Like many women, I was given a set of rules and advice for just about everything as I was growing up. One of the most important ones was on education. I was encouraged to study and until there was nothing left to study. The phrase ‘the sky is the limit’ was one that I heard too often as I was encouraged in that direction. Later I was told ‘forget the sky, there is no limit’.
On relationships and love, I was advised to not even focus on that, until I was as highly educated as possible. Children on the other hand, were to come after I had everything in place; a good education, a promising career, and an equally if not more educated man, in a well-paying job.
On money, I was encouraged to study hard, to secure a job that would earn me lots of money. Money would buy me independence. Independence would buy me respect from my husband. The need for independence was exaggerated with the constant reminder that there was no dignity in begging a man for money to buy underwear.
Looking at my life, I think I made a perfect student. I followed this advice almost to the letter. I studied to almost no end, putting aside all barriers to my pursuit for education. There was no sky for me, no limit, and no stopping. My ambition was to soar to no end. Of course that meant that relationships and love often had to take a back seat.
In some cases, as I was soaring to the skies and beyond, I allowed a lovely gentleman to hop into my parachute, only to drop him when I realised that he could be weighing me down, and posing a hindrance to my possibility of reaching beyond the skies.
Still following the advice consistently, I made my own money; not much, but enough to make sure that I was never begging a man for money to buy underwear.
As I gained independence through education and a career, I was applauded at every step of the way, until I got to a point where I was now advised to stop. The language of too much creeped into everyone’s vocabulary. I was becoming too educated, advancing too much in my career, getting too independent, too vocal and too radical. This was confusing to me, and I wondered what happened to there being no limit to my success.
I was advised to stop because men would be intimidated by my education. They would be intimidated if I progressed too much in my career, if I became too political or too vocal. I learned that I would be way ahead of many men in my generation, and I would have an immensely difficult time finding a suitor. The language changed and I now needed to settle.
Women that had been used as role models to encourage me, were now used as examples to discourage me. These women I was told, focussed on their education and their careers, and ended up single or divorced.
From this point on, the advice went downhill. I wondered whether I had reached the sky and beyond. Was this what it looked like beyond the skies? Was it time for me to start coming down? How come no one told me that I would reach a point where I would be required to come down?
When I attend bridal and baby showers, it hits me that it is indeed time for women to come down. It hits me that society did not mean it when it told us to climb as high as we could. In bridal showers, I hear brides to be getting advice on how to play dumb, how to lower their ambitions so that they do not threaten their husbands, not to display too much independence and to be submissive, and to make it her mission in life to please the man.
In the middle of all such advice, comes all the paraphernalia that is required to aid this process. From lingerie for every day of the month, to books with sex positions that even a snake would have a hard time contorting, to cook books with dishes from around the world, with ingredients that do not even exist in the dictionary. All these are meant to make a man happy, to keep him faithful and ward him from all distraction. We are told that if we do not do these things, there are many women out there ready to worship the very ground our men walk on.
In one bridal shower that I attended, the bride to be got a flask, and small white neatly folded towels. I thought that the flask was to welcome the man with tea when he got home, but I learnt that the flask was for bedroom use. She was advised to always keep it by her bed-side with water that was just the right temperature; not too hot, or too cold. After sex, she was to use the nice towels to clean him up. She was also advised to make sure that she hand-washes the towels herself, with a disclaimer that ‘these are not the kind of things you give a house-girl to wash’.
At that point, I couldn’t contain my discomfort. I asked who was going to clean her in return. I asked whether the groom to be was likely to be getting advice on how to worship his wife during his stag night. I argued that he was likely to be dancing with a stripper, with his friends urging him to do all kinds of things with her, to ‘enjoy his last days of freedom’. I complained about the imbalance in this equation, where the woman was expected to give and give to no end, and the man receiving to no end.
My short speech was followed by deafening silence, and looks that made me remember a phrase that I commonly used in my primary school compositions; ‘I wished the ground would open up and swallow me alive’. I was given looks that I interpreted to ask the question, ‘who is your mother?’
I was admonished for being too educated, which apparently, as I was informed was the problem with today’s woman. Today’s woman, I was told, thinks that her education or money makes her equal to a man. This woman, I was informed, thinks that her education, career and money is grounds for her to go against nature.
At this point, I wanted to add that I grew up being advised to go against nature by soaring beyond the skies; to go against nature by flying, despite the fact that I had no wings. But I did not wish to embarrass the bride to be further, so I asked to be excused.
As I travelled home, I reflected on the whole episode and the shifting nature of advice given to girls and women, and how it is all centred on insecurity. As young girls, we are told to secure ourselves through education, careers and money, so as to earn the respect of men. Once we do that, we are told to stop and begin settling, so as to not make potential suitors insecure about our success. As we get into marriage we are advised to be constantly insecure, to be our guard 24/7, and to act on our insecurities by giving to no end and to center our lives on pleasing our men.
The question that ringed constantly on my mind was when did we hit the sky and start climbing down? I wondered for how long we would continue passing these messages to our daughters, nieces and younger girls. Can we teach them that life is not just about finding, keeping or gaining and maintaining the respect of a man?