For ever since I can remember, I have wanted to be a boy. Sexual orientation had nothing to do with it, rather the freedom that came from being of the opposite gender in a country like Bangladesh pulled me in, made me despair for an identity that would not immediately warrant skepticism wherever I went. I wanted to be free to walk down the streets without attracting the flat-eyed stares of every male from 16 to 60. I wanted not to be ridiculed for my height, which is a good number of inches above the average for women over here. Most of all, I wanted to fit in.
It seemed to me, that before society, I was a girl before I was a human being. I was allowed to go outside less, instructed to dress conservatively and warned to always, always keep an eye out for danger. The outside world had morphed into a ‘bad place’, ever since I grew out of my frocks and stepped into a “Salwar Kameez”. The goal was crystal clear: while you are outside, you do your best to ensure that you may return home safe and sound, even if it means walking with your eyes trained to the ground, hands clutching the sides of your schoolbag and no interactions with strangers unless absolutely necessary.
I practiced, I perfected. In school, I was regarded with awe for being the only girl whose parents were brave/stupid enough to let their kid commute to school and back without any guardianship. It went on like that for years. I grew braver, I grew stronger. I was still restricted from doing nearly half of what a boy my age would be allowed to do, but I was thriving. Then, one recess, I heard a classmate of mine talking about getting a black belt in taekwondo, about driving her fist through a block of wood and shattering it into pieces, like the Jackie Chan movies. I was enthralled, interested…and then pretty much obsessed with the idea. Self defense could be my way out.
My parents liked the idea, but there was one tiny hitch in the plan. The classes were held at an institute roughly 10 kilometres from my home, and the rickshaw fare would cost thousands each month. I was so morose I moped around for days until my mom came up with a new plan. It involved a test.
I was going to bike to school.
Now, in other countries, girls cycling to school might be a common scenario but in this city, it isn’t. The roads are bad, the traffic a horrifying nightmare and as a result, women don’t bike anymore than they drive a motorcycle. And to add insult to injury, I had never ridden a bicycle before, successfully at least.
I tried and I failed. I had this new, shiny, red bicycle just wasting away in the garage, gathering dust…and I couldn’t use it. No bicycle, no self-defense. The rules were clear enough. Really, the first few days are the worst. Those are the days that you doubt whether you can ever balance you flaying body on top of that narrow structure with its uncomfortable saddle and rigid steering. You fall, you scrape your knee, you promise yourself you are NEVER going to go near that thing, EVER.
But then, one day, you’re balancing perfectly, and your legs go round and round, driving you past the buildings to the end of the street and you feel great, because that euphoria that comes with the wind blowing in your face? That’s accomplishment. And all the doors are open now, and you have a way out.
I did twelve months of judo, got two belts, and then dropped out because exams were coming. But my bike? It stayed with me for years. I ride it regularly, in fact, I rode it two days back when I went for a weekend bike ride with the country’s most popular cyclist group; four long hours outside the city roaming through the country-side with a group of 40 to 50…men.
Talk about a male-dominated atmosphere.
And, to me, the experience was surreal because, after all those years of being caged by the invisible barriers of society, it felt like I was breathing freely. I felt confident; I felt invincible. It didn’t matter that I was a girl, I was a cyclist first.
And that feeling is something I want to hold on to. I am not a boy, I never will be. But if i try hard enough, be brave enough, there’s a lot to cherish from being female. I just have to find those opportunities and make the most of them.