Aleya Kassam

Kenyan reader, writer, storyteller and feminist. She blogs at and tweets @aleyakassam

I was thirteen years old when I learned shoulders are threatening body parts. Over two decades later, I still remember the precise moment I walked into the living room in a spaghetti strap top and my late grandmother called me to her side. This was not unusual; I was used to listening to advice from her, always expressed in the articulate English she used to teach at schools. My favourite was the phrase that made her eyes blow up and her palms wave in the air, as if she was being controlled by a set of invisible strings.

They can take what’s in your hands, Aleya, but they can never take what’s in your mind.

It was cryptic.

Who were they?

That morning as she sat on the dimpled maroon sofa with a newspaper in her already wrinkled hands, she didn’t speak to me in English, but in the Gujarati that signaled we were entering a different world now, an alternate reality. And as I sat next to her, legs askew because I hadn’t yet been taught how to carefully arrange myself in self-defense, she explained to me why my shoulders needed to be covered up.

One word stuck out in my mind. Juvan. I hadn’t learnt the meaning in English yet, but the way it oozed out of her mouth made it sound like it was both cloaked in tenderness and spiked with threat. I would hear that word often as I entered adolescence, but only in reference to girls, and always used as an explanation for why my world was shrinking. It was the explanation for why all of a sudden I couldn’t go to sleepovers at friends’ houses, or why it wasn’t appropriate anymore to wear certain clothes, or move my body a certain way, or be around certain types of people by myself.

Later I learned the word meant youthful, and my grandma was trying to teach me how to keep my youth from being taken away, as if it was a shawl that if I wrapped around myself tight enough, would keep me safe. To my mind, Juvan, like the flower I was blossoming into, meant that I was ripe for plucking. And the women around me taught me how to protect myself from being devoured by the man’s world.

Yet at the same time, my grandmother was teaching me how to navigate this man’s world in a different way. She spoke about education with feverish urgency, urging me to fill my mind, to be greedy about knowledge and learning the world. As she turned the pages of the newspaper that she gobbled up cover to cover every day, she would read the stories out loud in her precise English, eagerly trying to open up the world to me.

It was a confusing time. In English, I was learning how to make my world bigger. In Gujarati, I was learning how to make myself smaller.

Twenty years after that moment when I first learned the power of my body, my grandma’s hair was now a silvery halo around her skull, and her spine had curved into a question mark, I began thinking about what it must have been like for her when she was a twelve year old girl in the 1930s. As one of five sisters being raised by a widowed mother, what are the techniques she learned to survive? Yes. To survive. Because without a brother or a father to protect her, meant that she and her sisters were at the mercy of this man’s world.

And so my grandmother grew thorns.

She learned how to fight. She may not have known the word for it, but she was a feminist. It was not a theoretical ideology for her, but a lived experience. Feminism was survival.

It has always confused me that my grandmother, the feminist, the English teacher, the woman who told others to ‘mind your own business’, and wrote sharp letters when she sensed any sort of injustice, would at the same time try to govern the way I clothed my body. Perhaps she was just hoping that I wouldn’t have to grow thorns.

But I have. Because whilst much has changed since the 1930s, my body still doesn’t feel like it belongs only to me. So it instinctively forms itself into shapes that are designed to ward off attention. And my brain still floods with panic when I’m alone with a man in an unfamiliar place. And my mouth still arranges into a non-committal smile that hopes neither to invite, nor to offend.

But I wear my shoulders bare.

And I teach my younger cousins to demand more from the world, and not just of themselves.

Last month, my twelve year old cousin declared that she was a feminist. The family were all sat around the table eating chicken tikka, doused in tangy ambli and chilli yoghurt, when she uttered the statement as casually as if she was asking for a glass of lassi.

I asked her what the word meant for her. She replied that it was simply having the same opportunities and chances in the world as a boy. I asked her what she wanted in life that she felt as a girl, she didn’t have the same access to. She said all she wanted to do was become a professional footballer, and yet everyone was telling her she had to stop being such a tomboy and become more girly.

It made my heart swell with pride to listen to my twelve-year-old cousin speak so articulately about this thing that she stood for.

But it also shattered my heart that she has to speak about it at all 80 years after my grandmother was her age.

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.