Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘women & gender’ Category

498. Remembering Mum on Mother’s Day

In Aging, Family, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work on May 9, 2021 at 1:05 pm

                Mum’s bleeding hearts

On this glorious early-May Mother’s Day, I sit in bed with my second cup of tea, thinking of my mother, who passed away three years ago. Though she is still very much with me, I so miss the quality of her active presence in the world—my world. As I contemplate retirement and feel overwhelmed at the very thought of all that must be done to prepare for it, I think of Mum, who plunged into every task and saw it through with determination. She worked so hard to make life for our family easier than it had been for her and her brothers and sisters when they were growing up, and even when she could have sat back and rested on her laurels she couldn’t let go of the lifelong habit of hard work. The house my parents bought at retirement was the biggest one they had ever owned, but Mum never even considered hiring anyone to clean it. She did it all herself until Alzheimer’s Disease prevented her from doing it any longer.

Dad told me a story about Mum from the time when they were first courting. Visiting the flat that he shared with another bachelor, she was shocked at the state of it. She entreated Dad to let her clean it for him, and he eventually acquiesced, although he had some qualms about allowing his girlfriend to do such dirty work. But for Mum, work was never dirty, and cleanliness was next to godliness. Dad said that when she was done he could hardly recognize the flat, sparkling clean; and when his roommate returned he was absolutely astounded.

Mum didn’t limit her cleaning to her boyfriend’s digs, but also took on his washing and ironing. Again, Dad said he made an effort to deter her, but I suspect it was a rather feeble effort, because he loved dressing well, and must have found it hard to maintain his own high standards in that tiny apartment in cold, damp, sunless London. Mum took his shirts away with her and returned them to him spotlessly clean—washed, dried, aired, and ironed.

All this Dad told me in wistful tones, as if he hadn’t fully appreciated all Mum’s hard work through the years. Even as the Alzheimer’s took hold, she continued to try to clean the kitchen, tearing off strip after strip of paper towels and wiping down the countertops with an energy born of the frustration that she was unable to do more. At first Dad, thrifty as both our parents were, was annoyed by the number of paper towels Mum was wasting, until I pointed out to him that she was only trying to hold on to some remaining control in her own kitchen, most of which had been taken away from her. As was always his way, Dad was instantly penitent, and never complained about waste again.

Sadly, it wasn’t long before Mum couldn’t even wipe down the surfaces anymore, turning instead to untangling and smoothing down the fringes on the woven placemats as she sat at the dining-room table. For my part I remembered wistfully how, before Alzheimer’s, she would race to wash all the pots and pans before sitting down to dinner while we entreated her to join us so that we could begin our meal without guilt. She did this because she knew that after the evening meal was over and it was time to relax in the living room, she would instantly fall fast asleep, exhausted, even while her tea was still hot. For Mum was a lifelong early riser, up for hours before the rest of us even stirred in our beds. The only exception was Baby Nikhil, also an early riser in those days. Whenever we were staying over at our parents’ house, Grandma Gladys—or GG—would play with him energetically while I, never a morning person, took my own sweet time to get myself in gear.

Mum, detail from one of Dad’s paintings

So here I am on Mother’s Day, looking out at the garden and contemplating my To Do list. Thanks to dear Andrew I have now breakfasted and had both my morning cups of tea. The bird feeder and bird bath are full, freshly-potted marigolds glowing orange in the courtyard, and sunlight streaming in through all the new Spring greenery. Mum would have loved to sit out on the terrace with me underneath the umbrella, bird-watching or doing the Times crossword. To be honest, though, with the exception of her first cup of coffee at the crack of dawn when her mind was the sharpest and she would whizz through even the hardest crossword in record time, she never sat still until, perhaps, late afternoons in retirement. Then she would join Dad under the umbrella in the back garden, her flower garden in full bloom, enjoying a cold glass of her favorite Miller Lite and, finally, allowing herself to look upon her handiwork and see that it was good. Here’s to you, dear Mum!

NB: Lest you get the impression from the above that Mum was all work and no play, nothing could be further from the truth. She had a passion for life and, ever restless with the status quo, longed to live it more fully than ever. Endlessly interested in people, she tended to make friends with women much younger than herself because she was forward-thinking and young at heart. She adored children and never tired of making up games to play with them. She never stopped teaching or learning either. Mum loved music and dancing, as I have written in other posts. And she never could resist a Kit-Kat.

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495. Clothes and Clothing

In Aging, Britain, clothing, culture, Music, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases on April 3, 2021 at 11:15 pm

This is the third entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Clothing is used to cover and protect one’s body from threats of all kinds, and it is used performatively, to mask and dissemble. Clothing can make you feel more fully yourself but it can help you present yourself as someone else, someone more socially acceptable. Clothes make the man, as they say. They can bolster your confidence or expose your vulnerabilities. No wonder there is such a wealth of idiomatic language involving clothes and clothing, in sayings and expressions that refer to covering up, like the predatory wolf in sheep’s clothing and to stripping away, like the emperor in the fairytale whose new clothes turned out to be his birthday suit. (Here’s Danny Kaye telling the story in his inimitable fashion.)

Let’s start with clothing in general. Someone who dresses well and has good taste in clothes is said to have dress sense. If they are obsessed with clothes and buy rather too many of them, they may be referred to as a clothes horse, which is also that folding wooden rack on which you hang your clothes out to dry (something that is coming back into use now that people are trying to reduce their carbon footprints). When you get dressed up for a party, you put on your glad rags, and when you really go all out, you’re dressed to the nines or puttin’ on the Ritz, as in the Irving Berlin song of 1930, written during the Great Depression when someone who had lost everything—lost his shirt, you might say—made an extra-special effort to put his best foot forward. Fred Astaire certainly did! All these sayings are relatively positive, but there are plenty of others that indicate failure or disapproval in various ways.

Society imposes heavy pressure on the young, but also on the elderly. My mother used to worry, as she got older, of being seen as mutton dressed like lamb, as she would put it. In my youthful self-involvement I would scoff at the idea, telling her that she looked lovely–which she did. But it was not until I reached that age myself that I began to understand the social pressure to dress one’s age and, as an older woman, fade discreetly into the background. Times change, though, and I like to think that women of my generation, always a feisty lot, have refused to conform to social expectations that dictate their disappearance.

To pick up the pace here, I’ll wrap up with a quick rundown of some more clothing-related  anachronidioms many of which are as gendered as clothing itself. There’s the expression, wearing the trousers (or pants, in the U.S.), as in, “It’s clear who wears the trousers in that household.” It’s equally clear that it refers to the woman of the house, since she is the one who is not supposed to be wearing them; and that this idiom, though still in use, started to sound outdated as soon as it became common for women to wear trousers in public.

