When I was a child, I wanted to be a physicist, an astronaut, or a neurosurgeon. Or some strange combination of all of the above. I excelled at calculus, mathematics, music, languages and so on.
I disliked the politics of the land I was born in and became a social worker, trainer and public figure. Within a short span of time, I ended up working with over 2,500 children of my own ethnicity. I focused on teaching them about the neuroscience of the brain and how it could infinitely re-wire itself – and tools that can be used to facilitate the learning process. In ways that kids would understand and enjoy.
And for political reasons, I had to leave – and started my journey into higher education.
I started out in Physics, but quickly found that I liked literature, politics, performance and poetry. A gifted Nigerian professor got me started on African History, then American History – and introduced me to the Model United Nations.
And fate intervened.
I switched major and countries and became a political scientist by training. Living in the US, Germany and the UK – and travelling to many other countries for research work and attending conferences. Eventually, through much personal struggle and illness, I completed a PhD in Political Science. My thesis was called ´The dramaturgy of ritual performances in the Indian Parliament´.
And then after that a major download came, and I became an astrologer and a priestess and God/dess knows what else. And somehow elements of all of the above come spinning together in what is a tapestry I myself do not fully understand.
But what I do understand through all of this is that my work – as a priestess – never asks me to look past the human structures this species uses to govern itself – it asks me to engage with them powerfully. Into the muck, as it were.
To get lower, to sink deeper to the heart of things, and never to escape from them. But to embrace them. And in so doing, to transform them.
It´s meant popping a lot of bubbles, and wielding a very large sword. When appropriate. But – for those of you who know me – that´s just how I roll.
But my heart has always been with the stars and the quiet, dark detached spaces they hold. To me, they have always seemed like home.
And yet my work, is in the here and the now. It looks like a new way is opening up for me and it´s going to be a very interesting dance of all of the above.
Wish me luck 🙂 The next chapter starts for me on a trip to India. I´m looking to do a second PhD there, this time in Sanskrit. Or in whatever else I´m supposed to be doing.
We´ll see – whatever it will become, it´s certainly a very interesting journey I signed up for.
Yesterday, whilst my brother and I were eating at the ‘Authentic Nepali Kitchen Restaurant’ , we noticed a man filming something going on TV. It was a very out of the way place and certainly one of the very few places you’d see Nepali TV on in Thamel (the backpackers’ lair). The on-goings looked vaguely parliamentary, and I saw a woman speaking to take some kind of office. It excited my academic curiosity as part of my doctoral work was on the representation on women in the Indian Parliament.
It felt like a moment. Not the ones you take for granted everyday, but the ones you remember as ‘having been there when it happened’. I’d also had the pleasure of seeing the election of the First Lady Speaker of India’s Lower House from within Parliament itself. This felt like .. another one of those moments I would not forget, courtesy of the Authentic Nepali Kitchen Restaurant. For me, it was a delightful sign to get back to that part of my life, research and work as well. (And my brother took photos me of grinning like a cat who had just had two bowls of cream and tuna)
At first I thought it was a Speaker’s election, and then found myself happily corrected when we had the chance to look at some English-language news. Not a Speaker, but a President!
What makes me even happier is that Nepal has pretty much set a powerful standard for South Asian legislatures (and Western ones too) as it has passed – as part of its new constitution – a law ensuring that at least 33% of all MPs are female and that either the President or Vice President must be a woman.
In India, that particular issue has basically stayed stagnant since its first introduction as – the Women’s Reservation Bill – in 1996. Parliament has been paralyzed on account of the idea of bringing more women into its fold on many an occasion.
But not so in Nepal. I’m overjoyed!
The new President, Mrs. Bidhya Devi Bhandari is the vice-chair of the Ruling Communist Party of Nepal. She was previously the country’s defence minister. As President, she has vowed to address minority & women’s issues. Let’s see what unfolds 😉
Whilst the role of the President is largely ceremonial, what excites me about all of this is the legislative requirement of 33% women as the bare minimum. That is going to create ripples of change, and I hope it will once again fuel India’s political will to tackle the same issue once again (nearly 2 decades later). It’ll be interesting to see how this translates for a greater representation of women in South Asian Politics.
