x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

My tomboy days when I was a rebel with too many causes

Tomboys have it tough: stereotyped and shunned by their communities for their less-than-girlie behaviour. But take it from someone who knows: every tomboy has something to offer.

Sometimes, first impressions can be quite deceiving. When I first met a group of girls that are said to belong to a subculture known as "boyat", a creative Arabic twist on the English word boy, I thought they were just seeking attention and being rebellious like most youth are.

But as I got to know them better, they turned out to be quite a creative group, with their own discussion club. They meet regularly to talk over things they have read or heard about in the news or from their families, and organise regular sporting activities like football and rollerblading.

The phenomenon of girls dressing and acting more masculine has picked up pace here in the last five years, and now there are regular local talk shows on TV and radio discussing the boyat phenomenon. Some colleges have even offered lectures advising parents and teachers on how to deal with the issue and what it all means.

Well, there is no one type of boyah (singular of boyat) but, generally, they have short pixie-style hair, wear more masculine clothing, sunglasses and watches - all, of course, luxury brand names. If they have long hair, they keep it tucked under a hat. In other words, it is the Emirati take on being a tomboy.

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, many of my friends and I were tomboys ourselves, as being a young girl was not as much fun as being a boy.

When our school cancelled sport classes, the tomboys among us protested by cutting our hair short (not too short, as I still didn't want to look like my dad) and wore long, white trousers under our school uniforms. We would act tough, and the rest of the girls would seek our protection from bullying.

Since most of the tomboys played basketball, we ended up being known as the "basketballers", not exactly as cool sounding as boyat.

"If the basketballers can't get it done, no one can," became our informal slogan. In every school there were similar basketball teams who were reacting to the constant stream "forbidding" us to do this or that. Later, researching gender segregation for my psychology degree, I discovered that in an all-girls school, dominant characters assume roles usually associated with males.

I actually looked for boyats on a recent visit to several all-girls schools in Jeddah, but the my old principal said that the sub-cultures are fading.

"No troublesome girls like you anymore," my principal joked, remembering the countless times we ended up in her office after some stunt or another. Those were the days.

The increase in women-only services in different sectors in Saudi Arabia may have relieved some of the pressure of competing against men for acknowledgement.

In an effort to assert my "boyatness", I showed my gang of boyats here some photos of my school days. Sadly, they laughed at me, remarking that we didn't dress as well as they do, nor did we have the freedom they enjoy.

"You guys thought jumping on a trampoline on someone's roof was rebellious?" one of my friends asked.

Times have changed, I guess. Many Arab women never had access to things that are common now.

One of the most common reasons for the rise of boyats is the absence of a strong female figure at home. Many also rebel against the need to conform.

"There is just so much pressure for a local woman to always look beautiful and wear the latest fashion and have big, long hair and be only concerned with marriage," said one boyah. In response, she cuts her hair short and barely puts on make-up.

The boyat know they are being stereotyped and many have been shunned by their communities for their less-than-girlie behaviour. But many of them have more serious issues like depression, rejection and abuse. And others do it for less serious reasons.

Whatever the case, even if they might look the same to some people, not every tomboy is the same.

 

rghazal@thenational.ae