Educational

WE DID IT! SAATHICHITHOM! – A 21-Year Journey and Its Final Release

Saathichithom

Yesterday, I was privileged to graduate as a PhD (again), at a special first-of-its kind ceremony organized by the British High Commission and British Council for local graduates. It was a powerful moment of closure for me, and whilst I was so incredibly happy to have both my parents in attendance and a glorious day — deep emotions were working through me.

My educational journey has been an unusual one to say the least. I was intellectually advanced as a young toddler – reading materials that were 6, sometimes 9 years ahead of my reading group. My older brother was the same. Amma (Mum) knew how to stimulate our brains and whet our appetites for knowledge. If the natural aptitude that I or my brother had was a seed, Amma’s nurturing was the fertile soil in which it could sprout, and Appa’s (Dad’s) confidence the sunshine it needed.

When I eventually began kindergarten and primary school, a lot of the glowing self-confidence and the natural aptitude for self-study I had was dimmed, but not entirely snuffed out. Issues of race plagued my early years, with teachers going out of their way to humiliate me for my aptitude ‘despite’ my dark skin and Tamil identity. The administration saw fit to deny me the yearly prizes children would receive (for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place) despite my having top marks. All on the grounds that other parents complained that ‘a Tamil girl could have never beaten my son/daughter [gradeswise]’.

My mother of course, challenged the ruling by fighting like a tigress on my behalf. She never used coarse language, or raised her voice – but challenged the treatment I received with eloquent words, with facts and undeniable, documented, evidence.

I recall one formative experience, where I was late from my tae-kwon-do class (organized as part of school curricula) and had no time to change back into my school uniform. The teacher decided she would lock me out, stop what the class was doing and get the entire class to laugh and jeer at me, staring through the window. One of the kids was a boy whom the teacher regularly allowed to bully and utterly traumatize me each day – with some kind of plastic blade. She knew about it, and let it happen. All this when I was in Grade 1, so I was 6-7 years old.

Each year was a battle, my mother had to fight like a tigress, with my dad’s support just so I would get fair treatment. My brother had been through a similar experience, but his was a state-run school, and so my parents (at that time) had little recourse to methods of protest.

It was a very challenging childhood. Intense bullying. Psychological scars, a complete devastation of my self-esteem and I could not even imagine myself as beautiful.

My grades eventually slipped, and the bullying was less. I wasn’t the best in classes anymore, and a part of my identity just went into hiding from all of that pressure. There were literally – no other choices that my family could have made at the time.

When I was 11, I finished primary school (Grade 6) and announced to my parents that I would no longer be attending. They knew what I could do, and supported my decision. I then started a very dedicated, purely focused phase in my life completely committed to my education. That journey took me across several different continents.

I never really took in it, or saw it as a special achievement – till yesterday.

For me, it was just an act of survival and self-preservation. I had to find a way to be myself. It wasn’t an ideological statement or the ego’s desire for grand gestures – it was literally the only way I could survive without being crushed entirely.

Summarizing a few years, I essentially completed 6 years of secondary school education with self-tutelage in less than a year. Attempting to study at other institutions brought back the race issue (it’s there if you’re at the top and are outspoken), and, caused severe conflicts with the university administration. My political consciousness was awakening, my voice was emerging and I was no longer going to be silent.

During this time, I had my IQ tested and it was found to be at the genius-level (top 2%) when I was 12 and, later, at 15. I independently sat for and completed my O Levels at 13, did my American SATs (1 & 2), TOEFL and ACT.

We didn’t have help. All I had was my family and the Blessings of the Divine. We had no special connections, no favours, no hand-ups. Nothing. Everything was a battle, everything was a struggle. But we did it.

At 16 (in 2003), after a few years of social work with my father and emerging in my own right as the youngest trainer in the country, I finally went overseas. My political awareness needed an environment where speech was truly free. I went to the USA on my first scholarship, unaccompanied. There, I began with Physics (which was my first love as a child) and switched to Political Science. This was through the gifted teachings of Professor Benson Onyeji at Manchester College (now Manchester University). He introduced me to the histories of colonialism, the language of repression, the political economy of dependency. And the Model UN

I then left for International University Bremen (now Jacobs University Bremen) in Germany. I finished 3 years of an already accelerated program in 2 years by taking double the courseload and having a very full, active, student life. It was this time, I actually began to notice that – I was actually beautiful. I had my first experiences of organizing campus-wide petitions and more structured approaches to engaging with campus administration. I discovered I could paint and dance and play. And that was wonderful.

