Star-crossed lovers are a classic trope. The idea of two people bound by the most powerful force there is but held apart by the universe pulls at our heartstrings like few other things can. Orpheus and Eurydice were cruelly toyed with by the gods. Romeo and Juliet met their ends because of an unfair and over the top family feud. But some impossible fates are more impossible than others. Sometimes it isn’t irrational teenage lust and unnecessary dramatics that doom a love; sometimes it’s a painfully irreconcilable ideological clash.
I had very few men in my life when growing up. My family comprised of my mother, my sister, and my father. All of my friends were women. When I started to feel romantic attraction, it was a woman that I fell in love with first. My community was almost 100 per cent female and was certainly 100 per cent feminist. Feminist ideas were understood, accepted, and lived by. That is not to say I was not challenged; I debated open misogynists and woefully uninformed men and women in school on an almost daily basis. But they were never close to me. I never fell in love with one of them.
The first man I fell in love with was already a self-proclaimed feminist when I met him. He knew what ‘Feminism’ meant (wanting equality between men and women), and identified strongly with that idea. And like every person falling in love, I was too starry-eyed to care about or catch the microaggressions or misunderstandings. We had a fairytale, love song kind of love. It didn’t seem star-crossed from the start, quite the opposite; it seemed meant to be.
When we started dating more seriously, deeper conversations started to arise. We talked about our thoughts on family, politics, religion, and of course, Feminism. It was then that I started to realise that although he had the right basic ideas, his knowledge of women’s issues was relatively, but understandably, shallow; he attended a boys’ school where women’s rights were hardly central to his education. I was patient at first, happily explaining concepts like intersexuality and intrinsic bias. When we went on a date and the waiter didn’t even look at me before turning to my boyfriend to ask what I would eat, I explained microaggressions and why they are harmful even when they are unintended. I was glad to help him become a better feminist. It wasn’t until we began to tread into more difficult territory that I got tired of explaining.
It is my belief that as a woman, it is not my job to educate men about my rights. I bear enough of a burden in society already, constantly standing up to the challenges the patriarchy presents. If a man believes in equal rights for men and women, it is his responsibility to do research to fully understand the extent of female oppression and the many-headed monster that she is. And if he comes across another man who does not believe in gender equality, it is his responsibility to share what he knows. Expecting a woman to do the work of educating just reinforces the same harmful structures that the feminist movement is trying to subvert. There is no shortage of material for self-education in the area of women’s rights. Countless women have written about their own oppression for the exclusive purpose of spreading understanding. We can’t afford to keep saying the same things again and again because a man isn’t willing to change his thoughts or behaviour unless he gets a privately tailored lesson.
Our first big argument about Feminism came when my boyfriend told me that that women could be sexist against men. To me, it was obvious that the power structures in place in our society make it impossible for women being prejudiced against men to have a significant effect, but they allow the situation in reverse to be incredibly harmful. I was tired of being the teacher, so I asked him to go research it himself. That started a spiral about the responsibility of women to men in the feminist movement. Things got progressively worse until eventually I gave him an ultimatum. Either do the research and come around to my way of thinking, or leave. Sexism had too real an impact on me and Feminism was too fundamental to who I was for me to accept anything else.
Anytime there is an imbalance of power in a relationship, problems are likely to arise. But when a woman dates a man, the power imbalance is guaranteed. In fact, anytime a marginalised person dates a non-marginalised person, society makes sure that they are not on equal ground. But there are too many happy and successful relationships of that kind for them all to be as star-crossed and ill-fated as mine seemed.
I never questioned why I didn’t have to debate with my father about women’s rights growing up. He accepted all the concepts and ideologies central to the feminist movement. More than that, he taught many of them to me. But my father has never been the type to self-educate. I knew it could not have been self-determination that led him to his enlightened state. My experience with the man I loved provided me with something of an epiphany: the reason I didn’t have to educate my father about Feminism is because my mother did it before I could. My mother is an endlessly patient woman, and when she married my father she knew that she would have to shoulder a lot of the burden of educating him. I was frustrated when this realisation hit, irritated that she made that sacrifice. As a Lebanese American woman in a male-dominated field, she would face enough challenges in her life. But she loved my father and it was her choice to make. She was in position of the facts. She understood the unequal terrain of society and she chose to be his teacher.
I am a staunch activist and the writer of a Feminist column. Not every woman shares my strict ideological perspective. In fact, there are some women who do not identify as feminist at all, and that choice lies entirely in their hands. Sometimes, love is more important. There are, of course, those who would look down on a woman that did not put herself and her rights first in a relationship, but choosing to make sacrifices or to uphold traditionally female roles does not betray the cause. It actually supports it. Feminism is about liberating women to think and act independently and to make their own decisions. If a woman falls in love with someone who won’t educate themselves, or even with someone who doesn’t identify as feminist at all, if it is what she chooses it is no one’s place to question her judgement.
When I think back to the hard line I drew with my boyfriend, I don’t regret it. It was important to me that he prove that he wanted to be a better feminist and part of that was proving he could educate himself and other men, and he did. He took his time, and it would be unfair to say that he changed his mind simply to stay with me. My hard stance woke him up to the seriousness of the situation, but it was his own willingness to change that gave us a future. I think perhaps that is another reason why there are so many successful relationships between feminists and non-feminists, and everything in between. People change. People grow and become better, and it is often their relationships that push them to make those positive changes. If I had listened to the ‘women don’t have to educate men’ mentality for the entirety of my relationship, I would have missed out on one of the best things in my life. Ideologies, even ones as intimate as Feminism, should guide action, not govern it. It’s challenging to be in a relationship with someone you know society places above you. My love was briefly star-crossed because of my own beliefs, but loving one’s oppressor does not have to have a tragic end.