Being a South Asian feminist

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My Bengali mother and me

I proudly identify as a Bengali American feminist. My parents, who were born and raised in Bangladesh before they came to the U.S. at a rather young age, support my identity. They believe that I can choose who I want to marry, that my education is infinitely more important than anything else, and that my future will hold more than cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. They loudly and proudly celebrate my achievements and work hard to ensure that I have access to resources that will help me achieve my goals.

Yet, even my parents still hold beliefs that are rooted in gender stereotypes. Bangladesh, like many South Asian countries, is staunchly entrenched in gender roles: Men are generally breadwinners while women cook and take care of children, and Bangladeshi children learn how to fulfill these gender roles early on. For example, young girls are often told to “be quieter,” because “girls aren’t meant to be loud.” I certainly was raised this way: My mother still often tells me to be quieter, to sit properly and cover up, even though men are never told the same things.

I listen to her when she does and says these things because respecting your elders is an important part of South Asian culture. I feel like I can’t adequately explain to her why I think saying these things is wrong, because she was raised to believe the opposite. But I also wonder if I can still call myself a feminist if I refuse to call her out on what I see as sexist behavior. So is my feminism invalidated when I modify my behavior simply because of expectations associated with my gender? Or am I just abiding by my cultural duty to respect and listen to my mom?

I have come to realize that this dilemma is about so much more than my personal relationship with my mother and the choices I make within it. Being South Asian and embracing Bengali culture is an important part of my life, and I need to understand the women of my culture who came before me. For centuries, South Asian women were forced to believe that they needed to be quiet, cover up, and take up as little space as possible. When my mom and other South Asian women support schooling rather than marriage, for example, they are being radical feminists based on what they’ve experienced and what they’ve known. It’s wrong for me, I’ve realized, to look down on their feminism just because it doesn’t reach the “little things” (read: the belief that gender roles/gender-specific behavior are not as important as getting an education) in my feminism.

In the end, I’ve decided that I can still call myself a feminist even if I adhere to the gender stereotypes my mom still enforces. If I have daughters, I won’t tell them to be quiet, cover up, and take up as little space as possible. I’ll be sure to instill in them the knowledge that men and women are equal, and both can be as loud or as quiet as they want. I now know that different women are feminists in different ways, and I should celebrate that my mom is a strong feminist by her own definition, even if I disagree with her sometimes.

I’m a female Bengali-American feminist, and the only person who can take that away from me is me. I choose to be a feminist, and my feminism is valid.

More articles by Category: Feminism, Race/Ethnicity
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Kareeda Kabir
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