At 19, I graduated with my Bachelor’s in International Politics and History (a President’s List Scholar) and received a merit-based scholarship and Research Assistantship with Prof. Markus Jachtenfuchs at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin. I had to leave the program two months after it began primarily due to illness in the family. I spent some time in India and Malaysia, and when all had settled down enough – out of the blue – I got accepted to begin my PhD, despite not having a Master’s. It was very unusual at that time.

Professor Shirin M. Rai at the University of Warwick (UK) had a visionary idea – to study aspects of ceremony and ritual in Parliaments, through a gendered lens. Having spent time in India, I sent a letter of interest and she wanted to have me on board. I got that confirmation on September 14th, 2007. And so another leg of the journey began, this time funded by the Leverhulme Trust – the one of the largest providers of grants for research in the UK.

I was 20 and I remember seeing a magpie on the way from Manchester Airport. And a whole new chapter in my life began. Through that journey, I would be standing at the House of Lords, the Indian Parliament, the Romanian Parliament, speaking at various universities/conferences and evolving through to the next phase of my life.

I was seriously ill for a great part of my PhD, and I fought through it. I faced some of the hardest challenges in my life to-date, physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. And looking back at it all now – I wonder how I did it.

My PhD was passed with minor corrections – I remember the examiners being overjoyed – one them said, during the viva ‘thank you for writing this’. I did ask her about it later, and she said she meant it, she really felt I did good work. (I am my harshest critic … so hearing that meant a lot). In its final version, my thesis was 111,000 words and I could barely lift it. I remember submitting it, and it was about as heavy as a newborn. I had just turned 25.

Through the 5 years I spent in the UK, I learnt so much. I began to expand and blossom in so many ways through utterly debilitating circumstances. I made deep friendships and set sail for a new trajectory in my life.

When I had my actual graduation at the University of Warwick in 2013, race was an issue again. And that graduation felt as though I was in a battlefield, once more. Because the PhD gown was so markedly different from the other undergraduates’, I got started at sharply in a very unpleasant way – it wasn’t just one person, quite a few people did and those with me noticed it. I didn’t understand why … till one of the parents went out of her way to make it clear.

In the most condescending way possible, she wanted to know whether ‘I had problems with English’ and whether ‘I had borrowed the gown’ – she was unhappy her son didn’t have it. I didn’t get why she was asking me such strange questions at the time, but I managed to deflect it politely.

Friends I have mentioned this to were utterly scandalized by it, as was someone working within the University. I don’t think it’s a representative experience, but it did happen. And I am so grateful I did not have to go through that alone, but I cannot say that it was a pleasant experience.

My parents were sadly not able to be there, but my mentor was – and my supervisor also arrived just in time for me to emerge from the gowning – a very key rite of passage.

I didn’t have that feeling or sense of achievement. I felt weary. Weary that thousands of miles away, I was still the unwanted Tamil girl who couldn’t be allowed to be her best without someone trying to put her in her place. Not that I let them, but I had hoped I wouldn’t have to face it again, after so many years.

A year later, when I received an invitation for another graduation ceremony, to celebrate the achievements of local graduates who had their PhDs from the UK – I snapped up the opportunity instantly. My parents could of course, attend!

So yesterday, I had those big moments. The ones I yearned for. My dad was waiting for me with his camera as I stepped out of the gowning. My mum and dad were so proud. And it was a relaxed environment. People were celebrating one another, rather trying to put anyone down. I could hold my head up high. And any looks I got were of mutual recognition (of achievement) or happy admiration as part of a festive occasion.

But I wasn’t celebrating. I felt heavy with the weight of release … of a wound I’d held so close to me, deep within for 21 years.

The idea that my skin made me less worthy. That it meant I could never achieve anything. That I was ugly. That I was never going to be celebrated for who I was.

That wound finally healed yesterday.

I was waiting to get gowned again, and I realized the significance of this ceremony in my life, and the complete release that it was giving me, at long last. Taking it all in, I could barely stand. My legs felt weak, but I took a deep breath and kept going on.

My achievements – whilst I’m cognitively aware of them – are never ones that I really celebrated or took deep pride in. I was happy, but I never thought of them as big things.

Standing in a crowd of my peers, as the only dark-skinned woman in a saree, with that much coveted PhD plush hat and shimmering robe … I knew this was a lot more than being ‘just about me’.

It was an act of Representation. For my family, for the Tamil community in which I am a public figure, for every dark skinned child who has ever had their soul crushed through prejudice. I represent the undeniable statement – of YES, WE CAN.

I say we because I could not have done any of this alone. I worked like a machine through all those years – but this is not the achievement of just one person. But of many.

I couldn’t have done this without the upbringing I had, my parents’ emotional support, and also financially when scholarships did not cover it all. Not without the opportunities that people who had faith in me gave me. Opportunities to prove myself. To do something. Not without the Grace of the Divine and its Blessings. Not without friends whom I consider family.

