Feminism means something different to everyone. Feminism is a bad word in my own religious community, and most of my family have probably never had to think about the word at all. Regardless, feminism was always an obvious identity choice to me.
Growing up, I learned how to be a feminist, but not because I read about it or saw it on TV. My mum asked me recently how I came to be so invested in issues of gender equality, but I couldn’t answer, I couldn’t figure out why.
I’ve heard stories about one of my great grandmothers, a descendant of slave women, a hard-working farmer, and a wife to two husbands. I never believed that a supposedly oppressed woman from the early 1900s, living in a strict patriarchal society, could have the autonomy to work outside of her home, and be free from ownership by a man.
I’ve heard stories about my grandmother, the first woman in my family to defy social and family expectations, to work for herself and her family, to raise them out from poverty. Again, it was hard to imagine an oppressed woman living in a poor village during the 1960s achieving something like this. Especially a twenty-something, mother of three, forced into marriage at the age of fifteen, who lived with the heartbreak of losing two of her own children.
I’ve heard stories from my mother about her unfair childhood, mostly because she was born a girl. She told me about how her friend helped her to get qualified for a job she never wanted or asked for, but took because it was her only path to independence. She recognised the importance of girls supporting girls. She told me how she moved to New Zealand alone and worked harder than she ever could to establish a life for herself. She looked after her family, and followed their instructions to get married, even though she had life of her own. She was someone I looked up to more than anyone in my life.
These images of feminism may never be politically adequate or unequivocally correct, but they convey something that took me a long time to realise. Like myself, these women weren’t born with an academically sound concept of feminism, but they were born with a sound understanding of self-worth, knowing their value as equal human beings. Through these stories, my mother implicitly showed me the link between feminism and marriage.
I have learned that being forced into marriage doesn’t end someone’s feminist narrative. These unknowing feminist role models didn’t have control over their choices or their relationships, but they didn’t doubt themselves or fear societal opposition. Going through the stories of the women in my family, I can answer my mum’s question: she has inspired me to continue our culture of intersectional feminism. I could never achieve a fraction of what has been accomplished before me, mostly because these women have made sure I don’t have to face the same confines of their female experience.
The only way to move forward, and make our foremothers proud, is to empower other women and make sure their life choices are without limitations. It’s hard to do this in a country that isn’t your home, your family’s home, and doesn’t understand what is familiar to you. But together we can identify that our struggles are everyone’s struggles, and we are all responsible for acts of oppression. By preventing young women from the heartbreak, loss of innocence, and physical and emotional danger of forced marriage, we can set an example to empower the feminists that will follow us.