When I think of feminism, I don’t exactly picture my South Asian father at the Women’s March wearing a pink “pussyhat.” Coming from a culture that is, in many ways, a few steps backwards in achieving gender equality; it is pretty remarkable how feminist my father is in the subtlest ways.
At face value, my dad is a traditional Punjabi, conservative and serious father who just wants the best for his daughter. He doesn’t identify as a feminist, he has never heard of “Lean In,” and probably thinks “He for She” is euphemism for transgender. Yet over the years, all of the guidance he has provided me and all of the choices he has made for me have all screamed feminism. The decisions he made in raising me would make Sheryl Sandberg proud; however, his behavior was never meant to work towards feminism or gender equality — it was just a great externality.
Perhaps because I am an only child, or because my father never had a son, he never raised me as a “girl.” He didn’t raise me as a tomboy, but everything I was exposed to was pretty gender neutral. In addition to dolls, I played with Legos, models and read so many books. As I got older, he taught me how to use power tools, check my car oil, manage my finances, and many other practical skills (by age 13 I could fix almost any fixture or appliance in the house). Like many other South Asian parents, he also pushed for math and science summer camps. Not because he wanted to get more women in STEM careers, but because he wanted me to have the best education and a secure financial future. He also drove me to ballet classes, critiqued my art, and bought me boxes of markers and crayons. I used to protest when he would insist on buying me jeans and hoodies instead of those pink dresses I longed for, but in hindsight am pretty grateful.
My dad also wanted me to be independent and insisted on teaching me how to do something rather than doing it for me. “Come, let me show you,” was a frequent phrase I heard growing up. I’ve heard so many of my friends (guys and girls) say, “Oh, my dad does that for me.” Whether it was moving to a new apartment, filing my taxes, or managing personal finance, my dad insisted that I learn the “basic life skills” on my own so I would never have to depend on anyone. I have picked up and moved to new cities multiple times because my dad taught me to be independent and fend for myself (though Dad was always a phone call away if I ever needed anything). I’ve never needed to depend on a boyfriend to move apartments, hire a Task Rabbit to assemble furniture or find the nerdy guys in my office to fix a computer bug.
Investing In Me
When I was deciding between graduate schools and anxious about how I would afford the tuition, my dad showed me a fairly large savings account he had built for me over the years. When I asked him what he had been saving all that money for he joked, “Oh, that was your wedding fund!” He was joking, but also not joking at the same time. Though I realize it’s the norm many South Asian families to save tens of thousands of dollars for their daughter’s wedding, it was actually the biggest compliment my father has given me. Saving so much money for my education showed me that my dad really believed in me and valued my education more than my nuptials. I think the emphasis on weddings in South Asian communities can be a bigger challenge in the fight for gender equality because that same emphasis isn’t placed on boys. What my father did is something more fathers should do for their daughters.
All of the lessons my dad has taught me or directions he has pushed me, in his mind, were in my best interest. He wasn’t trying to raise me to be a feminist or try something revolutionary; he just wanted his daughter to have the best future. By raising me to be independent and forcing me to learn to do everything on my own, he made me more confident. Whether in my career or personal life, I always aim high and very little seems out of reach. Being a girl has never been an excuse for falling short or not putting in 100% effort. So maybe being a father feminist means marching in a Womens’ Rally, maybe it means teaching a daughter instead of doing it for her, or maybe it’s just wanting the best for her and never seeing gender as an obstacle.
Devina Khanna is a California Bay Area native who lives in Washington, DC and works as an Analyst for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She has her Masters in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University and has an interest in financial literacy. When she’s not looking for the best brunch in town, she loves to explore new cities, maintain an active lifestyle and cheer on the Warriors and the 49ers.