My Mother, An Accidental Feminist
Written by: Aparna Nellore
Edited by: Clarissa Lilananda
Illustrations by: Srashti & Angelia Gan
Design by: Angelia Gan
Until recently, I was afraid to call myself a feminist. Would I be seen as demanding too much of our ‘already liberal society’ – a feminazi? Most of my peers probably don’t even recognise gender inequality in daily life. We see female CEOs, drivers, voters around us. So, this must mean we have achieved parity, right? Then, why is it often the woman who gives up her career to raise the children? The woman who doesn’t earn the same as men in many places? Women have to pretend to be on the phone while in a taxi alone at night? Indeed, we have come a long way, but there are facets of inequality that are so insidious we don’t even recognise them.
I couldn’t articulate what form of feminism I believed in – until I came across Chimamanda Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. Written by this empowering and confident young woman, the tiny book is a version of a letter she wrote to her friend, giving her fifteen suggestions on how to raise her daughter as a feminist.
My mother raised me to be a feminist without having consulted this book. Yet there are noticeable parallels to the way she raised me, and the sentiments I learned from the book. When I was three years old, I asked her if she had ever wanted to be a boy. She had. My innocent response was “But then you couldn’t be my mommy.” She smiled. As a mother, she has never allowed me to feel any less because I am a girl. Today, I recognise the impact this has had on my life. She embodies many of the values Chimamanda speaks of – some of which are below.
“Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not ‘if only’. Not ‘as long as’. I matter equally. Full stop.”
Women often have to prove themselves, work extra hard to show that they are as competent or as deserving of respect as men. This percolates into a conditional sense of self-esteem, where we believe in our worth only if we achieve something, or as long as we possess something (a job, a husband). My mother has always told me that my life is worthwhile, and that I should strive to be the best version of myself. My worth was never tied to any situation or person, it was a product of my own determination.
“Be a full person.”
Women get caught up in their roles as mothers, wives, sisters, girlfriends, daughters-in-law, or even career-women. They are criticised for being too traditional but also criticised for trying to do it all. My mother is a working model of how a woman can be many things at once. She worked full-time, dropped me to swimming classes, travelled with her friends, took music lessons, and cooked for us. She showed me how to be a full person, something that is often difficult for women to do. This is not to say that a devoted wife or a goal-oriented woman is not a full person, but it is important that she loves what she is doing.
“The idea of gender roles is absolute nonsense. ‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.”
It is so deeply ingrained in us that some types of work are inherently feminine – cooking, doing house chores, being a nurse. There is nothing about these things that makes women better suited to doing them (or else all the world’s best chefs wouldn’t be men!). My mother keeps encouraging me to learn to cook. Not because I am a girl, but because learning to nourish oneself is a skill that boys and girls should learn and has nothing to do with gender roles.
“Teach her to reject likeability. Her job is not to make herself likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people.”
People often speak of girls being too loud, too timid, too opinionated, too ambitious, too sexy, too prudish, too emotional. How do girls even stand a chance at pleasing everyone? They don’t. At home I never felt pressure behave differently just to be liked, and this has taught me to be brave, honest, compassionate and strong. I have a solid moral compass, I won’t hesitate to stand up for what I believe in and I have a secure enough identity that I don’t feel the need to be liked.
“If she likes make up, let her wear it. If she likes fashion, let her dress up. But if she doesn’t like either, let her be. Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive.”
Women come in all shapes and sizes, and so does beauty. We have been conditioned into being ashamed of bold choices and outfits. Women’s clothes have come to carry meaning other than just making the wearer feel good and confident. My mother has raised two daughters – me with my colored long hair, dangling earrings and flowy dresses; my sister with her bob cut, Converse shoes and the same old Avengers t-shirt. Neither of us has ever been made to feel ashamed of our choices, but my mother does make it a point to make sure we are well-groomed, presentable and appropriately dressed for the occasion, even if it’s in our own styles.
“Our world is full of men and women who do not like
It is common to judge powerful and successful women, to shame them for prioritising their career. Men often feel threatened by a wife who earns more than he does. My mother earned a Ph.D. and received jabs for being too ‘ambitious’ for years. For as long as I can remember, she has been a working mom, but she never compromised on being a mom. When I was nine, I once whined that she never picked me up from the bus stop after school like the stay-at-home moms of other kids. A week later, unprompted, I went up to her and assured her ‘It’s okay, you do so much more.’
I’m sure my mother would be pleased to know that of the fifteen suggestions Chimamanda makes, she scores well on more than half! Chimamanda beautifully articulates ideals I have witnessed while growing up; ideals I hope to embody and fight for. The Feminist Manifesto discusses a myriad of patriarchal transgressions, gender roles that are so deeply embedded in our thought systems, traditions that are detrimental to gender equality and judgements about women that they are forever trying to disprove. But the book gives hope with positive ways in which we can change our behaviour in trying to make the world a more equitable place for our girls.
Throughout my life, I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by strong, self-reliant women who have earned the lifestyle they want without depending on anyone else for it. Maternal figures are supremely important role models. They show young girls how feminism lives and breathes. So too are the men in our lives – to respect and support women who are trying to create a more equal world.
However, we cannot raise our daughters to be feminists while forgetting to raise our sons as feminists too. Boys need to be taught the values of emotion, equality, and most importantly, respect. Only then, will we see a day when women are proud to be feminists, and so are men.
Aparna is a recent graduate of Singapore Management University. While she pursues an internship in business advocacy and public policy, she finds herself thinking about making the world a fairer place for the ‘fairer sex’. She enjoys yoga, a good conversation and the occasional afternoon snooze.