I spent my whole life in one school.
Until the third grade, boys and girls had combined classes. After that, we were separated into different shifts. Boys and girls were not allowed to mingle under any circumstances.
If caught even smiling to one another, the girl and boy would be given a warning notice to not repeat it in the future. Even cultural events were held separately for the boys and girls. In such a school, I thrived as an outspoken, slightly-above-average student with a passion for debates. Although the school did allow participation in inter-school activities, the boy’s teams and girls team were divided by a wall of teachers.
Despite all this, I loved my school.
We discussed everything under the sun: life, ambitions, love, movie, books, and what not. We put on dramas, where the girls played the male roles as well. So we would put on our best ‘man voice’ to get the role, even having role-playing battles.
The school had a huge role in my choice to become a feminist.
After school ended, I chose a university in Dubai for further education. Though university wasn’t gender segregated, I didn’t mind. I was sure the transition would be smooth, that I wouldn’t even notice it.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
My first week went by with much difficulty, as I avoided any male interactions. The second week I made more friends (again, all girls), but it sort of became difficult to avoid boys as they were friends with my friends.
For anyone reading this and thinking, “Why couldn’t she just talk to them?”, I would like to remind you of something. The only male friends I had before university were my brother and cousins, and those really don’t count. My school hadn’t helped either. They made me believe that any interaction between a boy and a girl could only be of a romantic nature, nothing else.
So, I found myself almost a month into university, and the only words I could speak to male classmates were, “hi,” “how are you,” and “bye.” It wasn’t that I was being mean or rude – I just didn’t know how to start a conversation with them.
It all came to a point when I was placed in a group with 3 boys, and I was the only girl. We were asked to debate on a particular issue and therefore had to exchange ideas. The first real conversation took place and it wasn’t that bad.
However, I was far from being comfortable with boys in my class. I was afraid that maybe I had to change myself to someone else to get friends. I started becoming a bit reserved and most boys in my class attributed that to me coming from a conservative family.
Yet my father never limited me in talking to anyone. Quite the opposite: he would more than often say, “let your presence be known.”
Now, here’s the thing: I could talk to a complete male stranger. However, being friendly to that person on a daily basis? Now, that was difficult.
Months passed by and I entered my second year. I mostly concentrated on my studies, close friends, and projects. I loved the university life, although I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t mingle with everyone. I had my own self-imposed limitations that I was afraid of breaking. I was afraid that if I let my inhibitions be known, then it would completely isolate me.
Things took a drastic turn when I was nominated for a student council position. Now, I had to work with boys to plan events. Initially, though a little weird, we all became a unit within a few months, due to the university’s pressure to succeed. Slowly, I started to become friends with my male classmates as well.
Finally, I decided. I wouldn’t change myself and I wasn’t afraid of being myself either. They would often poke fun about how I didn’t have a boyfriend, or how I didn’t hug boys because I was a feminist.
But that was all it was, a passing joke. They didn’t actually mind me being a bit reserved, as long as I wasn’t rude. In fact, at times they gave me the space I needed, which came as a surprise to myself.
Up until that point, I was afraid of being approached only for relationships (an effect of watching too many chick flicks). The reality, though, was that none of that would actually happen – unless I wanted it.
My time in university taught me the biggest life lesson: It doesn’t matter where you are and the gender of who you’re hanging out with, as long as you can stay true to yourself.
Everyone around you will be fine. If they aren’t, that’s their fault.
It’s something I wish my time in school taught me.