Parenting as a feminist is a lonely thing

Personal Essay

Parenting as a feminist is a lonely thing

Imagine this. I am at my grandfather’s funeral, mourning the loss of one of the greatest men in my life, cradling my fresh-out-of-the-womb son, when a lady turns to me and smiles. She glances over at my daughter who’s just turned two, and proudly announces: “Now she’ll never need to worry; she has a brother to protect her.” 

It took everything I had not to hurl a lukewarm bottle of breastmilk at her, and I pacified myself with a crisp, “She can look after herself just fine,” before I turned away. 

I am not new to the misogyny that seems to gush through South Asian veins, but as a parent and a feminist, it has been an exceptionally lonely journey to navigate these waters. When my daughter was born, I was adamant about raising a person who never accepts what is considered “appropriate” for her gender. Over the past seven years, however, I realized how difficult that is, especially when raising a girl and a boy.

As a vocal advocate of equality, I have usually felt ostracized from certain groups because I don’t subscribe to accepted viewpoints. However, as a parent, there are days when I feel exceptionally guilty for raising kids that might not fit the norm. I know that by teaching them to question authority and to have full autonomy on who they like or not, they are disrupting societal constructs of marriage and family, which will make them stand out in our society. 

These misogynistic ideals are not only limited to the older generation. A few weeks ago, I was at a playdate with some parents and the topic of sexual preferences came up. Now I have always been insistent about the fact that my kid’s choices have very little to do with me. All I ask is that they never hurt anyone and that they make decisions that make the most logical sense to them; sexuality included. When I shared my openness on the matter, I was met with disapproving glances and pursed lips, which made me feel like an outsider. I couldn’t help replaying the conversation in my head. Should I have kept my mouth shut? Should I have accepted the “you’re just too liberal” remark offhandedly and let it go? Was I making my kids outcasts? 

The answer should always be and is, a resounding no. At least for me. I want to raise kids to be kind, but also to be independent. I don’t just mean financially, but free from societal norms, group judgment, and familial expectations. 

You see, as a South Asian woman, I was raised to be respectfully silent. To question a figure of authority is considered – even today – extremely disrespectful. I was instructed to be hyper-vigilant and protective of my body. To not fight the status quo. It seemed like the onus of safety was always on me, and no one else was to be held accountable. I must clarify that these “rules” weren’t in place just because those around me were being cruel, but because this is how generations of women before me had been raised. Their trauma had made them weary and they didn’t want me to be shunned, or worse, labeled a rebel. It was just assumed that men couldn’t be trusted and to function in our society meant that I should adhere to the image of a “good young lady.

As a parent, there are days when I feel exceptionally guilty for raising kids that might not fit the norm

I remember walking through crowded streets in Karachi, trying to cower and make myself as small as I could so no man would touch me inappropriately. The bum grazes, the pinches, the hand-slides. All violations and all pushed under the rug so that my “respect” could stay pristine. But as I grew older, I began to question: Why was I advised to protect myself when it was these violators who should’ve been told off? These transgressions weren’t limited to markets. They carried over in workplaces, job interviews and social circles, changing forms, but remaining ever so toxic. 

My personal breakthrough came about because of my father, who is a revolutionary man and always taught us to question what we were told. He never made me believe I was “less than” just because I am a woman, and he is one of the reasons I am the way I am now. But the challenges continue as many still want to maintain the status quo, for things to remain as male-centric and women-shaming as ever. 

Where does the inequality stop? With us, right? When we make sure that our kids do not fall into the same trap of making ourselves feel smaller to make others feel important. I find myself leaving some gatherings feeling like I am “too much.” Questioning my beliefs and wishing I had kept quiet. But as I raise my kids, I realized that to give them a fighting chance, I cannot stay silent. 

My kid’s sometimes ask why some of their friends’ dads don’t help around the house. Or why in some ads they never show female doctors. This to me is a great opening to discuss inequalities with them. I turn their attention firstly to themselves and explain how they’re both equal, even if their strengths differ. Then I strive to be an example in the fact that both their parents are working hard, whether it’s at home or outside, and we share responsibilities, equally. 

I try to encourage acceptance of all people so that it not only helps them understand the world better, but also leads to better self-acceptance. Most of all, I try to hear them out no matter what issue they bring to the table, which is something we missed out on as South Asian kids – the ability to discuss uncomfortable topics, to have home be that safe space. 

Things cannot change overnight, though. Setting boundaries and being assertive continues to be frowned upon. Some people are very uncomfortable when I say that my son will have the same curfew as my daughter, or that they will be raised in the same manner and with the same rules and opportunities. They still have a deeply rooted resistance to changing archaic rules, reflected in seemingly simple statements like “boys don’t cry” or “girls mature faster so they need to be patient.”

I now know that this doesn’t have to be me. It doesn’t have to be my family. I have made peace with the knowledge that I may not get as many invites because I can’t stop sharing my “radical” thoughts, but at least the ones I do get will be by like-minded individuals working hard to level the playing field, one meter at a time. And my kids will be surrounded by supportive people who are receptive to our changing world. 

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