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#ChooseToChallenge: Raising Little Feminists

Image by Sinitta Leunen via Unsplash.

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Will I be able to afford to send her to a good school? Am I paving the path for her to get all the opportunities she deserves? Is my parenting psychologically damaging her? Are my own childhood traumas damaging her self-esteem? Oh my God. Am I going to screw this up? Am I going to screw her up?

So. Many. Questions. 

As the mother to a young girl in an ever-changing world that’s becoming more ‘woke’ but also more dangerous (oxymoronically? ironically?), there’s one question that plagues my mind more often than the deluge of others – how will she fare in a world dominated by the patriarchy?

Although I’m a new mother with a toddler girl who’s all of two years old, and her having to deal with the onslaughts of sexism, glass ceilings, peer pressure, and being told to “Awww, give us a smile” seem so far away, I’m constantly reminded that the nights are long but the years are short. Blink and she’ll be in school. Blink again and she’s starting work. 

What I’ve come to realise is that how I raise her now will make all the difference in how she chooses to respond to these aforementioned onslaughts. Will she be strong enough to stand up for herself? Will she choose to challenge the norm? I won’t be able to fight her battles for her (and I shouldn’t), but I can sure as hell arm her.

(Tengku Zai and Xin Lee of #TeamZafigo with their future feminists.)

It’s every mother’s fear and worry that they won’t be around for their babies forever. But let’s be real. The best we can do – regardless of if we have sons or daughters – is to empower our children to stand up for what’s right. Our girls will one day have to face the world without us, while our boys will one day be the husbands, friends, brothers, and future fathers to these girls. We need to get them all on the same team – the one that stands for equality.

Of course, women have made great strides and continue to do so in forging their own paths and making their marks in history. We’ve come a long way since being allowed to own our own property and run marathons, but we still have a long way to go in ensuring all women have equal opportunity. 

In Malaysia, it’s younger generations who will take over the fight to ensure well-enforced sexual harassment laws, anti-grooming bills, the stopping of female genital mutilation, and equal pay. And who knows? Maybe that will one day even mean equal inheritances. I was lucky; my brothers fought for me to get mine, and it’s my wish that one day no woman will need her brothers to do the same for her.

For some – especially disengaged men on social media – feminism is the worst ‘f’ word there is. Feminists are seen as a man-hating, hysterical, angry lot, while the reality is that real feminists acknowledge that the actual problem is patriarchy. Not men. Men constantly face their fair share of battles too (victim shaming, assault, toxic masculinity, and so on), and feminists stand by them. But why so many men hate on feminists is a Pandora’s Box story for another day. What I do want to say is this: We, as parents, can help end the cycle.  

Image by Samantha Jane of Sleepyvisuals. (A family of unapologetically strong women supporting each other.)

We may feel like we’re not doing much in the fight for feminism and equal opportunity, but how we raise our little ones – again, son or daughter – is a fight in itself. By raising my own daughter, Amal, to be one who will always #ChooseToChallenge, I hope that gender-based injustices come to an end for her. Or that, at least, she won’t have to deal with as much as I, or previous generations of women, have had to. 

When I look at her now, I can see that she’s a feisty one. She’s vocal, persistent, and has a mind of her own. As difficult as it can be for me sometimes (mum-ing her can be very trying), I genuinely hope that no one ever dulls that sparkle. In the meantime, I need to teach her all about boundaries by respecting hers, and let her discover a world filled with strong women – whether they be in the arts or sciences (this amazing series of books is perfect for that). 

For little boys, seeing women in various roles is important. It’s also so important to validate their emotions and allow boys to have them. Big boys do cry and that’s okay. All children need to learn to process and regulate their feelings in a healthy manner instead of having adults force them to quell or suppress said feelings. A child that’s been told to ‘suck it up’ usually grows up to be an anxious or angry adult. 

So, what about the questions that have taken up permanent residence in my mind? While I can’t drown them out, I’ve decided to use them as a means to learn instead. When all’s said and done, we – their parents, caregivers, or even role models (like a favourite aunt) – are the ultimate example. Our children parrot us; they mimic us. So much so that all the flashcards and books in the world couldn’t teach them otherwise. Case in point: One day, Amal was reciting her flashcards that had images of people doing chores and running various errands. Gender norms went right over her head. She said, “Daddy cooking!” and “Mommy driving!” even though the flashcards were teaching her otherwise. They know what they see. Ultimately, it begins with us and starts all over again with them. Let’s be the example they need and #ChooseToChallenge the norm. 

In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, Zafigo will be highlighting various women of prominence, so look out for more stories to come. This is only the first of many. Happy International Women’s Day! 

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Tengku Zai
Going by the nickname Kuzai, the Kelantan native spent nearly a decade in the wonderful world of publishing, managing the beauty sections of glossies including ELLE and Harper’s BAZAAR. The wannabe yogi also suffers from an extreme case of wanderlust and really just works to eat, travel, and nurture a unicorn and Star Wars obsession.