Feminism in the Family
It is interesting how feminism has become such an intellectual and inaccessible concept in some people’s minds. The Oxford Dictionary defines feminism simply as “the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”, and nowhere does it describe what that ‘advocacy’ could look like. I like to believe this is because advocacy can look like anything.
We tend to imagine ‘advocacy’ or ‘activism’ as being outspoken and political, pertaining to specific rights such as abortion, or marriage equality. Advocacy can also be work that challenges oppressive societal norms - perhaps working as a sex educator to improve awareness of consent, sexual health and contraception, as a fashion designer making steps to be more inclusive and culturally sensitive, or maybe fostering and encouraging women’s involvement in typically ‘male’ career paths.
In all of these cases, advocacy and activism in the name of feminism serve to provide spaces and support for marginalised communities and groups of people, while dismantling stereotypes and conceptions that society teaches us to be ‘fact’, and the default. Advocacy and activism are forms of resistance.
But advocacy, activism, and thus resistance can also be more subtle. While we have come to label certain acts and practices as ‘feminist’, the way we imagine activism and the way it is practised everyday can be very different. For example, when I was eleven years old, on an early evening walk with my aunt, she gave me some advice:
“Hold your keys in your hand like this”, she said, demonstrating with one key pointed straight up and the others enclosed in her fist, her arm hanging casually by her side. “That way, if someone attacks you, you can jab them and run away”.
Of course I’m not saying that feminism is all about protecting yourself from attack. But my experience of resistance to gender inequality began way before I heard about feminism. It started in my family. This was one of the ways I was taught how gender inequality would affect me in my life, and one of the ways the women in my family had found to resist.
One of my grandmothers, an artist, grew up by the seaside, and we used to go on family holidays together. My grandma would draw mermaids in the sand for us to decorate with shells and seaweed - and she would always insist on giving them huge, droopy, uncovered breasts. I now cherish the memory of her cackle when any passers-by strayed too close, duped by the innocent scene of children and mermaids, and caught a glimpse of bare nipples in the sea breeze. Even then, I knew there was a reason why she always drew her mermaids like this, and that it provoked some kind of reaction, even if I wasn’t sure why.
My siblings too, although younger than me, have proven great examples of what everyday resistance to gender inequality can look like. My younger sister sent a letter to her school’s leaders complaining about the sexism of the school’s dress code. My younger brother used to paint his nails with me and my sister before going to football club (although admittedly he hasn’t done this since he was ten). All of these experiences taught me how gender was constructed in society, how I was meant to act as a girl, and how you could find little ways of fighting what was expected of you.
Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi wrote a memoir of her childhood growing up in a harem in Fez in the 1940s. She recalls beautifully her experiences of resistance, both to the patriarchy and to French occupation of Morocco, recreating her aunt’s storytelling or her grandmother’s friendship with her co-wives to illustrate how everyday and supposedly mundane acts can in fact be personal forms of resistance, and that these sentiments can have profound impacts on close companions. Mernissi’s memoir illuminated for me how acts that other people may never come to understand as feminist, or as forms of resistance, can in fact be revolutionary for one individual and those around them.
My point is that feminist resistance can come in all forms. Whether against gender inequality, racism, homophobia or anything else, seemingly innocuous practices can actually be a person’s way to challenge the limitations society has set for them.
I invite you to consider the people around you who have shaped the way you understand what it means to be a feminist. While their acts of resistance may not be widely understood to be ‘advocacy for women's rights’ or ‘activism’, they may have subconsciously helped you to understand both the ways your life could be limited by other people’s expectations, and more importantly that those expectations do not have to define you.
I would also love to invite you to share these experiences. If you would like to write your own blog to be featured on VERVE about feminism in your family, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article by Mairi Lubelska