Dear Aunty, I’m A Feminist, But My Own Family Is Sexist And Homophobic. Help?

Posted on June 10, 2016 in Aunty Feminist, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA

By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Boy, is it hot or is it hot? And not just from us burning down patriarchy either. If you’re all settled with a cool drink, we’ll begin!

R asked:

I come from a middle-class Brahmin-Hindu family, and my parents are often casually sexist and homophobic- from making rape jokes, to fat-shaming, slut-shaming and body policing, to making statements like ‘being gay is not normal’ and ‘since you’re a girl you can’t do this or can’t do that’. As a kid, I was conditioned so thoroughly to give in to their demands, that I didn’t question. But now, with a liberal, humanities education, and in identifying myself as a feminist, I’ve come to realise how problematic they are, and how much their statements and beliefs disturb me. What do I do to protest this, or deal with this – since I don’t want to hurt them either, because they’re my parents.

Dear R,

Families, eh? Can’t live with them, can’t murder them because that’s a crime. I’m reminded right now of my favourite Tolstoy quote: “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Although, in this case, it should be all untraditional Indian families are alike, each traditional family is traditional in its own way.

Some of us got lucky. For example, I was raised by parents who moved very very far away from their small-town mentality South Indian homes (even though both were fairly large cities) and as a result, got to raise me in a vacuum, as it were. This worked great for when we were all in Delhi, but every time I had to go see my grandparents or cousins, there was a Whole Big Deal about what I could and couldn’t say, what I could and couldn’t wear, what I could and couldn’t do.

As a child, this barely registered, I was doing the same child things I’d do anywhere else, but as soon as I hit my teens, there were these whole new set of rules, and quite contrary ones as well. It didn’t just affect me either, my parents too had to pick up the very roles they had shrugged off by moving in the first place. It seemed like this whole vicious circle of pretending to be this person who we weren’t and then having to shrug that off in Delhi and pick it up again each time we visited. It was tiresome and also didn’t sit well with the whole to-thine-own-self-be-true thing my parents kept trying to inculcate in me back home. So I rebelled. And boy, did I rebel. I kicked and screamed and used all my fourteen-year-old wiles to resist being dragged along on another family holiday. I sulked for vast parts of it when I was taken along, I buried my nose in a book and refused to participate. My mother and I got into huge screaming matches while the rest of my family looked smug at this evidence of my “Delhi” ways.

But then, around the time I hit my twenties, things started to change a bit. I just went ahead and did what I wanted to, for one, but in this gentle way, so that if I wasn’t obviously rubbing my life in their faces, at least I didn’t feel like I was lying to myself. For another—and this is a bit extreme—I started a blog chronicling my sex and dating life which soon got popular enough to be written about in newspapers, and some of my extended family read it. There went that secret of pretending to be this virginal girl holding on to my values. Oh well. At least, by then my parents had washed their hands of any responsibility they felt for my actions and were able to shrug and let it go.

The point of that story is that no matter how liberal and forward thinking your family is, there are disadvantages to living in a country like ours, which is that tradition is only one step away. And it’s hard to break away from hundreds of years of social conditioning, no matter how much you try. Am I saying you should grin and bear it? No, definitely not, but keep that small fact in mind because it is Context.

Once you have Context, you’ll be able to be slightly more forgiving of your parents’ views. They haven’t—I presume—had a liberal, humanities education and listened to feminist lectures. They also have the disadvantage of being born one generation before you and therefore one generation closer to the “old ways” which are hard to break out of.

A good way to make your point is to keep making it. If you object to a homophobic/sexist remark, say, “I don’t think that’s a nice remark to make.” Your family might laugh at you at first, but if you’re calm and firm and you keep bringing this up over and over again, then they’ll eventually cede you the point. The trick is to remain calm in these situations. I know some hurtful phrases make you want to scream and lash out and say, “WHYYYY WOULD YOU SAYYYY THATTTTT,” but then, you’ll just be dismissed as “overly emotional”. You need to put the full force of your scientific reasoning behind your pleas for less discriminatory talk.

As for the way they deal with you, personally, the best philosophy is “show not tell”. If someone says, “You can’t do this because you’re a girl,” smile at them indulgently and do it anyway. Do everything you want to! Your parents might protest, in fact, from your statements, it looks like they probably will, in which case, you explain very kindly and firmly, “I’m not doing this to hurt you, I’m doing this because I want to.”

Oh, and also, pick your fights. You’ll want to prioritise in the early days. If wearing something your parents object to is not on the top of your list of I Must Do This, give in so that you can win the bigger battle of going out of town in mixed company. This transformation will be done best if it’s built on a foundation of compromise, at least, what looks like compromise anyway.

Lastly, be prepared for some fireworks, dear R. This will not be a smooth path. Changing people’s thinking seldom is, especially if it’s a parent-child equation. But persevere. Tell yourself that you’re helping them in the end, how much happier they’ll be when all of you have a relationship of equals.

Aunty Feminist

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