She told me once that her upbringing did not require her gender to play a prominent role in her self-determination. When she was young, despite a fairly conservative family, she was encouraged to dream. Embedded into her self-image was pure possibility. It was later that she learned to fear, specifically to fear as a woman—a devastating lesson.
Perhaps this phrasing is confusing. Women are not more prone to fear than men. But all people are born into a world that has been shaped into a particular form before we arrive. That form, in its current state, remains less friendly to women than to men.
In this world, a woman’s body has been sexualized, captured by the male public, exposed to a lifetime of evaluation, before she enters it. She may decide to defy this—to wear a short skirt, perhaps—but her legs are not simply her inevitable corporeal reality. In this world, to certain men, they are an invitation, a man’s birthright, a public good. This world is saturated with images of her body, images that precede her and dictate how her body is perceived, against her will. In spite of her will.
She told me that when she was young, she didn’t know this. She thought of herself as someone who, if not already, could at least learn to be fearless. She walked into this world, thinking she was brave, only to find she was naïve. Sexual aggression against her taught her to fear, and learning to fear made her angry. The obstacles between her and fearlessness, between her and the freedom that comes with fearlessness, were inherent to her physical constitution, structural to her given culture.
This is what it means to fear as a woman. It is not a fear of an imagined fiend in the dark, a fear that is outgrown with time. What one outgrows is the belief that she can walk through this world unscathed, that the burden of womanhood is light.
She told me that learning to fear did not mean learning to hide. Although for a time she did hide. She learned to take her fear, and walk out the door, despite what she knew was out there. She learned to always listen for footsteps behind her. She learned her dignity was not a given.
But she also learned to demand respect and to find her voice in the face of humiliation. Against her will, in spite of her will, her project of fearlessness had changed. Learning to fear as a woman is learning to be fearless. It is the Hagakure: a constant and perpetual confrontation with fear, and the path towards its transcendence.