After writing this, I realized that this post needs an introductory post. working on it.
The thing about growing up somewhere other than where you were born is, the treasured experience of a rich, blended perspective made up of a fusion of values and cultural practices. But…it’s also about being terribly confused whenever you try to fully engage either culture: “What’s the right thing to do in this moment? What’s the right thing to say here? Someone, give me words!”
Question: “What does it mean to be a girl or a woman today, in your opinion?” It’s a conversation that took place, over the course of 6 months, between me and every woman (and woman-in-training) I know, from students to bloggers to single ladies to married women. The discussions covered many themes ranging from the pressure to conform to the media’s ideals of the female archetype (you know…tall, thin, white, blond, smart, strong, independent, accomplished and always with a smile) to the increased amount of opportunities that women in our generation have access to, unlike our parents’ and our grand-parents’ generations.
It’s a wonderful conversation I continue to have, as I give people space to perhaps think about this, for the first time in a long time. It’s where I realized that we all come to issues…or even simple terms, with our own cultural and experential baggages. The words we use often have different connotations based on the experiences of the listener.
Girls in middle and high school spoke about the pressure to be “perfect” in everything, including sports, algebraic formulas and how to put on make-up. Others spoke about weight, body image and perceptions from boys. Others simply spoke about being encouraged to be brave, to speak up in class and to find their voice.
The college-aged crowd spoke about the ability to rise above the stereotypes of the “perfect woman” while struggling to understand the concept themselves. Some talked about the women in their lives whom they considered to be “bold, strong, unabashedly themselves” while others recounted women’s rights and how far we still have to go, when it comes to Gender Equality.
Then, I had a conversation with my mother. Same question…and well, I was expecting the same answer I had been receiving from my previous discussions. I was surprisingly wrong.
In my mother’s opinion, what it means to be a woman, it’s to have the ability to be a great leader inside the home and out. It’s in the way that a woman cooks for her family and her guests, the way she takes care of her household, and the loving and generous way in which she extends a hand towards those outside of her home.
Wait…what? Let’s just say, she lost me at “cooking”. It became quite clear to me that we were standing at the edge cultural divide. Instead of arguing with her about antiquated values (wait…who ever argues with their African parents, lol?), I decided to build a bridge across that divide by simply asking more questions and listening. And that made the difference.
I grew up in a (extended) family where education is important, regardless of gender and intellectual capacity. It’s also a place where women worked, corporately or entrepreneurially. For a long time, that was the only part I saw as notable and worth highlighting. That conversation taught me to look at both sides of the coin. The way they managed their households was and is part of their “feminine-hood”. Recipes are passed down from generation to generation and advice is given when the women-folk gather about how to handle recalcitrant children and sometimes…husbands 😉
Throughout these conversations, the word “Feminism” never came up. Not even once. Yet, every woman spoke about various aspects of Feminism, or at least various subjects that we struggle with everyday that gets lumped under the umbrella of the term “Feminism”. Depending on our experiences and cultural background, this word has a different ring.
And that’s what I learned from asking a simple question: “What does it mean to be a girl or a woman today?”