Clothing idioms can be used to make open threats as well as to express social disapproval. The colorful, I’ll have your guts for garters, used to be popular, but with the wearing of garters on the wane, it just doesn’t have the same currency anymore. As for shirts, generous people would give you the shirt off their backs and compulsive gamblers would lose theirs. Having a bee in one’s bonnet has gone out of use with bonnets and a bad hat might have been familiar to the children reading Madeline and the Bad Hat in the 1950s, but little boys don’t wear hats so much anymore, even if bad hats may still take pleasure in torturing small animals. In other images of repression and compulsion, young people speak freely of toxic parents, but not so much of being tied to Mother’s apron strings. In the days of corsets and stays, and hundreds of little buttons on women’s clothing, someone who was so uptight they could hardly breathe was said to be buttoned up. Not to put too fine a point on things, someone who was fired from their job was given the boot. They still are.  

Many clothing idioms seem to come in opposing pairs. One rolls up one’s sleeves to dig into some honest hard work but keeps something up one’s sleeve—often an ace—to hold in secret reserve and use to one’s advantage when the time is right. Listen for it in the second verse of John Prine’s Spanish Pipedream (1971).

From sleeves to gloves and a final pair of idioms, both suggesting the arrogation of authority by the powerful. To handle someone with kid gloves means to treat a difficult person delicately, with great fastidiousness and care, care that they probably don’t deserve. This person is difficult because he can afford to be, and the kid (leather) gloves—made from the skins of baby goats—are not something that just anyone can afford, only the filthy rich. Today, ordinary people wear gloves for work and to keep them warm, but rarely for mere decoration. And then there is the velvet glove, the one with the iron fist inside it. Sadly, that doesn’t look to be going out of fashion anytime soon.

(Done! And to think I sat down to write a short entry off the cuff.)

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480. A Burning

In Books, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases, writing on July 12, 2020 at 5:51 pm

I’ve just finished reading A Burning, Indian American writer Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, which I ordered back in June, as soon as I heard about it. Although it ought to have been a quick read, I had to put it down while I met a few deadlines, and only just took it up again this morning, when I read the rest of it all at once. Now here I am, devastated; and impressed, in spite of myself.

I must admit that when I first started reading I was skeptical and prepared to find fault, which is not how I generally approach a novel. Why? Well, partly because of the book design, which featured short line lengths, large type, and short chapters, with short paragraphs separated by lots of asterisks as if it was written to be consumed by an attention-deficit public. As I began reading, it became clear that that was indeed the effect; the book was a page-turner and despite my reservations I soon began to care about the characters.

Small things still niggled, though; I took note of them even while aware that I was being ungenerous. The first was the author’s device of making Lovely, the hijra, a transgender woman and one of the three central characters, continually speak in the present or past continuous tense, as many Indian English speakers tend to do. While this trademark tense, along with Lovely’s many malaproprisms, certainly identified her in the rapid-fire chapter changes (each featuring a different character), I couldn’t help finding it jarring, and being unsure whether it was necessary, since it was so overused and clearly meant to add humor. Were we supposed to be sorry for her or laughing at her? Here’s an example, with Lovely’s own first-person narration:

“Don’t say such things, please,” I am protesting, even though I am secretly thinking that maybe he is right. My performances are always outshining. In fact, I am having the same thought myself. But I am always being humble. “I have to learn a lot more than you,” I am saying to him. (143)

Seven present continuous constructions in five sentences, short sentences at that. But I withheld judgment, and I’m glad I did.

What else grated? Well, Indian novels in English are almost always double-coded. If they use a term unfamiliar to non-Indians they follow it immediately with a descriptive phrase or word of explanation. This makes the work more easily accessible to a wider readership, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how much it is done, and whether or not it is desirable to make the readers do a little work and make sense of the word in context or (gasp) look it up in a glossary at the back of the book. This novel either double-codes every possible unfamiliar word or dispenses with it altogether and replaces it with a familiar one. Even Indian street food (at a time when “authentic” global street food is all the rage) has to be translated into terms a global audience would understand, with kadai translated as wok and fresh coriander translated as cilantro. One incidence of double-coding particularly irked me: Jivan’s harried defense lawyer visits his guru. Okay. I think that in 2020, most English-speakers know what a guru is. But this novel is taking no chances: just in case, “my guru” is followed by “my spiritual leader” (106).

The fact that one of the main characters is a hijra: did that bother me? Was I being transphobic? I confess that I mentally raised half an eyebrow when remembering that Anjum, one of the main characters in Arundhati Roy’s last novel, was also a hijra. Were they trying to cash in on the moment, especially in the Global North, or were they helping to bring marginalized voices to the fore? I remember the late Marathi writer Gauri Deshpande’s reaction to Arundhati Roy’s celebrated first novel, The God of Small Things, in which she wondered whether Roy was trying to cater to the West’s appetite for titillation by featuring not only a star-crossed inter-caste love affair and incest between twins but adding child sexual abuse for good measure. Gauri certainly did not make this charge out of political or social conservatism, since her own avant-garde novels challenged class and power inequities and included transgressions likely to simultaneously scandalize and titillate her Indian readers. Ultimately, the test would be in whether these characters were drawn with complexity and whether these elements were essential to the plot.

During the weeks A Burning had to be set aside, I found myself thinking of it from time to time. Did I want to be won over, or did I want my first impressions confirmed? I wasn’t sure. Was I being mean-spirited out of envy of this first-time novelist’s privilege? But hadn’t I been given all the same privileges? And wasn’t I often troubled by the all-too-ready dismissal by writers and critics based in India of the global successes of their fellow writers in the diaspora simply because that success was rarely extended to them, no matter how good they were?

Now that I have finished my first reading of A Burning, I recommend it heartily, despite my initial and admittedly petty reservations. It is a fine novel, fast-paced and powerful. It kept me guessing throughout, filled with hope and dread in equal measure. The three main characters are all drawn with complexity and pathos and I found myself rooting for every one of them. The outcomes for each of them were completely understandable, given their respective situations and the situation in India today; and yet, not entirely inevitable. They could have been different, if only. . .

A Burning couldn’t be more timely, and, as Majumdar herself said in a radio interview shortly after its publication:

I think there are these really close links between what’s happening in India and what’s happening in the U.S. And I hope that through this book, which, yes, is about oppression and yes, is about systems of discrimination, I hope that people also do pay attention to how the characters in this book dream and make jokes and strive even in conditions of great oppression, and I hope that feels meaningful to anybody picking up the book in the U.S.

The title, which somehow felt grammatically off to me at first, also turned out to have been just right on so many levels. Congratulations, Megha Majumdar, for a terrific first novel!

Majumdar, Megha. A Burning. Knopf, 2020. Buy it from your local independent bookseller.

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464. Middle Age

In 1990s, Aging, Family, Immigration, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender on April 16, 2020 at 10:26 pm

This is the thirteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Middle Age.

