By: Safiya Khatun
I believe I have been a feminist since the moment I learned to read. I loved reading, as it was one of the only escapes I had from the tremendously toxic environment in which I was raised. I learned to read quickly, and went on to reading the longest books I could find. For some reason, I had an affinity for historical fiction, as any sensible five year old would, I found myself drawn to Anne Of Green Gables. Now that I am older, I can look back and see the ways in which the series is problematic, but at the time I was enamored with the old town world of Anne Shirley. I learned very quickly however, that being a woman back then, was hardly close to fair. To be a girl cooped up all day, looking after house and hearth, when really all one could want would be to climb daring rooftops and watch the horizon, or look for dryads in ravines. I related to the character more than any real person I knew.
But as Anne got older, and her frolicking spirit matured, I saw the limits that had been placed on her by society. While her male peers went on to become doctors, Anne and the girls she grew up with found their places as wives, or teachers, the only acceptable profession for a woman to take back then. It hardly seemed fair to me, and despite living in a far more progressive time, I could not help but begin to see the ways in which girls were put down. Things like princesses, tea time, and art were for girls, whereas things like sports, and rather violent media were for boys. I became upset every time I saw the ways in which I was put down as a girl, both blatantly and subtly. Finally, one day I asked my mother, a staunch traditionalist, why being a girl was so hard. Her simple response was that life was just as difficult for men, because it was their duty to work and provide for their families. That answer did not satisfy me at all. I knew for a fact that life would never be harder for men, because they did not have barriers placed around them from the age of a toddler. Of course, none of this was said so eloquently in my young mind, I could see the barriers, and feel their role in my everyday life, but I had no name for them, nor deep understanding of them.
My feminist journey took on a lull until I reached 8th grade, and got my first social media account. It was hard to navigate, due to how severely strict my parents were, but nonetheless, I was exposed to feminism. It was something regarded as an evil movement destined to corrupt pious women in my religious household. But as I studied the movement from older girls, many of whom looked like me: brown, South Asian, and coming from a Muslim background, I found that it stirred up a deep yearn within me to change the world for the better.
When my family learned of my “radical” liberal ideals, I was met with much backlash, and many furious fights. The goal on my part was to defend my newfound taste for justice, and my family wanted nothing more than to bring me back to good, traditional, Islamic values. Though it is my opinion that feminism and religion can be reconciled, this was not a common opinion at the time, and certainly not the opinion of my family. I staunchly defended my views, and though practically every argument I had with my parents ended in them resolving to insults and making me out to be an impertinent, hateful daughter, I could see that my beliefs were making a slow but sure impact on my parents and sisters. My parents slowly opened up to certain progressive ideals, and began to recognize the ways they had been manipulated into being compliant with their own oppression, such as buying heavily into the Model Minority Myth. As I reintroduced my feminist beliefs into the family dialogue, I saw a powerful shift in the way we all thought. Despite their avid distaste for the movement, I had yet to discover the ways in which my family had been unconsciously feminist all along.
Perhaps it began with my great grandmother, who paved the way for us. I had always been told that the women of our family were an “anomaly of our culture,” for being boldly outspoken, hears of their families. My great grandmother, Khadijah Khatun, whose last name was a matriarchal title used to refer to empresses and other powerful women, refused to be financially dependent on her husband, so she bought a pilot of land, and plowed it by hand to grow crops. This business was something she continued for most of her life, even when she had 6 children and several step children.
It continued through my grandfather, who himself was perhaps the first unconscious feminist in our family. He was among a handful of people in 50’s Pakistan who did not view his daughters as being worth less than his son. He certainly favored them, and placed their freedom and education above anything. Instead of being raised for marriage and wifehood, my mother and her sisters were raised to be the self possessed makers of their own futures. Much of this changed as my mother began to adopt increasingly conservative beliefs, but amongst the strictly traditional, patriarchal society of Pakistan, my grandfather stood out like a light tower in the dark sea. Growing up in his legacy, I assumed that the ways in which I was raised, were unlike those of other families in my community. It was not until I began attending an Islamic school, did I realize that the culture of my community was not to raise women to find solace and purpose in themselves and in their individual journeys, but to find purpose in being a man’s wife. To clarify, I do not believe that a woman wanting to adopt more traditional roles, or who finds happiness in being a wife or mother is in any way un-feminist, but when it is made into the only role and purpose for women to have, it becomes a barrier to women who wish not to comply with such traditions.
