To one of the most inspiring women I know: Akira Imai

When I think about being a woman and about the women I admire, it is hard not to consider also the origins of the stereotypes that come with such consideration. What do terms like “strength”, “beauty” and “success” mean when applied to a woman?

This reminds me of my 2014 visit to the New York Museum of Natural History where I first learned about the Semai, a semi sedentary ethnic group living in the center of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia, known for their non-violence. According to the Museum’s didactics, the Semai have no separate ideals for women versus men, and no tasks that are strictly for women or men.

The idea that a society could be organized without any regard for gender differences was astonishing to me since I grew up believing that boys and girls were so fundamentally different that we are even made up of different materials — X chromosomes, Y chromosomes, estrogen, testosterone, sugar, spice and everything nice, etc. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I believed that men and women would always be limited in our ability to “completely” understand each other because “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” Our gender roles were thus justified.

Then I met Akira.

Photo courtesy of Akira Imai

Akira came out as a transgender woman despite growing up in a conservative Japanese-Canadian family and working in one of the most patriarchal industries at the time (legal). As I did my best to adjust to Akira’s new identity during her transition, I was humbled to discover how inadequate my prior assumptions really were and how they unfortunately informed my everyday actions and decisions.

Through Akira, I was inspired to reconsider my prejudices about “the other side” and indeed, even about my own “side”. What do “strength”, “beauty” and success mean when applied to a woman? What do they mean when applied to a man? Why should they be different? Why should be the same?

These and related questions lead me back to the Semai and their approach to social organization. While there have been many studies exploring the connection between peaceful societies and gender equality, I am most curious about ways in which those of us living in the patriarchal West might be able to evolve.

Interestingly, one of the Semai’s conflict resolution strategies include the use of a formal meeting, called a bcaraa’, wherein each party simply talks until they run out of steam and everyone is exhausted. This is usually also accompanied by long lectures about the importance of group solidarity, mutual dependence and peace. According to the Peaceful Societies, these meetings could go on for hours. While such a method may or may not be easily integrated into our society, I think the concept may not be entirely off-mark.

Akira’s story made me realize that I will always be limited by the fact that I am not the other – whether they are male, female, black, yellow or purple. This however should not prevent me from appreciating the uniqueness that each individual represents and how inseparable we all are. In short, I learned that no matter what the situation, the best way to understand or relate to one another is to really listen. By listening, we might discover new ways of thinking that challenge our assumptions. Considering how deep-rooted our biases can be, this is not as easy as it may seem but for the sake of humanity, it is probably worth it.

So for this International Women’s Day, I’d like to thank Akira for inspiring me to redefine what it means to be female, and perhaps even more importantly, what it means to be human.

To read more about Akira’s story, check out her website: https://akira-imai.squarespace.com/.