In the late 1990s I officially entered middle age, if the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary and the United States Census are to be accepted. Since they both designate middle age as the years from about age 45 to 65, I am just moving out of that middle period now, and entering a whole new stage of life. But can I cast my mind back to those years in which I was still approaching it? To be honest, it is all a bit of a blur.

During the decade of the 1990s our son moved from starting kindergarten to finishing his first year of high school, with the dizzying array of activities that fill those years. How busy we keep our children! In parallel, I completed my doctoral work and started my first fulltime faculty position, a 215-mile roundtrip commute north of us. Rather than relocate our nuclear family, which was settled happily in a congenial community with our parents on both sides having recently retired nearby, I opted to drive up on Tuesday mornings, rent a room in a house for two nights a week, and return home on Thursday evenings. I suppose it worked, more or less, but it was exhausting, and the almost-continuous shuttling made it hard to simply rest in any one place for long. Sometimes I wonder what it was all for. Perhaps that’s the nature of the striving that defines so much of our working lives. At the time it seems essential; but in retrospect, not so much.

Despite how officialdom defines age groups, they also vary depending on place, education, and social class. In the mid-1970s, when I was looking into midwifery, one of the paths I considered for a time after college, the British midwifery manual labeled a thirty-year-old first-time mother an “elderly primipara.” (Now, by the way, that age has been scaled up to thirty-five.). In  the 1980s when we moved to a farm in a rural community I was an ancient first-time mother at thirty. There were plenty of grandmothers not much older than I was. But when in 1990 we moved to the university town where we still live, I was enviably young with a kindergartner at 35, since so many women had postponed having children until they were established in their professional careers.

The 1978 portrait of the Brown sisters (© 2014   Nicholas Nixon)

There’s another interesting thing about the relativity of age: one’s perception of one’s own age in relation to the rest of the population. In my twenties and early thirties, I felt that I was younger than most other people round me. Whether or not that was indeed the case, I was caught up in my youthful concerns and nobody else really mattered. In my later thirties and forties, I still felt on the young side, but noticed that there were about as many people younger than me as there were older than me. But increasingly, entering my fifties and on up into my sixties, I’ve become acutely aware that I am either the oldest person in the room or alternatively, one among many grey-haired or bald people in my age group, with nary a young face to be seen.

  The 1988 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

How did my perceptions square with actual population demographics? In 1980, when I was 25, the median age of the U.S. population was 30, so I was younger than many others, but comparatively speaking not as young as I had thought. Ten years later, in 1990, when I was 35, the median age was 32.9, so I was just about in the middle; and by 2000, when,at 45, I was entering middle age, the median age of the U.S. population was 35.3, making me fully ten years older than the average American. I still didn’t feel my age.

The 1999 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

All through the 1990s I had the metabolism of my youth. I was pretty much the same weight as I had been in high school, and I still could and did eat anything, and as much of it as I liked without the scales moving in the slightest. My hair was getting greyer, but I was dyeing it at home with an peroxide-free German product that looked very natural, so nobody noticed but me. I seemed to have boundless energy, too, although the long commutes were silently taking  their toll on my system.

It turns out that I was a kind of Dorian Gray through most of my middle age, in that while until age 55 I was regularly considered the person in our group of friends who had aged the least, I was living as if there was no tomorrow in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction. The hidden painting was the one that was aging, not me. But sometime in my early 60s it all caught up with me at once, the middle-age spread, wrinkles, thinning hair, “senior moments,” the inability to concentrate after a certain hour in the evening. Suddenly, it seemed, far from looking young for my age, I looked considerably older than my agemates who had been steadily taking care of themselves. But perhaps that too is all a matter of self-perception.

Something else happened to me as I approached middle age that was less about self-perception than about how one is perceived by others. Not just anyone, though; I’m talking about women in particular. At a certain age, women just disappear; once they are no longer perceived as sexual beings, they are no longer noticed at all. I had read of this phenomenon of middle-aged women’s invisibility and my mother had been telling me about it for years. She would storm in, furious at having been passed over while waiting for service in a store in favor of a much younger woman. “It was as if I wasn’t even there,” she would fume. “I complained, but then they looked as me as if I was crazy and answered in patronizing tones as if I were a child.” I would sympathize with her but had no idea of what it was really like until it started happening to me. With regularity.

Still, despite the messages from society, I persisted in feeling younger than I was. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center, Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality, found that the older people get, they younger they feel; until they’re about 30 they feel their actual age, but by age 45 they feel ten years younger.

What has advancing middle age meant to me as an immigrant? Having come to the United States when there were very few immigrants here from anywhere except Europe, I feel like a living historical archive, that I have a lot to share with those who have arrived more recently. I also feel less lonely. As a 1.5-generation immigrant (known as such because they bring with them or maintain characteristics from their home country, meanwhile engaging in assimilation and socialization with their new country), I feel that I can understand both first-generation immigrants and their American-born children. And as I move into and beyond middle age, I delight in the fact that the demographics of the American population are starting to skew in favor of immigrants and people of color. While I was in a tiny minority when I first arrived in this country in 1970, when immigrants made up only 5 percent of the population, in 2020 it has risen to nearly 15 percent; if you additionally count the American-born children of immigrant parents, we are looking at fully 28 percent of the population.

 Madhubala

Going back to that 2009 Pew Research Center survey about growing old in America, it found that people aged 75 and older had a count-my-blessings attitude when asked to look back over the full arc of their lives and measure it against their expectations. Younger people, by contrast, were much less forgiving of themselves. I am learning to replace judgement with acceptance. My invisibility—a magic cloak for older women. My steel-grey hair—I embrace it. As for my middle-aged spread, I’ve always been scarecrow-thin. Now I’m what Indians of an earlier generation would have called “healthy”, before Euro-American norms reshaped their standards of beauty.

Looking back, I feel protective toward the forty-year-old me, approaching middle age. I want to give her a gold star for effort, but also give her permission to slow down, breathe, and enjoy life a little more.

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455. Dual Identities

In blogs and blogging, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, women & gender on April 4, 2020 at 9:57 pm

This is the fourth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Dual Identities. Back in the seventies there were very few Indians in the United States–Asian Indians, that is. Most of them had immigrated since the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, that did away with the racially discriminatory national origins quota system, which had governed admissions to the country since the 1920s. It wasn’t until the 1980 Census that there was even a separate category for Asian Indians, and not until 2000 when Americans could check more than one ethno-racial category. However, it is estimated that in 1970 there were only 51,000 India-born immigrants in the country, only one half of one percent of all the foreign-born immigrants, and only 6.2 percent of the immigrants from Asia. By 1980 that number had risen to 360,000 and 10% of all Asian immigrants. But most Indian immigrants were living in New York-New Jersey, California, or Illinois.

