Your Body Is Not Yours
(i) How did you learn that your body is a weapon to be disguised?
An assortment of clothes piled high on your mother’s bed: old sweaters, new ankara shirts. You squeeze in and out of dresses. You frown into the mirror. Your mother brushes on her lipstick on the stool beside you. “That trouser will bring out your bumbum,” she says. “That one will show your breasts.” You are dressed to look pretty and girly. You are, most importantly, dressed to avoid the gaze of grown men, to prevent them from falling into misbehaviour, to protect them from the soft curves of sin.
An usher says to you in the din of after-church, amidst shrieking toddlers, huddled ministers’ wives speaking in low tones, and solemn ushers emptying offering envelopes, “Wear a jacket next time. You know, there are men in this church.” Her tone is not a whisper; you feel the hot gazes of the ministers’ wives, you hear the unvoiced suspicion of the solemn ushers.
It is an armless gown. You are eleven.
(ii) How did you learn that your body is not yours?
Your economics teacher tickles you as punishment for whispering about romance novels in class. His fingers graze the curves of your breasts. Uncomfortable, forced laughter. You shield a portion of your breasts with your arms. You whisper among yourselves after school.
“Does he touch you?”
“Yes, me too!”
You are twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, cornrows knotted painful-tight across your scalps, skirts oversized and flowing to prevent boys from distraction. It occurs to none of you to report Mr Economics; you do not know that you have the right to throat your discomfort with men who make you feel uncomfortable, who thrust lightheartedness upon you as they make you feel uncomfortable. You do not want to offend Mr Economics, or get him into trouble. You are nice girls.
(iii) How did you learn that your body is an insult to men who cannot have it?
You are summoned into the principal’s office for gossiping and raising your voice in class. “Do you think you are above your teacher because you’ve sprouted oranges on your chest?” he asks.
Each time, Mr Principal’s office for discipline; each time, his arms waving at your breasts. “You think you are above your teacher because you’ve grown like an Agric fowl? Because you’re big enough to be in your husband’s house, isn’t it?” You are twelve. You are thirteen.
(iv) How did you learn that it is your word against theirs?
Your schoolmate caresses your breasts as you ride home together in keke maruwas ablaze with heat. You shift, turn and nudge his hand away. His fingers find you again and again. He is the younger brother to the coolest, most popular boy in the school: the head boy. You do not want to ruffle adorned feathers.
Your friend says, “Does Lanre touch you in the keke maruwa? Me too.” You tell your brother, who confronts Lanre, who denies it to your faces – voice raised, arms flailing in the air. Lanre stops riding with you.
(v) How did you learn that your body is society’s collection by birth, and your husband’s by marriage?
At the market, the butcher’s knife hacks the slab of meat you’ve chosen into smaller bits. An okada man joins you on the waiting bench. He winks at you. He asks for your number. You get on your feet, refusing. Okada Man caresses your arm. Okada Man spanks your bum.
You are seventeen and socially aware. You know what you should do: slap him hot, scream in his face, threaten him with suffering the colour of fire. You stare at him instead, your tongue limp from embarrassed shock.
The butchers and other okada men scold him on your behalf. “You no suppose do like that,” they say to him. “You no know if she get husband for house; what if he come find you?”
(vi) How did you learn that they do not touch men?
Market women shout prices of commodities as you wade through a sea of people, mini electronic stalls, and Hausa traders pushing wheelbarrows of fruits and vegetables. Market men pull you left and right, this way and that. “Aunty, come buy.” “Aunty, follow me, I get your size.” You slap their hands away. They slap your hand back, eyes turned up in irritated surprise. “Dey go, you no fine,” they jest. “Wetin? You be ashawo?” They do not pull men by the hand to come check out their stalls. They do not touch men.
(vii) Have you learned the colour of panic? The shape of fear?
Shoes clip-clop behind you and come up beside you as you trek a bare street at night. He is bigger and taller than you are. There are no street lights, but you see his eyes: red as trouble. He speaks to you, his foul breath tinged with alcohol. “Na you I dey talk to,” he says.
He demands your number, shoves his phone into your palm. Bare street. Your fingers tremble as you type. Red eyes.You maintain small talk until the bend at the end of the road, until dim streetlights and zooming cars and chattering voices, until a scarfed woman at the junction fanning flames from roasted corn into your watery eyes.
(viii) How did you learn that “nice man” does not mean “good man”?
Your boyfriend calls you “my feminist witch.” You are 19, voice loud on social media. A close family friend visits and fondles your breast as you hug. It’s never happened before. It won’t happen again, and it doesn’t. He is a generous man; he spoils you. His palm. His palm on your breast. Your mother. You do not want to soil ten plus years of friendship. He’s a funny, nice uncle. Your younger sisters hug him when he visits. “My feminist witch,” he calls you. You tell no one. Soon, you forget about it.
(ix) How did you learn that you may swim, but men are allowed to float?
Early morning breakfast. You are buying cornflakes at a kiosk when a shirtless man comes up beside you. You are privy to the outline of his penis in his grey boxers; the men and women huddled around the kiosk see, but they do not look.
You buy, you pay. You are strolling home with your friend. You turn to her, to look into her face as it comes alive with dramatic mimicry of an uncouth relative, only to catch a flash of a man’s penis as he pees by the roadside. You turn away, disoriented. He zips and walks away.
Shalom Esene is a writer. She is currently a university student, but not by choice. She lives in Nigeria.