For me to talk about what feminism means to me, I would have to talk about my life story. Don’t worry, it will not be a step by step, real time recount of my entire life but the moments in my life that ultimately shaped my identity as a feminist. Now you have to know somethings about me for this to make absolute sense to you. I am the eldest and only daughter of a university professor and a borderline workaholic executive. My younger and only brother and I have a four year age difference which created a space in my formative years, where gender mattered very little. Now if you have not guessed, my mother was and still is, the borderline workaholic executive and my father, the university professor, who would never admit it but between you and I, is a feminist.
Now in my home, growing up, there was never really a space for gendered divisions in any activity. My father cooked for us and spent his free summer vacations entertaining us while my mother went to work. Admittedly, I was ‘responsible’ for my younger brother but it was never because I was a girl, it was because I was four years older. I wore pretty dresses and I wore boys’ shorts, it did not matter. My first revelation that something was different hit me the moment I hit puberty. The boys in my neighborhood with whom I used to play soccer held a meeting and elected my little brother as the spokesperson to pass on their verdict. I have now developed breasts and all the other girls with breasts have stopped playing soccer, they stand at the sidelines and cheer or better yet, they stay home. My little brother added a small tidbit of his own, he personally preferred the girls my age that stayed home and he was personally feeling ashamed of me. He pleaded, as a favor to him, that I stop my odd behavior and do what the other girls are doing.
There have been many instances where my little brother has annoyed me but I think this was the first that I have ever been truly angry with him. I stopped playing soccer with the neighborhood boys as a favor to my brother and instead picked up my first books at the age of eleven. I don’t think that either one of us really understood that a male member of my family was actually policing a female member of the family on appropriate social behavior. All I knew at that point is that I did not like it. After that point, there were many things associated with model behavior for women I did not like and unlike my first reaction to policing, I voiced my opinion loudly.
The second such experience came when my ambitious mother secured a scholarship for graduate school after considerable struggle. My father and I were very excited for her, this strong woman deserved to pursue her dreams and we were more than willing to hold down the fort for two years. What came as a shock to me was the number of people that were not supportive of her at all. They were outright against her leaving.
A woman her age, with two kids and a husband, she must be crazy!
Many were sure she would not go through with it but I told her I would be very disappointed if she did not. It was then that I realized that society would keep a woman from her dreams because she is a woman and think nothing of it. I remember when she came back with her degree; my uncle looked at the diploma and asked quite openly, “You got a master’s degree? I thought you were over there getting an English certificate of something?”, still undervaluing her hard work.
Fast forward a few years, I am a grown woman with a degree and a job having a few beers with my boyfriend and some friends. A man shows unwanted and quite inappropriate attention towards me and I tell him off. This happens a few times during the night and finally, this man decides that he does not like my audacity to reject him. He comes to my table to confront me and sees the group of young men that I am with. Aha! He automatically concludes that I was so aloof because I had “men” to protect me. I tell him no, you were inappropriate, plus I have a boyfriend. No problem, he tells me in front of my friends, he will beat me senseless, he will beat my boyfriend senseless and anyone else that dares to stop him! Then he proceeds to spit on my face. I have never felt so powerless in my entire life. My friends and I are pacifists. We were not in the habit of getting into fistfights in bars and I did not want us to start on my account. The bar manager begs me to apologize; he whispers in my ear that the police will not come and by the time they do, he will have hurt me, so just apologize. I apologize and disappointed in missing out in beating me, he walks away. I feel a chunk of my dignity evaporate as we are snuck out the back to avoid provoking further conflict with this man.
In a world where as women we are constantly policed for appropriate behavior that will not shame their families; where we are limited to a small scope of social, professional and intellectual spaces in order to thrive; where a woman is not desirable or marriage appropriate unless she adheres to a set of behavioral and character constants and dress codes; in a world where I am paid less, treated with less respect and basically black listed from certain activities because I am a woman, feminism is the mirror where I can see myself and the women around me, not as the world sees us but as we are and as we could and should be. That even though everyone tells me I am wrong, crazy or just plain odd to think some things are unfair, improper or dehumanizing, I can clearly see through my feminist lens that I am right to feel so. In a world where I am a second class citizen because I am a woman and I have to be within the confines of socially ascribed norms to be accepted, feminism is my window to the truth.