Thursday, January 17, 2008

"I'm not a feminist or anything, but..."

I was sitting in the ninth circle of hell yesterday, or what some people call a "training session."

Just as I was going to try to muster up my long forgotten high school talent of sleeping with my eyes open, our moderator, an unnaturally chipper young woman in her 20s, said, "So, we have such and such speaker coming next month who will be discussing the evolution of the feminist movement over the past few decades in this and that room."  Then she rolled her eyes and said, "I mean, I'm not a feminist or anything, but, if that's your thing, you should come."

Hmmm, I found this young woman's imperative need to assert that feminism was not "her thing" interesting enough to keep me awake for at least the next hour or so.  I found it so interesting, in fact, that I am going to blog about it today.

After much deliberation I have decided that this young woman simply does not know what feminism really is and that is the only logical explanation why such a bright person would be so negative about feminism.

So, I asked around to find out how other people define feminists. Apparently, people think that feminists are almost always lesbians with an aversion to depilatory procedures who hate men and think the world would be a better place without them.  This is not only untrue, it is just stupid.  

I know that's harsh, but facing up to our stupidity is perhaps the ugliest of all human burdens.  Believing that a feminist is always the above described person (who by the way is a perfectly acceptable sample of a human being) is as stupid as believing that one particular race of people are inferior due to the color of their skin or believing that Lindsay Lohan is never going to rehab again.

So, let's discuss the American feminist movement as painlessly and quickly as possible. 

Feminist movements of the 19th and 20th century centered upon suffrage, or the right to vote. 

The feminist movements of the 60s centered upon social issues, such as women's right to equal access to education, equality in the workplace and reproductive choices (this includes but is not limited to the issue of abortion).  A few feminists in this era burned some bras, but the majority of them, contrary to popular belief, did not.  

These days, feminism builds upon these past concepts, but also recognizes that Western white women should not be dictating feminist agendas to the world's diverse populations (or even the diverse populations within their own countries.)

The Oxford American Dictionary defines feminism as "the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men."  If you live in the United States of America, you really should not have a problem with that.  In fact, you should be for that.  

If you live outside of the United States, well, according to most new generation feminists, also called "post feminists," we might not agree with how women are treated in your country, but we believe that they should be the ones who set the agenda for those changes, not us.  (This is a particularly complicated issue, so I'm not going to delve too deeply here.)

I find it ironic that many Americans will roll their eyes at the mention of feminism, but quickly jump on the "Saudi's need to let their women drive" bandwagon.  Interestingly, we decry feminism at home, but champion its cause as we attempt to denigrate cultures and value systems outside our own with the intent of subjugating them.  I wonder if the rest of the world realizes that it is not American feminists who stand at the forefront of these criticisms, but the people I believe to be the enemies of American feminism itself.

Let me wrap this up by telling you what I believe American feminism is not.  

American feminism is not an excuse to point out the flaws of men.  As a matter of fact, many men are feminists, too.  Not because they are afraid their "butch" wives are going to beat them up, but because they believe women are their social, political and economic equals.  

Feminism is not a platform that decries motherhood, staying at home or family values. 

Feminism is not the reason kids in our society seem to be from another planet (I personally believe this one can be attributed to Nicole Ritchie and Paris Hilton who are, in fact, from another planet).

When someone brings up the movement for racial equality in the United States, do you go out of your way to distance yourself from it?  Do you roll your eyes or get a stupid grin on your face like someone has just said something very funny?  No, you don't.  Unless of course your white hood and robe are drying on a gentle setting and you're running a few minutes late for your weekly cross burning.  So, why do Americans do this when the feminist movement is brought up?  

I'll end with the following correspondence, which I have no intention of sending:

Dear Ms. 20-something,

American feminism has a long history, over 130 years in its making. 

You don't have to be feminist if you don't want to, I don't mind if it's not your thing.  

However, since you are a woman living in America, I respectfully ask that you appreciate what these women did for you and treat them with more respect by refraining from acting like they are crazy PETA members who throw red paint on celebrities wearing fur.

They gave you choices and opportunities that women in other parts of the world are literally dying to have.  

They fought for your right to vote, your right to be educated in any field of your choosing, your right to work in any field of your choice, your right to make decisions regarding your reproductive system, your right to have legal recourse if someone says or does sexually inappropriate things to you in your workplace and many other rights that you now take for granted.

No, feminism may not be your thing, but, Ms. 20-something, feminism is your blessing.

P.S. Please stop calling other women your age "girls."  Girls play with Barbies and Little Ponies.  You are a woman, as are other women your age.

P.P.S. And stop saying "like" every two minutes.

P.P.P.S.  And don't bounce when you talk.  It's distracting.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Where I'm From...Originally.

