issue 240 - February 1993
PHILIP WOLMUTH / PANOS
Being a girl
What's It like being a girl? it's unusual for girls themselves to be able to convey this In a way that adults will understand. Children of either sex aren't given to explaining their situation or analyzing their feelings in adult language.
So most girls' stories are either told by women writers drawing upon their own memories, or by adult journalists and researchers as a result of interviews. Often these will be pursuing a particular theme - girl exploitation, for example - rather than trying to discern what 'being a girl' is about. So pieces like the ones that follow, that really capture the experience, are rare.
The Shakya clan of Nepal have the custom of enthroning a very young girl as a Kumari - a living Goddess. The most important qualification is for the girl to have a flawless body. The first loss of blood from any source - a cut or loss of her baby teeth - means that the Goddess can no longer dwell in her and must move into a new body.
Anita Shakya was Kumari for six years. 'I was enthroned when I was only four. The priests read horoscopes of a number of girls without a single scar on their bodies, and I was chosen. I had to leave home and live in the temple, where I was looked after by a family who attended me.
'I was worshipped every morning from seven to nine o'clock in the morning. I wore red and gold silk clothes and sat on a high throne. The priests would perform their daily puja (prayer) and touch my feet with their heads. I really felt I had a divine power while I was being worshipped like that.
'During special religious occasions such as Indra Jatra, I would be publicly exposed. I was carried in an elaborate chariot through the city while thousands paid homage. Actually, this was the most fascinating part! I loved these rides! People gave money and clothes and every year the King gave me a gold coin. But I was never allowed to touch it - all the riches were taken by the family who looked after me.
'When I was 10 and my menstruation was drawing near, I had to stop being Kumari. When they brought me home and I realized I was no longer a Goddess, my eyes filled with tears. As a token of being Kumari I was just given an old, tattered piece of gold embroidered cloth. Nothing more. And I learned nothing during those years. I have had a hard time catching up in school.'
In fact, the ex-Kumari is given a small monthly stipend for her services. But this may not compensate for all the difficulties of re-adapting to normal life. Especially as there is a belief that the man who marries an ex-Kumari dies young, so in spite of her beauty there will be few candidates for the hand of Anita Shakya.
She is wistful. 'I really enjoyed being a Kumari, it was more fun than being a normal girl. I feel sad when I see the new Kumari being carried in the chariot. I feel a great sense of loss.'
From Voice of Child Workers, CWIN (Centre for Child Workers in Nepal) Newsletter, No 10, 1991
Breakfast with Anneli
(aged two and a half)
At breakfast today Anneli talks about making a mess with food on the table and entions that Felix does this. When I explain that Felix is smaller than she is, almost still a baby really (two months younger in fact) and that that's why he can't eat properly yet, she says, "But Felix is bigger than me, and Schorschi [one month younger] is as well."
'I say, "No, they're both smaller than you," to which she replies, "No, they're boys and boys are bigger than me."
'I'm shocked by this statement, since to Anneli being bigger means being able to do things and allowed to do them. I ask her who told her this. She says it was Barbara, Felix's mother. I don't believe this and can only imagine that she had misunderstood one mother saying to another that boys were bigger in size and interpreted this in terms of her expectations of life. Another of those ominous atmospheric items that help give boys an advantage and teach girls to respect the male and give them that insidious, lifelong inferiority complex.
'In the afternoon she's sitting in the lavatory chattering to herself. She says, "Schorschi is a boy and I'm a girl."
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
'I ask, "What's Daddy?"
'She: "A boy." 'I: "And what's Mummy?"
'She: "A boy." I laugh.
'When she comes back into the living room she says, "Everybody's a boy, I'm the only girl." She seems to have internalized a hierarchy in which the person on the bottom rung has to be a girl; all the others are boys.
'Later she's hammering nails with her little wooden mallet. She really enjoys it and I encourage her. Then she says, "Just like Daddy." I feel peeved because she's seen me knock in nails. But it can't have been enough.'
From Marianne Grabrucker's diary of her daughter's first three years, There's a Good Girl, published by The Women's Press, London, 1988.
Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they're not cute. They're life-sized.' This is an adult remembering with horror the power play which goes on between girls at school in their pre-teen and teenage years. The feelings associated with those experiences can evoke pain - or guilt - years later.
'All the girls in my class - it was only the girls who were involved - picked on one girl and made her life a complete misery. I don't really know what was different about her. When I think of her now I can't see why she became a class victim. She wasn't an unpleasant person; she wasn't ever nasty to any of us. But she looked a bit different - bigger, better developed. Maybe it was because she was self-conscious about her body.
'The image I have is of her standing, often pressed into the corner, with folded arms. If she came anywhere near any of us, if she brushed past us, we would immediately jump away and go: "Oh, Sarah's germs, Sarah's germs" as if they were somewhere on us, on our clothes or fingers, and we would run over to someone else, and smear our hands on that person and go: "There you are, Sarah's germs, no returns, no returns".
'We did that all the time, every time she came anywhere near us. She must have felt like a leper. It was if her physical presence in the room made us all feel ill. And the strange thing about it is that now, if I see someone from those days, all of us remember that time and feel a dreadful guilt about it. None of us knows why we did it. And I'm sure it must have left a mark on her.'
From Blood Sports for Girls, produced by Tessa Watt for BBC Radio 4, 23 July 1992
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7