OH MY GOD. I am published! Well, at least an article of mine is. A follow-up piece from my thesis. I am a contributor to an academic book called Democracy in Practice. Mine’s Chapter 7, entitled ‘The Indian Parliament: Performing Decline since the 1960s’. And oh my goodness – I’m so chuffed they got my name right! 😀 😀 😀
I’m in shock, talking to my brother on skype, but still in shock to actually see it printed, at least in the table of contents. Still haven’t seen the printed volume yet.
A good kind of shock to which my response is deep gratitude to the Divine and all things which made this first academic publication possible.
For those wanting a summary of this article: The Indian Parliament: Performing Decline since the 1960s (Chapter 7) – This is my first full-length academic publication, as part of ‘Democracy in Practice’, edited by Professor Shirin M. Rai and Dr. Rachel Johnson. In this chapter, I speak about the historical changes that have marked an evolution in the form, function and significance of parliamentary performances in the Indian context. Ultimately I question the applicability of the ‘decline hypothesis’ to the Indian legislature, using a multi-disciplinary analytical framework centered around the construct of ‘performance’.
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…
Sex and Gender are different concepts. Your genitalia does not tell you to behave a certain way, you are conditioned into it and/or predisposed to certain behaviors through your biological hardwiring – nature / nurture both exert their influence. Certain branches of academic feminism make a wonderful case for defining the relationship between sex and gender differently. For instance – you can look to the work of Judith Butler who speaks of gender as a repeated performance that we enact – if you’re interested in learning more. We all see it differently – but this is the ‘knowing’ that resonates with me.
In other words – we do not learn how to be a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’ based on genes alone – we are taught how to perform ‘being a woman’, or ‘being a man’. And as we repeat these performances over and over again, we begin to strongly identify with them and consider them as ‘real’. It is the embodied form of the idea that ‘reality is constructed’, and one of the ideas that underpinned my PhD thesis. For if there was but one definition of womanhood, or manhood, wouldn’t we all play it out the same way?
Some women are taught that they have to dress the part, curl/perm their hair to look a certain way, keep their legs together when they’re sitting down, wear lipstick (not too red!) and flowing dresses in order to be ‘a lady’. Other women rebel and wear their wild hair like a mantle over their shoulders and dance by the fires till dawn. Other women cut their hair to within an inch of their scalp and wear clothes which make them look angular, masculine, martial. And other women do other things…. the same with men …. In fact, I don’t know how to define womanhood or manhood anymore – I thought I had an idea, but now I see that that too is my construction and mine alone.
There is such a diverse range of such expressions of gender – Who can say what being a ‘real woman’ or a ‘real man’ is anymore? And why do we insist in linking it with a particular set of genitalia?
I’ve seen men with the nurturing instincts idealized as ‘feminine qualities’ and women who have none of that whatsoever. I’ve seen human tigresses roar and stride into battle, in a ‘man’s world’ and best the alpha male – so much for assertiveness and aggression being ‘a male thing’. (And yes, people still use these outmoded categorizations to put limits on behavior: ‘girls don’t beat boys at games’, ‘girls don’t run’, ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘boys don’t wear pink’ etc.)
It works both ways, and is one of the dynamics which has led to the imbalance in Masculine and Feminine energies which we see in the world today. So what does all this have to do with my study of astrology?
GENDER STEREOTYPING IN ASTROLOGY
In astrology we associate Air/Fire, the Sun, Saturn, Mars with ‘male’ energies and Earth/Water, the Moon, Venus, with ‘female’, et cetera. I often clarify when I use these terms in my reports as I see them as archetypes which can manifest in all beings. But still that gendered binary gets reproduced ….
I find this deeply problematic – as my personal experiences and explorations of cultural archetypes tell a different tale. For instance, in primordial concepts of Shiva (male) and Sakthi (female), Shiva is the passive, receptive principle whilst Sakthi is that active, dynamic force. In my experience of reality – I know more fiery women and nurturing men than I do the opposite. Kali-Ma is my Raging Fire and Lord Shiva is the Calm Breeze on the Himalayan Mountain. (For one thing – but I work with different pantheons and archetypes as well: Some days Mother Earth and Father Sun speak instead. You don’t have to ‘pick one’ and consider all else ‘wrong’.)
