Girl This, Boy That: The limiting gender contract of a patriarchal society

By Zenzo Sishange


Many weird accusations and confrontations happen in a patriarchal society. I write as a lesbian woman who has always been accused of wanting to be a man. To many people, having sex with another woman means that I am challenging men’s entitlement and sometimes uncontrollable urges to have sex with women. This male monopoly on women’s bodies has been successfully legitimised by indoctrinated clergymen, confused traditional leaders and ignorant politicians. My womanhood is put under public scrutiny to indulge homophobic and sexist appetites without my consent.

I was probably five years old when I was first asked if I am a girl or boy. One might argue that the underdeveloped body of a five year old sometimes makes it difficult to tell if the child is a boy or a girl. Not in my case. The question was asked to shame me into looking like the girl society desired to see.

I have always preferred keeping my hair short, wearing pants and playing with boys. I was the typical tomboy. I was not like other girls. Little girls asked the question because they were anxious on my behalf. There I was, a girl going in and out of the intimidating and thrilling world of boys. They just did not understand how I did it. Little boys asked because I was better than them at soccer and marbles. They hated it.

Grown-ups asked because they regretted that my mother and I had failed each other and felt it was their duty to correct my wrong upbringing as co-parents under the social contract. Are you a boy or a girl? Everyone asked me something I had not cared to ask myself. Many did not care to hear my answer. They concluded that given my confusing presentation of self, it was appropriate to call me ntombazane-mfana.

I really did not care if I was a boy or a girl. Everyone cared on my behalf. It was really weird that they felt compelled to remind me that I was not acting like someone who was expected to submit to the limiting contracts of gender. It was impossible to escape this question. They were determined to remind me that I was a girl and they did so in the most intrusive, hateful and violent ways.

When I was six years old, my step-father’s cousin reminded me with his penis. The community punished him with some heavy beating but the shame was not exclusive to him. I carried some of it and now everyone had a twisted reason why I should stop playing with boys, which was strange because the man who had violated me, was not among the boys I played with.

The community seemed to care about me. Their little girl was violated. They pitied me. I was not their little girl when I ran up and down the street rolling my tyre. I was definitely not their little girl when they interrogated me, called me ugly and boyish, when I was happy being me. They disgusted me.

Four years later, my uncle took the same liberties. Repeatedly.

How do you report rape when people treat you like a boy because you won’t wear skirts? How do you report rape in a society that believes boys don’t get raped? How do you report rapeto people that will blame it on you for spending too much time with the opposite sex? It is very easy to take advantage of girls like me because, apparently, playing soccer shields our vulnerability from the people who should protect us.

You face too many extremes when you decide to express your femininity and masculinity beyond the orthodox. I have experienced some extremes even in the queer community. When I was twenty, I cut contact with a girl after our first date because she mentioned something about me being her ideal ‘not too soft, not too hard’ boyfriend. I was livid because being a somewhat masculine lesbian does not mean I want to be read as a man. I have also been accused of not being a real lesbian because I once had a three month boyfriend stint in high school. Others say I am not masculine enough. Whatever that means.

Unfortunately, I have found that I cannot escape the gendered talks by sleeping with other women because patriarchy allows for heteronormativity to thrive in what should be safe spaces.

I am now twenty three years old and I am still asked if I am a boy or a girl. Now they also ask if I am the man in my relationship. Your uncles and brothers offer to cure me with their dicks. My family probably talks about me behind my back. My friend’s boyfriends do not trust me around their girlfriends. Attending to nature in the female restrooms is often an awkward situation because my appearance startles some women. I hate being reminded that I a woman. Mostly, I hate being reminded that I am a woman who looks like a man. It is violent and injurious.

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  2. Useful information for all Great remarkable issues here. I am very satisfied to look your article. Thanks a lot and i am taking a look ahead to touch you. Will you kindly drop me a e-mail?

  3. I love the most that you used an “I”. A strong “I” that patriarchy in most or all instances aims to demolish. Thanks for sharing your story.

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