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Yashar Ali Headshot

My Feminist Re-Birth(s)

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I was born a boy and a feminist on Thanksgiving Day, 1979. We are all born feminists, just as much as we are all born free of racial discrimination. The definition of feminism is the same now, as it was on the day I was born: a man or woman who believes in full gender equality.

Growing up, I had no reason to think that men and women were unequal; my mother was fervent about stamping out any examples of gender bias in her relationship with my father. So, as a child, I never witnessed gender inequality within my immediate family.

Even though we traveled to Iran every other summer and I would see my female relatives forced to wear headscarves, while the men roamed free of dress restrictions, I still didn't believe that men and women were unequal. Seeing women subjected to different and more rigid dress restrictions didn't shift my perception of gender equality, like it would for so many young, impressionable kids.

When we are born, the sounds, the lights, the activities of human life are jarring and shocking to us. We have, after all, spent nine months in the protection of our mother's womb. But soon, we adjust and those same sounds and sights become part of daily life. While I never believed that men and women are unequal, I had become used to the sexism that pervades everyday life. Like a baby who gets used to the rush of the material world, I was complacent about the gender inequalities emerging around me. I may have noticed it, but unless it came crashing down on my head, it wasn't jarring. As a result, I did nothing of substance about it.

Since the day of my birth, I have lived through three feminist re-births to arrive at where I am today: a man who is firmly committed to and passionate about solving gender inequity, in forms big and small, here at home, and around the world. I call them re-births because they were seminal moments in my life, moments in which I confronted the question of what to do with and in my life. With each of my re-births, I found the sounds and lights of sexism jarring and uncomfortable. And while my awareness about the very real inequities between men and women waned at various points in my life, I am now vigilant in my mindfulness of gender discrimination.

Despite what I personally believe about gender equality, my problem has been my failure in remembering the reality in our country, and also the reality around the world -- that men and women are treated far from equal. At times, I have also forgotten that it is my responsibility, as a human being and a man, to stamp out this inequity.

I had my first feminist re-birth when I was 18. My cousin, Sheherazade, was a women's studies major at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and I would visit her there every few months. We would listen to Ani DiFranco records and she would talk about what she learned in her courses. Her revolutionary attitude about gender inspired me over the many visits I paid to her.

I was horrified by the many examples of sexism that surrounded my life, in the wide world of politics, and in the media I consumed. I wondered why it took these visits with my cousin to realize that 90 years after women gained the right to vote, we continue to marginalize women to a horrifying extent.

Soon after my last visit with her, I moved to California, and I stopped listening and paying attention to the gender inequality that surrounded my life. The haze of daily life took over and somehow, the (gender) revolutionary in me dissolved.

My second rebirth came eight years later. After the 2008 presidential primaries, I was filled with grief by the way Hillary Clinton was treated by the media and by both Democrats and Republicans. The sexism in the presidential race was not only rampant, but it was also shocking (something both Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann have now experienced).

I didn't understand how we could sit around and say nothing while we watched a woman face disgusting attacks from so-called reporters and pundits. The comments made on television, in newspapers, on the internet, and via other media platforms about Hillary Clinton's body, clothing, and her inability to lead because she is subject to "that time of the month," was just too much for me to handle. My friends Lynn, Jill, Susie, and I would discuss examples of gender bias that Clinton's campaign was forced to deal with. These women had unyielding passion for gender equality and they reminded me why I felt so passionate about my sense of purpose back in the days when I would visit my cousin in Madison.

But just a year later, my outrage at the rampant discrimination against women in politics and in the greater context of American society faded into the background. While I remained consumed by Hillary Clinton's loss in her presidential bid, I was no longer consumed by how she was treated -- which was the bigger problem. I was simply going about my life. Once again, the sounds and sights of sexism were no longer as jarring. They dissolved into the background of everyday life, of the reality of this country and this world.

My third feminist rebirth happened when I moved to the Bay Area for two years. In San Francisco, I was surrounded by women who dedicated their lives to combating gender inequity. My friend Susie, who was a woman entrepreneur long before we even thought to use the words "boys club," inspired me to be more grateful for the many privileges in my life, including male privilege. She accomplished this through her actions, her quiet grace. She is brilliantly defiant and proud in the way she lives her life and she puts her hard-earned money where her mouth is, dedicating her wealth to helping girls and women around the world.

