I sat down and she looked at me. I could feel her eyes raking my profile as I stared straight ahead, waiting for her to make up her mind. I play this game, when I’m feeling obstinate. Finally I turned and said it: “I’m a girl.”
She stood up. She searched the rest of her bus with her eyes, found the last empty seat next to a man in the back and then pointed, asking, “Can you move?” I just looked at her. A woman can’t sit next to man. The man in the back knew me- most of the bus knows me most of the time. I live in a village of 5,000 and people know about the foreigner. He piped up, “She’s a girl, it’s okay.” But she kept looking at me. Finally I said, “You move, if that’s what you want.” And she gathered her shopping bags, stepped around me into the aisle, and commanded a little boy to move next to the man and give her his single seat. I put my headphones in and waited for all 25 passengers to stop staring. It took a long time.
Sometimes people are mean to me when they don’t know me. It’s the hazard of being any kind of foreigner in an insular place, let alone one whose gender presentation is a little outside the box. Jordanians are used to girls with long hair and women in hijab. I don’t have either, and I don’t do the things my disparaging neighbors suggest again and again: “Pierce your ears! Wear jewelry! At least wear pink!” I can’t do those things. I’m not going to dress up for a part I don’t want. I don’t like being insulted every day and I don’t like being stared at. But what makes up for it is the loyalty and support I get from the people who have been brave enough to see past what’s different.
Most of my friends in my village stared or whispered when they first saw me. They almost always admit it later, over coffee, in their kitchens: “When I first saw you, I thought you were a boy!” and they hold out their hands for me to slap- the Jordanian high five- because we’re both in on the joke. I went to a Special Education conference last semester with one of my closest friends, Wala’a, and when I got up to use the bathroom she came with me. We walked in and the stalls were full, the area beside the sinks crowded with giggling university students. I felt their eyes on me because I always do. I’m almost used to it now. I took the first free stall as fast as I could and when I came out Wala’a was arguing with them. “Shame on you, Allah says to love all people. She’s a girl just like you!” I washed my hands and avoided eye contact, but when we left I hugged her. “They wanted you to leave!” she said angrily. “I know, Wala’a, that happens a lot.” She was upset about it the whole day.
I get upset too, and I don’t like that I make people nervous. My work depends on the trust I build with women in my community and that’s not easy when I my appearance puts people on edge. Sometimes I think I should wear pink too. Maybe that’s a small price to pay for people to like me. But as hard as it is to be different, there’s something satisfying in seeing people’s opinions change over time, their prejudices erode a little as they let their guard down. Most girls in my village have been given only one picture of what a woman can be. But of course there are all kinds of women, all kinds of ways a person can feel drawn to express who they are, given the freedom. I’ve had the incredible luck of growing up in a place where that freedom is a given. Most of the girls in my village have not.
I went to several girls’ schools around Jordan in the Spring to recruit applicants to Camp GLOW. I gave them information about the camp, handed out applications, and talked to their family members. At the end of one of the sessions, one girl stayed behind. Her friends were crowded around the door waiting for her, but she said, “Miss, can I talk to you alone?” We went outside. She fidgeted with her hands and looked down. “My name is Anuwar. Can I take your phone number? Not for the camp. Just to call you sometimes, to talk.” Anuwar calls me a lot. She comes from a tiny village in the middle of a desert and sometimes she likes to be reminded of how big the world really is.
A few months ago I came home from getting my hair cut and my landlady, Mais, was sitting on the front steps. I knew what she’d say and she said it: “Why did you cut it again?!” And I said what I always say: “Because I like it this way.” But then, after she’d finished touching it and rearranging it and lamenting how short it was in the back she said something strange: “I wish I could be like you, Maggie. I wish I could not care what everyone says.”
It would be easier for us all if everyone said less. If everyone judged less. There’s so much tension and resentment that runs as an undercurrent in the lives of people who keep themselves confined in roles that don’t fit. Of course I do care what everyone says. It’s what everyone says that makes me so weary of walking the streets as myself every day and still so sure that I must. I wouldn’t bother if it weren’t for Mais, if it weren’t for the women who’ve shown me how much one person’s honesty can change.