by Mona Saleh
This was a simple list for me: 1.) Medical student 2.) Sister 3.) Feminist 4.) Woman
My (White, male) partner looked at my list and nonchalantly stated, “I think you have too many woman-things on there. Maybe you’re too much of that.”
This struck me so hard. This exercise was intended for me to express who I am. I am the only one who can define that—who was this classmate to mansplain to me who I am and who I should be? What gives him that right? I told him that I had no intention of changing who I was or what my list included for him, and the exercise went on without further incident.
I really hadn’t grown into myself as a person until I was 22 and in my first year of medical school. It was the first time I had lived away from home, and up until then, there were certain things that I just didn’t feel entitled to. For instance, I did not think I was entitled to happiness. Of course, I could see people around me being happy, and it looked like a nice thing, but I just didn’t think it was for me. I didn’t think I was entitled to freedom or liberation. My parents raised me extremely strictly, so much so that I had only ever made a very limited number of big decisions in my life before medical school. One of them was to attend NYU for medical school and finally live independently. I didn’t know what it was like to make my own life choices and truly define myself. This is not to blame my parents; they themselves are a product of a very traditional, patriarchal culture that does not ascribe total “human-ness” to women. Perhaps they never saw me as someone who could be trusted to make her own decisions. Perhaps there were many reasons for why they raised me the way they did, but one thing is for sure: it was one confusing childhood. The thing I realized was that as a girl and as a woman in my house and in my larger culture, I could not be too much of anything. For example, when I was a child I was very studious (and still am). This was because school was the only thing my parents did not say “no” to. I could attend school and go to the library as often as I wanted. So I dove in. I read everything and took the hardest classes. I was always studying. Often, my father would see me studying or doing homework as a middle schooler and tell me to stop studying and focusing on school so much. (I didn’t listen). If there was a time when I was smiling or laughing, my father would ask me suspiciously why I was laughing so much. If I was even a little bit upset or showed any negative emotion, my father would tell me I was crazy and complicated. So I think as a woman you’re just supposed to be exactly in the middle all the time: not too smart and not too stupid, not too happy and not too sad, not to pretty and not too ugly. You’re supposed to be just moderate enough in everything to never really be noticed. You’re not really supposed to have any personality to speak of. Other than being a bookworm and proud feminist (which I discovered when I was 18), I tried to fit this “everything in moderation” characteristic as much as I could. I had very little personality to speak of. Basically, I loved my brother, I loved my studies, I loved women’s empowerment, and that was it.
Needless to say, when I moved into my own apartment at the start of medical school, I had no idea what to put on the walls. In my room, I had a bed, a desk, a mirror, my clothes, and my books. It was a clean enough room, but it was so impersonal that it could have belonged to a man. When I would go to the rooms of my friends, I would see posters of items they cared, about and the rooms would always be uniquely them. My walls were bland for several years, but one day I found a canvas of flowers I really liked. So I bought it. And I put it up on my wall. And I felt so liberated. I felt like I am empowered and liberated enough to find a canvas that reflects my personality and put it up on my walls. I feel that this may be something others take for granted, but it is truly an act of resistance for me to have a personality and plaster it everywhere I can. I found another piece soon after: a framed cover of the New Yorker that showed a young woman with many, many flowers coming out of her hair. It’s on my wall now. Decorating may sound so simple to others, but to me, being able to decorate means that you have a personality and are expressing it. For so long, I really did not have a personality, so of course, I could not express it. So of course, my walls were bare.
Now, however, my personality has finally flourished. At 25, I can finally say that I have a clear idea of who I am. It is still those 4 things I wrote down during that workshop a few years ago, but now, I am so much better at expressing this personality. I have pictures and happiness and freedom and liberation now. I feel entitled to basic feelings and emotions now.
I have to thank those feminist authors I read in college for first giving me the absurd idea that I am a human being who is entitled to a full range of experience. Audre Lorde, Betty Friedan, and Angela Carter: My personality is a product of your writing. If it wasn’t for feminism, I would literally be nobody. I have very few regrets regarding what I did during medical school. Going back to that workshop, I do have a small regret. After my classmate basically told me that I should be less of who I am, I wish I had taken back the list I wrote, crossed everything out, and written this: “1.) Feminist 2.) Feminist 3.) Feminist 4.) Feminist.”