So for me, I’ve never seen or experienced the elements exclusively in the traditional way described. Here are other examples less contingent on my personal views:
For instance, the Moon – closely associated with the Oceans is often seen in Western astrology as ‘female’. But the Moon is ‘male’ in Vedic astrology, and in pre-Vedic (Dravidian) India, the ruler of the waters, lakes and streams was Lord Varuna/Baruna – again, a male deity. [Incidentally, when I look at an Ocean, I do not see her as entirely Feminine to the exclusion of all else]
The Sun is seen as ‘male’ as in Western and Vedic astrology, but in other cultures – this is not so. Goddess Bhairavi. the Mahavidya, is associated with the Rising Sun herself. Goddess Ameterasu from Japan represents the Sun in all her states. Lady Sekhmet from the Egyptian pantheon is associated with the setting Sun – and I could go on.
So how do we say that A is B, and C is D? How do we say for sure that an energy is ‘this’, or ‘that’? Can we say that one cultural conception is right, and another is wrong? Can I reject Western symbolism, Vedic tradition and/or (pre-Vedic) Dravidian worship wholesale in favour of something else? And then call that other philosophy or system ‘right’?
I don’t know about you, but I can’t do that with a clear conscience. If there is any ‘truth’ that I have learnt in my study on this subject is that’ — We can’t create a Universal Standard that defines what a man, or a woman is, what ideal ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ traits are.
The best we can do is go with what feels right for ourselves and allow others to do the same for themselves.
And when it comes to astrology, we need to look at the gendered stereotyping of energies to become a lot clearer of how we talk about energetic influences on people. They’re just not seen or felt in the same way by everyone.
PART 2 of this series will address the androgyny of Goddess Pallas Athena.
AUGUST 15, 1947: INDIA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY (Happy Birthday, India!)
Today, over a billion people will be celebrating their independence, and the declaration of their sovereignty as a free republic. It is India’s Independence Day, and she’s celebrating it for the 67th time.
There are so many reasons to celebrate this day, for Indians in India and those of Indian origin living abroad. But, by the same token, there are plenty of reasons to reflect upon what else the nation seeks to accomplish, before all its citizens can be truly declared as ‘free’. For too many are still ensnared by the yoke of poverty, communalism, the fear of violence or degradation, and so on.
August 15th marks the transfer of power from a territory claimed and administered by the British Raj. This ceremony took place at the Red Fort in New Delhi where – at the stroke of Midnight. A day prior, in India’s Constituent Assembly, its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his oft-quoted speech: ‘Tryst with Destiny’. Here’s a link:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzdVKGdZUpQ
But through the celebrations of freedom, one also has to remember that elsewhere, at the borders, the bloody wars of Partition raged on. It was not an easy birthing for the nation as it was born through a dual separation: (1) through the formality of British ceremony and legal codes and (2) through the forced cleavage of a land in the name of communal politics.
As we wave our flags and sing our anthems today, this shadow ought not be forgotten.
India’s political history is a long and multifaceted one, but this much can be said without controversy: Its independence was procured through the efforts of nation-wide struggle, that began with the nationalist movement. In its earliest form, it was a movement led by a ‘microscopic minority’ (to quote a former Viceroy of India) of Western-educated Indians – you could call them the liberal intelligentsia of their time. The movement acquired mass appeal and participation when Mahatma Gandhi entered the scene. Men and women rose in union as part of satyagraha (peaceful struggle), though there were contemporaries seeking to free India from its colonial oppressors through the use of violence as well.
The Constitution, legislative procedures and electoral arrangements of contemporary India bear witness to India’s colonial past. The Indian Parliament retains certain ritual performances and conducts ceremonies in ways strongly reminiscent of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, i.e. Westminster. It is little wonder as, considering that the body of individuals tasked with drafting the new Republic’s constitution were largely made up of lawyers well versed in the language of British law.
That being said, despite (or perhaps, through) India’s legal inheritance, the Indian political sphere lives, breathes, thrives in displays of colourful authenticity. The performance of politics, as seen in parliament and state assemblies, is becoming increasingly ‘vernacularized’ – that is to say, it reflects certain social customs, mores, norms, and expectations of performance in line with the people of the land itself.
