I was sitting cross-legged in the corner of my local library in Toronto, a haphazardly stacked pile of books beside me. It was not unusual to find me this way, twisting a lock of my hair into knots as I flipped through some novel or other. From a young age — not long after my mom and four year-old me immigrated to Toronto from Pakistan — language was my haven.
From tucking away my native Urdu for a rushed fluency in English, to feeding an insatiable appetite for stories beyond the scope of my culture-confused reach, language allowed me a freedom I still struggle to do justice in naming.
Sitting in this library, I was reading Harry Potter and thinking about Hermione. For many years, as the girls around me curled their hair like hers for Halloween, wearing robes and clutching textbooks to mimic the “brightest witch of her age,” I tried my hardest to see myself in Hermione. And I did, in the small ways — in the stumbling confidence, in the love for knowledge, in the hunger to prove myself that spoke to girls everywhere.
But I could not help but think that Hermione was not the character written with a girl like me in mind. The saga already had its brown girls — Padma and Parvati Patel — and they were, frankly, marginal. I saw myself in their dark, shiny hair and the traditional South Asian garb they wore to the wizard ball. It was far more likely to believe that Padma and Parvati were also the child of immigrants, also stuck between languages, also called names in school for the hair on their arms. But as the world rejoiced for Hermione’s wit and unabashed female power, where did that leave my own teenaged feminist awakening? 14 year-old me did not want to settle for marginal.
Fast forward to high school and it is the first time I have called myself a feminist. I felt the truth of this experience and wanted deeply to name it, to have something with which to articulate my way of moving through the world. Much like Roxane Gay writes in the introduction to her essay collection Bad Feminist, I resisted the title — for Gay, she had often felt that feminism wasn’t for her “as a black woman, as a woman who has been queer identified at varying points in her life, because feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others.”
While I didn’t have words as eloquent as hers or a cultural knowledge as nuanced to describe my own hesitation to call myself a feminist, I see now how little Capital-F Feminism resonated with me. Just as Hermione was not my feminist awakening, the silhouette of the “Good Feminist” did not strike me as aligning seamlessly with a Pakistani, Muslim girl from a working class family. So, to learn about this newfound naming and claiming of my complex identity, I wanted to explore. Naturally, as a girl of words, exploration meant reading.
In her essay What Does Soulful Mean?, Zadie Smith discusses her first time reading canonical Black woman writer Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. It took time, she says. She took pride in ranging widely in her reading and “preferred my own freely chosen, heterogeneous reading list … never choosing books for genetic or sociocultural reasons.” But Hurston’s novel posed a turning point for Smith.
“At fourteen,” she writes, “I couldn’t find words (or words I liked) for the marvellous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech.”
It was when this same mirror was granted to me that I found my feminist manifesto. I remember, in my senior year of high school, reading The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri — a Pulitzer Prize winner and a Bengali American. I remember reading the story of Ashima Ganguli, a Calcutta native who jarringly relocates to Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband. I remember reading and going back to reread the language that seamlessly married English with the brown-hood I knew so intimately and the womanhood I wanted to explore.
In my copy of The Namesake, one paragraph is highlighted in fluorescent pink marker. I have gone back to these words, this explanation of an intersection of experiences, time and time again: “Being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize is a sort of lifelong pregnancy,” Lahiri writes. “A perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding.”
I remember reading this and seeing my mother. I remember reading this and seeing, as Zadie Smith says, “my hair, my eyes, my skin.” It was seeing a brown woman write another brown woman into fruition — discussing this racialized womanhood with the lyricism of fiction and poetry, minus the academia of feminist theory — that grounded me into a knowledge of my own feminism. It was, and still is, the act of reading diverse women written by diverse women that sparked and continues to keep aflame by feminism.
When I think about the conversations I want to have with my two younger sisters about my (and, hopefully, their) feminism, about this naming of our nuanced experience, I do not think to quote feminist theory or ideology or praxis. I think of the stories of women, fabricated or realized, who are like them.
Because to seek and see myself — my womanhood wound into all other intersections of being — reflected in stories of vulnerability and humanity and resilience is my chosen feminist discourse.