About ninety percent* of the rules concerning Igbo girls have to do with men. Specifically, what not to do with men. Or around men. Or for men. In order to be properly married to a man. Of those rules, the earliest concerns sitting.
“Sit like a woman,” my mother always said, hitting whatever part of you was nearest to her.
This meant that on the floor, a girl must always sit with her legs together, outstretched in front of her. That was relatively easy. Sitting in a chair was harder; one had to make sure that one’s knees were tightly pressed together, the resultant under-sag of skirt tucked in between thighs. This was important; holding your knees together when you were in a dress or skirt was simply not enough.
It goes without saying that boys were NOT ALLOWED to see above your knees. If a boy saw your pant, a bad thing was supposed to happen and your mother was supposed to know about it somehow. I didn’t know what this was, but I was afraid of it nonetheless.
Disobeying the sitting rule brought swift and harsh punishment which could come from anyone. Even the boys themselves.
“Hey! You girl, Don’t you know you shouldn’t be sitting like that?” I looked up from my snack, spread out over my thighs. A group of boys stood in front of me, their chequered blue shirts unbuttoned in break-time exertions. Their leader was a boy whose fair skin could only be described as ‘dirty yellow’. Like pus. He was younger than I was. I recognised them as the band of boys that tormented girls in school; pulling hair, throwing stones, spitting…I shivered. I wasn’t nearly old enough for them to be afraid of me at just eight, but I had to try anyway.
“Who are you talking to like that?”
“I am talking to you. Don’t you have home training? Didn’t your mother teach you how to sit?” In my effort to avoid the lunchtime melee, I had snuck a book into school. I was so lost in the book that I didn’t realise that the forbidden under-sag had happened. I was sitting on most of them, but a bit of my pants were on display. A solitary bead of sweat trickled down my back.
“Shut up, osiso. If you don’t get out of here now, I will go and tell Teacher that you people were trying to peep at me,” I bluffed. I saw the boys waver, looking at each other. A few of them at the back shuffled their feet. One of them scratched his head and turned around. “That’s right, go away or I will make sure you get flogged.”
I went too far. Their leader spat into the ground. I watched the dry spittle curl inwards, clothing itself in a layer of sand. “I will tell her that you showed us your pant. Your white pant. White and led.” I felt shame cut through me. The description of my underwear was a mark seared on my soul. Even before they started throwing sand into my thighs, I felt unclean. The sand flew everywhere, into my hair, my snacks, my book. I screamed and it went into my mouth. The boys laughed as they ran away.
I stood up and tried to dust myself down as best I could. The sand cut me like little knives in the softest parts of my body. I rinsed my mouth with water from my water bottle but I could still hear crunching when I spoke and goose pimples popped all over my skin.
“Why didn’t you run when you saw the car?” My mother asked at the end of the school day. She reached around and casually knocked me on the head. “I will flog you when we get home, I can see you are now too big to run.” I hung my head.
Mother was right. Boys had seen and now bad things were happening to me; I could barely walk from the discomfort in between my bum cheeks and I was still going to get a beating when I got home. Life was so unfair.
I always kept my legs closed after that.
* This figure (ninety percent) is a ‘Guess-timate’.