And so, after a day of ceremony and an evening of celebration with my parents, as I lay in my bed, I finally released the emotions I’d been holding so close to my chest for 21 years. And I fell asleep crying, saying these words over and over again…

Thank you. We did It!

And In Tamil:

Saathichithom!

~ Dr. Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD

THE LESSONS OF MISUNDERSTANDING by Priestess Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD

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A test of spiritual maturity and self-understanding occurs each time you are misread, misrepresented, misunderstood. Whether it be by strangers, friends, family members, kindred spirits and/or members of your Soul Tribe.

As you go through the world, spreading your messages, embodying your Essence, you are heard. But what is understood may be something wholly different. For we respond to who we think we speak to, not so much the person sitting right next to us.

Especially as human interactions are increasingly interfaced and facilitated by technology, it is wise to remember that very often – we are speaking to _our_ representation, or mental construct of a person – in our own heads, as opposed to who they are as an energetic being in embodied form.

That representation is layered by our assumptions, pre-conceptions, mis-conceptions and experiences of reality, it is filtered through our perspectives and tastes. So very often, that image you have of someone as you speak to them – says a lot more about you, than who they may actually be.

Cue Projection!

When this happens, smile. Try to clarify your position. Try to make your stance clear.

Getting into a fight, taking it personally – it helps no one, it achieves no thing. Accusing the other person of ‘How could You?’ doesn’t really do much either.

The best you can do is speak with clarity, and hope for the best. If one is intent upon misunderstanding you, there is little you can do about it.

Their battle is with the ‘you’ in their head and what that means to them – an internal process of mirroring, and not being pleased with one’s reflection.

Try to avoid judging them or labeling their responses to you as ‘good’, ‘bad’ – or even feeling the need to take it personally. For they’re not actually ‘attacking’ you, just parts of themselves they have not yet fallen in love with.

And for the love of all things Divine, stay as You Are
To Thyself Stay True!
For in the end, it wasn’t really about you anyway

Blessings To All, Keep Smiling Amidst The Storm,
Priestess Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD
www.bairaveebalasubramaniam.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image Information: By Stefan Krause, Germany (Own work) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

Learn On Your Own: How To Be An Autodidact

via The Mid-Atlantic Lounge.

I like it. I live by it ❤

THE HIDDEN WOMAN: FACE-WORK IN SOUTH ASIA

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A face is more that the sum of our features – the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, lips, etc. It is the the way we present ourselves to the world in an immediately recognizable form. During my PhD I learnt a lot about ‘face-work’ as presented by Erving Goffman, an American sociologist. I shall discuss the concept of ‘face-work’ with the social status and treatment of women in South Asia through selected examples. This is not meant to be a universally representative view of how all women present themselves, or ought to, in the region.

Societies across the globe have signified the importance of the face in cultural idioms, traditions, and even targeted acts of gendered violence (some of which overlap with one another). For example, to ‘save face’ has nothing to do with protecting the features on the front of your head – it refers to protecting your integrity, honor and perceived identity from being torn apart.

Faces are the masks, or personas (not meant to imply inauthenticity) through which we project our essence, intent and moods to other people. Our smiles, our gaze, our looks reflect how confident, powerful and beautiful we feel about ourselves (or not) – and that has little to do with the shape of our features – those associations are often socially conditioned. Others interpret who or what we are on the basis of what faces we wear or exhibit to them.

For instance, one shows a different face at home, than they do to their boss at work. The features are exactly the same, but the identity that is projected to them, differs.

When it comes to women, the restrictions placed upon the kinds of faces they are expected to wear in public/private/cultural spaces and on the use of the face as a means to destroy one’s honor or reputation speaks volumes as to their societal status.

In particularly conservative cultures, showing a woman’s face is forbidden in public spaces – they are veiled (the Hindu women in the picture are wearing ghungats), or – as in some Hindu courtly traditions – kept in a zenana, hidden from view. The veiling or hiding of the female face is not exclusive to any one religion or culture.

When faces are the means by which we present ourselves to one another as social creatures – what does it mean when women’s faces are not even allowed to exist, to be seen publicly? Without a face, you have no identity to which social status, dignity, honor, prestige can even be afforded to. You are immediately erased or ignored in the public sphere.

In South Asia, the practice of throwing acid onto a woman’s face goes well beyond disfiguring her so ‘no one will want her’ – typically by a jilted would-be lover whom she may have zero interest in. Damaging her face is a powerful tool to make her feel ashamed of herself for daring to reject a male suitor. I have heard, so far, of virtually no cases in which women (unless they are related to the men concerned) doing this to one another at all. It is a cruel form of punishment that permanently that seeks to distort the essence or identity of the ‘face’ the women will wear for the rest of her life.

