Earlier this year, Newton North’s feminism club held a rally on International Women’s Day. I, being one of the officers of feminism club, had the chance to speak out at this rally. There, I discussed examples of feminism I had seen across a few of the countries I’ve visited. This is a continuation of those thoughts as well as a further explanation on how these problems can continue to exist and what we can do to fight it.
The first place I ever visited that was deeply different than my own home was Hong Kong. There, I stayed with my aunt, her husband Hiro, and my two cousins Koki and Sana. My time there was extraordinary: each day after we dropped my cousins off at school, we would explore the markets, and on the same day walk with water buffaloes on the coast. Hong Kong is by all means a modern city and with English being one of their nation’s languages, it was easy for me to feel comfortable in my new environment.
Yet, many aspects of the new world shocked me in ways I had never before experienced back home in Newton. One day as we strolled through my aunt’s neighborhood, she and my uncle started to discuss the idea of sending my cousin Koki to the United States to come to school with me and my brothers. Koki is a basketball player. He is more athletic than most boys his age in Hong Kong and taller and stronger too. He is not the smartest, but that’s more so from restlessness than a lack of intelligence. Both of his parents agreed that coming to the United States could mean an education more suited for their son. My aunt and uncle both seemed happy with the idea until my aunt asked, “Will we send Sana, too, when she enters high school?”
My uncle quickly shot down this idea, saying something along the lines of, “Since Sana is a girl there is no need for her to get a better education. She will make a wonderful wife.”
My aunt was shocked and they fought for a moment as I stood between them, watching such a turbulous clash of ideals occur in front of my eyes. What I first learned then has stayed with me ever since, in different parts of the world from city to city or country to country, issues such as sexism manifest themselves differently. As my aunt, having grown up in Newton like me, fought with her husband from Japan, I could only wonder how problems such as this one hadn’t come up earlier. Only travelling to a new region of the globe could show me why.
I went to Brazil for the past three summers. I lived on a small rural farm with my friend’s family. Often, I would be the only English speaker in the room, and I would be left to the devices of hand gestures and smiles. The people there were kind. They taught me how to bake the cookies I loved there (the key was to grab both ends of the long strand of dough and flick it into a twist) and they would lead me on their horses to the outskirts of their cattle ranch and back again. In many ways, they were like a second family to me; the reason I came back time and time again was because it felt like a home. But even homes have the strange something we don’t give much knowledge to until later.
One night on the farm there was what can only be described in English as a “cowboy party.” We rode up into the mountains—the ones who knew how to ride on horseback and us others sitting on the flatbed of a truck—and met about thirty other cowboys. Everyone drank their way back down to the farm house. By the time we got back, many of the cowboys were drunk enough to think setting off fireworks near horses was a good idea. That night we danced until nearly 2 AM with me thinking the heightened sense of caution and discomfort I carried was natural from being in a new place. The cruel reality only set in the next morning when reflecting I realized the events of the night before were not acceptable.
Between songs, I would run into the house to avoid being asked to dance by any of these new people. If I was caught, I would be forced closer to these strangers than I would dance with even some of my closest friends. These strangers would then whisper in my ears language I only half understood due to the years of exposure I had with it. Regardless, the words they spoke didn’t sound good, and, more importantly, they didn’t feel good. Every once in awhile a good-natured friend would rescue me from the dance and teach me the dances in a manner that felt safer. A lot of these friends still didn’t speak the same language as me, but they treated me with a smile and respect that is impossible to confuse.
I don’t tell these stories to blame certain countries or certain people. I love my uncle. I love Brazil. However, these stories are meant to show that there is sexism far beyond the reaches of what we can see here in Newton. That’s not to say sexism isn’t a problem here, but more so to acknowledge that sexism is a global problem that comes in variations beyond the ones that confront us. At home, I don’t think I would see a daughter told she couldn’t go on to a better education as much as I doubt I would feel that uncomfortable at a party even though here I may get catcalled on the streets in a way that has never happened on any of my trips.
Gender inequality is not a problem that resides in far off places where women are still forced to stay home on their periods nor is a here problem that remains in the United States’ own tensions. Rather, gender inequality is an everywhere issue. It is a problem that should be referred to in global leaps necessary to create true change instead of through regional approach we typically take on the problem.