My mother fell pregnant five times, four of which she thought she was going to give birth to girls. Instead, she had four healthy boys. Funnily enough, the only time she believed was carrying a boy inside her, I was born. Fortunately, I was born in Portugal, a country where birth is celebrated regardless of the baby’s gender. However I did spend most of my childhood being punished for coming back home with beautiful homemade dresses torn apart, and blood-stained.
My father trained a football team for which my oldest brother was the captain and my youngest brother was the mascot. Our house was always filled with boys and I had to keep reminding my father that it wasn’t fair to treat his only daughter differently than all of them. If the boys could play football, so could I — even if I sucked at it or came back home covered in bruises. When I got a little older and my period showed up, it was inconvenient in the face of my tomboy-ness, so I decided to just keep it a secret. I realized then that I wasn’t genderless — I’d have to keep coming up with new arguments in order to do whatever the boys did. Despite the paradox, I didn’t see myself as a feminist, sexist, or anything else that finished in “ist.”
Twelve years later, I stood in Mexico City for the first time, waiting for the women-only subway car — a trend that started in Tokyo in 2000 and was adopted in Mexico’s capital city in 2008, alongside India, Iran, Egypt, Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, Israel and Taiwan. And while other countries still demanded women-only cars to protect them from possible sexual harassment, other countries used them to reinforce institutional segregation. When the subway stopped, a large group of women pushed me and elbowed me across the carriage and I stood with my back against the opposite door. Different scents of perfume and makeup filled the hot air. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was laying in the Caribbean. But two stops later, I decided to push my way out of my imaginary world and into the mixed carriage. As I walked in, the men — and a few couples — quickly squished close together creating a big circle around me. It was a different world.
Later, I was led by curiosity to visit a Hari Krishna community in Ecuador. When I arrived, I was warmly invited to participate in a women’s circle that same night. More than ten women, most of them from European countries, sat around a fire pit in the forest under the cover of the night. During the gathering, they spoke about many women-related issues: life, love, and periods. In the end, we were told to thank the people who were important to us and share with the group why. Most of the women present thanked their mothers or the other strong and inspiring women they’d met. When my turn came, I looked at the flames and thanked my brothers for being a part of my life. The applause dimmed. I realised it wasn’t suitable to mention the men I missed the most in a women’s circle, this was a place where women celebrated menstruations. I didn’t really know what to think, until I arrived in Bolivia.
On my first day, as a colourful red and blue sky welcomed an Argentine fellow traveller and me to Isla del Sol, we saw two women hunched and carrying big bags filled with produce on their backs. One of them was around my mother’s age, the other was clearly too old to be working in the fields. We caught up with them and asked if they wanted us to share the load. The younger woman agreed that we could carry her mother’s load. As I placed one of the sacs over my back, I felt the weight pulling me down, it was heavy. But even without the bags the old woman carried on walking hunched, staring at the ground. She was unable to stand up straight, even without the weight of her bag. The men of the family were back in town charging foreigners a fee for entering the island. I joined her in staring at the trail and stopped asking questions. I wasn’t sure if feminism was needed in the subway in Mexico, or in the middle of the Ecuadorian jungle, but it seemed that those women clearly needed a women’s circle of their own in Bolivia.
When I landed in Morocco — the first Muslim country I had ever visited — where men typically work and women still stay at home looking after their children, things became clearer. During my first hours in Marrakech, I rebelliously accepted a free ride on the back of motorbike of a Moroccan English teacher.
Days later I asked him, “What’s the worst thing about your country?”
The answer surprised me. “Women,” he said.
I initially asked myself if this was just a strange way of trying to seduce a foreigner, but as I carried on asking questions, I found out he wasn’t alone.
Many Moroccan men thought that women, despite nationality, were out of bounds. They were supposedly money-grabbing beings who waited patiently to marry in order to turn their husbands into money-making slaves who would satisfy their selfish needs. While many single women confirmed that they didn’t feel respected by men, men were cheeky and would only speak to women if they had a “goal” in mind. I wondered, what if men and women just spoke to each other to figure themselves out? What if they just sat down and had a chat?
Travelling showed me that the inequalitarian world I was brought up in extended far beyond my cradle. And every time an effort was made to empower a specific group — to teach them about their rights and what they should demand recognition for — it just led to selective equality. Equality for that specific group, but not equality and understanding as a whole. This is something that goes beyond gender, into politics, religion, education, and sexual orientation. Men are not better and we, woman, are not special. A good Muslim is not better than a good Christian, or vice versa. The people who wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights knew it. There is a vast space to grow in our uniqueness and complexity, and the only way everyone can stand up straight is to turn our differences into strengths. That’s what makes us exceptional, being human, able to learn, to understand, and to grow from all “isms” into one: equalism.