Feminism is the sociocultural and political movement that consistently makes strides globally for women's empowerment. Feminism is also the movement that consistently takes heat for being too aggressive. Feminism is also the movement against sexism that essentially always gets pin-holed by sexism?
Now, I know I could write pages upon pages about feminist theory, the intersectional discourse between it and other minority movements, Gloria Steinem, and Roxane Gay. But, that's not what this is about. This is about my personal experience with the word feminism and why that word was such a process for me.
When I was younger, I went to private school (a place that proved too stuffy and stifling for me, but that's a different story). The girls I went to school with were the first people to open up my eyes to typical gender roles. On the playground, we weren't supposed to play with the boys in the jungle gym. We were supposed to leisurely hang around on the grass. We weren't supposed to run in skirts because it wasn't ladylike. Heck, we weren't supposed to speak out of turn or get to aggressive because it wasn't proper.
(I never felt like I was in the middle of pureblood society more than I did there. I mean, come on. I bet even Draco Malfoy grew up to figure out posh society had stupid stupid rules)
Feminism still wasn't a word to me yet. No one had bothered to explain it to me.
It became too much for ten year old me as I came home crying one day, begging my parents to let me go to public school. I thought that that would be the place I would be accepted (I later realized the reason I wanted to leave was so I felt less isolated thanks to culture, gender, and heritage stereotypes). Instead, I found another layer of the sexist puzzle. In middle school, I didn't really fit into any particular group. I was the awkwardly smart kid who transferred schools late in the game. The only friends I had were family friends my parents knew from temple or mutual friends of temple friends. Needless to say, that was a disaster. I learnt then that girls, especially in the Indian American community in my town, had a whole new level of expectations.
For girls in my town's Indian American community it was as follows:
Strike one: You can't be opinionated.
Strike two: You can't hang out with too many boys.
Strike three: You can't think about anything other than academics. Friends, boys, movies, anything. It's taboo if it doesn't affect your report card.
Strike four: You can't wear shorts or skirts like normal kids because they're slutty.
Strike five: You can't be smarter than any of the other girls or boys. You have to hide it.
Yup. I was screwed in middle school. All these stupid rules for me destroyed my soul. Middle school became an even darker place for me than elementary school. Growing up was proving to be an increasingly lonely experience for me. I didn't fit in with the expectations in elementary school, so I would come home crying weekly because I would get teased or because I would simply just be invisible. Middle school I would come home crying once again because I didn't fit into the expectations. But I also would come home crying because I was known in my classes for not fitting the mold. It was the cause of constant mocking. The boys in my classes thought I was an annoying swot who shouldn't be there. The girls all thought I didn't belong. And my few friends there seemed scared to say anything. Granted, middle school for everyone is always just a terrible time.
Throughout it all, my parents were my rocks. They constantly told me everything I was doing was okay. While they grew up in what I consider sexist environments (in India where it was culturally appropriate), they tried their best to not make me feel weird. They have always been the most supportive and loving people (even though sometimes we argue to the point of not talking for a while).
In middle school, I was vaguely aware of the word feminism, but I knew that it was a word that would get me mocked and teased. I did not understand its true definition.
High school: a place where you're supposed to find yourself, but, instead, the place where I ended up getting lost. On the bright side, sexist comments were at an all time low for me. Well, that is, if you don't include all the joking comments one of my now best friends would make. (Yes you Tage, you lovable moron)
High school turned out to be the place I truly learnt what feminism was. I never really had a label for what I was. I just knew that I did not believe in gender norms. Hell, I was a girl who liked to play fight with her friends, who regularly explored the woods, who liked power tools, who actively hated skirts, who didn't and still doesn't believe in the concept of dating, who is never planning on getting married. I have zero maternal instinct, for now. In so many stereotypical aspects for my gender, I fail. High school taught me that that is okay. It's okay to just grow up and be your own person.
Unfortunately, high school also made it blatantly obvious that sexism occurred in other ways. In my magnet school, two boys and I were up against each other for everything. And at times, it felt like I had to fight three times as hard. After a while, I just gave up and took my own alternative method for everything. I mean, it worked out in the end for me right?
One of the worst moments though was in sophomore year when my dad and I got into an argument about my summer plans (I wanted to go volunteer in Ecuador and my dad was just having a crappy week). We got into an argument that was essentially inconsequential, but because he was already in a terrible mood. He attacked my shorts and used a word that I hadn't been called since middle school: slut. I immediately burst into tears, slammed my door, and threw my desk chair into it. Aggressive I know. My door still has the break in it to prove it unfortunately. I learnt in that moment that no matter how much love my dad has, he still grew up in an environment starkly different than the one I was. His perception of things would never be like mine. I just never expected him to say that word. Neither did he because he proceeded to sit outside my door and sleep outside it until I finally came out (something that took more than 24 hours because I forgot to eat lunch at school that day and had my backpack). When I got out, his face looked just as horrible as mine, as if the two of us had spent all those hours continuously crying.
From that moment, my dad actively tried to be an open person, trying his hardest to make sure that any inkling of sexism stayed hidden.