In the Boston area, the Indian community in the seventies was a tiny one. There was only one Indian grocery store, India Tea and Spices in Cushing Square, Belmont, where we bought our essential ingredients, and where I picked up my first copy of India Abroad, a weekly paper founded in 1970, the year of my arrival in the U.S. (and which discontinued its print edition just last week). There were no other students of Indian origin in my high school nor, to my knowledge, in my college class, unless they managed to operate under the radar, or moved in very different circles from mine.
Every Sunday, IAGB, the Indian Association of Greater Boston, would screen a Hindi movie in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, in collaboration with Sangam, MIT’s Indian student organization, and the whole community, it seemed, would make the scene, with saris, babies, loud talking all at once in multiple languages, and of course, plenty of snacks. Meanwhile the week’s movie provided the necessary background music and a feeling of home. Sometimes we would go with our friend Subhash, who knew all the songs and all the names of the stars. He named his son Amitabh, after Amitabh Bachchan, of course.

At that time the Boston-area Indian community was so small that just meeting an Indian was remarkable enough for me to go home and tell my family about it. It wasn’t until later in the decade that we would start to use the broader term “South Asian” to describe ourselves, to assert solidarity and commonality with our fellow subcontinentals: Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalis, even the odd Burmese. And it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that I began to see myself as “Asian American.”

But in any case, “identity” wasn’t a thing back in the seventies, not for me anyway. For one thing, you had to have a community to have an identity, and I didn’t. In April 1977 the Combahee River Collective, a group of black feminists, issued a statement.  In it, they asserted their differences from the predominantly white, middle-class American  women’s movement and coined the term identity politics to describe the need for women of color to focus on their own oppression, rather than be subsumed under a larger umbrella that claimed to speak for them but in fact silenced them. Was I silenced? I don’t suspect that anyone who knew me would say so now, but I frequently felt obliged to be different things to different people.

Source: SAADA

Soon after I graduated from college in 1975, India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and, in a series of Draconian moves, arrested many opposition political leaders, and muzzled the press. The Indian community in the U.S. hadn’t yet come of age, but it galvanized into action, organizing for the restoration of democracy, demonstrating at Indian consulates, speaking out on the issue at public meetings, making documentaries on the subject, writing speeches, articles, and letters to the editor, signing petitions, hosting speakers from India, and generally bringing global pressure to bear on Mrs. Gandhi to live up to India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy. I became active in that effort as part of a group of mostly graduate students in and around MIT and Harvard, and these like-minded people from every country in South Asia became my fast friends. Together we forged a community of support and solidarity.

At the same time, I also found myself getting heavily involved in the flowering anti-nuclear movement, galvanized by the Clamshell Alliance’s opposition to the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plants in New Hampshire. For seven years, from 1977 to 1984 when our son was born, Andrew and I printed posters and bumper stickers, marched, organized civil disobedience (with me, not yet holding American citizenship, as a member of the support team), rallies, marches, and pickets, engaged in debates with nuclear industry spokesmen, published newspapers and magazines, wrote letters, speeches, press releases, and papers, and attended too many meetings to count.

The funny thing was, there was no overlap between these two groups, my South Asian activist friends and my anti-nuclear friends. So different were they that I found myself taking on a completely different identity in each, even to the extent that each  knew me by a different name. My group household consisted of young white Americans, all anti-nuclear activists, members of a food cooperative, living an “alternative” lifestyle (what would have been called countercultural back in the sixties). They wore faded denim jeans and plaid flannel shirts and listened to punk rock and the Grateful Dead. My South Asian cohort, most of whom lived in the same general neighborhood, were a little older and more highly educated, getting married and completing PhDs. Like my white American friends most of them came from respectable upper-middle-class families but had become more social and politically conscious after coming to the U.S. They were secular, intellectual and highly serious, opposed race, class, and caste discrimination, and lived for study and argument. My anti-nuke friends knew nothing of my life with my South Asian friends, and my South Asian friends thought the No Nukes crowd were naïve, earthy-crunchy, and not very serious.

In my group household I always knew when a phone call had come in from an Indian friend because one of my roommates would answer and when they heard the voice on the other end of the line their tone would change. “Jyotsna”, they’d call out to me teasingly, using the Indian form of my name and emphasizing the ‘y’ and the ‘t’, “phone for you.” There was only one fellow-South Asian, Hayat, who was active in the anti-nuclear movement at the time and I was overjoyed when I met her. Andrew and I printed the wedding invitations for her and Joseph and we became lifelong friends. There were a handful of friends in the South Asian group who accepted me as I was, rather than seeing me as a bit of an oddball. One of them was a couple whose apartment we all practically lived in and whose wedding celebration Andrew and I attended. We also became lifelong friends and, more than 40 years later, we had the pleasure of attending their daughter’s wedding. Only one of the group took the anti-nuclear movement as seriously as I did and I loved him for it. Then there were my mixed group of friends who didn’t belong to either group, with whom I shared a love of music, literature, and social concerns. Boy, were they a breath of fresh air!

I don’t know what the moral of this story is, except that if I have any identity at all it is plural; that, like everyone else, ‘I’ am made up of an infinity of constantly shifting and evolving elements. But there is another ‘I’ who looks on at this play of identities with amusement and waits for me to quiet down, drop my masks and performances, and just be. The people with whom I feel the most at ease know and love (or are annoyed by, as the case may be) the many parts of me. In my youthful insecurity, I tried too hard to fit in with the norms of one group or another, wanting to be liked, approved of, accepted. Nowadays I still hold back on sensitive subjects depending on the group I’m with, sometimes out of tact, sometimes out of respect. But older now, I am what I am, and what others think doesn’t matter so much to me anymore.

America of 2020 is a very different place from what it was half-a-century ago. As of April 2019 there were nearly 5.4 million people of South Asian origin in the United States, more than four million of them claiming either a singular or a mixed Indian identity. My heart doesn’t leap anymore when a South Asian passes me by on the street. Racism, xenophobia, and social segregation have not abated, however, and questions of identity are still fraught and hard to negotiate. But there has been cross-fertilization and change as a new generation of South Asian Americans have become engaged in all kinds of social activism both in the U.S. and in South Asia. In the 1970s there was no group like today’s South Asians for Climate Justice, which could have brought my disparate worlds together.

