against the “being a woman” to-do-list. Just to avoid any confusion, I identify with the sex and gender I have been assigned to, which is a female and a woman. Which apparently comes with the “terms and conditions” package. Package which we assumably have a choice towards. Ironically enough, it’s like when you try to install a random game or social media app, which you can’t install without agreeing to the terms and conditions.
If you’re thinking whether a dystopian tone is what I just used I’ll save you some time and answer with a ‘yes!’. Sadly, this tone matches the reality. When being a female and a woman in an Albanian society, and not only, it is easy to draw parallelisms to the one with apps I just drew to the situation. I guess that’s why I even produced the ”small non-existent penis” in the first place. It was funny at first when I got stuck in a conversation with a white male on gender stereotypes, expectations and beauty standards. Said shortly, the “terms and conditions” you have to agree to for a peaceful easy living as a woman. While I was doing the whole “we need to get rid of social constructs on beauty standards and boxes of expectations assigned to genders” talk, the guy with a super serious tone gave me the “you look like a boy anyway so I don’t see what’s your problem” argument. That wasn’t enough for him, so he went on with the “I could easily assume you have a small penis under your pants”.
The significance of this little moment doesn’t rely on the fact that I could have easily been offended by being called a boy, or being assumed I have a penis. It’s rather about the rationale behind such simple words. Again, that brings me to the “terms and conditions” of my sex and gender. Short hair, baggy pants, loose shirt, sneakers, no makeup or polished nails or shaved legs, doesn’t fit under the “woman” box full of bullet points waiting for us to check.
I’d be happy if this was just a personal story, easily forgotten and I could move on. Unfortunately, it is not. As Malala highlights, she shares her story for it being a common one, rather unique, which matches my motif of sharing my story.
Now, coming back to the “terms and conditions” to being a woman, what I refer to is the norms we need to follow in order to be a woman who has a vagina and avoid having to explain to people that for real you don’t have a penis. To just throw some relatable examples, for instance not wearing the “boys’ clothes”, having relatively long hair, knowing how to cook, “acting like a lady” and the list goes on and on.
Now I remember when I was young I was taught to sit with my legs crossed on the couch, even though it felt painfully uncomfortable for me because opened legs sent the message of me “asking for it”. Later on, I was always facing comments like “no one’s gonna take you as a wife since you don’t cook and clean”. As I grew up so did my body hair. For my bad luck at that time, I have really dark thick body hair. And that started making me feel uncomfortable. I started shaving when I was 12-13 since I felt embarrassed when people made the “your legs look like a man’s legs” comments because of my hair. Again, being a woman meant having shiny, perfectly-shaved, just-like-a-barbie-doll’s legs.
There are tons of concrete examples I could start naming on what different communities expect from women to meet in order for them to have a good reputation. But I’ll let you think of how many you can come up with on your own and instead show how not agreeing to the “terms and conditions” can bring really inconvenient situations. Besides being assumed I had a penis, I was chased to the girls’ bathroom and stopped by a McDonald’s employee. An action which was followed by a “Sorry this is the lady’s room!” comment, while one of her hands was keeping the door and the other one was towards my chest to stop me from entering. I blame wearing not-skinny-jeans and my no-long-hair for this situation. Similarly, I was yelled at and stopped by security in an airport when trying to pass security check through the “women’s line” of security, which was followed by a really high volume of “THIS IS THE LADIES’ LINE!”. These stories can be good funny ones to share with a midnight snack and a room full of friends at a sleepover for once, but simultaneously make me feel concerned about the extent to which social constructs harm one’s well being.
And when I say well-being, I’m talking about the isolation of one’s true self, emotional instability, mental health issues, anxiety. No wonder why anorexia or bulimia are so prevalent in our societies. Different cultures and contexts may have different terms and conditions for genders, but they all intersect at one main point, the consequences they have on people, some of which I already mentioned above.
Just reflect on how many times you’ve called yourself “fat”, although you honestly just don’t have abs. Think of how many of your friends go to the gym, not because they care for their physical health, but rather to have a bigger but and a super-flat stomach to solely satisfy the ”beach body” look. Think of all the photoshopping that happens to models to make them look “hot”, a.k.a skinny and curvy. Think of the need you feel to shave during summer when your legs are exposed. Think of maybe even the time when you forgot to shave and just completely got red because someone saw you with some hair in your body. Think of how many jokes you’ve made about how winter is awesome because you don’t have to shave. Think of how many times you’ve worn a bra which is bigger than your boobs and why you might have done that. Think of why you even a wear a bra in the first place. Now try to think of how many things you do, because you’re a woman and it’s just what you have to do. And then zoom out, look at the bigger picture – the social constructs which define who you should be as a woman from the moment you are born as such.
Finally, think of how healthy that is for you and how rebelling against these constructs, not agreeing to the “terms and conditions”, might be healthier for who you are. It took me months and months to feel proud of my unshaved hair on my legs and wear shorts when I feel like it, but it is what makes me happy and empowered. (As a side note: I highly suggest reading the “Hair” monologue Eve Ensler wrote in her “The Vagina Monologues”, and all of them actually if you really want to hear more about social structures and taboos around the female body and their regressive progression up to violence).
Similarly, a woman shared her concerns about what I’ve been talking about in the “I call myself a feminist: twenty-five women under thirty” book. “There are currently two types of women,” she writes, “The woman on the billboards and the woman who grow up feeling wrong”. She further elaborates on the reason why she is a feminist, and that is because she hates that she was never given the opportunity to embrace, what she names as “my own version of womanhood”, a kind that “is inclusive of all kinds of women”.
Lastly, my point is not to send a wrong message of how women should not agree with any norm just for the sake of being rebellious. My point is that we, women, should be aware of the existing social structures and their consequences on our health and empowerment, the extent to which they silence and repress us, and simply remind ourselves that we don’t have to agree to the “terms and conditions” package if we don’t want to, without being less of a woman. IT’S TIME TO SHAPE OUR OWN VERSION OF A “GOOD WOMAN”!