A Letter to My Grama, Who Is Afraid of the Word Feminist

Me, holding my ' I Need Feminism Because...' sign on our last day of class :) Photo Cred: Ileana Jimenez
“I need feminism because it defines me as a conscious woman. I have been exposed to a different way of thinking that properly influences my womanhood.” 
(photo credit: Ileana Jiménez)

Dear Grama,

I remember a conversation we had early in the process of developing my feminist consciousness. You had been somewhat disappointed that I had found such kindling in it.

As our conversation progressed you said, “I hope you don’t go and burn your bras. Do you feel like you need feminism in order to define yourself as a woman?”

Pause– I had felt that you weren’t listening to my points, that you had only been focusing on the stereotypes you had been exposed to, as well as the experiences you had. It was clear you couldn’t picture feminism in 2013.

I hastily answered your question with a “no,” which I did to avoid yet another lecture on how I am too young and haven’t lived. As I look back on that conversation, you were right. I don’t need feminism to define me as a woman.  No, I need feminism to define me as a conscious woman. I figured the best thing I could do is show just how much I’ve learned and how much I can see now, as a womanist who is developing my feminist consciousness. If you don’t mind, I would like to take you through my journey, so let’s begin.

I realize that this may be an interesting concept. But hear me out. If I hadn’t understood the definition of intersectionality, I wouldn’t have been able to get as much out of the feminist texts I have read in my high school feminism class. What I mean by this is, that through the works and words of people like Gloria Steinembell hooksAlice Walker, and Audre Lorde, I have been exposed to a different way of thinking that can only benefit me. These benefits will properly influence my womanhood.

The best way I can describe intersectionality can be understood in what I wrote as a part of our International Day of the Girl assembly:

Intersectionality is a concept and theory first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Intersectionality is described as follows: It is a concept that is used to describe the ways that oppressive institutions such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia are so connected that you cannot examine or look deeply at these aspects separately from one another. Intersectionality has played a role in feminism due to women of color and queer women of color demanding from white feminists that issues of race, class, and sexuality play a larger role in the feminist movement. Due to these women of color feminists, intersectionality has allowed us to understand issues of injustice. Intersectionality provides a lens to help those who are oppressed and allows us to extend a hand to as many as we can.  Intersectionality ‘helps you see that no one’s life is one-dimensional.’  It helps you realize in what ways everyone is affected by privilege, domination, and oppression. This is a basic idea that I believe everyone needs to be exposed to, it’s fundamental.

The pieces of writing that really propelled the developing factors of my womanhood, would have to be the writings and works of women of color feminists. When I entered the class, I wasn’t aware that feminism could be related to race. I had failed to put two and two together. When reading the Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement,” I was literally in tears. Not because I was sad, but because I was relieved. For the first time, as mentioned in my previous post, I had felt as though the issues I was concerned about, the issues that caused me an internal pain were similar to those women of color who came before me.

This was the first moment that feminism clicked for me.

Our Class at the Brooklyn Museum-- On our way to see The Dinner Party at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art
Our high school feminism class at the Brooklyn Museum on our way to see “The Dinner Party” at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez).

As the class progressed, we learned about the horrible truth of sexually exploited girls, especially here in New York. We read Girls Like Us  by Rachel Lloyd, who is the founder and executive director of GEMS (Girls Educational & Mentoring Services), which helps to stop the cycle of commercial sexual exploitation of children. We also watched the film Very Young Girls, which chronicles the lives of the girls and young women that GEMS supports. This book and film had me in tears, feeling beyond uncomfortable. They both infused fire into my young veins.

Both the memoir and the film showed how issues of racism, classism, and sexism can very well lead a 12 year old girl into the sex industry, keep her trapped, away from her family, and calling a grown man, who is unbelievably both her boyfriend and pimp, her “daddy.”

What was so shocking was, the average age of girls who are commercially exploited is 12. Commercial sexual exploitation of children literally happens in places we frequent daily in New York and most people don’t know it exists right in front of them. This is what makes this issue even more maddening. That these young girls are victims and not criminals, that the law system would put a 13 year old in Riker’s Island, is equally maddening.

Grama, I realize these may not be the feminist issues you are used to, but they are feminist. I can only hope that your misconceptions are being dismantled.

Another aspect of my new consciousness has come from watching films such as Killing Us Softly and Miss Representation. Both films focus on the impact the media has on girls and women on a regular and daily basis. Both films point out that, in our country, women and girls are essentially not taken seriously. The media is constantly telling us what we CAN and CAN NOT do, what we can achieve and exactly HOW far we can go.

Now, I couldn’t help but get very, very angry watching these films. In Killing Us Softly, the focus was geared towards analyzing ads, and how through ads, my body, and every woman’s and girl’s body, becomes an object. It illuminates the fact that I have very limited options (according to the media) of what type of woman I can be and if I want to be liked or loved or get married. It also points out that the hyper-sexualization of women and girls in the media is not a “new” thing, and that this is not solely a consequence of the technological age. The dehumanization of women in the media is, unfortunately, age old.

In Miss Representation, the film focuses on how girls and women must work against the grain to gain recognition as leaders and thinkers. It focuses on women in the public eye, such as Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Rachel Maddow, and even Sarah Palin, and how all of their careers have been criticized via the outfit they wore or how emotional they got in public. Very rarely are these women’s minds respected.

By watching these films, I have been able to examine in a mature way, what exactly feminism is, how it relates to me, how it relates to the world, and why I need it. I need it because it has made me a better woman.

I am pretty sure that in society’s eyes, my breasts, and my purse (or lady part), define me as a woman. Those things were inherently given to me but, a state of mind, a perspective on life, and knowing my place and purpose in life didn’t come from years of puberty. It came from a class I took in the fall of my senior year.

There’s no going back. I know you may fear what there is to come, and hell, I do too. But I know that through feminism, I’ve found a better self, one that can really show what courage is, one who values herself fully 360 degrees, and one who is hoping to change the world.

Love, Nyasa

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