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442. Rest In Peace, Kumud Rege (June 29, 1922 to October 5, 2019)

In Family, India, travel, women & gender, Work, writing on October 5, 2019 at 10:45 pm


My dear Mai-atya, my father’s elder sister Kumud Rege, is no more. She passed away in Mumbai on October 5th, and the cremation rites are taking place as I write this.  She spent her life serving others in the Gandhian spirit of local self-reliance, and was especially beloved in her hometown of Ratnagiri on the Konkan Coast of Maharashtra. She lived in and looked after the family home until it was sold, after which she moved to Mumbai with her younger sister, who cared for her lovingly in the last years of her life. The last time I saw her was in June, 2014, when I had just turned sixty and she, ninety-two. Although she appeared to have dementia by then, when we arrived she immediately insisted on speaking exclusively in English. When Nikhil asked to take a short video of her sending a message to his grandfather—her brother—she spoke movingly and articulately, looking directly into the camera. In an elegant Marathi I cannot fully understand or reproduce, she said, “Bapu (as she called Dad), we are enjoying here with Josna and Nikhil. It is almost as if you were here with us.”

Rest In Peace, dear Mai-atya. You have been a good and faithful servant, devoted to the education of women, and a role model for us all. So grateful for your well-lived life. In my heart, it is almost as if you were here with us.

I am copying below a short oral history of Mai-atya that was published in the SPARROW (Sound and Picture ARchives for Research on Women) Newsletter in 2006.

O R A L   H I S T O R Y

Interviewing Kumud Rege

In May 2006 I had the opportunity to interview Kumud Rege, who is a social worker in Ratnagiri District, on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. At 84, Kumud has been a doer all her life. She speaks rapidly, as if she has no time to waste. In a June 2000 SPARROW interview with fellow-Ratnagiri native Urmila Pawar, she acknowledged,“I’m not really fond of writing. I like to work rather than write about it.” While writing her memoir, Vegalya Vatene Jatana, or Traveling by a Different Path, she dictated it to a scribe, in-between meetings with a steady stream of people whose lives she has touched, either seeking her advice or simply coming to pay their respects, even though she has officially been retired for many years. Kumud was born in the district headquarters town of Ratnagiri, and lives very simply in the family home where she grew up with her parents and seven siblings (she was the fourth of eight children, and the second of three girls). In adulthood, she was the only one among her siblings who stayed in Ratnagiri and carried out her life’s work there. Kumudtai is well-known and beloved in the whole district, where she has worked and remained active with almost every social institution, including mahila mandals and balwadis, schools and colleges, the juvenile court, the remand home, the mental home, and particularly the Smt. Janakibai (Akka) Tendulkar Mahilashram in Lanja.

Kumudtai began her vocation of Gandhian social work in 1942 when, as one of only 10 female students living in the hostel at Willingdon College, Sangli, she participated in the Quit India Movement. Her father had written to her giving her permission to take part in the movement if she so desired, and also wrote a letter to her college principal to that effect. Her father wore khadi and it was at that time that Kumud started wearing khadi herself, a practice she continues to this day. She told Urmila Pawar light-heartedly that over the years her family members have tried to persuade her to wear colored blouses or printed saris, but to no avail. Speaking with her nieces Shubha Desai and me in May 2006, she explained her attraction to khadi as something beautiful made entirely by hand and most often by women. Although khadi is associated with politicians, she distanced herself from khadi-wearing as a symbolic political statement.

In 1945, after completing her B.A. in sociology, Kumud participated in an intensive 6-month workshop in Saswad run by the newly-established Kasturba Gandhi trust fund for development of village women and children in Maharashtra under the leadership of one of her mentors and role models, Prematai Kantak. The daily programme consisted of lessons in environmental cleanliness (including cleaning around toilets), ayurvedic medicine, spinning, and agricultural skills, as well as prayers and other subjects such as psychology. In 1946 Kumud and Akka Tendulkar co-founded a Village Service Center in Lanja Taluka, Ratnagiri, and soon began to focus on the many interrelated needs of women and children. This center developed into the Lanje Mahilashram, which for the past 60 years has continuously served women of all ages with a wide variety of programs.

In 1950, after completing a second Bachelor’s Degree in Teaching in Pune, Kumudtai went to Bordi in Thane District to complete a diploma in Basic Education, following which she lived and worked for four years in a village development program in Gopuri (Kankavali taluka) with Appasaheb Tendulkar, popularly known as the Konkan Gandhi. For the next seven years, Kumudtai directed the Kasturba Gramsevika Vidyalaya in Saswad, where she ran a women’s social worker training college and inspected village development efforts carried out all over Maharashtra. During this time, while Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement was in full swing, she received a Central Government scholarship for doctoral study at Mouni University in Gargoti, where the subject of her research and dissertation was “Mutual Relationship between Primary Schools and Village Social Institutions.” In keeping with her hands-on approach, this was no library-based study, but one that required her to travel through many villages and schools to investigate how they worked.

In 1961, at the invitation of then-Chief Minister P.K. Sawant on behalf of the Jotiba Phule Education Society, Kumud returned to Ratnagiri as Principal of Desai Teacher’s Training College. She has continued to live and work in her hometown ever since, heading the college for two decades, serving as Honorary Magistrate of the Children’s Court, on the Board of the Remand Home, and, since 1982, as President of the Janakibai (Akka) Tendulkar Mahilashram. When asked to look back on all her different activities, Kumudtai considers the mahilashram to be her greatest achievement.

The mahilashram in Lanja serves many different aspects of women’s needs at different stages of their lives: it takes in teenage mothers, runaways, referrals from juvenile courts or abusive homes; offers a range of education and training for self-sufficiency; helps to arrange marriages for the women if returning to their families is not an option for them, and allows them to stay on and contribute to the work of the ashram if they so desire. It also finds shelters and raises orphaned children, runs a balmandir for older children, and arranges adoptions. The ashram received very limited government funding, and relies for its support on donations and fund drives.

Starting in 1993, the mahilashram added another wing, Shantisadan, for women over 60. There is space for ten women in Shantisadan, and it has never yet had more than a handful in residence. Reflecting on this, Kumudtai notes that any woman who leaves her home to come there, comes somewhat unwillingly, either because she has no family or because she cannot live with them. The women who adjust and settle in best are those who enter into the life of the ashram as a whole, serving as teachers, telling stories, being grandmothers to the children, participating in weddings at the ashram, singing or leading prayers at various functions. Kumud does not call Shantisadan an old-age home, with the stigma of social isolation attached to that term, but rather a place within the ashram where elderly women can live, or simply come to stay for a while. At the conclusion of her memoir Kumud has written movingly about what the mahilashram means to her in her own old age. “The idea that children are a stick to lean on in old age has been shaken. Just to speak for myself, the stick of the ashram has become the main support for my later life. This is my stick and these are my children.”

