What would the world look like if girls were taught they were volcanoes?
One day when I was four years old, a man stopped his car on the street under my family’s balcony, pulled his penis out of his pants and beckoned for me to come down. He did the same to my friend who had been talking to me from her family’s balcony across the street. I was so small that I needed a stool to see my friend from above the balcony railing. I was enraged. I waved my slipper at him to frighten him away.
When I included that incident in an essay I published (in Arabic, in an Egyptian paper) about the many times I’ve been sexually assaulted by men, a man emailed to ask me “What was so special about you at four that anyone would expose themselves to you?” As if having a penis flashed at you was a compliment. As if a four-year-old girl could, under any circumstances, be “special” enough to have a man expose himself to her.
If I were to use paint to mark which parts of my body have ever been groped, pinched, or otherwise touched without my consent, my entire torso, back and front would be covered. But I am enraged the most at that man who exposed himself to me and my friend.
What if instead of breaking their wildness like a rancher tames a bronco, we taught girls the importance and power of being dangerous?
I discovered music when I was about nine. It was 1976 in London and I spent hours with a small yellow transistor radio stuck to my ear. I learned quickly that boys almost always had the right to rage. I was mesmerized by punk, and via the tinny sound of my radio, I fell in love with Siouxsie Sioux and her Banshees. But as powerfully as I responded to Siouxsie, and indeed to the fury and ferocity of punk more broadly, it was abundantly clear that most of the punks yelling in my ears were men. Where were the women?
What if we told girls to erupt!
The novelist Ursula K. Le Guin died the day before a judge sentenced former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexual assault. During the trial, more than 150 women and girls came forward to accuse the doctor of abuse. In a 1986 commencement address she gave at Bryn Mawr College, Le Guin could have been speaking for every woman who read a victim impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing.
“We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains,” Le Guin said. “That's what I want — to hear you erupting.”
“You young Mount St. Helenses who don't know the power in you — I want to hear you,” Le Guin tells the all-female graduating class.
So what keeps girls from knowing the power in them?
Parents, friends and teachers decimate that power. From a very young age girls around the world are told that they are vulnerable and weak. By the age of 10, research shows they believe it. Conversely, boys are fed the stereotype that they are strong and independent. And indeed, the world is created by men and for men; this is what we mean when we talk about the patriarchy. Those findings are from a survey of 15 countries, including the United States, Belgium, China, Egypt, India, Kenya and Nigeria.
We teach girls to capitulate, ostensibly for their own good, but drumming the concept of subservience into their heads comes with its own high price: Girls are twice as likely to experience depression by the age of 16, more likely to enter into marriage when they’re children, and HIV rates for women are higher than for men.
And as a result, we leave girls wholly unprepared for the crisis to come as they grow up. What is particularly cruel is that, especially in the West, society increasingly feeds girls “you can do anything” lies while the patriarchy remains intact. They can’t. And they have to know why.
Girls everywhere face the brunt of patriarchy. But when it marries with other forms of oppression, it becomes particularly brutal. In the U.S., gendered racism means that the victims who have accused R. Kelly of sexual assault are mostly ignored because they are Black women.
It means that as early as age 5, young Black girls are viewed less as children and more like adults when it comes to discipline in schools. All girls are punished for behavior considered “unfeminine,” but a racist society that neglects and mistreats Black girls and which denies them their girlhood also punishes them when they react.
As the patriarchy wraps its tentacles around more and more forms of oppression, the space for girls’ rage shrinks. The justified and righteous reaction to injustice thus becomes a privilege.
In January I announced on Twitter that I intended to write an opinion piece about girls and rage. Immediately, women from all over the world responded. Some said girls were born with plenty of rage already and we just had to nurture it. Some said they wish they had been taught rage instead of only learning of its power as adults. Some said they were still practicing how to scream, while others said they were sent to self-defense classes in elementary school by mothers eager to keep the pilot light of anger aflame.
Men, of course, were more disturbed and discomfited than empowered. That is a good thing. We are not here to comfort the patriarchy. Discomfort means one’s privilege is being questioned. And anyway, we are long overdue for a reckoning with the #NotAllMen crowd, men who complain they’re one of the “good ones” and yet do nothing to dismantle the patriarchal system from which they benefit.
To beat the patriarchy, we have to start early. Imagine a curriculum that includes lessons on the importance of rage, the various ways to express it and lessons on how to use it. Imagine, seriously, what a curriculum on "Rage for Girls" would look like. For example, if I were writing one, it would include June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights,” in which she brilliantly and beautifully explains how sexual violence intersects with misogyny, racism, colonialism and war.
I want to bottle-feed rage to every baby girl so that it fortifies her bones and muscles. I want her to flex, and feel the power growing inside her as she herself grows from a child into a young woman.
For too long, men have called us names designed to insult, but also designed to imply we are too angry to be taken seriously: Feminazi. Ball breaker. Crazy feminist. Bitch. Hysterical. Witch. Yes, I am those things. In other words, I am an angry woman. And angry women are free women.
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist writer and public speaker based in New York City and Cairo. She is the author of "Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution."