I wonder how my father would react if I informed him that he is an inspiring feminist. I wonder if he would buy that. I write this column both to let him and the world know how he has enabled me to challenge gender norms. I am an international student from India. At times, in my government classes at Cornell, professors show statistics about how my country is not necessarily the sanctum of gender equality. There are grim statistics about gender violence and recalcitrant gender discrimination norms which are very prevalent today. But then, I think about how I ended up coming to Cornell, got through four years of outstanding education and survived the various pressures young women face, especially in college.
I remember when I joined my all-girls boarding school, I was the weird girl for always raising my hand in class. The same thing happened in college. Throughout my freshman year at Cornell, people recognized me at parties as the international girl who would always raise her hand in a 100-person Introduction to International Relations lecture. Of course, it was embarrassing, and retracted from my social capital towards the beginning. I am very aware that I come across as intimidating and odd. But here’s the thing, I don’t know any other way to navigate life at Cornell and I am convinced it has a lot to do with how my father socialized me.
Growing up, I had a hideous haircut which made me look like a boy. My father used to take me to the same barber who used to do his hair. I laugh about it now but I used to be miserable about not having pretty ponytails and not fitting the mold that was perpetuated by everything that surrounded me in fairytales, books, my friend-circles and on the media that I was exposed to. He would always spend generously on books and I would get tired of those gifts. I wanted the fancy accessories all other girls seemed to always have in abundance. He would take me to the port office and explain the difference between limestone and iron ore to me as any fervent engineer would to his son. The intellectual curiosity that marked our father-daughter conversations has only augmented over the years.
He pushed me to work very hard in math and physics, not so much history or English because I inherited a flair for writing and literature from my mother. He did not want me to fit the norm that math/science/economics/engineering is not for girls. At every stage of my education, he pushed our financial limits to make space for my magnanimous dreams. I went to an elite boarding school for girls where I did not necessarily fit the socio-economic status bracket towards the initial years. I found role models at this boarding school but the stereotypes and expectations caught on as my friends started socializing with the boys’ boarding school. I tried to “fit in” and be a “cool” girl but being ambitious and dorky had become second nature to me — thanks to my father. It paid off when I got into Cornell.
I came to Cornell and then was faced with a whole new set of gender-based expectations and norms. I decoded Greek Life, went through rush week and tried my best to figure out my way around make-up and navigating the social system. However, I am glad that these were the things I had to teach myself because the important things had become second nature considering how my father raised me.
He always tells me “the sky is the limit.” College has been fraught with numerous personal and professional successes and failures. My father rebuked me every time I doubted myself academically. He helped me bounce back every time I came close to underestimating myself. He cannot prevent me from browsing the fat-shaming, appearance-oriented body politic on social media or from being disappointed by the double-standard of sexism. Nevertheless, he reminds me that the adage that “behind every successful man, there is a woman” is only half of the story.
My boat still sinks at times. Being a 22 year old in a high-achieving environment is not easy, to the say the least. I have started appreciating my father even more especially because I have been reflecting so much about gender as my social identity this semester. I hear a lot of men at college talk about how they would be terrified if they had a daughter, because they are aware of the insidious sexual objectification of women through their college experience. It could not be easy for my father either but I must say he did the women’s movement of my generation a favor. He raised a feminist and he challenged gender norms in a society where gender issues are ostensibly so bleak and tenuous. The most heartening part, however, is how he has started incorporating my mother in his subconscious “he for she” project. He has no issues with doing the laundry and is almost obsessive with household chores. I have heard a lot of talk about how women need role models, my father is my role model. He is an ardent feminist and I really wonder if he knows it. Well, now he does, and I hope he is proud of it, because I sure am.
Aditi Bhowmick is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Abstruse Musings appears alternate Mondays this semester.