Being a feminist has been a relatively easy path for me because there is (for the most part) very little conflict between my feminism and the rest of my identity. But for many women out there, being a feminist means to reject or to live in contradiction with their culture or their religion. For example, it is no sweat for me to be heavily critical of the culturally, religiously and legally mandated system of gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia. But what if I were a Saudi feminist?
If I were a Saudi feminist, I would, as a feminist, recognize that my culture and nation are predicated upon a deep malevolence towards women. But I would find myself in conflict because the very culture that I recognize as so very hostile to me would be the same culture that shaped me and made me who I am.
Over the past couple of days, I have been pondering the fact that this sense of internal contradiction is outside the scope of my experience. Except I realized in a flash of insight this morning that it is not outside the scope of my experience.
I am the daughter of a man who routinely ridiculed and terrorized me throughout my childhood. I recognized at a very young age that my father was my Enemy. I left for boarding school at age fourteen clicking my heels because I was so glad to be free of him. Throughout most of my teens and twenties, he was mostly out of sight and out of mind.
But in my thirties, I have realized that I am not free of him, nor will I ever be free of him. I have his coloring and his features. When I look in the mirror, it is his face I see looking back at me. I have the same mannerisms and gestures and vocabulary. His history is my history. I inherited many of my cultural and religious attitudes from him. We even had some good times when I was growing up. He and my mother and I spent many long hours around the dinner table talking about ideas and books from the time I was very little. As a child, I was completely and totally dependent on him. There were times when I cravenly courted his approval, and positively basked in it when I got it. And I am even proud of him at times -- his intelligence, many of his values, and his professional accomplishments.
In a very real sense, my father made war on me but he also created me and shaped me. Even as I recognize that he deliberately harmed me, I am also unable to escape the fact that he is part of me. I wish -- oh how I wish -- that I was born into a family with a father who would never have dreamt of treating me the way I was treated. But if I had been born into a different family, I wouldn't be me. It is a quandry and a contradiction.
I can't speak for women who come out of highly misogynist or sexist families, cultures or religions. But I imagine there are women out there wrestling with feelings about their culture that are very similar to the internal contradictions with which I struggle. Perhaps, to the extent that sexist assumptions seem to be in the very air we breathe even in the most "enlightened" circles in the U.S., we are all struggling with these contradictions to one degree or another. I can't pretend that it is especially easy or that I have any solutions. But I think that a clear-eyed recognition of the contradictions one faces is a good start.