When Sexism Starts Within

by Awet Habtom
Also Featured on KQED
12.14.17

Photo credit: Denise Tejada.

My dad used to tell me: I shouldn’t play sports. I shouldn’t wear revealing clothes. I should take care of him and my brothers. I’m first generation Eritrean. I’m proud of my heritage. I love the music, the food, the holidays. But the society can be pretty patriarchal. Just a couple years ago, the United Nations slammed Eritrea’s treatment of women. My parents came to the US in the ‘90s. They divorced after I was born. Now, they run very different households.

My dad lives with his extended family–my aunts, uncles, and cousins. At mealtime, the men eat, while the women serve them. We don’t sit down until we’re done cleaning up after the men. I didn’t question this. I didn’t even think to tell my mom. If she had known, she probably wouldn’t have let me visit my dad as much.

In 7th grade, I told my mom that girls can’t play basketball. When she realized I was serious, she cried, “What kind of child thinks like this?” You can imagine, when I said I got this idea from my dad, she was mad. She told me I was wrong. That my mindset was unfair towards myself and other women. That I should never let “being a girl” stop me.

Letting go of my sexist ideas took effort. When I caught myself holding back, I’d pause and give myself permission. Over time, I adopted a newfound respect for all women, starting with me.

When my mom confronted my dad, he apologized. After that, when I visited, I was allowed to eat beside him. But I was the exception. From then on, my aunts, female cousins, and grandma served me alongside the guys. They called me disobedient for rebelling against “our culture.”

Sometimes, I wish I could erase those early years around the table. But at the same time, my newfound feminist beliefs are real. They weren’t handed to me. I had to earn them by living day by day.

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