My friend and colleague Lisa, who reminded me so much of my cousin, is beyond passionate in her quest to point out gender bias in politics and life. Her wit is so brilliant and biting that she often rendered misogynists mute or extremely defensive. My friend Shawnda continually reminded me about the absence of women in positions of power on political campaigns, which I failed to readily notice. And my friend Jennifer, who's dogged battle in bringing her documentary, Miss Representation, into fruition, reminded me that popular media often portrays women in a horrible light. She made me aware that there is no such thing as mindless, harmless television as long as women are thrown under the bus in the process. She has inspired me to rethink my media consumption patterns.

Many people believe the issues women faced 30, 40 years ago have already been solved -- if only that were true.

In our culture, the problems women face haven't changed much since the 60s and 70s. They have just gone underground. The current challenges women face have morphed into forms overlooked by our seemingly PC society, because they don't fit into our textbook definition of abuse and inequality.

I am a product of women, they nurtured me, protected me, fed me, clothed me, educated me, loved me. I am happy and successful because of what they offered and sacrificed for me. I have a responsibility to support and honor their struggle.

Their struggle is about being recognized as full participants in our society. Their struggle is about overcoming gender bias in the media, pay inequity, and unfair hiring practices. And even if they are working in an environment that is free of gender-based wage gaps, women employees still face a confidence gap. Women are less likely than men to ask for what they want in their work place. So, their struggle is about overcoming society's tendency to teach young women that asking for what they want is seen as an act of aggression, rather than an act of assertion. This is just a different form of sexism wrapped up in what some of us see as cultural or gender norms.

Their struggle is about the fact that out of 50 U.S. governors, only six are women. And out of 535 seats in Congress, women hold less than 20 percent of these posts.

A woman's struggle is also about the reality that when confronting trauma in her life, she must face the national tragedy of untested rape kits and the disgusting manner in which rape victims are treated on college campuses.

Even though I use the word "their," when it comes to talking about gender equality, I believe it is really "our" struggle, a struggle to be overcome by everyone (men and women). If we don't begin to resolve the gender equality issue, we will be leaving behind half our society and this will ultimately lead to our destruction. We see examples of where we are headed every day, from the dysfunctional debt negotiations to the shocking income inequality in our country and around the world (70 percent of those in poverty globally are women).

The imbalance between men and women is often glaring to me, but I am also witness to very subtle instances of inequality that are just as painful: whether it's hearing a man tell a woman to "calm down" because she tries to express her opinion, or it's hearing women speak on TV about "the way it used to be," as if to claim that women and men now have even playing field.

When half our society faces quantifiable bias and discrimination that permeates every part of their lives, how can we sit around and think that we have left those days in the past? Can you imagine if you are a woman facing discrimination in your life and you hear something like that? It may lead you to think you are overreacting.

This is the biggest issue we face today: the subtlety of sexism is wrapped in many layers of society and it inflicts tremendous damage in terms of equality for women.

I know that I am reborn as a feminist for the last time; I am not going back to living in a haze. The sounds and sights of gender inequity will always be jarring and painful to me, now and always. As a man, I am sometimes supported and cheered by those who read and agree with my writings about the need for gender equality. Yet, I will also face snarky comments from friends and strangers. I've heard them in the past, "Oh you're so cute, you little feminist." I really don't care. This is what I am meant to do, to champion for pervasive and consistent gender equality.

I believe that men have an added responsibility in the fight for gender equality -- we are who we are because of women. The idea that the fight against gender inequality should be entirely shouldered by women is insulting because women simultaneously live their lives, champion the lives of men, and fight inequality. It's just unfair -- even the fight for gender equality is unbalanced.

I recently moved back to Los Angeles after a two-year stay in the Bay Area. As I was unpacking, I was filled with a sense of curiosity and nostalgia. My belongings were material reminders of what I used to love and how I used to think.

In the process of unpacking, I discovered a t-shirt I had not seen for some time, one that I ordered after one of my visits to my cousin in Madison. On the front it reads, "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like."

That shirt isn't a reminder of who I used to be; it is an emblem of who I am and who I always will be.

The difference is, I'm not going to forget this time.

This piece originally appeared on The Current Conscience..