Some months ago, a superior at work -a man I deeply respect – summoned me to his office to have ‘a word with me’. The invitation carried a subtle urgency, the kind that leaves you itching with curiosity. He began with a contemplative silence, his eyes poring into mine, and then, proceeded to lecture me about anger, picking his words with a seamless patience.
But it actually began a few days earlier: I was with three other men in a work-related strategy meeting, tearing apart a series of events that could easily have resulted in organizational disaster. One of the men, trying to cover his tracks, offered a lie, casual and seemingly rehearsed, implicating my involvement. I flipped. My response was an anger that descended upon the room with sudden terror. There was no way I would take false accusation with a smile painted on my face. And so, it was with a quick confrontation, stumbling through argument, that I turned his words inside out and revealed his lie for what it was. But you see, somehow, I had done something unthinkable.
You should have kept quiet; one of my colleagues told me, as if quiet was a thing I could file away in my bedroom shelf, as if world peace could be brought about by dutiful people who choose to keep quiet. It confused and saddened me that these witnesses were more concerned with the energy that burst from my tongue than with the person who twisted the narrative to align with his interest. But as the events unfolded, I came to learn that in the legislation of right and wrong, regardless of the scene at play, or who is at fault, a woman’s anger is an impermissible thing.
Fast forward to the conversation with my superior—I sat like a fixture in the perfect aesthetic of his office, trying not to speak or think or breathe. I feared that words, begging for understanding, would fly out of my mouth with naked force and appear to be something close to anger. I wanted this astute manager – a man I respect – to see that I too could be quiet, that I could contain the wounded animal prowling in my chest, that my rage can be schooled, that it can learn surrender. But then, he made a statement that shattered my shy resolve to tiny pieces of nothing.
“Don’t you know you are a woman, you shouldn’t be difficult, people are complaining”
It was such a casual statement, sandwiched in good intentions, at least as far as I thought, yet, I found the idea of it vicious and gripping. All that while, I had negotiated the scene with the idea that I could have handled the situation better, that my response could have been more prudent—gracious, that the option of silence was perhaps a practical attempt at conciliation, to not strain inter-work relationships. But instead I sat there, learning that the real trouble was that the anger had come from a woman, and so was both a splash of surprise and deeply troubling.
I remember when a family friend had learned her husband was sleeping around; my cousin had advised her to confront him, but only reasonably. Not too loud, not too sharp, you don’t want to send him to the other women. Never mind that she discovered this after she contracted a sexually transmitted disease, or that the man was dating the other woman so openly and unashamedly. He had broken his vow, but somehow, what mattered most was that he is not confronted with the tiniest shred of anger. I also remember when another friend told me that men value respect above everything, and that things like anger, or being too vocal, or being strongly placed in an argument threatens their sense of adulation. I will not bother to explain the context in which she made this excuse, but the situation was quite disturbing.
I hardly know how to process all this, after all, I am merely a woman, crawling through the existence that society permits, but one thing I am sure of is this: I also want to be respected. I want the right to defend myself and my truth, to inform with unwavering clarity, to confront and debate, to correct and apprehend, to refuse and revolt, to do it with soft language or with forceful words, to be sharp and biting, to hiss or roar. I want silence to be as much an option as anger, because in the full range of human functionality, anger is a valid response!
So the complexity of being a woman and leading a Barbie existence, pretty and plastic, without the right to commentary or dissent is too heavy for my constantly tired shoulders. The demand to swallow the heat of anger and watch my insides fry from its flames is violent and unacceptable. Naturally more prone to fear, my provocations and outbursts are few and far between, but you see, if your actions call out my anger, be assured I will respond, woman or not!