So – Working both ways, the face is not just an expression of essence, but whatever happens to it affects the way we see ourselves in a profound way. When it is erased, or disfigured, so too (rightly or wrongly) is one’s self-perception of who they are and how they perceive others to see them. Coming  back from such trauma and presenting one’s self to the world is … nothing short of pure heroi(ne)ism.

This reliance on ‘face’ is shown in even in cultural idioms: If one has, particularly in a traditional society, committed a social transgression, one might say: So-and-so has no shame, showing their face in this place. Similarly, someone who has been shamed may say: I can’t possibly show my face there.

If a woman has had premarital sex, experienced sexual assault or violation or chooses to marry someone from a different caste or religion – her mother might say: What have you done – your father can’t show his face in public anymore? (Note the attachment to the male body and its status in the public sphere)

There is a dual meaning here: The literal, physical face is associated directly with the symbolic status or imagined identity of the person whose head it sits. Two, that shame is one of the most powerful forms of social conditioning as it is directly linked to something as intimately connected to our identities as our symbolic/literal faces.

The importance of ‘face-work’ and its specific, gendered, vulnerabilities/mechanisms of control of the female form and identity – are not relics of so-called primitive societies and archaic customs – they continue well into this technologically-mediated age.

Our biggest social media platform is called Face-Book, we value (even more so with Skype) face-to-face conversations to conduct business across the globe – and we have (as a global society) become obsessed with ‘the selfie’. So, really, the sociological importance of the face has only intensified as it becomes easier and easier to represent the face/selfie/self in far wider networks.

One form in which face-attacks occur upon women now, inhibiting them, or putting them / their families at risk of ‘losing face’ (which has inspired many a young woman to kill herself) occurs through Facebook. Indian girls are advised not to use their faces on their profile picture because there are those who morph their faces onto the bodies of nude women – and then blackmail them/their family with it. Schoolgirls and young women are covertly filmed on phones, and messages sent via mobile to their peers at school, and on the Internet.

So even today, the Southern Asian woman has to fear for her face – will it be violated, in the flesh, or through digital altering? Does she have to remain in a zenana (closed enclosure), or is she forced to adopt anonymity for fear of dishonor? Can she never be seen, freely and truely in the public domain, albeit of a virtual kind?

Or can she come out, be seen and project her face into the world for what she wants it (and herself) to be seen as?

I am inspired by the courage of young Jada, a 16-year old girl in the US who rape was filmed and ‘went viral’ on the Internet. Rather than expressing solidarity for – at first – random people mocked her ordeal and mimicked the way her body was postured and filed as she lay unconscious after her assault. They even posted selfies of themselves doing it on Twitter.

In response, this brave young woman re-claimed her face. She went public, and simply declared ‘I AM JADA’ – I cannot think of a braver response to such misogyny.

So really, this is a global thing.

I could, and might, write a whole other piece on how women who are permitted to be seen in the public sphere have certain ‘rules’ to obey – whether it’s how fair/dark their skin is, how many wrinkles they have, what they wear, etc. There’s so much more than can be said about this subject.

At the end of the day, this is about power, identity, and the right of self expression. To those women who feel freedom in anonymity, or find the veil/ghungat an expression of their identity – this piece is not meant to critique your choices – it is meant to critique social conventions that force women to make that choice against their will.

As an Indian woman, I thought of these concerns when I ‘went public’ – and I’m glad I made the decision I did – To Shine, To Smile, To Soar.

Blessings to all,
Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD
www.bairaveebalasubramaniam.com

Image Information: By Mohsyn Clicked by Zainab Zaidi (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

YOU ARE YOUR GREATEST TEACHER.

Teachers

I have found, through my own journey, that I have always been my best teacher. That doesn’t mean not taking advice, or not seeing other perspectives outside of your own …

To me, being your own teacher is about taking responsibility for your spiritual journey and your emerging (awareness of) power. You make your own choices, you do the work you have to, you direct your learning to heal the parts of yourself you need to and respectfully seek out those who can facilitate different parts of your journey which you may feel you need help with. 

It’s about ‘owning’ your spiritual experience and not delegating growth or the pursuit of knowledge to others – even if you pedestalize them as teachers, mentors, gurus, etc. Well, that is one part of it.

Another part of it is having the humility to ask help when you need it and to accept that your truth, no matter how strongly you feel about it, is no better than anyone else’s.

So.. yeah… Be Your Own Teacher. You always have been and always will be. You just have to remember 

Blessings,
Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD