Should I want to explain feminism to the men in my life?

I am 13 years old, and I walk home with fear as I experience my first brushes with cat-calling on the streets of India. I can’t understand why my mom scolds me for walking around alone, as if anything that was to happen to me would be my fault. My complaints about her not treating my brother the same are brushed off.

I am 15 years old, and I meet that specific type of man for the first time. The ones who can’t look women in the eye, who can only interact to full capacity with other men, who only listen to their own voices and ideas. It is years later that I realize how strange and prevalent this is, how odd it is that certain men can only regard and honor the voices of other men, and only respect the women who never contradict them.

I am 20 years old, and I am tired. I leave spaces that I initially joined out of love and care. The constant fight of trying to have my voice heard, and not being believed, when I complain of disrespect from this specific brand of man has become exhausting.

Sexism entered my life in stages, gradually increasing in its prevalence as I grew older. Those men that I allude to may not be excited to read this, but it should come as no surprise that the men in my life haven’t always been the greatest allies. My male relatives have stood by our family of successful women, but many of them grew up in 1970’s India, a time when suggesting how a woman should act or dress wouldn’t result in a social fallout. The same excuse can’t be used for my male South Asian peers who remain unaware in this regard: there are too many resources easily available these days to still remain in the dark. But regardless of any ignorance they may hold, I still believe they can learn. 

“So, I’ll teach them,” I think. I will patiently and relentlessly explain what feminism really means to those who don’t quite get it yet, because I am convinced that change is possible. That with the right efforts, I can turn anyone into a man who defends women when they’re blatantly interrupted in a meeting, into someone who speaks up when he sees a guy taking advantage of a drunk girl at a party, into an advocate for ending the tax on period products as luxury goods (yes, that’s a thing). 

But, should I have to? And, more importantly, do I want to? At what point does my responsibility to turn men into feminists end, and their responsibility to want to become feminists begin?

Sometimes, I get angry, and sometimes I just feel tired, but in both cases I try to genuinely point out the source of their errors. But the problem persists, because as soon as I attempt this, I find myself fearing that I’ll be written off for the exact reason I am confronting the issue. She gets angry too fast. She doesn’t listen. I didn’t do anything wrong, she’s just crazy. I’m trying to have a conversation, and she’s getting all emotional.

It’s a familiar feeling, especially when considering misogyny in the context of our South Asian diaspora: that when I am not heard, not listened to, not respected, it is my responsibility to calmly and sweetly ask to be heard, to be listened to, to be respected – and not the man’s responsibility to give me that consideration in the first place. But I wasn’t born to replace a brown boy’s mother, to coddle them in their ignorance and make excuses for their poor treatment of women or inability to mature. 

And when that teeth grinding, forced sweetness gives way to anger and frustration when those requests are blatantly ignored, then I am too much. I become the bitch, The Angry Brown Girl.

And it makes me pause. Because my fear of venturing into that territory, where my desire for fair treatment is framed as instability, sometimes counteracts my desire to educate. This irony is maddening, because the only solution to this issue is for me to keep talking, for me to keep pushing my views on how women deserve to be treated on those who refuse to listen.

 Is this a job I must take on if I want things to change for me and the women around me? 

When I’ve found myself in these situations – in classes, dance teams, even my own house – I have come to the realization that it’s difficult to have one without the other. Yes, I can speak up, but it might make things worse before they get better, for me and those around me.

This frustration has reared its ugly head consistently on this campus, in our insular South Asian community. I am reminded of personal moments that exemplify this theme of patient, sweet women expected to maintain this sweetness in the face of disrespect: to calmly explain why they deserve respect. Those moments I’d attempt to voice opinions to my dance team captains: to call them out on decisions that blatantly hurt me or others, or urge them to face and correct problems within the male-dominated leadership culture, only to have my voice ignored. I soon felt ostracized from the group, only after I began vocally disagreeing with them. I would quietly leave each practice more hurt and angry than the last, confused as to why men with the same vocal opinions appeared welcomed while I felt shunned. 

Listening to friends’ advice, I tried to confront this treatment – only leading to more hurt, an ugly cycle perpetuated by men who keep each other and themselves in power. This leadership, which has never been questioned, has existed as a boys club: a microcosm of the patriarchy that has only been allowed to further grow. And when I confronted the leaders of my team about this culture, I was placated with, “Yes, I see it too!” But my question was never whether they’d seen it – I wanted a solution, but I was given an empty confirmation, and the real issue was never addressed or remedied. Their intentions didn’t matter, because the impact remained the same regardless: a culture that dissuaded me and other women from pursuing leadership was allowed to continue.

And as I danced while injured or ill, and tended to myself alone after each performance, I saw the care for the other female dancers’ wellbeing that was never extended to me: I never received that same treatment, and that was something I watched and noticed. Then as I watched my work go uncredited, and as texts urging them to reconsider decisions made without team input went left on read, I grew frustrated. And as I suddenly felt pushed to the very back of our performances until I spoke up about it, as their eyes rolled when I complained, as I felt my presence cease to be acknowledged in any space with the team, as I left every practice feeling less welcomed and cared for than the last, I eventually understood. I felt retaliated against, only after I decided I would not fall at their feet.

