The Invisible Feminist

by Fazia Rizvi

Who Am I?

(Is that your question to me or my question about me?)

I am young, a minority, and female.

I am a feminist.

I am invisible.

Or at least, that's the way it seems sometimes. If I have anything I need to tell the women of the First and Second Wave of feminism it's that, consciously or unconsciously, you've contributed to my invisibility and to the complicated state of my struggle.

A Few Words For the First and Second Waves ...

I look around me and all the pictures of the great female social reformers - the feminists - are all white American women of the 60's and 70's. Occasionally I catch a glimpse of an African American woman, but little is said about the uniqueness of her struggle. And nowhere do I see the women who look like me, or who share my childhood culture. Where are the Asian feminists? Where are the Middle Eastern feminists?

It's not that they simply don't exist. They do. But our ethnocentric American culture has had its effect on the second wave of feminism. The "ethnic" woman was used as the poster child for the downtrodden woman, and everybody conveniently forgot that the "exotic women" were ALSO fighting for their human rights. Instead, we became the poor noble (female) savages that the second wave feminists could "save".

I know this isn't what you intended. Afterall, you were proud of your goal of global sisterhood. But post-colonialism had its effect, and ethnocentric thinking runs rampant in feminism just as much as it does in American society as a whole. You complain about how women of my culture and my generation don't call themselves feminists enough, yet you are looking at our exotic cultures through the murky lens of the same media that portrays you as bra-burning, wild-eyed, manhating extremists. And still you lament that there are so few feminists in our cultures? Perhaps it's not that we are so few, but that our poverty stricken or our downtrodden are much more exciting for the media lens.

Have you ever stopped to think what "feminism", as it's portrayed in American culture, even means to a woman who arrived in the US at age 7, from war-torn Vietnam? Or how about to the young Indian woman in the sari, whose family immigranted here only ten years ago? What about those women in close-knit ethnic communities who've been in the USA for decades, but whose mothers were relegated to simple service jobs out side of those communities, not only because of their sex but because of mainstream American racism? What about generational ethnic communties where women were powerful matriarchs of the home? And how about first-generation Americans like myself, whose family history doesn't coincide with yours?

None of my family joined in sit-ins, but not because they weren't feminist. They just weren't here. They didn't live in the United States. The 50's, 60's and 70's look different to us, because our families and societies were either dodging bombs, fighting cholera and tuberculosis, building a new country free from our colonial masters, or just begining recover from years of post World World II rebuilding and rationing. Hippies? Sit-ins? Sing wielding protests? The sexual revolution? Huh?

The roots of the sexual revolution for us are not in the free-love of the American 1960's, but the pre-Victorian roots of our OWN cultures. The Kama Sutra. Woodblock art of Japan. Pre-islamic Arabic poetry. The roots of our feminist political revolutions go back to the recent wars our countries were subjected to, or the nationalistic pride that encouraged everyone (for a time anyway) to contribute to the building of a nation.

Your help in overcoming our current gender related ills are much appreciated. You made real efforts to help us get access to tools which help us in decidedly backward cultural situations. But you've failed to acknowledge your part in creating many of those situations in the first place. In some cases, it was Victorian England ideas of gender and gender roles that destroyed the power of previously matriarchal societies. In other cases women healers were abandoned for the new power's white western men who had strange ideas about women's bodies and psychology. Current feminists continue to attack the very things we use to fight for our rights in our cultures, or focus on issues that are far removed from what is much more imperative. (For example, ee have to first focus on stopping the practice of burning widows alive on the husband's funeral pyre (sati) before we can even really put our efforts into creating adequate childcare for working moms!) I have been told that feminism is a western invention, by my male cultural peers and by older feminists. It's as if our grandmothers and the women many generations before me never even tried to find equality with men until the kinder, wiser, people of the west came to them and enlightened them.

We're tired of the message that everything must be done the way it was America of the 1960's. For some of us, the 60's and 70's didn't mean ANYTHING when it came to feminism - it was a time of war, or struggling for our identities merely as people, let alone as women. It's only NOW that we have the moment to stop, catch our breath, and roll up our sleeves to resume making changes for the better for women in our communities. We had to pause in our efforts and now we're catching up, just a few decades behind you, but that doesn't mean we're stupid or slow to learn or clinging to our cultures. You had the luxery of a post-war era and a high standard of living in which to further develop women's rights. In most cases, we didn't.

