Haya Alfarhan: Let's talk about the 'F' word

By Haya Alfarhan, Columnist
Published September 29, 2014

The older I get, the more I realize that it’s not labels that make me uncomfortable but rather the weight they hold, the expectations they carry and the connotations that come with them.

Haya Alfarhan

Still, there are plenty of labels I identify with, labels I carry proudly and unapologetically. Labels that don’t define me, but rather encompass little parts of my existence. I’m a woman. I’m an Arab. I’m a Muslim. These are parts of my identity that fit in little boxes. And while I’m comfortable identifying with them, I know that those little boxes don’t look the same to everyone. The way I define my gender, ethnicity and religion is very specific to me.

Feminist is a label I go back and forth on every day. I used to think I’ve been flirting with feminism since I was 10, but I now realize we’ve been courting since birth. I learned her name when I was 15 and we’ve been slowly getting acquainted ever since. Still, I sometimes don’t feel comfortable associating with her.

So let’s talk about feminism.

When a woman identifies as a feminist, I’ve found that the reactions include everything from “so you’re a man-hater” to “YAAAS.” Over the past year, there has been a popularization of feminism. Countless celebrities and notable figures have come out and stated their support of it. Still, among all the diverse feminist discourse on equal pay, reproductive rights and respectability, there seems to be a different, ever-present, unofficial debate. A debate on who gets to identify as a feminist.

When Beyoncé proclaimed her feminist status last year, the world went wild. The mainstream couldn’t figure out what to do with her proclamation. The public tried to figure out whether she was a “true feminist” and proceeded to scrutinize her life to disprove it. People picked apart her album, her wardrobe and her choice to take on her husband’s last name.

The mainstream seems preoccupied with the notion that there can only be one true form of feminism. When I decided to call myself a feminist, I was met with questions. Can you be a Muslim and a feminist? Can an Arab woman be a feminist?

Yes. Hell, yes.

People assume my identity must be in conflict with my feminist status, because there couldn’t possibly be a way to reconcile the two. My little box of feminism looks a lot different than Beyoncé’s, Emma Watson’s, Malala Yousafzai’s and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s, but it’s just as valid.

Policing which women get to identify with feminism has a multitude of repercussions. It’s just as harmful as the concept of feminism being associated with anger and man-hating. It propagates the idea that women must validate their brand of feminism. It belittles the efforts different women have contributed to the movement for equality. When you propagate the idea of true feminism, you’re stripping women, often those who belong to marginalized identities, of the power to own their choices.

I’m tired, and I imagine that many other women are too. I’m tired of having to justify my opinions because I don’t look like the “ideal” feminist. I’m tired of being asked to present my credentials at the door. I don’t understand why the world thinks that the only way Muslim women can call themselves feminists is if they run down the street nude while renouncing their faith. I don’t understand why I have to constantly reassure people that I’m not oppressed. Why I need them to validate my choices.

When I made the decision to study abroad, my parents got a lot of backlash for it. Different family members and friends couldn’t fathom how my parents could let their 17-year-old daughter move across an ocean unsupervised. Issues of my safety and corruptibility were brought up. People opposed their choice, because I was a girl. Still, no one brought up the fact that I was pursuing a better education. No one cared about that. The day my parents got behind my decision was the day my parents became feminists. (Sorry to break it to you Mom and Dad) When I decided to put my education ahead of my society’s judgment, I too became a feminist.

My feminism is integral to the way I live. It’s the way in which I sustain and control my presence in the world. My feminism comes from my lived experience. That’s the only credential I need.

Haya Alfarhan can be reached at hsf@umich.edu.