“You should write an article on what it’s like to date a feminist,” I tell K.
He laughs. “You know, I sometimes forget you are a feminist,” he says to me. “Until you say something and then I remember, oh right, she is an ultra feminist. It’s just not the first thing I think about when I think about you.”
“It’s not my primary identity.”
“It’s not your primary identity.”
Friend X asks Friend Y why she doesn’t join the Feminist Book Club meetings. “Is it because they’re too feminist?” she asks knowingly.
“I’m not a feminist,” she tells me over coffee. “I’m a Muslim.”
“No, no!” Prof Y says. “We are a progressive faculty! A man may be the head, but the power behind the throne is the woman.” He is speaking, jocularly, about the two female clerks. “They are the most important people here, and they are women! Their work is invisible and necessary. We are in awe of them.”
A woman’s work is a noble sacrifice. A man’s work is paid.
I am new to the faculty, fresh from a PhD. “Girl,” Prof X says to me. I forget the rest of what he said to me then. I have not, seven years later, forgotten being called “girl”.
What is “too feminist”? Feminism – the word – is fearful. It means anti-feminine; the loud women, the dragon-ladies and lady bosses. It means too feminine: the women who wear “too much makeup”, bold red lips and thick black wings. It means both: the women who sport pixie cuts and steel stilettoes. Woman and too woman at the same time. The manrepeller women. The ones who don’t know that men prefer the natural no-makeup look; soft and simple, pink and fair, slim and small. It is the women without husbands, who seem not to mind not having husbands.
Too feminist means secular Western liberalism. It means the Muslim women who don’t wear tudong, who go free-hair and question the hadiths that were told to them in Ugama school by male teachers who talked about sex and then maybe touched them in mengaji classes. It means the women who talk about equal rights as if Islam hasn’t elevated women already. Corrupted by the West. Ajaran sesat. Dear sister. I advise you because I care about you. I love you. I want you to be like me. I am scared because you are not.
Is too feminist a mother, who wants her daughter to move freely in this world, without the fear that dogged her own movements? Physical fear – of men. Social fear – of what people would say. People, always the fear of people and not God.
Is too feminist a wife who knows her rights – to nafkah, to pleasure, to a home of her own – as well as her duties?
Is too feminist the teacher who sees in her classroom the way that the girls, thirteen fourteen fifteen, talk about being married by twenty one and helping with the chores at home, and the boys, thirteen fourteen fifteen, talk about not liking this kind of girl and that kind of girl. The boys’ approval is a crown bestowed on the pretty, the non-threatening. But a small crown. Not the kind that they wear themselves, grown into and out of their skulls, a part of their bone and birthright. A crown they’ve been told so many times is there that they can all but see it. Not that kind of crown. But a pretty, glittering tiara, so delicate and dainty that it might fall off if you moved too fast or too much. If you breathed wrong.
What is too feminist? Where is the line, what is it? That tips a woman over from being feminist to too feminist? The “too” takes it from reasonable to extreme. Too feminist is too much. Too too too.
Names are powerful. To agree to a name is to own and be owned by it. I am Bruneian. (too Bruneian). I answer only to God. (too Muslim). I am a feminist. (too feminist)
Any kind of feminist is too feminist to those who are scared.
Any kind of strength is too strong to those who are weak.
K forgets I am a feminist, because we don’t label the people we love. To the people we love, we are not types or adjectives but entireties. Galaxies.
I am a feminist; I am also a Muslim and a scholar and a Bruneian. All of these identities inform each other and the way I move in this world. They cannot be divorced from each other: I am a feminist because I am a Muslim and a scholar and a Bruneian. I am a Muslim because I am a feminist and a scholar and a Bruneian. Endless permutations.
My adjectives cannibalize each other. They become compost and grow out of their own discarded, earthworm-turned, rich soil. I orient myself by the values of all of my identities combined and mixed and thought about. I own and am owned by the names I choose.
I choose feminist; too feminist is chosen for me. Too is always an external act, insisting on a frame for a vast and unknowable picture that doesn’t need cropping. Too is the lens that makes a square out of a landscape, deciding and directing what stays outside the photograph.
In the end, to be anything is to be too to someone else. That’s as it should be. All of us are, ultimately, too immense for anyone else to understand entirely. We can only choose how to define our own “too”s. We can choose to live within the frames chosen by others, or we can choose to explode those frames and build our own.
I was always going to be too, if I was going to be anything at all.