Woman’s day! What does that mean to you?


I was invited by a friend, director of an AIDS hospice, to speak to a room full of women on Women’s day, some years back. I wasn’t the intended speaker, Sean was. I was just a tag along. After Sean spoke, the director of the hospice, our friend, came towards me with a big smile on her face. “Say something. As a woman, to all these women!” she said. With cold clammy hands and sweat dripping down my shirt, I walked towards the lectern, my mind racing. I was the undeserving cynosure of at least 50 pair of eyes. By accident of birth, I was on the other side of the lectern. My family’s expectations from me were degree, job, good marriage, a happy life, in that order. They worked hard to get that for me. I didn’t have to struggle to achieve anything. The women sitting in front with hopeful faces, however, were tested by fire. Former sex workers, rape victims, wives of HIV positive men, who unknowingly carried the deadly virus, paying a hard price for their errant husbands’ vices, former drug users. Poverty, lack of education, and squalid living conditions led them to desperate measures. Yet they did not give up the battle to have a shot at a better life. They were fighting tooth and nail, they were staying afloat, they were gasping and struggling, yet holding on. Despite their sickness, they were trying to carve out a decent life for themselves, and some, for their HIV positive children. So that is what I told them. I told them they were inspirations to me, to be a better person, a better mother, a better daughter, a better wife. I vowed, like them, I would never give up, no matter how hard the going gets. From them I learned never to disregard or take for granted the chance that I got in life just because of an accident of birth.

My grandmother studied till the 10th standard. My mother married a man of her choice in her first year of college. She finished her graduation when I was six years old. I, however, was expected to not only finish college but study further, get a job and then think of marriage. There has been a linear progression among the women in my family. That is symbolic of the state of women throughout the world. There has been progress, definitely. But has our gender found equal footing with men? Not yet. We are a work in progress, we are still paving the highway to reach our destination – equality. Many are hard at work, some are, perhaps, way back in line but they are moving – forward. Women’s Day celebration bothers many enlightened women. This whole concept of Woman’s Day irks me too. Me, a privileged, respected, somewhat enlightened woman living in an equal partnership with a man. The history of Woman’s day doesn’t reek of discrimination though. Instead, it represents the unity of the working women. According to Wikipedia, International Women’s Day

“Started as a Socialist political event, the holiday blended in the culture of many countries, primarily Eastern Europe, Russia, and the former Soviet bloc. In some regions, the day lost its political flavor, and became simply an occasion for men to express their love for women in a way somewhat similar to a mixture of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. In other regions, however, the original political and human rights theme designated by the United Nations runs strong, and political and social awareness of the struggles of women worldwide are brought out and examined in a hopeful manner.”

I personally don’t want to have a day dedicated to my gender. I, and many others like me, don’t feel inferior to the other gender in any way and dedicating a day for women is actually demeaning. It is like pointing out that you are weak, it is patronizing and as I said before, it reeks of gender inequality. But I am not one of those multitudes who are struggling against social stigma or religious conservatism. I am not the girl whose mother tells me it is a sin among their ‘beradari’ (clan) to send a girl child to school. Only boys are worthy of education. A girl child is only good for marriage – sold, in other words, at a steep price. I am not the woman who is getting beaten up by her husband every night in his drunken stupor because she fell asleep before he came home. Celebrating Women’s Day by buying a Hall mark card is not going to help the sweet girl who swept my house with her mother or the woman who hid her scar the next morning, accepting the abuse as her fate. But raising awareness about their condition might help them. Wishing other women ‘Happy women’s day’ on Facebook, for me, is completely meaningless. How about we make a resolution on this day to champion a cause that is close to our heart. Maybe sponsor the education of the daughter of our domestic help, or her son, for that matter? How about teaching the children of sex workers so they can break out of the vicious cycle? How about volunteering at a women’s shelter, how about donating money to a reputed Non Government Organization (NGO) who work towards women’s empowerment? Why not be the change that we want to happen instead of being an armchair analyst and either condemning Women’s Day or doing mere lip service by wishing another woman ‘Happy woman’s day’. What does Happy Woman’s Day mean anyway? Should we be happy that we are struggling and working hard to be counted as equals – like a world-wide sorority, working towards a common cause? Should we be happy that a few of us lucked out and got ahead of the game? Are our sister in remote parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia happy that they are part of this sorority? Do they even know?