The cherished women within this group have always happened to be the sweet and obedient ones. I felt most respected and most loved when I would revert back to my quiet freshman self who refused to voice my opinions – and I’ve seen this pattern in every other girl who was either celebrated or demonized on this mostly female team. Even if it was subconscious on their part, my refusal to accommodate a man’s lack of respect or inability to lead automatically placed me in a position where I felt less consideration, now miserable in a place once full of love and joy.

My complaints of this treatment to mutual friends were met with responses that only enabled this culture:  “You’re overthinking,” “They’d never do that,” and “Are you sure? They’re so nice to me.” And with each comment that erased my experiences, I slowly retreated. I stopped speaking up, and stopped making an effort to seek advice. It hurts knowing I saw this happen to other women, and didn’t understand it until I felt it too. 

Eventually, I came to the sad realization that the difficult decision to leave had already been made for me: these experiences I had ultimately manifested in two options, but only one truly made sense. I could stay and feel disrespected, knowing I was only happy when I chose silence and subservience, or I could leave with my dignity still intact. I chose the latter. 

And there is an intersectionality to mine and other’s experiences, further within the identity of being a woman. Misogyny perpetrated by South Asian men is almost always magnified when the target is a South Asian woman versus a White woman. 

In searching for an explanation as to why this might be the case, a friend referred me to Indian sociologist Pawan Dhingra’s “Life Behind the Lobby,” in which he briefly touches on a history that has engendered deeper sexism in our community today. As immigrant families crossed the ocean, the men lost some of the privilege they held in their homeland – in the United States, they were suddenly racial minorities, subject to the same discrimination that other people of color face. Eventually, the women felt a societal pressure to keep these men away from the household duties, which were seen as “dirty,” to help reinstate some of that lost pride. This gendered division of labor didn’t come without a cost: eventually, South Asian women began feeling inferior in their capabilities to lead outside the home. 

To regain their lost feeling of power, South Asian men put down the women behind their success and forced them to doubt their abilities. Likewise, the South Asian men on this campus that put themselves in power are able to do so, because they have created a culture in which the women have been made to feel incapable of taking over the leadership themselves. Which brings us to where we are today – still fighting, still having our voices fall on deaf ears in our own communities. 

The truth is, the labor of explaining why women deserve fair treatment is something I’m tired of, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. I probably don’t have the energy to call out every aggression I see, but I’ll keep trying to. Lots of men in my life still probably don’t get how they contribute to this culture, but it won’t stop me from correcting them until one day they do.

I have not been arbitrarily assigned this task by virtue of being born a girl. I do not have to give in and accept this culture for what it is, but that doesn’t mean I am automatically designated the role of teacher. Women come into this world as unassuming and impressionable as men, and if we can work to make the world slightly more equal, men can too. 

So, to my women: stop blindly supporting the men who hurt your sisters because “he didn’t do anything to me.” This complacency is what allows these men to go on and assume positions of power where they can do the same to others. More importantly, it hurts the women who trust you to tell you these things, who put their faith in you to defend and support them. 

And, to men: yes, this is a call out. Stop lazily assuming that if women care enough they’ll correct you. When a girl complains of retaliation, believe her and don’t brush it off because it’s part of a system you benefit from. Make it your responsibility to know more and be better. Proactively read articles, watch movies, and seek out uncomfortable conversations that aren’t  sent to you and initiated by the women in your life. Respect, love, and support every woman – not just your mother and your girlfriend and the women who never disagree with you.

I know this article might be met with the same reactions that I fear, that these men might write me off as crazy for writing this and not think twice about their behavior, or worse, justify their actions. But it was never my job to make myself smaller and sweeter, shrink my voice down to a palatable level, so as to be treated with decency and respect – a culture so deeply ingrained in this community, it took me all year to realize just how fucked up it is. It was certainly not my responsibility to patiently explain why I deserved that consideration. 

And I urge you, the reader, to understand that if any man with a history of harassment has never treated you with disrespect, to consider yourself fortunate rather than the standard. For whatever reason, you were not made a target, which I am grateful for. But that does not mean such seemingly charming men are incapable of harm.

I am not writing this for revenge, or to imply I myself no longer have any learning to do. I am not writing this for the men I speak about to learn a lesson, or for them to receive the same ostracization I did. I am speaking to you, the reader. It is just the two of us here: I am holding your hand, and gently letting you know that if you have ever faced this kind of treatment on campus, I believe you. I am telling you something that I have kept to myself out of fear of retaliation and sadness, something that has pushed me away from doing the things I love most. I am telling you this because you are human just like me, and one day this battle might visit you too, and it is not your job solely to try to educate those who refuse to learn. I hope you talk about it, I hope you are not silenced. And I hope you know I’ve felt it too, and I love and respect you just the same.