Don’t sit with your legs spread out like that! There are boys in the room!”
I submissively moved my knees together while sitting on the chair, in a relative’s house when I was visiting them during Lunar New Year. As a told-to-be docile and bashful 8-year-old, I never dared to disobey, although I was instantly aware, in my immature mind, that the given order was unjust. However, after being and being called an “obedient little girl” my whole life, I never dared to protest. In my family and my society in general, not obeying adults is a “child crime.” I’d have gotten slapped if I’d argued, and no, they wouldn’t have waited until we’d gone home.
Growing up as a girl in a conventional family, all the lectures about the ought-to-have demeanors that I have received were usually about respecting two types of people: adults and men. By “respect,” they meant “watch how you talk and how you walk and how you sit and eat and dress when they are around.” The whole thing never made one bit of sense to me, but again, what can I do?
I was born in a low, middle-income family in a rural area of a developing country in Southeast Asia. When I was in elementary school, I was first trained to be “skillful” in the “basic demeanors” when there were men in the room: I should only sit with my knees together, talk in a low and soft tone, eat scantily, cover my mouth when I laugh, and wear shorts/dresses only when I was at home. I was told that I ought not to hang out with my male classmates. If I did, I should feel ashamed of myself, due to the prejudice society had against girls hanging out with a group of guys: slutty. All in all, as I grew up, it was implied that if any harm was done to me by a male classmate, that would be my fault. It was implied that being simply born as a girl, I was at-birth lower than men.
As I grew older, when bras started to become a love-hate friend in my closet, the lessons were upgraded. My mom always hushed me to put my bra on when a male relative visited us, or even when we just simply went for a walk in the park. I complied but also questioned. Her reason has never been “Because it’s good for your growth.” Instead, she said: “Cover yourself! You don’t want to distract anyone or to be offensive to their eyes.” Hmm...I thought about it. Offensive? Having nipples is offensive? Having normal puberty growth is offensive? Thus, having been born a girl is offensive then? You may think I was being dramatic and exaggerating. But again, how can I not be upset, when I had been quiet for so long? How can I not be unsettled, when I have pushed myself to do everything I’d been told, although I knew it was wrong?
After 14 years living like an “obedient little girl” as I should be, I was rewarded an opportunity to study abroad in the US, the nation that has always been famous for its liberty. I thought, once I arrived and inhaled this "free air," I would see and experience no sexism, and there would be no one telling me how I should behave as a girl. I was wrong. There were still several aching issues related to sexism in countless places such as schools, workplaces, and the government. Because they were so deeply rooted into the people's flesh, it is so hard to fix them just by “changing your mindsets.” Sexism is quite common in developing countries still, and unfortunately, it does not spare the developed ones.
This is not just my own story but the story of countless girls that I know and do not know everywhere in the world. When will people stop seeing women and young girls as brainless objects, who are not worthy of basic human rights, who could not form a reasonable opinion and fight for what they believe in, whose only “office” is the kitchen, and who could and should not protect their bodies and beliefs? When will people stop teaching youthful ladies like me, that they are inferior to their male siblings and classmates, that their mothers are less powerful than their fathers, that their gender roles in society are limited and disadvantaged? When will this stop, all of this?
Well, it depends on you. I’m not even kidding. Yes, you! Changing a law might not even be as hard as changing the deep-rooted sexist mindsets that numerous people shared, possibly including you. It’s an undeniably long process of learning, educating, embracing, and practicing. Nothing good is easily achieved, but you and I can begin today, for success is the courage to start the journey.
Stop telling women that they must always obey what they are told. Start telling them that they have the right to form their own opinion and protect themselves at any cost.
Stop teaching young girls how they should behave exclusively when there are guys around. Start teaching them to be respectful and tolerant to everyone, regardless of the person’s gender, age, and skin color.
Stop commending children for how docile they are. Start encouraging them to learn what’s right and declare it without fear.
Stop saying that love and marriage and children are all that women desire and need. Women, as well as men, were exceptionally born as a whole, and only they can dictate what they want and need in their life.
Stop pointing us ladies what we cannot do in society. Start showing us what we can do and inspire us to make it happen.
I’m not asking you to start disparaging men. I’m asking you to disparage neither gender and start seeing every gender as worthy and equal to each other.
If you share a similar story like me, please, start speaking up and sharing yours. Don’t be afraid to be “loud,” “bossy,” or “dramatic.” If it matters to you, it matters! One tiny voice might not be heard in an ocean of people, but many combined could be. I know it might seem intimidating at first, but keep trying and trying. It’s fine not to be fearless, for courage is fear walking. Like Coco Chanel once said: “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”
If you can’t stand in front of many people and give a speech, start talking openly with your own circle of intimates. If you can’t speak, write it down. If you can’t write, make graphics. Do anything to get your voice to be heard, for you are worthy and validated. Be brave, be bold! Do anything to gradually end sexism, for we are all born as equal, whether we are men, women, or neither.
Now that I have grown a little older and wiser, I am no longer afraid, or at least, less afraid, of speaking up. I’m only 16, so there’s a long way to go and a long life to learn from, but I’m proud of how much I have improved. You can, too, we all can. It used to make me cringed and doubtful, but, now, I am proud to call myself a feminist and live up to what it takes to be one. Feminism is beautiful, and you, whether you’re a victim, an activist, or a new learner, are, indeed, beautiful!