There are moments in my life I will never forget: the day I graduated, the day I passed my driving test and the day my mom told my sister and me that she is not a feminist.
It was a Sunday afternoon and I was at my parent’s house debating the subject of women’s rights with my sister when my mom walked in and dropped this bomb on us. It was so out of character for her, or at least what I knew of her. Most people who know my mom may even label her a super-feminist.
With a look of stark disapproval, I asked her why she would think that. “There are just things that a man can do that a woman cannot,” she said, bringing a swift end to the debate.
I remained in a state of disbelief, feeling like I had previously made so many assumptions about where she stood on the subject of women’s rights.
Growing up in 1960s Baghdad in her comfortable family home and being forced to leave her life behind for the underwhelming borough of Southeast London, cluttered with its council housing and police sirens, she had little time to let her mind worry about the difficulties she faced in life.
After moving to London in the 80s, she had to quickly integrate into a new circle of Kurdish and Arab women. It was easy for her to get swept away in the traditionalist aspects of Middle Eastern culture, especially since she was far from home, and her priority was to simply stay as close as possible to faces and traditions she recognized.
We consequently spent years within the same community, who were insistent on firmly holding on to their roots and cultural customs. I remember early on feeling the sting of our elders whenever we became “too Western” in our expressions, our use of language, or the way we chose to carry ourselves.
My early teens were spent attending an all-girls school, where there was no shortage of outspoken young girls certain of their place in the world. Despite being in the company of these young women, for the first 20 years of my life, I felt like feminism was not a movement that welcomed minorities, who like me were still trying to navigate our way through our multi-ethnic experiences.
Girls like me were taught to lean towards a patriarchal bias where men ate first, dictated the political world and were free to lead their lives with little resistance or consequence. Women’s voices were reserved for the topics of the home, of children, of worries, and shame. The gossip circles were packed with stories of young women who had “strayed too far from their roots and become too Western” for simply taking ownership of their bodies and their life choices. I remember hearing the word “3ayb” (shame) roll off people’s tongues so casually, but I always felt such defiance to its meaning, finding it extremely taxing on women’s bodies and wielding so much power over us.
Growing up around this community in London did little to help form my understanding of feminism. I believed it was a movement born exclusively from the Western experience and their version of women’s rights – one that did very little to reach the Middle Eastern community. I realize now that I had a lot to learn.
The late Egyptian author and activist Nawal El Saadawi famously said, “Feminism is not a Western invention. It was not invented by American women. Feminism is embedded in the culture and struggle of all women all over the world.”
It is misleading to imagine we are all fighting for the exact same cause. Despite my mom’s liberal family background, Baghdad was far from being a permissive society for women in the 1970s. By this time, she had begun studying agriculture at a university close to home, unable to leave the city, since the freedom to travel around alone as a woman was not an accessible reality.
Growing up with five brothers meant my mom came face to face with inequalities daily. Girls like her were taught to be modest, to uphold a standard of humility and were scolded for hanging out with boys for too long, for fear of what that might “look like to others.”
She tells me about her friend who was forbidden from continuing her education by her father. Undeterred by his insistence that she simply become a housewife, she would sneak into lectures and eventually graduated at the top of her class. She is now one of Iraq’s leading doctors.
Women were repeatedly taught all the ways in which their existence would bring shame on the family name if they stepped out of line. For her generation, the moral code was non-debatable and reserved for women’s bodies alone, far from my own reality.
When I reached my 30s and began thinking more about my future, the type of woman I wanted to be and the beliefs I shared with my mom, I started to think about all the ways that I had overlooked feminism and its roots in the history of my motherland, in my religion, and in my culture. I think back to when I was younger, when I used to believe that being a feminist meant that you always had to be tough and combative, to resist every rule in the book that upheld misogyny. I depended on using globally recognized female freedom fighters as the template for any Middle Eastern feminist. I struggled with the teachings of religious scholars who upheld misogynistic values with such assertion.
Unfortunately, as a woman, it can sometimes feel that shame is reserved for us, and for this reason my faith has at times followed the path of fear. Fear of what others may think of me, fear of the backlash from an imperfect community, and fear of God. While my life has been free to pursue my education and career as a woman, the same cannot be said about how we can gain complete autonomy over our bodies within our culture.
Now that I am older, I see that there is resilience and strength in softness too and in doing my best to embrace fear and faith. My grandmothers and aunts were pillars within their communities and homes. They were decision-makers that were listened to, and above all respected. My aunts fiercely advocated for the voices of our younger generations and taught us to refuse to settle into marriages before pursuing our education or passions. It seemed like the force of their characters and individuality could knock down any obstacle that the patriarchal society had in store for us.
To raise the subject of feminism, however, would be to openly oppose everything they have ever learned. For them, feminism may still be too extreme a term despite their actions and decisions being strongly influenced by righting the inequalities faced by women in the region.
As I got older, my mom formed her own path outside of being a wife and a mother. She worked night and day to provide herself with financial independence. Her unrelenting compassion to help others has always been fuelled by untying any knots of oppression, especially those rooted in classist and misogynistic customs. It is in these moments I can see, that despite my own mom’s assertion that she is not a feminist, she ticks all the boxes. After all, you do not have to be a revolutionary marching through the streets to stir up a conversation about women’s rights.
I remind myself that there is a luxury I am afforded living in London, a freedom where the existence of feminist values is not entirely different to that of my mom’s generation, but the space for openly discussing, unlearning, and dismantling patriarchal traditions seems more visible.
For me, feminism is a culture of existing without criticism or shame, of not having to ask for permission. For my mom’s generation, however, feminism as a label will always carry elements of Western idealism. Some days she refuses to see my views as anything other than the “whims of a Western upbringing.” Understanding our cultural nuances and the broad generation gap between us, where everything and nothing is the same, I cannot expect my values to exactly embody those of her experience. There are still subjects we disagree on, and debates that we leave on the shelf, until we both feel open to sharing more.
I have not lived in her shoes, nor she in mine. I cannot expect our views on feminism to be the same. There isn’t only one type of woman and therefore cannot be only one type of feminist.