My intersectional identity is four fold. I am an Asian/Indian mother; I have a mixed race daughter, I live in a Western country (UK) and I am a feminist mother.
I find it hard to tell which part of my identity it is that led me to feminism. When I was growing up in Asia feminism was a rare word. In fact, I thought that feminism was the prerogative of white rich women who could afford the time to protest. When I came to the UK 35 years ago I was still living under the assumption that white feminism was the only type of feminism.
My attitude changed when my daughter was born 17 years ago. She was white skinned and didn’t look anything like me. The responsibility of mothering a child who looked different to me despite being born from my body was a challenge in itself.
The challenge started at the hospital when the nursery nurse stopped me at the door and checked my wrist band before letting me through. This was because there were no babies of colour in there so it was not obvious, in the first instance, which of them was mine. The notion of being mixed race was and still is a secondary thought in the UK. By this I mean that mainstream thinking on race assumes that everyone is of one colour.
It was not only white people who were thinking along these lines. I was often asked, sadly by Indian people in shops and supermarkets, whether I was the ‘baby’s nanny’.
As my daughter grew I noticed that the same old female stereotype expectations that were thrust on me as a child were starting to encroach on my daughter’s life. My mother expressed objections to my daughter attending private school because “She is a girl and an expensive education will be wasted on her because she will have to stay at home after getting married.” When my daughter became boisterous people would point out that girls should not behave in that manner.
That gush of motherhood morphed into something more protective and was grounded in wanting to create a different world for my girl.
I started some soul searching about what it is I wanted for my daughter. Quite by accident I discovered an organisation called the Motherhood Institute for Research and Community Involvement. It is an outfit that spreads awareness and publishes journals on feminist mothering. Finally, I had a narrative that defined my desire for a type of mothering that wasn’t constrained by patriarchal discourse and outdated cultural thoughts.
Being a feminist mother is a liberating experience because it enables me to recognise my own needs as well as my daughter’s and to have the confidence to act on them. As an example, my daughter and I have a huge interest in politics. She is constantly being told that this interest, for a girl, is unusual. Once, a boy told her that she should be into cakes and fairies instead.
Being the daughter of a feminist mother meant that she was able to fend off these remarks by recognising them as being patriarchal stereotyping of gender expectation.
Feminist mothering is about recognising the barriers that women face such as gender assumptions, class and race issues.
In contrast, whether it is the Western culture or the Indian culture, the construct of a ‘good mother’ is one that chooses to stay-at-home, There’s nothing wrong with this, I hasten to add, but it is the detrimental stereotyping that I object to, because women who work, gay women and single women can also be good mothers. Mothers are a melting pot and feminist mothering is an inclusive philosophy.
In contrast to my upbringing where women were expected to live by a common code drawn up by the patriarchy, my daughter’s life is characterised by personal agency, empowerment and self-awareness. These are character building traits that enable her to recognise, as an example, that body image issues are man-made and is not an essentialism of being a girl.
It all is not sweetness and light though. Don’t get me wrong. Mothering a mixed race daughter is, quite often, a confusing experience for me and poses the biggest challenge to me as an Indian feminist mother.
I started to incorporate a cultural dimension to my mothering in the early years to get my little girl to recognise her mixed race heritage. This involved a game where I, Tamil by origin, would pretend to be a wolf that chased her because it wanted to play with half-Tamil children. Stories at bath time were about elephants, magic and faraway places.
Despite those cultural moments she did not fully understand that her physiology was mixed race. I discovered this when she came home from school during her first year and told me that she and her friends had been playing a game whereby they had clasped their palms, shaken their heads from side to side while uttering the words, “Goodness Gracious Me.”
I tried to explain why this was wrong. She insisted that she could not be half Indian because her skin was white. People with my skin colour were ‘others’ to her. I could not fault her because society thinks in terms of Black/Brown or White.
My Indian family and friends love her skin colour and my daughter is often told that she resembles Kareena Kapoor. I was horrified initially because of the bias in favour of fair skin. I did not want that prejudice to creep into her life so I spent quite some time explaining the Indian prejudice in favour of fair skin and that ‘mixed children’ are not necessarily any better looking than others. Only as a feminist mother could I have recognised this.
I still carry some Indian baggage of my own though and this materialises as a ‘cultural clash’ between my daughter and me.
When she wears short dresses I worry because I was told that this attracts men’s attention in a dangerous way. I do, though, recognise that this is ‘my problem’ which I have to come to terms with not only because we live in the West where these clothing styles are normal but because women are not to blame for men’s shortcomings. Sometimes being a feminist mother requires me to confront my own internalised cultural and race messages.
Feminist mothering is interwoven into every act of my mothering. My daughter at 17-years-old is unlike what I was at her age. She is aware of her strengths and feels confident to assert herself and defend herself when challenged about not complying with stereotypical views. As a consequence, I feel liberated from having to follow patriarchal models of mothering which are stultifying.