Mansir was 16 when he first got seriously in trouble for wearing a dress. Mansir was 16 when he first sat behind an army truck and posed, against his will for a picture that would go viral in Nigeria and beyond, in spaces he did not inhabit, spaces he probably would never inhabit. Mansir was 16 when he first became a terrorist disguised as, in the words of the Nigerian army, a she-man.
In my head I have conversations with him, in a virtual space far from his home in Mando, Kaduna where he has his home, his family, and his dresses. I ask him why, in my head, not because I want to know why but because I know this is the question people asked when they were told that he was no terrorist, that he planted no bomb, that what he had was no disguise when he went out to see what was happening in the chaos that followed the blast in Kaduna. I know it is a stupid question, just like I know it is stupid when people ask me why I like a certain color or why sometimes, I like to paint my nails. When people ask, I just say, life is too short not to paint your nails at least once.
Zubeida however, has ideas, even though she may not be sure. She has ideas about spirits, bad spirits inhabiting her son’s body, whispering terrible gender non-conformist ideas – veils and dresses and eyeliner. She has tried to heal him, rid his body of spirits. Spirits who could not protect him when he was stripped almost completely naked and beaten and wounded and paraded before the world as the face of the most hated group in Nigeria – a group that delights in taking lives and planting fear in the hearts of people. Spirits who could not whisper into the ears of the soldiers that took him away to their barracks and tell them that Mansir was just a boy, curious and afraid. Spirits that could not stop the army from tweeting his photo to a mob baying for blood. Spirits who could not make the army apologize when, after months of interrogation, they let him out through the back door.
I do not even know if Mansir has any ideas of his own, just like I do not know if he knew what was happening to him as they tore his clothes and slashed his back and dragged him away. I would show him his photo in that tweet from the Nigerian army and tease him about not knowing how to apply the eye pencil on his brows, but he might not find it funny. I would not find it funny.
Mansir is 17 now. Mansir is back home now, with his mother. He dropped out of school after the school fees were hiked and Zubeida could no longer afford it. Not many people read that he was released. People read the scandal but hardly ever read the resolution of that scandal because there are always new exciting scandals to read about. And reading that a scandal is not true is not so sexy.
I read someone call Mansir a homosexual in a newspaper article. This is not one of the questions that I would ask him, because like the question of why he likes wearing dresses, I think it is stupid to be concerned about his sexuality. Our rigid gender roles and rules make people unable to understand how a male who likes women could also like wearing dresses. From the moment we are born we are told that boys should wear blue and want to be doctors and engineers and strong and masculine. We are told that boys don’t cry. That boys who cry act like girls. That boys don’t play with toys or speak a certain way. We are told that men who don’t conform must be homosexuals and that homosexuals are bad, bad people. Perhaps Mansir likes dresses as well as girls. I do not know. I do not care.
But if I could I would want to hear his own questions. I imagine he would want to know why the people who claim to fight for human rights said nothing about his plight. I imagine he would wonder: is it because I like wearing dresses? Does wearing dresses make me less human? And if he does ask, I am not sure I can answer. I will not be able to explain why people showed no empathy even when it was established that he was not the bomber; why some people tweeted that if he was not being silly and wearing dresses, he would not have been mistaken for the bomber in the first place. I only know what I think: that Mansir deserves an apology from the Nigerian army. I only know what I hope: that Mansir will be able to afford to return to school soon; that Zubeida is able to afford to change the life of her son through education. I hope that Mansir someday is able to find a community that will not treat him like an animal for wanting to wear a piece of clothing that humans have decided only women should wear. I hope that his 18th birthday will be better than his 17th.