The Feminist in Me

From Girls Write Now: Two Decades of True Stories from Young Female Voices

This essay appears in Girls Write Now: Two Decades of True Stories from Young Female Voices, published by Tin House Books in October 2018.  

It started with an insult, when we collided at the front door of school at eight o’clock on a Monday morning and I dropped an armful of feminist posters. They scattered across the threshold and back down the steps. He stood watching as I struggled to pick them up and tuck them under my arm.

“What’s the matter with you anyways?” he asked. He had that slouchy look on his face that some boys covet.

“Excuse me?”

“Why don’t you take cooking class like the other girls do? At least you’d learn something useful.”

Before I could answer, the bell rang and we went our separate ways to class.

I was a feminist long before I knew what the word meant. I was born in Bangladesh, unaware that I was the first female in my family to be delivered in a hospital, the first to receive a birth certificate. Later, my grandfather defied gender norms by teaching me to read and write in English. In the mosque, he seated me up front with him and the other men, rather than placing me in a dark corner with the other women and children.

My mother never received these benefits. When she was born, my grandparents were young, poor, and living in a backward village. They arranged her marriage to my father at a young age. Our female ancestors married young, then spent most of their time relentlessly cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. Even today in Bangladesh, the expectation for a girl is to have no expectations.

I immigrated to the United States with my parents when I was three years old. While other little girls followed Disney princesses, I imagined a princess who could save herself and her kingdom. I identified with Susan Pevensie, who was cast out of mythical Narnia because she refused to conform. In middle school, we had to create a board game using historical events. I added a new category to my board called “The Suffrage Movement and Feminism.” A family friend studied my board and asked, “What about men’s rights? We carry the burden of your feminine nonsense.”

In ways I didn’t fully appreciate, my mother was my role model. While the mothers of many of my classmates were doctors or lawyers, my mother juggled working a minimum-wage job serving fast food and taking care of her family. If others disparaged me, my mother encouraged me to work hard and persevere against obstacles.

In high school, I took extra courses, volunteered at the Housing Works Bookstore, raised money for United Nations programs, and received the many benefits of belonging to Girls Write Now. Last summer, I interned at the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, founded by the daughter of “Battling Bella” herself. Here, feminism came alive as we declared that women’s rights are human rights.

At that point, my beliefs turned into activism. I began making posters about the global subjugation and abuse of women and taping them up at school. I staged little events in the hallways and handed out flyers. Mostly, my efforts were ignored.

My mother always stood by me, from the warm glasses of milk she would hand to me during late-night study sessions, to the Girls Write Now annual public readings, where she clapped the loudest when I read my work. Even so, her long work hours and my demanding academic schedule meant that we spent little time together.

One afternoon, after having two wisdom teeth removed, I sulked around the house until, finally, I followed my mother into uncharted territory—the kitchen. I never helped out in the kitchen. My mother understood that I feared stepping inside even once would lead to never stepping out.

As I stood in the doorway, watching her—she was wearing her faded blue jeans and salwar kameez while she prepared dinner—I saw that she looked happy. She was gossiping on the phone with a friend and chopping onions at the same time. (I don’t know how she does this.) I had never wondered if my mother was happy or not. I took for granted that she was always there, providing everything we needed.

My mother said “goodbye” to her friend, hung up the phone, and continued working. Her black hair caught the light, and streaks of gray glimmered as she pushed her hair off her face. She hummed along to the Beatles on the radio, and I remembered what my writing mentor once told me: “Even in spaces of confinement, women can find liberation.”

I lingered in the doorway until she noticed me. “It’s just dal,” she said, stirring lentils that were soaking in a pot of water. “Come, clean the next bag. Pick out the tiny stones.” First step. Second step. On the third step, I found myself inside the kitchen, standing close to my mother. I opened the other bag of lentils. We sang “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” as we worked. The next time someone tells me to abandon my posters and take cooking class, I’ll say, “I already know how to cook. My mother taught me!”

From Girls Write Now: Two Decades of True Stories from Young Female Voices. Copyright © 2018 by Tuhfa Begum. Reprinted with permission from Tin House Books.

Photo (top) via The Conversation

Tuhfa Begum was born in Sylhet, Bangladesh. She attended Vanguard High School and New York University in New York City. She wrote this essay in 2014.