“No, I will not smile for you.”
Note: This post is part of a three-part series where we reflect on feminism–first individually on our feminist beginnings (Anita this week, Adriana next week) and then together about how our feminism has evolved and what role it plays these days in our lives.
I was a feminist before I had a label for it.
In “Living as a feminist,” Sara Ahmed writes, “A story always starts before it can be told. When did feminism become a word that not only spoke to you, but spoke you, spoke of your existence, spoke you into existence? When did the sound of the word feminism become your sound? What did it mean, what does it do, to hold on to feminism, to fight under its name; to feel in its ups and downs, in its coming and goings, your ups and downs, your comings and goings?”
I don’t recall what exactly I did that led my brother to call me a feminist some time in my teenage years. I didn’t know much about what that word meant or what he meant when he labeled me as such. However, I knew that I was critical of the gendered dynamics I observed in our family, at my school, in my everyday experiences as a teenaged girl in New York City–the family parties where the women did all of the cooking and cleaning; the biology teacher who joked about how his perfect night involved Isabella Rossellini and Heineken; the catcalls on the streets and subways. When I was 16, I became a writer for a newspaper written by teens; I told the two women (adult) editors about the time my brother called me a feminist and they encouraged me to write a story exploring this word and what it meant to me. I also took a Women’s Literature course during my senior year in high school where I encountered for the first time works by authors such as Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston. I started to claim proudly the label, the identity, of feminist.
Figuring out what that label and identity meant in and to my family was complicated. Coming from a fairly traditional South Indian family, even a seemingly small decision such as cutting my hair short when I was 16 become a big deal. (I wrote a story about this as well for the newspaper!) It was seen as a sign of defiance and rebellion, and I understood and claimed it as such. However, in my immediate family, my parents treated my brother and me in relatively egalitarian ways. We were both encouraged to do well in school and to be independent and explore the cities we lived in. In Bangalore, I have memories of taking the bus with my brother on our own to go visit relatives; in New York City, I took the city bus to junior high school and the subway to high school. Unlike the Indian immigrant parents of some of my high school friends, my parents allowed me a good deal of freedom to stay out after school, to go over to friends’ houses, and to make my own decisions about what classes to take and what extracurricular activities to pursue. My mother provided one model of a feminist woman–when I was in high school, she worked full time as a social worker and pursued a Masters in Social Work degree part time. She had to make room for her interests and concerns in an immediate and extended family situation where patriarchy ruled in small and big ways. My own budding feminism was much louder, much more confrontational, and much less accommodating of the expectations people had for me as a girl, as a woman. (Of course, it’s not like people’s expectations never mattered to me–I ended up growing out my hair a year later when I knew that I’d be going back to India to visit my family!)
When I started to identify as a feminist, as a teenager, my feminism was concerned with equality. It wasn’t until college and grad school where I read more feminists of color and learned more about the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality that my feminism become concerned with equity and changing the rules, rather than about fighting to be allowed to play by the rules. While what the word means to me has changed over the years, I have always been to proud to call myself a feminist, ever since I came to know of the word because it “spoke” me into existence.
P.S. This series of posts was partially inspired by Sara Ahmed’s recent book Living a feminist life (2017, Duke University Press). We both highly recommend that everyone check it out!