Sunday, September 27, 2009
Saturday, September 26, 2009
On Monday, September 21st, we celebrated Eid. This holiday is one of the two most important for the Muslim community across the world because it celebrates the end of Ramazan. Throughout Ramazan(this month according to the lunar calendar) Muslims fast, abstaining from all food and drink during the light hours of the day. On the day of Eid the men from our group got up and went to the prayer time with somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 other men. Meanwhile, the rest of us women waited for them and then met at Sham’s sister’s home to have a feast in celebration of the day.
I was thankful for the relaxing morning, it’s always great to have a holiday, but I would have very much liked to go to do prayers with the men. I learned that in India women simply do not go to do prayers in public spaces. In Islam, the women are taught to dress modestly and are not allowed to go and do prayers with the men so as not to distract them. I fully respect these teachings and practices, however I don’t understand why only men can go out at pay homage their god together. In talking with Hermine, Sham’s niece, about Islam and Eid, I learned that the women simply stay home, not often getting together as the men do, but still be required to pray in the same way. Hermine gave no specific reason as to why this is except to say that it just is this way.
It seems unfair that women are seen as a distraction from holiness. When the men go to pray, it is very uniting and there is a sense of empowerment in this type of simultaneous worship that the women do not receive. Also, the men receive teaching from a leader and thereby knowledge about how to act and interact in the people in this world of both men and women. As an American woman who is committed to her faith, I would feel deprived and excluded were this practice of exclusion to be lorded of me. As an Indian woman committed to her faith, Hermine expressed an acceptance of the way her sect of Muslim society functions and did not question it or show any signs of defiance. This causes me to remember the lower status of women in the Indian society. I know that there are many mosques in the US and in Egypt that allow and encourage Muslim women to attend the prayer time by allowing for separation of men and women during prayers so as to maintain the ideal of modesty for every person. Although sometimes it is important to accept social rules in order to maintain a sense of harmony, but I wonder: at what cost do you accept things as the way they are and when does it become necessary to stand up for your right to equal treatment? Is subservience more helpful than descent because it is simply more convenient?
The other thing that really struck me about today was the wonderful Indian hospitality we experienced from Sham's family. All 16 of us students, our professor, Lindsay, and various staff members of the Visthar staff were welcomed with open arms into Assma's home in addition to her own extended family members. We were given seats in a large family room and encouraged to go back to the food table for 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th helpings of the amazing food. With my family, we are allowed to bring a guest if we notify the host well in advance so that enough food may be prepared and a family atmosphere can be created and maintained, but I wonder what would happen if I brought 16 guests, a professor, and other close friends to a Peterson family gathering. I envision a BIT of panic in the eyes of the host, to put it lightly. It seems as if the sense of community is so strong in this family that we, as guests, are seen automatically as part of the family. That is definitely how I felt as I was greeted by and bid farewell with hugs, handshakes, and air kisses on each cheek.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Ever since I arrived in India I have been greeted by the amazing colors and designs decorating each person, and more specifically the women. In the US, people often wear drab colors like shades of gray, tan, white, and black, maybe because they are more chic and professional. These colors exist in the garb here but there are so many more colors exploited and encouraged in the different pieces of clothing people wear. At first all clothing seemed to be a mesh of whirling colors that, over time have developed into kurtahs, salwar kamees, tight or large pants, dupitas, and the elegant saris. They all seemed so beautifully unique and yet strangely all the same.
Lindsay, the intern here at Visthar, helped to open my eyes to the world of saris today. We first went to a sari shop that looked similar to many other shops I had seen on Commercial Street and along other shopping center streets. I was told these were lower end, but was so amazed and overwhelmed at all the sari patterns and colors and sparkles that choosing just one seemed impossible. About an hour later I was lead to a special silk sari establishment where I needed to take off my shoes and walk in to sit down with cushions underneath and behind me. Instead of being overwhelmed by the things I saw in the earlier shop I began to see the quality of the material and the solidarity of an elegant, quality sari.
I left the second shop with new eyes. Instead of looking at clothing as simply decorative and ornamental I began to see the intricacies of how the sari defines who and what a person is in India. The material that looks as if someone just sewed something onto it or if the pattern is almost gaudy was not an expensive sari and the ones that are more plain but more elegant are worn by those who can afford such extravagance. Recognizing this, I came to the realization that what someone wears can also externally and socially define that person. It made me foolishly self-conscious of the cheap but beautiful kurtah I was wearing when I had previously been so enamored with its sparkly beauty. Is there a sub-culture defined by fashion in India?
The slums we walked through at the beginning of the journey here seemed so full of beautiful colors and the people did not seem poorly clothed as I was still so overwhelmed with the swirling hues. Would I have looked at these people differently if I really knew the cost of their clothing? I am disgusted with myself for thinking such materialistic thoughts and having developed a sense of pride having been able to afford a real silk sari that clearly declares to the world that I am wealthy, beyond the color of my skin and place of origin. What percentage of people in India can afford a real silk sari? How much of the silk in India is exported to wealthy people all over the world? How will the majority of India view me as I wear the cheaper sari or the silk sari? Will they see me as a white wannabe trying to be one of them or someone who is prominently displaying my wealth on my back? I am not sure how much what I wear will define me and am anxious to contrast reactions when I wear either sari.