I apologize if this blog seems preachy or didactic. That is not the intention. What right do I have to tell the world what they should do on this day? None, whatsoever. Sean and I make our meager contribution to women’s cause and other cause that are important to us and keep the faith that every little bit counts. I only want to share some ideas on what I think celebration of Women’s Day should be. I am fortunate to know so many people who are working hard and dedicating their time and energy in empowering women by providing education, healthcare, by helping them start cooperatives and little businesses. I have seen some of the fruits of their labor and have been amazed and humbled by these workers’ tenacity and relentless desire to make a change in another’s life. They talk less and work more. They motivate me to do my share in helping another – like trying to sponsor the education of a young woman of limited means. She didn’t want to continue her education so I put that money in her bank account so she could have a nest egg when she went into marriage. She is happy and expecting her first child. I hope one day she will use the money towards the education of her child. Today I made a resolution to help a woman who tried to kill herself by setting fire on her body because she couldn’t suffer her husband’s abuse anymore. She lived, but badly scarred. She is twenty years old, she hardly ever goes out and never takes the cover off her face to hide her scars and her shame. I will write about her and ask for your advice about how to go about helping her. I don’t need your money just your thoughts, a collective brainstorming of sorts.

Celebrating Women’s day is important I think. A day to raise awareness of the struggle that many women face everyday in any sphere of her life. Unfortunately, some women begin their struggle right in their mother’s womb. A struggle to live. At the same time, I hope and pray that during my daughter’s lifetime there will be no need to celebrate a day dedicated to her gender. And I tell her and her brother, whenever the occasion arises, that both of them have equal rights to the air and the sunlight they receive. Hopefully they will pass on that message to their children. But right now, the majority of women all over the world are playing catch up. Although, changes have been made, yet anybody who does humanitarian assistance work will agree that lot needs to be done to bring women up to speed. Dedicating one day to women can actually make people pause and take notice.

Let us each vow on this Women’s day to do at least something. At least, reiterate again and again to our children, nieces and nephews, students and grandkids about respecting other individuals. Let us stop using demeaning words and phrases against women, against different races, against people who may be different from us. It is so easy to do. Let us just think before we speak. Let us think of the repercussions of our words on others. And eventually, one day, during our children’s life time, men will not feel the need to insert an iron rod inside a woman to ‘teach her a lesson’ because she spoke out against wrong doing.

Lets keep the faith. It can happen.

Respect


Recently I watched a Hindi movie English Vinglish, by myself because my husband flat-out refused to sit in a movie theater for almost three hours. The much talked about English Vinglish, according to the rumor mill, was made by the director to apologize to her mother.

The story line doesn’t include the usual song and dance sequences that are the trademark of most Hindi films. The movie tells the story of a woman – a mother, wife and a daughter-in-law, who constantly puts the needs of her family ahead of her. Her morning cup of coffee cools as she gets up to make breakfast for her mother-in-law, her husband and cater to the various needs of her children. She is the symbol of the quintessential Indian woman, or at least how the society expects them to be- traditional, domesticated, loving…and a martyr. If there is frustration in her, it doesn’t show, she takes care of everyone with elan and also runs a small business of making and selling an Indian dessert – a laddoo.

She wears the traditional dress of India – a saree, and doesn’t speak English, the language of choice of the middle and the upper level of the social strata. Her teenage daughter is ashamed of her non-English speaking, traditional attire wearing mother and screams her annoyance at this social ‘lack’. She wants to keep her mother hidden from her friends and teachers in school. The husband and the daughter ridicule her English pronunciation as the camera zooms in on the woman’s uncomfortable, embarrassed and sad smile.

A lot happens but I will let you go to the theaters to watch the rest. The plot written above is just a teaser which I got paid to write to lure audience (kidding!)

This dynamic between the mother and the daughter paused me to think back and reflect on my relationship with my mother when I was going through the turbulent years which we call teenage. As a child, I remember a sense of wonder filled awe towards this beautiful, strong, opinionated woman, who was my mother. I was her faithful follower. I emulated her laughter, thought the way she did, observed her kindness towards others and tried to please her always. She drilled in me I had to be someone in life, she told me I was bright and smart and I could do absolutely anything I wanted. I worked hard and got good grades to see the brilliant smile that shone on her face as she looked through my report card. She didn’t have a strong command of the English language but she enrolled me in an expensive, English medium school, the fees of which, we hardly could afford. She foresaw the need for English in my future, where a solid knowledge of the language will give me a boost in life. She struggled financially to pay the fees, but both my parents grit their teeth and paved my way for a better future.