I almost forgot the way the world works until college applications. My parents were hell bent on me being a science major because the humanities was apparently the expensive way to becoming a permanent housewife. That destroyed me. I always loved politics, journalism, and anthropology way more than I ever loved biology or physics. I did do as they wished and eventually went into my freshman year of college as a bio-engineering, biotechnology, student.
After four years in an environment that let me explore what it meant to be me and be a feminist, I was in for some culture shock yet again.
My first week of college ever, I met a girl who actively tells everyone she doesn't believe in feminism. Growing up with all the experiences I had, that was just not a person I wanted to get to know. Somehow though, she was just around. So I tried to become friends, well I tried and failed. I tried to give up my inhibitions, but I can honestly say I will never bother to remember her once I graduate. She's just not worth it. I to this day can't understand how a person can not believe in equality for everyone. Equality is a basic human right, and a tenet of every major social revolution for as long as I can possibly tell.
Apparently, feminists were too aggressive, too demeaning, and a bad example of female. Well, shoot. What am I then, an example of the scum of the earth? Oops, call me one of Satan's gatekeepers then because it sure as heck sounds better than being a good example of female.
As I go through undergrad, I keep meeting more and more people who say stuff like that. Feminism has somehow been warped to "feminazism", a term I find horrible, demeaning, and criminal. Just because a sect of feminists believe the way to equality is through verbal aggression does not mean we can put them on the same plane as Nazis.
For everyone lost on what feminism is, here's the definition.
See, normal? Not full of misandry in the damn slightest.
A super pivotal moment for me in undergraduate was the week or two before I went back for my second year. I had changed my major spring quarter of freshman year to Economics and was planning on double majoring in Political Science. My parents really couldn't say anything because my grades were going up and I was no longer the miserable sod I was when I was majoring in bio-engineering. I was also becoming less dependent on my extra-curriculars for happiness, something they were absolutely ecstatic for.
Anyways, we were talking about the possibilities of the 2016 election. Somehow that moved onto my classes for the next quarter. My mom, who I love and I know is trying really hard to accept the fact that I am picking an extremely tough career path, made the comment that I was never going to make it in my profession. My dad, being the ever-opinionated human that he is, proceeded to then make comments about how my career path was stupid, using words like stupid girl and comments about partying and hopeless, feminine tendencies. In that moment, I reverted back to the little girl from sophomore year of high school, the girl who couldn't stand the fact her father had an ingrained sexism, something that she couldn't just argue out.
I did something rash, that to this day, I am not proud of. I refused to talk or acknowledge my father for 3 months. Hell, I almost didn't go home for winter break until my mother called me upset, multiple times actually, and helped buy my plane ticket. My dad I like to say is my rock, but I only recently learnt that my rock waivers thanks to feminism. I believed that regardless of my gender and ethnicity, I could make a name for myself in my chosen field. And well, my father chose to doubt that, citing female stupidity. I get it now though, he just puts his foot in his mouth. But he really is trying. I had to forgive him, partially because I love him and not talking to him for months was really messing with my head and emotions.
Feminism became a fluid concept, one where my beliefs while steadfast were not necessarily applicable to everyone else.
My mom and I, a couple months ago, had a conversation about dating. I was hanging out with a guy and he wanted to know if it deserved a label. It was then that I decided my mother should know the details. She proved to be extremely upset at the concept of dating. Having never dated herself, I think she believed dating to be a commitment that was a decision a daughter shouldn't make herself. Somehow, because I was female I had to be protected. I couldn't protect myself. Feminism in that moment became me slowly pushing my mother to believing that I am a strong, capable woman and that women don't need their parents to make their decisions until they were married. I had to prove that I was more dangerous than any man who could come near me.
In those months, I came to revisit my love for Emma Watson's work with the UN. The way she dealt with feminist issues for the past couple years was just so strong in a subdued manner. Emma Watson became a role model of epic proportions in a way that she previously wasn't. Don't get me wrong, Emma Watson has always been a role model for me. But the character she played in Harry Potter, Hermione was my true role model. Granger was how I learnt aggression, action, strategy, and so much more. Emma Watson though was quickly become a fan favorite of mine with her rhetoric: classic, formal, and forceful.
Now that I'm living in Nepal, I'm learning that Western Feminism is far different than global feminism. Working in women's rights here is powerful. Global feminism is about basic human rights simply not being given to women because they are women. Global feminism is a movement against the injustices women face daily on the international stage. From rape to child marriages and arrests, women face problems far graver than the ones I ever have. In fact, global feminism and the issues it takes to battle are so powerful that I feel ridiculously stupid for not being a proud feminist for my entire life.
Feminism has now become a way of life, a way of ensuring that we all have our inalienable rights, a way to be a global patriot, a mantra of sorts.
I know for a fact I am going to continue to have crazy stories about sexism. I know growing up me with my identity is going to be a process for my feminist evolution. But I also know that no matter what, feminism means the world to me. It is one of my most important identifiers and I would feel damn stupid without it. Feminism has gone from a word I've never known to a word and revolution I will fight for until I'm ash, regardless of how small my contributions may be. So whatever happens and whatever stupid words are thrown my way, I'm feminist and proud. Like Mystique and her mutants, I will fight the good fight. Hopefully I won't go the quasi-villain route though.