In my high school feminism class so far, I have experienced feminism through a different lens. Instead of interpreting feminism and feminist issues through myself and peers, I have begun to relate these issues to girls all over the world.
On October 9, I joined seven of my classmates from my high school feminism class at the International Day of The Girl Girls Speak Out held at the United Nations, where a group of girls performed a play where they read letters from girls around the world. Each letter was from a different girl from a different country with a different culture; and with that different culture was a different meaning for what it means to be a girl.
The letters came from Canada to Kenya. I heard stories about female genital-mutilation (FGM), child marriage, and girls education. Each of them were heart-wrenching stories about the injustices that girls face every day.
For the girl from India, being a girl meant listening to her father and brothers, remaining silent when she was being sexually assaulted, and being invisible in the presence of men.
Though the girl from the United States was bright and persistent, being a girl meant being passive because “men don’t like girl leaders” and being a leader meant that was “being bossy” to others.
Hearing so many personal stories about being a girl made me reflect and ask myself, “What does being a girl mean to me?” What I found is that there are different rules and standards for being a girl depending on where I am and who I’m with.
Between my parents, there are different rules and standards for being a girl. When I’m with my traditional Colombian father, to be a girl is to “respetar,” to respect and whatever papi says goes. I have trouble with this rule because I am stubborn and I love a good debate. Our most common dispute is about how late I can stay out. This is a popular argument between teens and parents, but since I live in New York City, so it feels more complex. My father’s argument is that taking the train after 9 p.m. alone becomes more dangerous because he believes I am more at risk for being assaulted or raped. As a result of his theory, when I am staying at my father’s house, if I am staying out past 8 or 9, he must pick me up.
To be a girl with my father means that I am fragile and vulnerable. Often heard phrases from my father include, “siera tus piernas,” close your legs; “sientate bien,” sit properly; “portate bien,” behave yourself; and the famous deep sigh and the drawn out “Amaliaaaa” when I fail to follow his instructions. Under my father’s roof, there is a pressure to be proper and polite.
When I watched the documentary India’s Daughter with him, a film about Jyoti Singh’s brutal rape in India, he was so appalled at the extreme levels of misogyny and rape culture that he shed a few tears.
At one point in the the film, one man says, “we have the best culture, in our culture there is no place for a woman,” my father mumbled “que horrible,” how horrible. At the end of the film he told me in Spanish, “Now you understand why I don’t let you stay out at night, look what can happen.”
Last week when students from China came to visit the my school, LREI, and sat in our feminism class, we asked them what it meant to be a girl or boy in Shanghai. I provided the example of what it means to be a girl when I’m with my dad and a student explained that Chinese customs and values sound very similar to Colombian customs and traditions on issues of gender. I found it interesting how countries on opposite sides of the world have the same rules and standards for girls.
In my mother’s house, being a girl is completely different. My mother is a strong, brave, powerful, independent woman and single mother. From an early age, I was always exposed to feminism and she made it important to me. From a young age, my mother taught me that some things will be harder to achieve as a girl and woman but that I could achieve them with hard work because she had. Because of my mother, I have become the don’t-take-shit-from-nobody type of person because that is exactly what she is. She has taught me that I have to do my best at everything I do to prove that I can do anything a boy can do. It was my mother who encouraged me to try new sports and to be involved in student government.
From living mostly with my mother, I learned to always be myself no matter what people think of me. When I’m not trying my best in school she reminds me of the privilege I have as a girl who is receiving an education from a progressive private school. To be a girl with my mom means I am brave, powerful, and independent.
Earlier in October, I went with my mom to see the documentary He Named Me Malala about the life of Malala Yousafzai, the famous activist who was shot by the Taliban for speaking out about girls’ education and is now winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. I went with my mom because she is a strong believer in equal education for girls and boys, and is also a professional in the field of education.
At the end of the film, I turned to my mother and watched her wipe away tears. She told me that she could not imagine living in a place where my education would be deprived solely based on my gender. The conversation about our feelings towards the film continued. After asking my mom what her favorite part of the movie was, she said, “It wasn’t a specific scene but showing how powerful young people can be really got to me.” My mom encourages me to be a powerful young person like Malala.
In the film, when Malala says, “there is no difference between a man and a woman,” I believe that my mother lives by those words. I can easily say that without my mother’s kick-ass attitude and stubborn nature, I would not be the outspoken feminist and activist I am today.
There is no set definition to what it means to be a girl and even in our modern society, a girl doesn’t need female genitalia to identify as a girl. To be a girl (or boy) is not only about gender but also about we act, speak, sit, walk, live, and love.