I grew up in a Middle-Eastern immigrant house, with a traditional father. My family is Christian, blue-collar, living in a predominantly blue-collar immigrant town. I’m an only child, a daughter, who’s expected to be obedient. I’m not very good at being obedient.
There’s no one or specific A-ha feminist moment for me. No single ripple that marked my entry into feminism. Only a gradual shift in my thinking, a sort of 90’s, girl-power childhood that, thankfully, molded me away from my family’s thinking.
I remember telling my dad, half-seriously, “Well, maybe I’ll become an engineer when I’m older.”
He promptly said, “No, girls don’t do engineering. That’s a man’s job. What can a girl do? If she has to lift something, how could she do that; she’d need a man to do that for her.”
I said, “Why would she need to lift anything? And besides, there are pulleys.”
I was maybe 10 or 12 years old and felt a relief that I didn’t actually want to be an engineer because I wouldn’t have been able to become one. My dad said so.
A few years prior to that incident, we were at a toy store, getting someone a birthday gift. My mother generously said, “Why don’t you pick out a toy for yourself. I’ll get it for you.” I was excited, thinking back to the Legos I played with a few days earlier at a family friend’s house.
My mom shook her head. “That’s a boy’s toy. You shouldn’t play with that. You can get a doll, instead.”
I remember feeling shame, and confusion, at hearing that. Is something wrong with me for wanting a boy’s toy? I ended up refusing the doll and left the store feeling dejected.
In high school, the soccer coach tried recruiting me for the girl’s soccer team. He felt I was strong and aggressive on the field, and would be perfect on the team.
Excited, I went home and told my dad I wanted to join the soccer team. “It’s not nice for girls to play soccer. It doesn’t look good. But you can do track, instead,” he said.
“That makes no sense. Why can’t a girl play soccer?” I argued.
“It’s not nice; doesn’t look good. Besides, you can get hurt.”
“I can get hurt doing track,” I argued.
“Playing soccer, you can break your back. Doing track, you may just break your wrist if you stumble and fall on it. No soccer. Girls don’t do that.”
I chose volleyball that year, and thankfully, I was decent enough at it to have fun.
When college graduation loomed near, I told my dad I would leave home for grad school. It ended in a heated argument. “No!” he shouted.
“I have to,” I said. “I can’t stay around this place and waste my life.”
“A girl doesn’t leave her father’s house until she is getting married!”
“But I have to go to school!”
“You can do that here. There many schools around here.”
“But I hate all the programs.”
“You have to find one, then, that you like.”
It was maddening, and I feel such an immense amount of anger right now writing this. I don’t think my father is cruel; he’s a product of his upbringing and culture. He was always loving and tried to do what he thought was best for me, and I’m grateful for that.
A year after college, I got my acceptance letter into what I thought at the time was my dream PhD program. My father “allowed” me to leave home and travel to another state. Believe me when I say I grasped that ticket, got on the platform, and never looked back.
But away from home and starting my program, my dad wanted me to call him twice a day, to let him know I was fine. But if I was out with friends at 6 or 7 pm, getting dinner, he’d yell at me, telling me I shouldn’t be out of my apartment past 4.
“I need to eat, though,” I reasoned.
“Get dinner earlier,” he rebutted.
“I’m not hungry at 4,” I argued back.
“Get dinner early and save it for until you’re hungry,” he countered.
150 miles away, and he was still trying to control me. I eventually told him I didn’t want to call him twice per day, I had enough stress as it was being on my own for the first time, managing myself for the first time, and navigating a PhD program.
“I’ll call you once every two days, but send you one text message every day to let you know I’m alive,” I told him.
It wasn’t enough, the daily text message, bi-daily phone call. He wanted complete obedience, on his terms. All-or-nothing.
So he cut me out of his life because I refused to obey him and call twice per day. Four years later, he still hangs up on me whenever I call him. He forbids my mother to mention my name around him.
I left my PhD program one year later, with the intention of applying to a different program the next year and finding a better academic match. My dad argued [with my mother acting as messenger because he still wasn’t speaking to me] that I should come back home and live with my parents because that’s what a girl should do. I refused.
Now, four years later, I have a good job, with great colleagues. My boyfriend is a wonderful, loving, gentle man. I have great friends, and I’m back in school. My dad still doesn’t speak to me.
My path to feminism grew out of my prison. In my family, being born a woman meant that I had to be sheltered and protected.
I’m free of that way of life and have carved out my own way of living. I refuse to be subjugated because I am a woman. There’s a lot I have to learn, namely self-confidence, but I’m trying. And I’m learning.
In two years, I graduate with my second degree. It’ll be something I did for myself, and not anyone else.
I’ll be an engineer.