How I became a hardcore feminist

by Sang W. Mendy | Student Contributor

My eyes searched the room only to find a sheet of black that cloaked me under obscurity. I noticed my hands but couldn’t tell their color. I lit the candle. I remembered my mother’s strict warning about playing with fire. I blew it out and peacefully found my bed. I wasn’t sure what time it was, but I knew it would soon be dinner time. I was hungry, but I had to wait a few more minutes, or maybe hours; there is a specific time when dinner is served. And, unless that time comes, dinner will not be served. I lay quietly on my bed staring at the ceilings for a few minutes before I dozed off and started to dream. In my dream, I was playing outside under the rain. At first it was a slow and light drizzle. Then it started to get heavier. Over some time, water started to pile up in our house. I heard my mother screaming at me to come inside, but I was enjoying myself under the rain. Then the rain started to swallow me and the house. I saw my father, my stepmother, and my half siblings on a boat sailing to safety. I looked behind me and saw my mother with my sister on her back begging my father to come back for us, but they were all laughing at her and sailing away. My mother loosened my sister from her back and also swam her way out. I was left all alone with my sister standing on top of our house roof surrounded by the liquid mass of water.

Then a loud and abrupt sound jolted me from my slumber. A voice of a woman and a crying baby took over the atmosphere and bumped me up. It was the voice of my mother and that of my little sister. The sound was coming from my mother’s room. I got up from bed and ran towards my mother’s room. I stood by her door and watched my father thud and groan while striking her. Her scream was similar to that in my dream. I squeezed my eyes shut trying to pretend it was all a bad dream. The cursing and the pounding continued, while plates and cooking pots fell from every direction making a horrible sound. My sister lay on the ground and screamed below my father’s and mother’s pushing and pulling feet. I saw my stepmother walk in and carry her out of danger of being trampled upon. She ran out with her and screamed for help from the neighbors. Neighbors came in, but my father had already locked the door without noticing I was inside. I hear neighbors banging on the door and shouting my father’s name telling him to open the door. They tried to break it with a heavy metal object. The house was in chaos: the neighbors’ ordering voices and banging on the door, my stepmother and half siblings wailing, and the sound of a belt slashing on my mother’s skinny body. I stood motionless, watching my mother struggle to free herself from the monstrous grip of my father’s hand on her neck. Her eyes bulged out as if they were about to fall from their sockets. Her tongue was out, and all of her veins were stretched. Her face was red and tears were coming from her eyes. She freed herself and quickly inhaled as much air as her lungs could hold. But, before she had a chance to exhale, my father had already caught her by the neck again, squeezing it with all of his strength and banging her head on the wall. All the while, he was screaming and spitting out awful words and cusses at her. He clutched her hair and swept her with his leg. She landed flatly to the ground with her head hitting the hard, cement floor. She tried to cough, but it escaped with a “clichy”-sound like that of a rat caught on a trap. I ran to her and covered her with the whole of my body so my father would hit me instead of her. He tried to pull me away, but my grip was strong on my mother’s neck that it almost lifted her off the ground.

My father finally gave up, then walked away and opened the door. I heard the neighbors trying to talk to him while others came in to check on my mother. They tried to loosen my grip on her but I was afraid to let go. I clutched tighter on her as if I was keeping her warm in chilly weather. A voice begged me to let go so that they could help her. I pressed my head on her chest then realized my whole face was wet. I must have been crying. My mother’s friend calmed me, and then begged me to go with her to my room. I slowly loosened up my grip, stood up, and reached for her hand. She covered me with her large body and I felt her warm and empathetic comfort. I turned my head and saw the neighbors pouring water on my mother’s head and putting garlic on her nostril to rouse her. She mewed down deep in her throat then grumbled. It was a sound like nothing I had ever heard. She softly cried, “I want my daughter.” I could not stop staring at her as she drifted in and out of consciousness. An additional clove of garlic was forced on to her nostril that led her to ferociously cough, which littered her head with a spattering of saliva and phlegm on her already wet and engorged face. A face that was once the prize catch of all male eyes was unrecognizable.

A lady beside her took her head tie and cleaned her face up. The neighbors picked her up and laid her on her bed. My mother’s friend—who, out of respect, was often called “Yaye”—took me by the shoulder and led me to my room. She was a tender, loving, and compassionate lady who empathized with everybody that brought their story to her house. Her husband had died a few years before. Since then, men came to marry her and she kept turning them down. Men who held grudges against her ungraciously and enviously made up stories to smear her image. Her brother-in-law had tried multiple times to force her into marrying him, threatening to force her to move out of the house. He accused her of murdering her husband so as to take custody of his properties. Being the strongest woman that I ever known, she never changed her way of life, nor did she ever waver in her resistance to unprincipled, egocentric men. She was my mother’s best friend and my father never liked that. He had the feeling that she would corrupt my mother’s mind and make her rebel against him. Men feared her, because she had the heart of a lioness that stood strong to men’s intimidation. Whatever the problem was, I knew it was not that big of a problem. My father took pleasure in beating my mother. Sometimes he did it to amuse my stepmother, and other times for his own amusement. He would often come home drunk, and start to beat my mother. If he had a bad day at his job, he took it out on my mum. If he was angry with my stepmother, he turned it on my mother. Whatever my mother did never seemed to please my father. He called her all kinds of names, and maltreated her with all kinds of abuse. He even sometimes denied fathering me and my sister, and called her a prostitute.

There was silence all over the house. Not even the voice of my sister was heard. She must have fallen asleep or taken to a neighbor’s house. My father must have been in his room regretting what he just did, or went out to get drunk as he always does. Yaye laid me on my bed. Shhu-shh-ingme whenever I coughed or snuffled. “I pray your experience will help you love, respect, and fight for women,” she said, pulling the blanket on me and gently pampering me to sleep. My body was racked with sobs: I sobbed every second the image of my mother came to my mind, I sobbed at my detestation towards my father and every abusive husband, I sobbed for my little sister and every girl, and I sobbed for every mother in her abusive husband’s house. I sobbed until I could not sob anymore, and it turned to a long painful hiccup. Yaye fetched water for me to drink. I drank and my hiccups slowed until I dozed off.

The story of my mother is like many stories around the world. It is not unique. I tell this story in honor of her and in honor of all women who are veterans of domestic violence around the world–especially in many parts of Africa and the Middle East, where life is organized about the central cultural view that women should serve men. It is a culture in which women are marginalized, in which men are expected to dominate, in which it is normal to hit your wife. Please watch out for my book The Course From My Mother; but must we parade forever and a day for everyone to accept the liberties, privileges and rights of women? Do we in fact need a day to remind us that women must be given their proper places in society? Why is everything forgotten barely days or weeks after all the intriguing seminars and round table functions commemorating International Women’s Day? If our comings and goings to wipe out hostility and perversion against women are sincere, why does do these things still exist? Why do we stereotype our strong-willed women for sticking up against all these half-truths, defying every archaic conception that our society still holds against women? With all the information and education available, why are certain wrongs against women still going on unreported; why are we painfully desirous of pushing our society back to the Middle Ages?

I can go on and on. All I want to say is that it is about damn time we stand for what we declare and stop acting like loose ends. The story of my mother is still the story of many mothers in my home town. The only way is to empower these women: true education. I’ll second Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s statement:

I welcome the chorus of voices calling for an end to the violence that affects an estimated one in three women in her lifetime. I applaud leaders who are helping to enact and enforce laws and change mindsets. And I pay tribute to all those heroes around the world who help victims to heal and to become agents of change.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 Women’s Forum issue. 

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