The term ‘feminist’ gets such a bad reputation that in all honesty, if you called me that when I was in my first year of uni I would throw piping hot coffee in your face. When you ask someone what comes to their mind when they think of a feminist, the image of the notorious angry feminist, or feminazi as they are often a affectionately called, might come to mind — a woman with her breasts popping out, and the hair from her unshaved armpits dragging on the floor, marching around and declaring freedom for only women. Some might say that she would be hell bent on eliminating all men as well.
Feminism has been painted negatively with a broad brush too frequently, and it is often shouted down upon by opponents of the growing movement as poorly disguised misandry — when in fact feminism is a movement that seeks to eliminate, if not reduce, inequality in all areas in humanity. Feminism isn’t a group of angry women trying to eliminate all men from the face of Earth, but includes standing up for the rights of both women and men where relevant. It’s standing up for the rights of all homo sapiens, regardless of whether you were born or female or whatever you sexually identify with.
I am a young Christian woman of Southeast Asian heritage, most of which is predominantly East Asian.
I know that identifying as a feminist is the last thing any of my relatives want me to do. I’ll occasionally hear from the older, and usually more conservative, relatives that identifying as a feminist will taint my brand as a single woman; in other words, I’m going to ruin my future because they say that no man is going to be able to handle my strong quasi-liberal values and different way of thinking. They say that I will be “left on the shelf” like all those other so-called social justice warriors. I have been kindly advised from time to time again to put aside those “westernised” values and just find a good man that I can eventually settle down with, and maybe pop out a few children. I have been told by many that identifying as a feminist will do nothing but make my life harder than it already is.
I like to lie through my teeth that it isn’t true, but it is; feminism has made my life harder than it already is. Apart from dying in between uni and work commitments, the ideological and philosophical values that I have been exposed to in the past seven years of living in Australia constantly wage a bloody war in my head against the Christian and Confucian values that I have been raised to believe in. I was determined to shake off everything that I had been brought up to believe in. The renewed zeal in the fight for same-sex civil union rights in the past year had me questioning all the religious texts that I was taught from since I was as young as two. I was constantly searching the Bible for answers that would support my supportive position on the issue, not refute it. I didn’t understand why a big and holy God, as they described Him in the Bible, would deliberately ignore a group of people within society who desperately wanted the social and legal recognition that marriage would afford them — and so, in the process of searching for the answers to my questions, I found that I was beginning to isolate myself from everyone. I completely distanced myself from both the religious teachings that I had been brought up to believe in, as well as the culture that I was raised in. I was especially adamant on not allowing my role in society to be dictated by what my religion, or culture, had to say about it. I wore my own personal brand of feminism loudly and proudly on my sleeve and used it as a shield against any expectations that were placed upon me. Respect my husband? I retaliated by telling everyone that it was impossible for a man to earn it from me unless he was ready to respect me in that same way. It was personally empowering to feel so independent – waking up every morning, drinking coffee, and working on my hopes and dreams and ambitions without having a man in the picture. I was happy being away from church, being away from my family. Or so I thought.
I was lacking direction in my life, a moral compass of some sort; it all culminated when I found myself failing desperately last year on a busy morning as I was driving along Port Road. I felt extremely isolated. I felt like my family and friends, and even God, could not understand the pain that I was feeling. I pulled over, rolled down the windows, and began sobbing. I had nowhere to go, in both the physical sense and metaphorically. I had lost all sense of direction in my life. I realised how tired I was, that I was working myself to the bone, and that I had just lost all strength to continue. It was difficult relying on my own strength to push through life’s cycles; I knew something was missing, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it because that would only ruin my independence. It would mean that I would be relying on something supernatural, and I had already recoiled at the thought of having to rely on a man.
The past three years of my degree have been difficult, trying to reconcile the clash of secular, worldly values with the ones that I have been taught to believe in from a very young age. I’ve grown more religious, and developed a personal brand of feminism that I am more comfortable with which gives me the direction that I need to lead at a student organisation such as the Women’s Collective at the University of South Australia. Now, I don’t mean to say that my growing passion for God is anyone’s business. You might be thinking, doesn’t being a feminist in the secular space clash with your religious or cultural values? Doesn’t that make you less of a feminist?
No, it doesn’t.
Why do I still choose to remain a feminist? It’s because I believe that my religion is no one else’s but my own, and that feminism has an important role to play in bringing crucial changes to this frightening world we live in. I may enjoy the freedom to practice my own religion in Australia, but that doesn’t mean that I want policy-makers in my government to be ruled by my religion, or other religions, in any way. I want everyone in society to be viewed equally, both in the legal and social space. I want my government to implement policies and generate a climate where people respect each other, regardless of what gender or sexuality they identify with. I may be a Christian, but it’s not my job to judge whether someone chooses to identify as gender-fluid, bisexual, or asexual; following that, I’m also not going to close one eye and pretend that the problems that the LGBTQIA+ community face are not real, and that men don’t bear the brunt of society’s expectations on them, too. Feminism is not restricted to only women; women and men should work alongside each other, not against, to affect real change in this world.
I may be a Christian, but my relationship with God is my own and no one else’s. I may be a Christian, but shutting my eye to the world’s problems is not going to make anything better for the very real issues, and inequality, that we are facing right now. I may be a Christian, but I’m not going to behave in a way to my fellow homo sapiens that does not exhibit Godly love. So I’m not going to judge anyone who voluntarily decides to stay at home to look after the kids, wash the dishes, and hang the laundry even if it doesn’t align with my feminist values. It’s time we allowed both women and men to do whatever they want to do without feeling like they are being judged against some ever-moving metric of what it means to be a good religious person, or feminist. And that’s what feminism really is, anyway – it’s about celebrating both men and women and everything else in between.
But do know that it’s okay if you want to let your boobs hang out or let your armpit hair chill around for a breather – I won’t judge you for it.
Words by Nicole Chia
Image by Madison Alana