Most of the time, the hyphen is a generally useless symbol of punctuation. A few years ago, though, the hyphen made big news with those of us in the American citizenry who have a decidedly "ethnic" flair. I'm specifically referring to the debate of whether to include a hyphen in the phrases used to describe those of us who were born on U.S. soil, but don't look like we were born here. For example, does one write "Arab American" or "Arab-American"?

The great debate centered on the appropriateness of whether to include this hyphen or not. Some people said that when you write "Arab-American" (hyphen included), you are implying that the status of "Arab," because it is a descriptor, in the term "Arab-American" is somehow secondary or substandard to the "American" status.

Before you file this information in the "I Have No Idea Why This is Important" category of your brain, some feel that both of these identities (in this particular example, "Arab" and "American") are equally important to their individual identity. In other words, one of them is not more important than the other, and the hyphenated expression somehow diminishes that point .

People (and by "people," I mean individuals who read too many books and have too much time on their hands) got tired about making such a fuss over this teeny, tiny little punctuation mark and decided to do away with it all together. As a result, the correct and "modern" way to describe a citizen of the United States with Arab origins is "Arab American." No hyphen.

I, personally, find this all very confusing. Since my parents came here from Pakistan in the 70s, and I was born here, I am a Pakistani American. But, their parents migrated from India almost seven years after the partition of India and Pakistan. So, I guess that makes me Indian Pakistani American. Oh, and I almost forgot, my parents were born before the partition of India and Pakistan, while India was under British rule, and were thus born as British subjects. Does that mean I am actually British Indian Pakistani American? And what about my daughter whose father is Indian? Is she British Indian Pakistani American Indian American?

Truth be told, I've never really accepted this label of "Pakistani American" with any real seriousness. (Oh, by the way, since I just used both "Pakistan" and "Arab" in this blog post, I just want to give a shout out to the Homeland Security intern who got saddled with the fruitless task of monitoring my blog for the next few months.)

Don't get me wrong, when I was living under a fairly strict dress code or threatened with death if I even thought about dating a boy in high school, I was very aware of my status as a "Pakistani American." And when I got married to an Indian, I became even more aware of it. And, I pretty much prefer to dress in Pakistani clothes and eat Pakistani food. Still, if I were about to die in five minutes and someone handed me an indestructible scrap of paper that would thousands of years later reveal the very core of my existence to future generations, I am certain the term "Pakistani American" would not be written on it.

I was forced, though, to examine this status of "Pakistani American" with a more keen eye when a friend, who happens to be an immigrant, turned to me and innocently said, "You know, when most Americans that don't know you look at you, I don't think they think of you as an American."

I still gasp at the utter horror of the implication, given that I have resided every minute of my life in this country. I said the pledge of allegiance every day in elementary school, junior high and until we weren't allowed to say it anymore because it wasn't politically correct. I watch baseball and football (which is a different sport than soccer). Additionally, I vehemently deride the false athleticism of table tennis and badminton as well as the utter stodginess of cricket. I even shop at Wal-Mart from time to time, just to assert my God given right as an American to pay extra low prices for cheap crap I don't need.

The truth is, though, that most Americans might not think I'm an American at first glance, but, then again, most Pakistanis might not think I'm very Pakistani after they get to know me. I figure that I have been asked "Where are you from, originally?" over 2,304 times. I just did the math on a Post-It, so I could be off by couple of hundred. Still, that's a lot of times to have to assert you are an American and a Pakistani.

Let me just say this question does not, in any way, offend me. I'm proud of my heritage. I'm proud that the possibility exists that my difference might actually expand someone's awareness regarding the amazing diversity of this country. I do have to admit, though, that this question and my friend's comment do bring to light a topic that I personally am sick of talking about. Apparently, it still begs clarification, so let me clarify. Here's where I am from, originally.

  • I come from the place where my authenticity is always questioned. When I'm with certain Americans, I'm not American enough. When I'm with certain Pakistanis, I'm not Pakistani enough. The truth is, I am more authentic than most people I know because every cultural, political and even linguistic choice I make is both conscious and deliberate. Most of the world just inherits its preferences from their superculture, but I am incredibly lucky because I was offered a variety of choices.
  • I come from the place where people call me names like "ABCD" (American Born Confused Desi) when, in reality, I know exactly who I am. Actually, the people who use that term are the ones who are confused by my superhuman ability to fit in and not fit in simultaneously all in a single bound.
  • I come from a place where my nationality is something that is written in my passport. This has no bearing on the clothes I choose to wear, whether I choose to eat spicy food or sweet potato casserole, or how and to whom I pray.
  • I come from the place where my compatriots are individuals with whom I identify politically and intellectually. I am thankful that I am among the few people blessed with the means to actually make those choices for myself.

In case you haven't figured it out, I'm the new global citizen, originally from the 21st century.

Nationality is paperwork, culture is negotiable, affinities and alliances exist in the mind. Leave your hyphens at the door.