As I argued in my PhD on the Indian Parliament, let us not judge India on the basis of expectations set in a time so heavily influenced by colonial frameworks and standards – and as I awoke to this morning (listening to a professor on TV) – let us not judge it in terms of the accomplishments made by other countries, but by and on its own terms and ideals.
For India -is, was, and always will be – the world’s largest experiment in democracy. That understanding of democracy is deepening, transforming and evolving as we speak – showing us ways that it has matured in 67 years of growth, and areas which it is in dire need of attention.
For all of its economic development, and (relative) political stability, India still lags behind in areas pertaining to sustainable economic development, social equality, gendered equality, violence against women, and other issues – as judged by the ideals of its own Constitution.
Whilst I was not born in India, I am of Southern Indian origin. I’ve lived there with my family and have also conducted research on its political institutions. It is an identity that I am proud to affiliate myself with, but with the recognition – that there are still challenges to tackle, ways to evolve and new milestones to reach.
So here’s to 67 years of growth and many more to come!
Image Montage: Own photo, Bairavee Balasubramaniam, 2010. All rights reserved.
and (the image of the lions & flag) By Mellisa Anthony Jones at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
No sir, I shall not grace you with a smile because you expect me to, Don’t you dare invite yourself to my table, this space isn’t for you, Why do you fret when I am unwilling to entertain you? Why do you look pained when I refuse to speak to you with my golden tongue? And no – I’m not bitter, broken, divorced, widowed – or as you might think – a crone, harridan, hag, witch, bitch, or shrew. Words that strike fear straight to you.
I AM She Who Chooses…
I am woman, I am Goddess, I am born of She, And that space of warmth, of love and desire, The Mother in my Heart the Child in my Womb, Maiden, Mother, Crone, Sister, Wife, Daughter, All I Am. All I Be.
Why oh why do men presume that women must welcome them so? You’re not my teacher, my lover, my friend, or my beau, They certainly don’t ask other men to do the same….. Perhaps they should… But if we don’t – unto womanhood that projected shame.
I find you strange, a strange creature of expectation, You see my neutrality, my level headed tone as aggression, My discernment as threat, my judgment as rudeness, Shaken to the bone like a rag doll in the wind you reel from my lack of engagement.
This is my middle ground, my threshold, I stand here with trident, with scythe, with tigress, with wisdom of Old, Indeed yes, the warm fire turns ice cold, When the predator seeks to claim what is not his own.
Believe me son for when I rage, And my anger boils and foams and curdles and rises, You’ll know.
For now, Just Go.
If you cross that line of mine, Seeking what is not yours to find, Out Come the Ice-Cold, Red-Hot Goddess-Whore-Witch-Shrews of Old, Run, son, run… lest I begin to Dance.
For you shall see the one you seek, The one you want, and yet Dread to Meet.
The She who Rises, The She who Chooses. The I AM hidden beneath
(What’s that? I thought you wanted me to smile? What’s that? Not the one with the fangs? Whooops! )
Silence can be a powerful tool of protest through disengagement, but it can also be a sign of apathy, or of having been subjugated, your voice lost.
Despite having a PhD in the subject, I rarely speak about politics unless it’s in an article I write, or at a conference. I find it to be a subject that tends to polarize rather than unify. That being said, politics is woven into the world, and our personal lives in ways and levels that make it impossible to avoid.
Right now feels like one of those times where remaining silent would be apathetic.
On my page The Goddess, The Serpent and The Sea: Building Pathways of Light, I posted a meme that essentially condemned the situation in Gaza – asserting that standing in solidarity with the lives lost was not the same as hating either side. I liked it as it was a statement of empathy and solidarity without judgment. (We have enough of the latter in this world, and too little of the former).
I got two interesting responses to it: One, was a lady whom I’d never heard being aggressive, telling me that the extremists on the Palestinian side would kill me (us, the collective ‘you’) after they’d killed all the Jews. The second, was someone who’d posted a video of an son of a general in the Israeli army speaking out against the killings.
I was grateful for the second comment as it was a sign that not all Jews supported the conflict – many others are making similar efforts to put the word out there. This knowledge helps one de-link the actions of a particular military and/or government from the faith and ethnicity they are associated with. It also slows the growth and prevalence of insidious generalizations that equate people of a certain faith with aggression and war. (And it’s not just about the Judaism, I take that stance when any faith, religion and spiritual path is involved).
