By Harmanjit Kaur
We need to get better at talking about feminism.
When I talk about feminism to other people, particularly to brown people of a similar age to me, their reactions are normally of dismissal, ‘Yeah that sounds good but I’m not really sure what it has to do with me’ or ones of defence, ‘Men have lots of issues too you know, women love making everything about themselves, I’m a MENINIST’ or more rarely, blessed Responses of ‘That sounds about right to me/ I also feel like this/ I’m so glad I’ve met someone who thinks about this in the same way!’ The primary reason why there is such a huge divergence in reactions, especially in the South Asian community, is because people aren’t really sure what a feminist is. This needs to change.
Yes, there are feminists who burn their bras, who grow their under arm hair and dye it in neon yellow and green shades (more power to you) and yes- some brown (especially) men find this scary and alarming, but the dominance of this narrative and perception blinds people to the huge variety of women who identify with feminism, and the important role feminism has in empowering people of ALL genders in overcoming prescribed gender roles and being happier, more free versions of themselves.
Growing up, I had little knowledge of feminism, and perhaps even associated it with some of the ideas I have presented above. When I discovered what feminism meant to me, it was something like the flicking of a light switch. That is not to say the world suddenly became brighter or clearer, instead it became darker and more opaque. See, the thing was that evidences of inequality which hurt the most were not the easily identifiable statistics of pay gaps, or language used in the media to describe successful women as opposed to successful men, but rather the more subtle and insidious hints of sexism that were perpetrated by the people closest to me, in community and home spaces that were intimately familiar. A brother being given the front seat in the car, an uncle being served first at dinner, an every so often reminder to myself and my sister that we would discover our ‘real home’ once we got married. But the fact that I was aware of these things offered me a sense of empowerment and conviction in attempting to challenge them. It allowed me a critical lens by which I could look at society and more importantly, how I could look at myself.
I believe that at some subliminal level, Panjabi culture (and maybe even other south Asian cultures) teaches women to shoulder extra responsibilities just for daring to be born female. From a young age, in my house we were taught about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in gendered terms. This was knowledge that was not shared with my brothers. We were taught in community and religious spaces that engaging in relationships with boys before marriage would somehow irrevocably damage our reputations, leaving us unable to attain the ultimate goal- finding a husband and settling down. What got me the most about the people telling me these things was they weren’t always the typical ‘aunty’ figure who you might associate with this line of thinking, but rather young women who I had expected would feel the same way about all of this as I did. They were often apologetic about these talks, saying things like ‘this is just the way things are, girls have to be a hundred times more careful as their reputations are more easily damaged and harder to repair.’
Whilst I appreciated the all-female spaces, and even appreciated that these women were coming from an ‘elder sisterly’ advice mode, I felt suffocated rather than empowered. I thought maybe others felt the same way, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t have the language to articulate the way I felt. Looking back, I think about the ways in which problematic ideas are able to flourish and perpetuate in this environment. We could have used these spaces to critically engage with the rhetoric imprinted in to our minds from a young age. Maybe these spaces could have been a step in dismantling ideas that had, for so many years, perpetuated this hatred of women’s autonomy, and the perceived power it had to challenge familial honour. The only way we can avoid perpetuating toxic ideas about femininity is to actually start opening up interpretations of what femininity or being a woman means to individuals. Like mentioned before, feminism doesn’t look the same for everyone, and it doesn’t have to. What it should do, when it is done properly, is to allow you a critical lens for looking at every day practises and ideas. It should allow brown women to exist on their own terms. If we are going to get better at talking about this lens, and promoting it amongst ourselves and the next generation of brown women, then we need to promote open dialogue about gender roles, in brown spaces. And that is up to us.
Harmanjit is a history graduate from SOAS, University of London, currently working as a policy adviser and studying for a masters in creative writing.