Kumudtai speaks about her various activities unassumingly, never volunteering information on the many awards she has been given over the years. Like many other women, she tends to downplay the significance of her own role in a project, emphasizing instead the collective nature of the work. When I asked her if she would donate her documents and photographs to SPARROW’s archives, she replied with some surprise that she didn’t have any such records. Because she is a doer, one gains the best insights into her work through observation. In my intermittent visits to Ratnagiri over the years I have observed her steady work with Dalits and the poor, especially women and children, her thriftiness (she uses less cooking oil in a month than I use in one meal), her emphasis on service and giving rather than consumption (she asks all her family members to contribute to her various projects and gives away her award shawls to her nieces), her egalitarianism (she refuses to have servants, but rather lives with young companions, whom she educates and trains toward self-sufficiency), her experimentation with energy-saving technologies (her simple solar cooker cooked her rice, dal, and vegetables while she was away at work). I invariably find her arranging a marriage for a man left widowed with small children, giving advice to a woman whose second husband is mistreating her child from her previous marriage, inaugurating a balwadi for Dalit children, or taking long, hot state transport bus trips to speak to village women on a job training course.

At the end of our interview my cousin Shubha and I asked our aunt about the title of her book, Traveling by a Different Path. We wanted to know how she had made the decision to do so, and what she thought about that choice now. However, she replied that at the time she did not think in these terms. Participating in the Quit India Movement of 1942 had influenced her, particularly the principles underlying Gandhi’s idea of individual satyagraha, but it was only later on that she realized that she had in fact taken a different path in life. When we asked about her choice not to marry, she similarly insisted that she had not made a decision as such, either to marry or not to marry, but rather that she did what felt right at the time. Asked about whether she has had the support of her family, she replied unhesitatingly, “Not the slightest resistance from anyone. They used to buy me cloth for colored blouses. They said, Why must you wear white all the time? Use some printed stuff….They do that out of their love for me. But nobody asked me, Why don’t you wear ornaments? or Why don’t you get married? They know that I have done what I wanted to do.”

Urmila Pawar’s June 2000 SPARROW interview with Kumud Rege is available in audiotape and Marathi transcription and has been translated into English by Kumud Rege’s sister and my aunt, Mrs. Suneeta Kulkarni. The May 2006 SPARROW interview with her is in the process of transcription. Some information for this piece was also drawn from Kumudtai’s autobiography, Vegalya Vatene Jatana (Traveling by a Different Path, Ratnagiri: Konkan Marathi Sahitya Parishad, 2000) which is available in the SPARROW library. Thanks also to my late father, Madhukar Rege, who was responsible for most of the translation from Marathi, and to my cousin, Dr. Shubha Desai, who helped me with the interview with our aunt.

 

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406. Of Piercings, Pain, and Authenticity

In Books, culture, Family, Immigration, India, Stories, United States, women & gender on January 7, 2018 at 2:27 pm

(from indiaparenting.com)

For the past nine days and counting it has been a low-grade irritation at best; at worst, almost as excruciating as the opening scene in Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel, Ambiguous Adventure (L’Aventure Ambiguë, 1961), in which the young protagonist’s teacher, to drive his Qur’anic lessons home more deeply, grips Samba Diallo’s tender earlobe between the nails of his thumb and forefinger and pierces right through it. As the tenth day dawns, my dwindling hopes are at vanishing point, and there is no consolation. What else did I expect?

Let me start at the beginning. It’s about ear-piercing. In India, at least in Dad’s generation, ears were pierced at birth, during infancy or in early childhood, boys and girls alike. But mine were not done, and for some reason I can’t remember, I wasn’t inclined to get them done when I came of age. As I grew older, I came to consider it a barbaric practice, or so I retorted loudly whenever someone asked me why my ears weren’t pierced. For was ear-piercing different from any other form of ritual or cosmetic body-modification? Why would one want to violate the body’s integrity by piercing and scarring it?

Then I started getting earrings for presents. Dad returned from his first trip to India after our immigration to the States with beautiful silver necklace-and-earring sets, of which I could only wear the necklaces. And when Andrew and I went to India after our marriage, various relations wanted to present me with earrings fashioned from family gold, and were downright annoyed with me for not having pierced ears. What Indian woman didn’t have her ears pierced? Just more evidence of my cultural inauthenticity.

After dear Leela-kaki in Pune presented me with a pair of custom-made gold post earrings, my cousin Kalyani, with her characteristic no-nonsense efficiency, took me out into the alley behind the jeweller’s, where they did the job unceremoniously over an open flame. We continued on our travels with my newly-pierced ears, in the heat of May.

The outcome was predictable, I suppose. It was impossible to care for my ears properly while on the move, and they became infected. I can’t remember when I took out the earrings, but I kept them in until the situation was untenable. Upon returning to the U.S., I made the mistake of not leaving them in permanently, so every time I put on a pair of earrings, my ears would bleed afresh. Eventually I gave it up as a bad job and decided to let the hole seal up.

Ten, fifteen years went by. After Nikhil graduated from university he started going to India quite often and bringing back beautiful earrings for me, so I decided to try again. But when I got to the ear-piercing place at the local mall with my gold studs from India in hand, I found that they wanted you to purchase special earrings from them, and so I changed my mind and came away with nothing to show for it.

Fast forward another decade and my dear friend Marianne presented me with beautiful silver earrings, expecting me to put them on right away. Like everyone else, she had simply assumed that my ears were pierced: whose weren’t? I determined then and there that I would get the deed done this time, come what may, as a Christmas present to myself. Well, I did, and “what may” has now come to pass.

On my first free day after Christmas I set out for the mall, resolute. When I got to Claire’s, recommended because they regularly pierced children’s ears, I saw a pre-teen girl perched on the high stool waiting, her mother by her side, supporting her in this small coming-of-age ritual. Slim and leggy, like a young deer, she was shivering with equal parts eager and anxious anticipation, anticipation of the piercing itself, to be sure, but also of the solemnity of the occasion, of the adulthood into which it was initiating her, and all that it signaled, both pleasure and pain. I told her that I was nervous about my own coming ordeal, and was watching her carefully. If she cried, I would run a mile. She giggled, shivered again, and came through the ordeal sporting pretty pearl ear studs. Wreathed in smiles, she leaped off the stool to join her mother in shopping for new earrings. Her life was all ahead of her; what was I thinking, undergoing this ritual at my age? But now I was trapped: it was my turn.

It was a straightforward procedure, except for the numerous forms I had to sign releasing Claire’s from legal responsibility for anything and everything that might possibly go wrong. Besides whether to stay or to run a mile, there was just one choice to make: which one of their selection of post earrings I wanted put in my ear while the piercing healed. But I made the wrong choice.

I was all set to go ahead with a low-priced pair featuring gold clasps and a clear shiny stone of no particular value when the manager arrived and came on strong with a recommendation of the diamond earrings. They were “only” 40-odd dollars more, but they were smaller, sat closer to the ear, and came with a full replacement warranty should they break or get lost. Best of all, they were nice enough for me to wear them all the time as my default pair. Stupidly, I relented. After all, this had been a long time coming; why economize now?

