A Room of My Own
By Meril Mousoom
Join me on this four-year journey to become the Meril I am now.
I’m balancing three plates at once, wearing my Salwar Kameez, struggling to serve food to the men at the table. The upcoming protest needs all hands on deck—the hands of men, as per Bengali custom. Intuitively understanding I don’t belong, I exit the men’s room.
My Salwar Kameez grants me entry into the kitchen, the women’s room. Amid the family party preparations, I’m surrounded by a sea of aunts and grandmothers, whose dresses, like mine, have thousands of embroidered sequins in true Bengali fashion. Yet, I feel like an imposter. The women around me have walked the well-worn path of child marriage, dropping out of high school to become housewives.
I’m dressed like them, but I dream of transcending the confines of the two rooms. I want to be with the men. Not as a server, but as an organizer. To be seen as a capable mind, not a beautiful dress. My mouth opens, yearning to bring politics into the women’s room.
“If I was your father, I would have married you off already!” an auntie interrupts. “You look beautiful in your Salwar Kameez,” she adds, scanning my prepubescent body. Here, I’m just another woman, and I can’t hide my shame. My mouth closes and my cheeks redden. I remain silent, despite the voice inside screaming, “This is not who I am.” I struggle to find someone—anyone—like me. But if I’m not a woman, what am I?
A year later, I’m closer to figuring that out. I’m balancing three pamphlets at my gender justice advocacy program. While I took the job to support my family, I’m devouring articles about gender identity.
As the meeting starts, I look around the room. At 13, I’m the youngest of the dozen high school- and college-aged women of color. Among the drab beige walls of the conference room, their colorful conversation and personalities perk me up. But in a room of inspiring activists, I feel like an imposter once more.
A few weeks and many pamphlets later, with the group’s support, I’m emboldened. I start speaking.
Everything comes spilling out: worries about graduating high school, escaping child marriage, forever being relegated to the women’s room. The applause and affirmation that follow my story make it clear that activism is the space for me. The canyon between the rest of the room and me shrinks as I discover that I belong here. I can make change like these women of color.
The next four years certainly proved it. My passion for equity has brought me in front of the NYC Chancellor of Education, lobbying him to address school sexual assault; into the pages of the New York Times, covering the plan I created with peers for an inclusive pandemic school reopening; and onto the Zoom screens of classmates whom I’m mentoring on how to testify for the citywide Panel for Educational Policy. I have even founded an organization, PoliFem, to educate young people on local politics.
This passion brought me to the thing I’m the most proud of. After many meetings with a state senator, a petition, and a town hall I organized, I convinced him to support a bill—helping ensure its success—that funds New York State schools by an additional $4.53 billion dollars annually.
I also finally found the word that describes who I really am: nonbinary.
Fast forward to fall of 2019; I’m at a police-free school protest I planned. I wear something I used to despise: my Salwar Kameez. I face the crowd of thousands, fully inhabiting my first-generation-nonbinary-Bengali-American skin. The host misgenders me, assuming that I am a “girl.” I correct them, “Dresses weren’t made just for girls, I wear this because I’m Bengali.”
I realize that the personal is profoundly political. I have not settled for bringing politics into the women’s room. I have made my own room, for nonbinary people of color and others with intersectional identities.
I wrote this biographical piece and then worked extensively with my mentor on the editing process. After a number of rounds to refine I believe it provides insight into who I am and my fundamental beliefs—a slice of my life!
Meril Mousoom is a high school senior. Their interests include activism, journaling, and dancing. They have a love of op-eds and The New York Times. Outside of politics, Meril also loves to indulge in Korean pop music!