As I observed my friends, I saw that their parents had heavily enforced beliefs within them that lead them to believe that the culmination of all of their hard work, and achievements, were simply qualifications that would make them a good wife, and a good daughter in law. I saw the ways in which they starved themselves, lightened their skin, and drove themselves to points of exhaustion and even breakdowns, simply because of how much they feared not being able to get married. Until then marriage was hardly something that crossed my mind, much like my male peers. None of them troubled themselves with marriage too much, because they trusted that their parents would find them a nice woman to be their wife, without much effort on their part. This dynamic scared me, so much so that the thought of marriage scared me. It made no sense to me, the ways in which women would dedicate everything they had and sacrifice who they were just so they could care for their families, whereas men would only have to make a fraction of the sacrifice.
This threw me into a tight place. On one hand, I was glad that I had not been raised with such strict limitations on who I could aspire to be, but I could not shake off all the ways my parents had taught me to look down upon women who were non-traditional in other ways. I could not forget how they had raised me to be quiet and submissive to them through screaming and intimidation, but loud and confident in front of others. I could not forget how they taught me to put down women who wore more revealing clothes, such as a simple pair of shorts, and how when I dared to show my knees at the age of 8, my mother refused to speak to me for hours. I could not ignore the ways in which they had bullied me and my sisters to the point of tears when we were no older than elementary students for being “fat,” though we were perfectly healthy. I could not forget how horribly my mother and father treated me at the age of 14, when I dared to choose a path in life contrary to the one they had laid out for me. Nor could I deny the ways their treatment and favoritism destroyed the mental health of myself, and my sisters. I could not forget how the chain of abuse traveled from my father, to my mother, to my older sister, to me, and then again to my little sister. Nor could I let go of how my mother told me I deserved to die for having depression. I could not undo the pain and damage they had inflicted on me. I tried hard to understand. I tried to understand the trauma of my mother, being an immigrant and the trauma that being the child of immigrants, growing up in a terrifyingly abusive family within my father. And yet nothing could suffice. The daily emotional and mental abuse was too hard to deal with. And I realized that I was not sure I could forgive them. At the very least, I could not forgive them until I had undone them from me.
The first step was to shed the most obvious piece of myself. I have hated my birth name for a long time. Ever since I was little, it was symbolic of a burden that I could not escape: the overwhelming push to be the perfect immigrant child. I was named after the valedictorian of my cousin’s high school class, a woman who had absolutely no connection with me nor my immediate family. I was named after her, solely because she got into Princeton. I of course, was given her name with the hopes that I would achieve the same. There I was, a baby not even born with already unimaginable expectations placed on her. I also hated it because it had no connection to my heritage. I wanted to be connected to my South Asian culture, which my parents had done everything in their power to cut me and my sisters off from because of how staunchly they looked down upon it. Despite the fact that they viewed it as backwards and inferior to western society, they had internalized much of it, and implemented the worst of it, with absolutely no presence of the better parts, such as the art, history, and non toxic traditions, of which there were plenty. I had wanted a more traditional name for a long time. I tried on several names, trying to see which fit: Anarkali, after my favorite movie character from Mughal E Azam, Vega, after my favorite star in the night sky. None seemed to fit right. My mother had at one point decided that she was going to call me Safiya, because in her studies of the Quran she had found that one of its meanings was “The Chosen One.” She never ended up ever calling me by it. At first, the idea of identifying with another one of my parents' chosen names seemed to play into a never ending cycle of almost breaking free of them, but not quite.
It then struck me, that in all the years of my parents trying to convince me that I was unlovable by anyone other than them, that I had for so long desired to be wanted by someone. Not necessarily to be different, or unique, but to be loved and wanted as I was, without condition. As Hasan Minhaj put it so well, “Brown love is very conditional.” Growing up in a household where love was not something given, but earned through strict obedience and conformation, made me believe that was how all love was. But real love is not conditional. Those who only love their children when they make themselves fit a mold are not only undeserving of having children, but also incapable of giving love, because they are incapable of loving themselves.
So I chose myself. I chose to shed their burdens, restrictions, expectations, and the trauma they had stacked upon me. And when the pillar fell, they did too. When they lost their control over me, it drove them to the point of screaming and fighting. They even gave me a time limit to get out of their house. I was Safiya Khatun, renamed for my mothers before me. I chose to choose myself, my future, and my health. I chose to live well, and to do the right thing above all, because it was something my parents never raised me to do.
In my story so far, feminism is woven into every corner of it. From the movement and ideology itself, to the process of breaking down toxic standards and beliefs and undoing them from my own self, I learned the truth of feminism. Its purpose at heart is to be a key to freedom for women, on the macro levels of politics and economics, as well as the micro levels that exist within the families and households that make up the macro. There is a saying in Islam which teaches that charity begins with the family, and the self. But we must do more than be charitable to ourselves and others. We must ensure that we have the tools to make life better for all people, ourselves included, so that we can rebuild a fragmented society to be fitted with all the stools and steps so that we may all break free of our glass ceilings.