But from the second that I heard the click of the hole punch, the problems began. One side felt relatively normal after the initial sharp pain of the piercing, but the other one felt wrong from the start. Both ears were soon red and swollen, accompanied by a persistent dull throb. I followed the cleaning and care instructions religiously for several days, but to no avail; things only got worse, to the extent that the sharp diamond studs were actually starting to get absorbed into my ear. I looked it up and found that it was called embedding; now that was truly frightening. A week out, I went to my doctor, who took one look at the studs and told me that they were on too tight. The problem, we soon discovered when we went to loosen them, was that the posts were too short and they were already on their loosest setting. She prescribed an antibiotic and recommended adding a saline wash and a thrice-daily heat pack  to the treatment regimen—if I didn’t want them taken out, that is. She said there was only a slim chance that things would improve, but that it was up to me how to proceed. So here I am four days later, and things aren’t appreciably better, although I keep telling myself that there is a slight improvement and I’ll give it just one more day.

Why didn’t I simply ask the doctor to remove the earrings and be done with it ? It was because I would have to give up on wearing earrings for the rest of my life (not to mention leaving scars from two failed attempts on my earlobes). But why was this such a daunting prospect? After all, I haven’t worn them all these years and here I am in my sixties. Was it because deciding to let go of the idea of piercing my ears once and for all would force me to accept that the time of self-adornment was over for me? Or because now, all those earrings lovingly given to me as presents would never be worn? Or was it because I would have to acknowledge one more sign of my ethnic inauthenticity? All of the above, I think, but there’s something more.

(from india24)

As postcolonial theorist R. Radhakrishnan concluded in an early essay, “Is the Ethnic ‘Authentic’ in the Diaspora?”, the answer is inevitably Yes: the culture and consciousness of those living outside of their country of origin are bound to depart from its norms. Migrants, minoritized and marginalized in their new environment, often cling all the more to their ethnic identities unquestioningly, frequently shoring up outdated identities in the process. We can all think of examples of ethnic  subcultures in the New World preserving beliefs, practices, and cultural forms (including language) that have long been obsolete in their home countries. But is that the point? After all, people who have never left their country of origin also flout its cultural—and its political—norms. One can be out of touch and uninformed no matter where one lives; conversely, one can remain current with and critically informed about one’s country and culture no matter where one lives. But what does any of this have to do with my inflamed ears?

Going back to the young Samba Diallo in Ambiguous Adventure, one can safely say that the painful corporal punishment meted out to the boy in his religious tradition was extreme, even barbaric. However, in that powerful and haunting novel, the pain that Samba Diallo was to encounter later, as a young man, was far more excruciating—the pain of cultural alienation. Realizing that in order to survive under French colonialism, they would have to adopt the tools of their new masters, his family made the decision to give their beloved son a French education, and with it came the wrenching loss of everything he held dear, alienating him from all that made him who and what he was. I suppose that, deep down, I fear that loss for myself, even though I know that true authenticity is not something worn on one’s sleeve—or my case, in one’s ear—but something deep and inward.

In my heart of hearts, I believe that my ears are inflamed simply because I am allergic to earrings. My body reacts violently to any foreign object piercing holes in it, even if it is made of pure gold. I can keep delaying the inevitable, loth to relinquish that last flicker of hope that my system will finally accept the intruders; but in the end, I will have to accept what I knew all along: that this will never happen, and being authentic, being true to myself, means acknowledging and accepting this fact.

In the meantime, I will continue with the treatment regimen three times a day, continuing to kid myself until I can do so no longer. And when that time comes, there will be no consolation; what else did I expect?

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395. “Oh, Rob!”

In people, United States, women & gender on January 26, 2017 at 4:26 am

54fa8e7403fadb657f1b508a3d658d1aI know I’m not alone in the pang I felt this morning when I learned of the death of Mary Tyler Moore, age eighty. For me she will always be Laura Petrie, the lovely, lithe, funny, frustrated young wife in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966). I was introduced to the show when I met Andrew in 1970, the same year we immigrated to the United States. It was already in re-runs by then, but it was brand-new to me, like everything else in America. Andrew’s family watched television while eating dinner, starting with the CBS Evening News. Walter Cronkite signed off sometime over dessert with his “and that’s the way it is,” followed without fail by half an hour of Dick Van Dyke. On our trips to New York City, Andrew could never drive past the New Rochelle sign on the highway without murmuring, “Home of Rob and Laura Petrie.”

Looking back now, I see how young she was, still in her 20s. But I was 16 and the Women’s Movement was making her “Oh, Rob!” look terribly old-fashioned. I didn’t learn until years later how ground-breaking the show was, how subversive and controversial her tight black Capri pants had been. For Rob had married Laura right out of the army after the War (WWII, that is), and the successful dancer had become a suburban housewife. So much of the show’s comedy—and tension, and pathos—stemmed from Laura’s pent-up creative energy that burst out in the sparkling moments when she was allowed to perform on stage for part of an episode.

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Mary Tyler Moore was a New York actress and comedienne, progressive and public-spirited. She and the irrepressible Dick Van Dyke made a perfect TV couple. Just seeing them together made you smile. In the 1970s, she starred as Mary, the single “career-woman” in the man’s world of TV news in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), and again, as in the show’s theme song, she “turned the world on with her smile.”

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Behind that dazzling smile, Mary Tyler Moore the woman didn’t have an easy personal life. She was a victim of abuse as a child, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1970, struggled with alcoholism, and, in 1980, following a divorce, lost her only son. Still, she overcame the alcoholism, was nominated for an Oscar for her devastating portrayal of the bereaved mother in the film Ordinary People, and raised awareness and funds for diabetes research.

5b5ba9a186af7f9c51763da3d74f6714I don’t want to get too maudlin, but coming at this particular moment when the entire American landscape is changing, Mary Tyler Moore’s death feels terribly sad, not just for me, but for everyone who grew up with her. See, for instance, this very personal tribute by Michael Buckley, and another that includes an interview with Dick Van Dyke. With her seems to go a whole era. For me it was the time when I was defining feminism for myself, meeting the person who was to become my husband, and struggling to find my feet in a new country. But there’s to be no moping; just thinking of her makes me want to get on my feet and move.

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Rest in Peace, Mary Tyler Moore.

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389. Exposing Whose Perversity?

In 1960s, 2010s, Britain, clothing, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, women & gender on August 29, 2016 at 12:37 am

3d57c1d7d0a94e46a4d6a300c1dbaf4dYoung people are bound to set and follow fashions as they shape and explore an identity that distinguishes them from their elders. Back in the mid-Sixties when I was at boarding school in India, the Thai boys, who were always ahead of us in India when it came to fashion, arrived for the new school year sporting bell-bottomed trousers, or flares. But bell-bottoms weren’t regulation, and their flares were duly measured to determine whether they were in excess of some official width (that I suspect was invented on the spot). Our Thai guys’ wings were clipped as they were returned to the population. But though their style was cramped and trousers narrowed, they were always and forever our fearless fashion vanguard.