This last week I was out on my first field assignment, sounds cool right? The whole group took an overnight train to a northern district of Karnataka (the state in which Bangalore is located) called Koppal. This is a very rural district where we helped build a meditation building for the less privileged people to find peace and serenity. We also spent a lot of time with girls who are descendants of temple prostitutes and spoke with women who have taken a stand and been able to declare themselves the last generation of temple prostitutes in their districts. During the week we spoke with farmers and bonded labor children who have to work to fund their fathers’ drinking problems, human hair wig makers, handloom and machine loom household industries, Dalit “untouchable” people, the superintendent of the police force in Koppal(the police in India are notorious for their corruption in soliciting and taking bribes), and we visited Hampi(ancient Hindu ruins). It was a packed week in which we met with and exchanged cultural knowledge with countless people.
We went to a movie one of the nights and I had a wonderful chat with one of the Visthar staff members named Nasser. Him and I discussed concerns about the psychological affects of the Devidasi (temple prostitution) system on the girls who have been brought to the Visthar schools. I mentioned having noticed a closeness between Nasser and the girls, a claim he acknowledged by saying many of the girls saw him as a father figure. These girls’ fathers do not publically acknowledge them or often even indirectly support them. It is strange for me to wrap my mind around the idea of parents not claiming their children where my parents often embarrass me with social, public praise at gatherings.
We began to chat about how so much of what we learn as socially acceptable is from watching and being advised by parents. Nasser told me the girls do not replace their mothers with the house mothers that take care of them at the school, yet in most cases they do not ever know their fathers so they are easily replace by him. It may be due to their lack of interaction with the opposite sex at an all girls school and coming from a home where the only parent was female. Visthar has, in the past 1 or 2 years, begun to mentally prepare their students for a world where their are men they will need to positively interact with and causes me to shudder at the possibilities were this counseling not available to them. I super cautious when it comes to men, yet if these girls are either paranoid or careless in their dealings with the opposite sex in a world where men mainly dominate their lives could be inexplicably difficult despite the great start Visthar’s education and practical skills teaching has given them.
Friday, September 11, 2009
I am angry.
We just got back from our night out at an establishment we thought was going to be a good place to hang out and chill after a long studious week. It ended up being a strip club and all 13 of us loud, obnoxious, white-skinned Americans were given the best seats in the house. We of course failed to notice a few obvious cultural signals until it was too late: the only women there stood in a line instead of groups wearing extravagant saris or pants that were way to tight for Indian standards, the men looked at the women and us with hungry smiles, all of the benches were facing into the dance floor and the women, and there was a sign on the door that said “Ladies Services” in large, bold letters. Outside of the place we sat and waited for our swaraji bus to arrive as cars pulled up or slowed down, rolling down windows and giving us 10 ladies and 2 guys the same looks that men were giving the women on the dance floor; they looked hungry and expectant. When we passed by one of the cars the men in that car had gazes that intensified and I felt forcibly naked, worried that they could see through my kurtah.
I am so sick of being in a large, totally conspicuous group of loud, obnoxious, white-skinned Americans and my desire to detach from my home country is intensified. It’s not fair that I have beauty preference and privilege in this vain country because of my fair skin color, but it’s also not fair that I should be labeled a loose woman or even a slut for that same “privilege” which I disdain. Being a minority, even if it is a good thing sometimes, is degrading to me.
I am fuming about the women who are stripping in that upper room all decked out in beautiful saris just so they can take them off. When we got back I rushed back to my room feeling disgusting for even wearing jewelry at all and feeling it burning so much that I want to rip it off as fast as I can. We don’t want to judge these people, but we all did. I want to physically slap the men at the bar we went to and yell at them how precious and personal a person’s body is and how it ought to be valued and kept sacred! I want to shake them, saying that bodies are not to be made into a commodity as the world markets would have it be! I want to smash in the smile of the men glaring hungrily, lusting after a human being, and tell them about the intellectual power of a woman and how that makes her truly beautiful, a wild and magnificent stallion that need not be tamed only respected.
My inner wild and magnificent nature is not, will never be tamed
and I am so angry…
Thursday, September 10, 2009
This week we are doing yoga with an instructor every morning this week, and I plan on continuing it while I am here and hopefully when I get home too because it is a great way to start the morning. Other than that and breakfast, the days are not super regular. On days there is class we start around 9:15-9:30 am, have chai and biscuits around 11, then class again until lunch at about 1 or 2, and then either some type of speaker or experience for a couple hours in the afternoon evening.
All water I consume, even for brushing teeth, is filtered and the food has given my stomach a round trip ticket to the bathroom many times...however, I am feeling much better today after being sick for 5 days. Sometimes, especially when I was sick, I take food that I want to try and end up not liking it, then I proceed to either make myself throw up by eating it or to simply throw it out. I feel guilty about “simply” throwing it away and am reminded of the walk I took through the slum and the beggars at the basilica. I feel so spoiled and privileged and white. I wonder how much the average Indian associates the color of my pale skin with the negative connotations such as being wasteful or if I am “simply” seen as privileged and unaccountable. I sometimes feel as if I am personally a part of colonization, whether I like it or not.
We are all in a dormitory-type building in which we all have a roommate and a bathroom to share in each room, which is much nicer than I was expecting! At the slums, you have to pay at least 1 rupee every time you go to the one squatting bathroom in your area and toilet paper is NOT included in that deal. Many people in India share one unsanitary outhouse with all of their neighbors and I only have to compete for bathroom time with my roommate. This situation reminds me of my bathroom at home and the one in the apartment I lived in last year at Concordia. I would get frustrated at not getting to take my shower at the time that I wanted to take it. In both situations I get to use a clean, well-maintained bathroom that comes complete with as much toilet paper as I need. Is this wasteful or just different and “modern” in stature? If we had fewer bathrooms in the US would we waste less toilet paper and water? Save trees, use your hand Indian style?...I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with not using toilet paper!