By Sheilla Njoto
How many of you have heard of people saying...
“Women are stronger than you think.”
“Don’t be afraid to stand up just because you’re a woman.”
“Women have equal rights.”?
I agree. They are crucial; but I am not here today to tell you about all those again. I know we all have heard of them lots of times especially since a couple of years ago.
It depends on what the definition of feminism is (the word feminism has changed a lot over time), but I never label myself as a feminist. Here is why.
I was raised in a traditional German/Chinese/Indonesian family. My mother comes from a German/Chinese background and my father comes from an Indonesian/Chinese background. Being the youngest and the only girl among my siblings, I was taught in a certain way with certain etiquette in order for me to grow up in a safe and a protected environment to be a ‘well-behaved’ and ‘morally decent’ lady.
I was trained to cook for my family. I was taught to serve the family because we believed it was part of women’s role. My room was expected to be clean all the time and my handwriting was assumed to be very neat. I remember once when my parents would tell me off because I used to draw a lot on my notebooks and there was a lot of scribbles. I was a girl and they thought neat notebooks were my thing.
As I grew up, there was a time when I felt left out because my two brothers used to play video games and they didn’t want to include me. My brothers wouldn’t let me play because they thought I must have sucked at it because I was a girl. And I remember when they were still at school, I tried so hard to win Counter Strike. I wasn’t a huge fan.
I kept on practicing to prove a point to my brothers that I was, indeed, able. And I was right. The next night, I got the first rank among my brothers and all the AIs. I was so proud and content. And I never let them forget until today.
It was surprising for my father when he knew how huge my ambition was since I was little. I have always been a strong-willed, determined woman and sometimes it scared my parents.
“What if you never marry because you are being too opinionated and it intimidates your partner?”
It didn’t make sense for me because I didn’t understand how such amazing ambition, which, I was very proud I had, could affect me negatively. Wasn’t that a good thing to have determination and motivation for the future? To push my talents and to constantly search for new challenges in life? Wasn’t it a good thing to be able to lead? To inspire people, to speak up and to be a good leader?
I became tired of hearing all those negative comments about my so-called ‘masculinity’. This distinct characteristic in me that became one of the biggest drives for me to go out there and bring a change was seen merely as a ‘rebellious’ act towards norms in my own culture. I started questioning myself over and over again.
And just like any other most women you may know in your life, I envied the opportunities that men could have but women just didn’t.
This thought I kept on carrying in my mind along with a wishful thinking that someday, when I finally leave a communal society like my cultural bring-ups, I could be free from normative expectations—until I started living in Melbourne in 2015.
I, then, realised that I was wrong. I started to think that I could never escape a set of expectations put unto me about what a woman should be. No. It wasn’t that women have to cook or clean. It was a total opposite. I just realised that I have entered a new world where, having built by the same tradition in the past with all the new cultures revolving around it, women are valued more when they can only hear their own voices, become very individualistic, fiercely reject requests of serving men, and more. I was often put down for being ‘too weak’ as a woman because I seemed to confirm to some traditions and cultural values. I was often put down because I enjoy doing things that women were ‘assumed’ to do.
Yes, I cook for my brothers—not because I’m pushed to but because I enjoy looking at their smiles when they devour my cooking. Yes, I care about how I look—not because I care about looking pretty in photos but because I want to be respectful towards whoever I meet that day. Yes, I care about how revealing my dress is—not because I don’t agree with women’s rights to choose but because I care about what I might be silently expressing through my decisions in life. Yes, despite my aspiration in bringing social change to the society, I wish to be a full-time mother someday in my life because I feel called to be a loving mother and wife.
I came to realise that cultures take a huge part in the definition of being a so-called ‘good’ woman. I would say that there is no better or worse definition for it. I like to be able to appreciate both cultures. And whether we like it or not, cultures, along with what we are exposed to and the way we were brought up, take part in shaping ourselves and our identity. I am more than grateful to have been exposed to all these cultures.
Thinking that there is only one definition of being a ‘true’ woman only means we’re being exclusive to certain cultures. Thinking that jobs with most women are second-class jobs only means we’re being exclusive to certain women.
From all these experiences, I gained a thought that having a freedom to speak as a woman is not merely the freedom to have equal opportunities as men, but also the freedom to be the best of our authentic self without being put down. That’s when we truly have the freedom to speak and to choose.
Be the best leader you can if you are a leader.
Be the best motivator if you are a motivator.
Be the best housewife is you are a housewife.
Do all those not only to prove a point. Do all those because you know it’s the best you can do. Do all those because you’re confident about yourself and you know what you’re capable of.
I have met a woman who has decided to become celibate because she had a mission in Africa to help them with their education and famine. She believed that having romantic relationships would only hurt more people at the end of the day. At the same time, I also know a very wonderful woman who turned down a prestigious architectural role and decided that she would be able to serve her husband and her whole family better if she became a stay-home mother. It was, indeed, her decision. And never in my life have I known a time that her husband disrespected her. He knew what she was capable of. He knew what she was worth. He knew how smart she was and there was not a decision he made without neglecting her bright opinions—and he let everyone know about it.
These women are a huge inspiration and these are the women to look up to! The women that are happy with who they are. The women that can find joy in things that they believe in. They prove to be great people.
And the question becomes: why, then, the more people know about this confidence in these women, they gain respect towards their decisions?
Instead of trying to define what it means to me to be a ‘good’ woman, I chose to push myself towards being a ‘good’ person instead—and through this, I let people decide what I am as a woman. I decide to be authentic about who I am without forgetting to question back what I am politically-but-mutely saying by doing a particular thing. Let’s try out best not to define ourselves by what people say about us but at the same time let’s try our best not to disrespect people’s opinions or even their presence just because we only think about what we think.
I believe that not caring about what people think about us entirely is not the key to being confident as a woman. I believe that the key to being confident as a woman is to be the best person you can be—not because you are proving a point, but because you realise it is a good thing. Think of people’s perspectives as a medium to reflect.
So why do we keep on feeling sorry for ourselves because we are women? Why do we keep on victimising ourselves? Why do we keep on playing victims?
If we want to be respected as women, then we, first, respect them. If we want to be listened, then, first, engage with them. If we want to be included, then include ourselves. If we want to be included as women, don’t exclude men in return. If we don’t want to be victims, don’t victimise ourselves. If we are smart, be smart. If we are strong, be strong.
After all, it is not winning Counter Strike that made my brothers realise how strong I was as a woman. It was my great ambition and determination that did. My willingness to face new challenges and to push myself out of comfort zone was what first made my dad realised that I could be stronger than both my brothers—being my authentic self and the best person I can be. It was never about me winning Counter Strike.
We come from different perspectives. We have different pairs of shoes.