Ironic, isn’t it, that less than a decade earlier the cool guys had been sporting drainpipes. No doubt their trouser legs were also measured and found wanting—too narrow by half. The truth is, clothing is a marker of identity, and therefore must be controlled by those who are in the business of social control. And as long as the authorities seek that control, there will be acts of rebellion to wrest it away from them, whether out in the open or undercover.

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As teenage girls in late-Sixties England, our mild act of suburban rebellion was to surreptitiously fold over the waistbands of our sensible school-uniform skirts as we left home in the morning, instantly shortening them by a couple of inches and giving us that critical edge that our mothers just couldn’t understand. Of course, the authorities had to intervene; but the way they chose to do so backfired hilariously.

We got to school one day to find the prefects awaiting us officiously, armed with tape measures and unable to control their smirks. Apparently acting under orders from the very top, they ordered us girls to kneel in turn, while they measured the length of our skirts from the ground up. For those of us under 5’ 2’, that distance could not exceed six inches, while I think the taller girls were held to seven.

They reckoned without the press: the spectacle was a bonanza for them. The next day, photos of school-uniformed girls on their knees and tape-measure-wielding male prefects (curiously, they were all male that day) bending over them gleefully made several national papers as well as the local ones. How I wish I still had one of those cuttings!

In our case, the prefects were senior boys.

  (In our case, the prefects caught in the act were Senior boys.)

But while purporting to safeguard female modesty, the school authorities only exposed their own perversity with those lascivious images. Their ridiculous efforts to nip our wayward tendencies in the bud only redoubled our rebelliousness, while revealing that the indecency lay, not in our innocent hearts, but in their male gaze.

photo: Vantage

photo: Vantage

A similar fiasco is unfolding in France today with the ill-conceived burkini ban. While purportedly upholding France’s hallowed tradition of secularism, armed police were snapped standing over a woman on a Nice beach in the act of making her strip off her clothing. Far from challenging the control of religious extremists and modeling French social permissiveness, they only exposed their own need for social control. And as we schoolgirls did back in the Sixties, women are resisting. It’s a sales bonanza for burkinis and a warning to any authorities who seek to regulate what people choose to wear: banning will backfire on you.

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385. On Two Girls Running

In 2010s, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, parenting, Stories, United States, women & gender on July 7, 2016 at 12:05 pm

young_horse_lineart_4_ms_paint_by_kokamo77

by kokamo77 (deviantart.com)

The other day I had the same experience twice within the span of half an hour. It was a warm summer’s evening, the Saturday of a holiday weekend with July the Fourth coming up on the Monday, and our usually-quiet neighborhood was humming with activity. When we first moved to this area it was a combination of retirees, empty nesters, and young families. But over the years, as we ourselves have aged, many people have moved on, one way or another, and a number of the once owner-occupied homes have become student rentals.

There is another category of home on my regular walking route up the hill and back, especially after crossing the town line, which has always been a bit of a mystery to me. These houses have always appeared to be empty, even abandoned, as if they were summer homes, or as if their owner had died some years back but the family had not yet gotten around to clearing and selling them. The signs of emptiness are an eerie quiet, absence of light in any of the windows, canvas-covered cars parked in the driveways, overgrown banks and walkways, crumbling stone steps. It is in the front garden of one of these mysterious houses where the untended quince bush lives, the one I always pass on my route, flowering in the spring, and producing a small, hard fruit that I watch developing, ripening, and eventually shriveling and drying out, unpicked. Every now and then, at the end of the season, I pluck one and bear it home with me, feeling a little guilty, but mostly indignant on the quince’s behalf as it persists year after year, valiantly coming to fruit with no one nourishing or pruning it, or appreciating its efforts.

by kokamo77, deviatart.com

But I digress. On this particular summer’s evening, I was driving up the hill, nearing our house, when a young woman  suddenly burst out of a side street not far ahead of me, running at full tilt, and sprinted athletically across the road without slowing down at the curb and with nary a glance to left or right. My heart began to beat fast at the close call and I didn’t know whether to be relieved, angry, or admiring in the face of her youthful abandon, her confidence and invulnerability, her evident muscular power.

Soon after getting home I set out for my evening walk further up the hill. I usually turn around at the town line, where the sidewalk ends, but on this particular evening I continued on a little further. As I approached one of the houses that usually lies empty, I heard music and laughter, and saw holiday lights strung all around the front porch. The overgrown steps had been cleared and swept and the grassy bank was newly mown. Suddenly and without warning an adolescent girl bolted out of the house. Déjà vu! Hadn’t the same thing just happened to me not half an hour ago? But just as I began to tense up in anxious anticipation of her darting out into the street like her predecessor, she pulled herself up short, as if she had hit an invisible electric fence, then meandered leggily round to the back of the house and out of sight.

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This girl aroused even stronger emotions in me. I found myself wondering what had propelled her out of the house as if shot from a cannon, and what had made her come to such an abrupt halt. Instead of the annoyance I had felt toward the earlier runner, I felt sympathy and approval; instead of admiration, I felt protectiveness. Who can forget those times in adolescence when one feels so stifled in a roomful of adults that one must get some air immediately or die, those times when every instinct tells one to get away as fast as possible, no matter where? Then, too, every girl can recall the times when one longs to burst out, but Reason points out that there is nowhere to run. Instead, more often than not one simply settles for some time alone, to simmer down and prepare oneself to face the fraught family atmosphere again. This girl, her family new to the neighborhood, may have bounded outside and then realized that she was in unfamiliar territory; so instead of breaking through into the unknown, she put on the brakes and walked slowly and thoughtfully into the her family’s new back garden.

One part of me—the parent, probably—applauded the girl’s good sense, while another part felt a little sorry that she didn’t have the boldness, and no doubt the foolhardiness, of the earlier, older runner who had so startled me a little earlier. Sure, there was time for her to gain that confidence in herself, but time is not always on the side of adolescent girls; as often as not, they lose, rather than gain confidence as they advance into their teens.

On the other hand, thinking back to the older runner, I found myself wondering what her parents were thinking. Had they not warned her to take care when crossing that busy road? Or perhaps she was in college, living with a group of other students; if so, she was old enough to know better. Even as I admired her athletic physique as against my woeful lack of muscle tone, my exasperation was stronger, since she had potentially endangered her own life and mine. Was my disapproval of that fearless girl greater than my approval of her younger counterpart’s cautiousness? And weren’t all these feelings of mine deeply gendered, despite my feminism and my own rebelliousness at their age?

Adolescent and teenage girls have so much power and potential. They need experience in order to develop maturity and good sense; but we are afraid to give them that leeway. In the name of protection, we continually underestimate them, rein them in, and hold them back, as parents and as a society. And as grown women, we hold ourselves back as well.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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