Happy International Women's Day 2022!

If you are someone with a marginalized gender identity, I hope you can imagine me sitting down beside you, hand on your hand, and telling you this: The world is still learning and many people have not yet found it in their hearts to accept and meet our needs. And yet, I know for certain that our emotions, challenges, and dreams matter. We wholly matter — even the parts of us that are criticized for inconveniencing others or outside the bounds of “acceptable” behavior. 

Do you ever wonder what we owe our community or the inverse, what we the community owes us? 

Many of us could agree that at the minimum, humans owe each other respect. Similarly, I believe that we also owe each other the space to exist.

Let me tell you what I mean by that. When we make impactful decisions, share our opinions in public spaces, express our feelings to others, dress colorfully, enjoy ourselves, take up hobbies and passion projects, actively participate in social engagements, and occupy leadership roles, we are taking up space—and rightfully so! 

Just as every human is born with intrinsic worth, they are also born with the right to take up space, have needs, and live out loud, as long as they do not harm others in the process of doing so. 

Yet, I see from most women in my life that those with marginalized identities don’t seem to think it is okay for us to take up space. We instead believe, maybe subconsciously, that it would be overstepping our bounds to do so. This belief isn’t surprising to me because our society conditions us to believe that a woman’s primary role concerns tending to the needs of those around her. Her needs, feelings, and opinions are best left in the backseat, where they aren’t bothering anyone. 

These rigid gender roles are continually enforced by a number of things, including the way we normalize the brutal criticism of South-Asian girls and women by their own relatives and community members. 

To many people, a good woman is caring, always present to help, and does not make a fuss or ask for more. Isn’t that why our society is so quick to label women as “melodramatic,” “emotional,” and “overreacting”? Why else do I hear those words so often, describing my female friends, classmates, mother, grandmothers, aunts, myself, when we deign to express our struggles or needs? 

Our community and personal attitudes run in tandem, each feeding off each other to strengthen women’s beliefs that their needs matter less and people’s general beliefs that the women in their lives have a duty to care for them and meet their expectations, and not vice-versa. 

Art by Canadian artist Maria Qamar (Image Credit: @hatecopy)

Growing up, I was so used to seeing my mother cook for our family, take care of us in sickness, and manage our home that by high school, I had nearly forgotten that we too have a duty to care for her. I am ashamed that for so long, I never reflected on why I believed I could be owed all these wonderful things from my mom when I’d never quite witnessed her on the receiving end of all that care and support. Where was the reciprocation, the fairness, the equality of it all? 

When it comes to women’s attitudes toward themselves, I am most stricken by research in the field of self-compassion which examines people’s abilities to be compassionate, comforting, and supportive towards themselves—a skill that holds transformative mental and physical health benefits. Dr. Kristin Neff—a self-compassion pioneer, researcher, and author—coins the term “fierce self-compassion” to mean “saying ‘no’ to others who are hurting us, drawing our boundaries firmly; giving ourselves what we need to be fulfilled mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually; and motivating ourselves to reach our goals or make needed changes.” 

According to Dr. Neff, women’s motivation to show care and compassion towards others often eclipses their motivation to demonstrate that same consideration to themselves, leaving me wondering who is left to care about and make space for women’s needs if neither women themselves or their community members are doing so. 

Women have needs, just like everybody. Women deserve to voice their needs and to exist in safe spaces where they can assert themselves without being judged or demonized for being human.

I do not believe that the burden should rest on trans people and/or women to make society a safe and fair place for all genders. Our empowerment is adopting a fiercely self-compassion mental framework, one that gives us permission to set boundaries, express ourselves and our ideas, stop downplaying our needs and accomplishments.

We are beautiful, resilient, human, messy, awe-inspiring, and brave. And especially when there’s no particular international holiday to remind us of it. 

Malavika Eby is a first-year student at Swarthmore College and a youth ambassador at the Taarika Foundation. She is passionate about improving people’s social-emotional health as a tool to cultivate community-wide goodness, and you can find more of her work at teenselfcompassion.org.