What My Conservative Mother Taught Me About Feminism

To my South Asian mother, calling yourself a feminist is like painting your house bright pink or using mismatching silverware: radical and completely unthinkable. But no matter how conservative she thinks she is, the truth is that she’s the one who taught me to be a feminist, even if she doesn’t know it.

She showed me that glass ceilings are there to be shattered.

In the male-dominated field of finance, my mom dealt with misogyny and disrespect every single day. It sucked: she had to work twice as hard to prove herself just because of her gender. But she didn’t get mad—she got better. By the end of her first year, she’d outperformed every mansplaining a-hole in her office, showing everyone (and me) that there’s no such thing as a “man’s job.”

She never shuts up.

My mom has never conformed to the belief that women should be seen and not heard; she has opinions and she wants everyone to hear them! From arguing with my dad to speaking up about unfair work policies, my mom taught me that my perspective was valid even if other people didn’t want to hear it and that I should never be afraid of using my voice.

She didn’t choose between her children and her career.

Her high-powered colleagues laughed at her for “giving in” to expectations to raise a family. Her stay-at-home friends judged her for hiring a babysitter instead of spending all her time with her kids, but my mom couldn’t care less what anyone thought. She loved her job and she loved her kids, and she didn’t feel like she had to sacrifice one for the other. She showed me that feminism is about choice: it doesn’t matter what you decide to do with your life, what matters is that you got to choose it.

She wears whatever the hell she wants.

My mom loves fashion. She’s always experimenting, and never lets anyone dictate how she looks. One time, my dad mentioned that she was showing too much cleavage—she just shot him a look and clapped back with, “Good thing I didn’t ask for your opinion.” Burn! By being confident with her style, my mom taught me to look good because it makes me happy, not because I need a man’s approval.

She splits responsibilities equally in her marriage.

Despite traditional South Asian “wifely” expectations, my mom made it clear that she wasn’t going to be a maid/chef/nanny. She and my dad both cooked, cleaned the house, took us to soccer practice, and paid the bills. Seeing my parents’ partnership helped me realize that marriage is a 50/50 deal, and there’s no reason to stick to gender-based responsibilities.

She recognizes intersectionality.

Even though she might not recognize the vocabulary, my mom recognizes the unique challenges faced by women of color, and with different sexualities, identities, or abilities. We’ve had long talks about how people think she’s ignorant and inferior because she’s an immigrant with an accent and brown skin. She’s shown me how important it is to be aware of complexities when it comes to gender equality, and that some women face more obstacles than others.

She knows her body isn’t taboo.

In many cultures, talking about periods and other “girly” stuff is considered gross and embarrassing. Guess what? My mom doesn’t care! She talks freely about her menstrual challenges and reproductive health because they’re all normal parts of being a woman. She also doesn’t censor herself around my dad or my brothers. In fact, she makes a point to be open because she wants my brothers to be more empathetic towards the women in their life. Thanks to my mom, I’ve never felt like my body was something to be ashamed of, and I hold guys to a higher standard of understanding—periods are natural, so grow up.

She has a rockin’ girl squad

My mom has barely heard of Taylor Swift, but she knows that having a strong support system of loving, empowered women is incredibly important. Even though some of them live internationally, she and her friends always lift each other up both professionally and emotionally. Because of her, I’ve learned that having a broad network of awesome women is powerful.

She never lets herself be treated like a sexual object.

Some days, it seems like being sexually harassed is just something women have to deal with. My mom taught me that this is not normal; our bodies aren’t there for others’ pleasure, and we should never accept anything other than total respect. From shutting down guys hitting on her at work to giving me advice about consent, my mom has always shown me that I own my body, and it’s never OK for anyone to step beyond that boundary without my permission.

She listens to other’s experiences.

Contrary to what she might like to tell me, she doesn’t know everything and she knows it. Despite her conservative background, my mom is always open to hearing about other people’s challenges and experiences, including my own. She knows that by educating herself, she’s able to have more empathy and be a better ally (even though she’d never consider using such a “radical” term). Because of my mom, I’ve learned that being open to experiences that aren’t our own helps me become more understanding, which can ultimately lead to change.

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