What is your story of strength?
I think my strength is an intergenerational story. I draw my strength from my family and my ancestry. I truly believe I stand on the shoulders of giants. And that has not only has enabled me to become who I am today but it has allowed me to draw on the strength of many of the women in my family. There is research around intergenerational trauma, where anxiety and trauma experienced by one generation are passed down to the next, but I also think there is intergenerational strength. The strength and resilience of one generation does get passed to the next. Or perhaps that strength is collected in a well that other generations can draw on. I draw my strength from my great-grandmother. She was my first care-giver when I was young because my parents worked full time. She went through unimaginable hardships during her lifetime. Growing up in rural India she was a young bride married to an abusive husband, later she was a young widow saddled with working on the fields and caring for her children, and later still she outlived all of her children and buried them one by one. I draw strength from my grandmother who immigrated from India to Kenya and the UK. She arrived in England with no English language skills and a couple of years of formal schooling. She singlehandedly raised two daughters while working various low-wage factory jobs. I draw my strength from my mother who lived in government housing as a child and later worked full-time to support her family, who left her family and support community behind to move to the U.S. I cannot disentangle my story of strength from their stories of strength.
What does being a woman mean to you?
Part of it is guarantee of specific struggles, which I know sounds pessimistic. There are some things that are specific to being a woman that you have to be aware of and protect yourself and consider things in a way that men don’t necessarily need to. Women are victims of all kinds of physical and emotional abuse wherever they live, so sometimes you need to just be aware of where you stand and your strength.
Some of that has manifested in different ways. For example, I was standing at a train station the other day and this older man was standing near me asking me where I was going, being cordial and I was responding to his questions. I wasn’t really elaborating and I was not really engaging in the conversation, but part of me felt like I had to engage with him because I know that women have been killed or stalked for much less. Part of it is being in this very precarious place where there are certain societal expectations and that is a negative aspect of being a woman – understanding that being a woman is still a position where you are a part of an oppressed group even at a time when women have access to many more privileges than generations before.
I also think being a woman means you are part of a wider community of people who are also experiencing some of the oppression, discrimination or the unfairness that comes along with being a woman. Being part of a supportive community is also really one of the positive things about being a woman. That isn’t something you can necessarily take for granted; it is something that needs to be nurtured and built. The fact that I am telling you this story about feeling like I have to engage in this conversation with some random man at a train station out of fear and you aren’t questioning the basic assumptions of my story, in that sense, it is like having that community or shared experienced. There isn’t one female experience but there is a shared understanding.
Can you tell me about a time when you felt disappointed in yourself?
I was talking with a close friend after the Supreme Court decision that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and created these federal protections for gay and lesbians to get married. This was an incredibly important ruling. In essence, it ensured fundamental human rights and equal protections that were long overdue. A friend of mine invited me to an event that her workplace was hosting. I went and was excited to see her and I felt a lot of gratitude for being invited. We were talking about a lot of things and DOMA came up. I remember she made a comment about how she thought the Supreme Court was overstepping their boundaries and this should be a state’s rights issue. Basically making this slippery slope argument – if we give the federal government this authority, then states and local governments won’t have any discretion over any issues pertaining to their populations. I was honestly very surprised by her reading of the event…and I pushed her somewhat, but not nearly enough. Part of it was this desire to keep the peace in that situation. But there is some peace that should not be kept. I felt so ashamed that I didn’t probe further and get into a deeper discussion over this and challenge her thinking around this. That is one instance, but it is more indicative of times where I’ve had the opportunity or heard or seen or witnessed something that I’ve fundamentally disagreed with.
Being disruptive in some situations is absolutely necessary. For me, I would err on the side of disruption. I am pretty self-reflective and self-aware, so it is not like I’m going to completely blow up over something that is commonplace or not worthwhile. If I am getting a sense that a comment or an underlying assumption needs to be explored more or needs to be pulled back, I need to do that. In this situation, my friend invited me to her workplace, and I let myself push it down. And we never revisited it and it would have been the perfect opportunity.
How can women support each other more?
We can support each other more by being better advocates for each other. But in order to do this we need to broaden our understanding of what it means to be a woman and how that experience is shaped by other intersecting identities. Whatever master narrative that exists about the female experience does not capture the diversity of our experiences. The way we move through the world and the way we are received as women are informed by race, religion, sexual orientation, class, and other identities. If we are to advocate for each other and build a more just world, we need to step outside our own limited experience. People are complex and injustices are layered. In order to support each other more, we need to advocate for our needs–things like access to healthcare, equal pay, dismantling toxic masculinity and gendered expectations– but in order to understand the full range of needs we need to get to know each other’s experiences.