I hear feminists of the generations before gleefully point out that a western educated middle-eastern women isn't going to be subserviant any more, as if simply being placed in western culture will change her personality and all the issues she faces in her life. When did you forget that some young women are shy and that cramming lots of facts and figures about medicine and engineering into their heads isn't going to make them be able to stand up for themselves any more than they might have before? You realize that it doesn't work that way for young, white, western girls. Just putting them into a male-dominated engineering program with sexist professors and precious little mentoring certainly didn't empower them or raise their self-esteem. You now know the effects of society during adolescence on even the strongest willed girls of your own culture. Why do you assume it suddenly magically work differently for the girl in the hijab sitting quietly in the back of the room, who is stared at by everyone in the hallways? She needs much more too.

And what if we grew up in the United States? That didn't really help either. We didn't get to learn much about the First and Second waves of feminism - it was all filtered to us through the any one of the lenses of inner city poverty, racial tensions, non-existant coverage in our school textbooks, or through our elder's cultural xenophobia. When we call ourselves feminists, we're not just reclaiming a term of a movement. We're making a damn powerful and loaded statment. With that self-identification comes the complicated struggle of trying to balance our battles with racism, our love of the good and uniqueness of our cultures, with global sisterhood and the honesty to critique and change our "ethnic" cultures. We're called backwards and victims and blind by YOU if we fail to identify with YOUR middle-class first-world struggles, and we're waved aside and ignored as "westernized" and out of touch with our OWN cultures by our own societies if we do. It's an incredible tightrope circus act we attempt, when we become feminist activists to bring our cultures into the 20th century without destroying them. You often make the situation worse too, without meaning to. Western feminism often attacks our cultures instead of the stubborness of our men to change with the times, making our mainstream cultures defensive against anything "western". And then you also claim that feminism is a western invention.... I think you can see the problem we face.

My Own Perspective ...

It's easier for me to simply speak from my own experience and my own point of view, and by that give you an inkling of what it may be like for other "ethnic" women of my generation. I cannot, and will not, speak for all of them. I also don't want to be thrown into the role of teacher about "exotic" women to all other women who've never heard about our struggles. The information is already out there. Please seek it, and teach yourselves. It leaves me free to actually do something about my situation rather than constantly explaining myself to the west. I'm tired of the constant "women in islam" speeches that feminists of my culture are asked to give by our men (who want us to say how good we have it) and by you (who want us to say how bad we have it). I'd really rather talk about some other things now. I'd really rather talk about a lot of other things now. And if one of those things happens to be how damn cool the syndicated show Xena is .... Well, the umpteenth rendition of the "women in islam" spech will just have to wait.

I was born and raised in the southwest United States. My mother is from Finland, while my father is from Pakistan. (He was born in Lucknow, India, but moved to Karachi, Pakistan later.) I am frequently asked by amazed people "How the heck did your parents meet?" Well, they both came to the United States. You know, the melting pot of the world? I've lived most of my life in Texas. My dad would take us to the beach and teach us how to fish for catfish in the Gulf of Mexico in baseball caps, t-shirts and shorts. On family gatherings and holidays I may wear a salwar and kameez with a dupatta. I build scale models, mostly of science-fiction space ships. I read voraciously, write, and paint. I love spelunking and embroidery. I recently learned how to wrap a sari properly, and I am trying to figure out how to do those fancy henna designs on my hands that I see all my female relatives do at weddings and ceremonies. And of course, I never miss an episode of Xena.

In short, I am an American too, even if some of the things I face as a feminist are radically different from what you faced. I am American, but my feminism has wider cultural roots.

The Generation Gap

I hear women of generations before, lamenting that women of my age group are not feminists. They seem to have given in to our society's views of this generation-X as "slackers" and have forgotten that THEY raised us. They've forgotten to step back and think what effect that growing up in the space age, the computer age, and after so many feminist battles were won, might have on us. It's even true amoung "ethnic" women, where we have a hard time identifying with the lives of our grandmothers and mothers, when our own lives have taken such a warp drive journey into the cultural future.

My generation of feminists - no matter their race - have a common bond. We've learned from your struggles before us, and benefitted from the opportunities you created for us, and now we're leaping foward into the future. But we're encountering a few NEW roadblocks that slow us down. We're beginning to realize that while we may have moved decades ahead when it comes to female empowerment, many of our male peers never bothered to move along with us. We're all faced with an incredible gap between our views and our male peer's views on women, across all racial and cultural boundaries.

Our methods for activism are different too. We cannot take to the streets as you did before. We need too large a number, and too organized an effort to do so since our streets aren't safe enough for women OR men anymore. But we can take to the Internet. If you've been lamenting the fact that Generation-X is not an activist one, then you haven't been on the Internet. We've tacken to technology like a fish to water, and no wonder! They didn't pass the ERA, but they did send a man to the moon, and our generation has never known a world otherwise. We grew up with computers. We learned that we could do powerful things with these machines and blaze right on past anyone who might try to hold us back. If you're looking for Generation-X feminists, you need to look in the new online world to find them.

Copyright 1997 by Fazia Rizvi