Equally, I was grateful for the first comment, as it was a reminder for me to get out of my silence and speak. This was my reply:
Hate manifests hate. Basic spiritual principle. By hating them, you do not change or help the situation.
I should add – By refusing to hate, you do not condone or support unjust actions. Too many people believe they must hate one side or another to support the opposite party.
If we are truly honest in our spiritual paths – we have to ask ourselves – can the Path of Peace be forged by Hatred?
I say this as a priestess, political scholar and as a Tamil woman – I am the daughter of a race that was raped and slaughtered in Sri Lanka in an act of genocide in its own right that has yet to be fully acknowledged.
Update: It has come to my attention that the video of the son of the general may be a hoax. The idea that not all Israelis and Jews support military action on Gaza is, however, a valid one. 5,000 attended this rally in Tel Aviv, protesting for peace between Israel and Paleston: http://972mag.com/no-more-deaths-israelis-protest-the-gaza-war/94380/
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.
I’ve given much thought to writing this – as honestly, it is a sensitive subject – one that draws upon thousands of years of ideological and other forms of violence, suppression and grandstanding between two different religious and spiritual traditions in India: The Aryan (North) and the Dravidian (South). It‘s honestly a lot more nuanced than that, but there is that invisible line that is drawn across the Indian subcontinent that marks profound differences.
Whilst I love my Southern-Tamil culture and identity, I feel there is so much more to it than asserting whether it is the ‘best’ or the ‘oldest’ – but at the same time I feel deeply uncomfortable when someone does try to put down my identity by claiming cultural-linguistic-ethnic- and other forms of superiority. There is powerful linguistic evidence on both sides, which have equally been used to make such a case – and I honestly find that debate counterproductive.
I worship and integrate different aspects of both traditions, deities and divinities – placing them on par with one another. For those of you who have been following my work, you know that I do the same thing with religions and belief systems for we are all Equals in the Circle.
But what does all this have to do with Namaste?
Namaste is a specific term of – recognizing the divinity within others – that is from the Sanskritic linguistic root – strongly associated with the Hindi language.
Contrary to the kinds of cultural stereotyping that India is often subjected to (that everyone speaks Hindi, or is a Hindu, or loves Bollywood) – not every part of India uses this terminology – even in spiritual contexts.
I’m writing this as I realize that my Indian identity often makes others feel as though they are honoring that identity by saying ‘Namaste’.
I don’t blame anyone for/about it – and I see that the intention is pure.
It’s just that this discussion, or this distinction hasn’t been made in many New Age and spiritual circles. People assume that India is more homogeneous that it actually is, unless information to the contrary is given.
Simply put, it does not mean the same thing for all those who are of Indian origin. Nor do all people of Indian origin use it, even in temples.
Here are other ways that different Indian identities express a similar concept:
Vanakam – Tamil (some Tamil Brahmins use Namaskaram)
Vandanam/Namaskaram – Telugu
Swagatham/Namaskaram – Malayalam
Assamulaikum – Muslim-Indians
There are a lot of other ways that different states/regions and ethnicities express this concept. This list is but a start.
As has been shown in India’s history and politics – Language is key to one’s sense of identity. Words say a lot about who you are, where you come from, where you will go. And not having the right to express one’s self in their mother tongue was seen in India’s history as a severe limitation upon individual freedoms.
That is the reason why India recognizes more than 20 different official languages and provides for simultaneous interpretative services in its Parliament – and why MPs use English if not their mother tongue to speak with others.
The idea of a single identity, be it defined in terms of a language, a region, a belief system, could not take root – as it is a such rich land with a diversity of cultural traditions and ethnicities. Plurality and diversity were favored over imposing a common language – because that would have meant much more than ‘mere words’ to the people of India.
A friend of mine asked me (and he respects both traditions) – well, what is your point as ‘Hindi is the face of India’ (quoted with permission).
My response: Well, it is – and it isn’t.
India has a million faces, and each deserve equal recognition.
Here’s to honoring them all, and staying true to one’s roots. Tolerance and Plurality.