As I thought hard about my feelings, as a teenager, towards my mother, I remembered many emotions I felt towards her over the years. Embarrassment was not one of them. Why wasn’t I ashamed of the fact that she didn’t speak the language or didn’t wear western clothes. First, it was a different age. Speaking in English was definitely important but the disregard for vernaculars didn’t reach to the degree that I see today when I go back. Most of the women of her era wore traditional clothes so I didn’t have anyone to compare her to and be embarrassed about her. But more importantly, I believe she had this aura of self-confidence around her which earned my respect. I never felt embarrassed about her for her lack of another language because she introduced me to a treasure at a very early age – literature in my vernacular. She told me stories, read me books in Bengali when I had no letter recognition. I was taught to read and write in English before I learnt the Bengali alphabets. She cleverly introduced in me this lust for more and more Bengali literature by reading to me works of Sukumar Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore and numerous other magic weavers. And did they weave their magic on me! I followed my mother around with an open book while she gently reminded me I could read these all by myself if I learnt to read the language. Learn, I did and how! I was like a sponge, I soaked up the language with a determined focus – to read Abol tabol, Buro Angla, Raj Kahini, Shishu, Aryanyak, Pather Panchali, Adarsha Hindu hotel, Bindu r chele, Chander pahar….

She taught me how to think and scratch the surface. Before I read Dr. Seuss’ ‘Horton hears a who’, she taught me a person’s a person no matter how small. Her comment about lack of English was something I tell non-English speakers in this country. She said, ‘I can still speak enough English to get by, most English speakers can’t speak my language. Are they ashamed of it? No? Then why should I be?’ When I grew up and married an English speaker, who doesn’t understand a word of Bengali, he whole-heartedly agreed with her. When a lot of people including my extended family exclaimed how lucky I was to find a husband like Sean, my mother was the only one who smiled and said to Sean, ‘You know you are the lucky one, right?’ Sean said he knew.

I loved spending time with my non-English speaking, traditional saree clad mother even in my late teenage. I remember coming back home early to go see a movie with her and answering friends’ questions ‘Who goes to movies with their mothers?’ with ‘I do!’ When I started to think independently and started spreading my fledgling wings, roles reversed a bit. She started listening to my points of views and nodding in agreement sometimes. She has this amazing ability to learn from anybody so today she can keep up with various generations and speak and understand their language. I started bringing home new music, new ideas, different thoughts. We disagreed often and debated on issues but she realized I was coming to my own. I was her long time companion, and I was slowly letting go and she felt the pain

I am a mother of a teenager now. I often talk to her about the heritage of my land that I am, hopefully, passing on to her – respecting an individual for what they have and not insulting them for what they do not. I often emulate my mother while parenting my children. Sometimes I find myself saying the exact same thing my mother used to say to me. I break down laughing, ‘This is what your didiya used to tell me when I was your age!’ I tell them. This continuity sometimes diffuses a stressful situation when the children smile with me, picturing their mother as a little girl and at the receiving end.

As I narrated how the teenager demeaned her mother, my teenager asked me gravely, ‘Mom, do I ever make you feel that way?’

I asked her back, ‘What do you think will happen if you made me feel that way? Do you think I will take that kind of behavior from you?’

‘I will be grounded till kingdom come? But that is not an issue because I don’t feel embarrassed about you, anyway!’ she responded.

My mother was and still is my biggest fan. She was the champion of my cause, my number one supporter, the sail beneath my wings. She loved me unconditionally, stayed up all night to tend to my sicknesses, nourished my intellectual needs She did all that and she demanded respect in return. I was not allowed to get away by being disrespectful. She was not the conventional mother figure to stay at the background and be a martyr. She is a strong woman who made her presence felt in my life and I am ever so grateful for that.

A life time of love and respect (oh well, alright frustrations too at times:) ) can’t be captured in a blog unless I write reams and reams about it. Unfortunately, some emotions can not be expressed no matter how much one writes about them, those are special feelings meant to be just felt in one’s heart. So I will end my tribute to her here. It is her birthday today and I am physically thousands and thousands of miles away. But in my heart

‘I’m already there
Take a look around
I’m the sunshine in your hair
I’m the shadow on the ground.

I’m the whisper in the wind
I’m your imaginary friend
And I know, I’m in your prayers
Oh I’m already there’

(Lonestar)

The blog is my feeble attempt to show my love and respect that I have for you as my mother and as a strong, beautiful woman of the world. Thank you for helping me to be who I am and sorry for causing you sadness and frustration at some points in our life together. I now fully comprehend when you said to me, ‘Wait till you are a mother yourself!’ I know now.

Shubho Jonmodin, Ma! Happy birthday!