The first time I attended a Scholarship reception event at Douglass College, I was humbled beyond measure. My donor was generous in her contributions. A self-made lady, she wished nothing more than to see me genuinely succeed in my endeavors, as did the other women alumnae for their recipients.
That is the beauty of Douglass – a diverse society of women helping other women, from fostering women’s leadership spirit, to mentoring, commendable curriculum and providing financial assistance. (Men were also welcome to visit within the larger Rutgers University campus and free to take the gender studies classes alongside the women.)
Personally, this experience was a revelation as my childhood in Delhi consisted of seeing my aunts and even my own mother depending on their husbands to make decisions for them. This is not necessarily a bad thing in small doses but the women in my family are well-educated enough to be independent thinkers within the infrastructure of their marriage.
My mother being the most qualified, as a physician, wished to work and earn her own money but the career oriented woman was a less evolved figure at that time in India. Another challenge was the tendency of women deriving satisfaction from lessening the freedom accorded to other women in the family. For example, my grandma performed immense number of (unpaid) household chores since a teenager and she lost many opportunities for growth in terms of education and work. Though she was happy with my mother’s qualifications to treat illnesses at home, she wasn’t very keen on seeing her daughter-in-law spending so much time time outside of her domestic duties.
A generation later, Indian women have come a long way to continue working after marriage and maintaining sound careers. Yet even today, many women cringe at the sight of seeing a merited woman get ahead, whether it be at home or work, a mentality pervasive across cultures and continents. This too can change but it does not come easy. My current workplace at Helen Keller International is prime example of change where the CEO, CFO, Controller and other top leadership roles are held by women.
Another element of male versus female psychology I have come to observe, both personally and professionally, is that when something goes well, say a promotion, a man is likely to feel that he is deserving of it. A woman is likely to attribute it to her good luck. On the other end of the spectrum, when something goes bad, a man will brush it off on fate whereas a woman is likely to internalize it and blame herself.
When I received my first scholarship based on my GPA, the late Dean Munson, who headed that department at that time asked me to come into her office. She was a lively young spirit, despite her old age, and she was loved by one and all. When she asked me how I felt upon receiving the merit based aid which was competitive in nature, I said that it must be my good fortune. I will never forget her words after that. “Lady, don’t you ever discount your hard work like this again. You earned this award.”
As women, we often try to fit the mold that is expected of us from a man’s perspective, a trait I have been guilty of myself in the past. At some point, I was foolish to aspire to be in a beauty pageant or apply fairness creams because that is what was primarily fed to girls from mainstream Indian media.
Because of Douglass, I could select powerful female role models such as Sunitha Krishnan, Ellen Page, Kangana Ranaut etc. At times, it is easy to pit one woman against another by making ad hominem attacks but Douglass taught its graduates to carve their own path of being a strong woman than to blindly follow in the shoes of another.
Because of Douglass, I could dis-empower the memories of the perverts in the Hindi teacher of my high school, in the boys studying in the adjacent school, and regressive culture of my hometown. If I have anything positive to say about Delhi in the front of women’s safety, I’d say its adjacent city, Gurgaon, is perhaps even worse. Though if you were to really research on the the kind of attacks and violence women face in cities around the world, you would have a hard time coming up with a formidable ranking based on a nation’s regressive reality. When I see a headline about a woman abducted and gangraped for 2 years in India, I remember the monster that is Ariel Castro and the three woman he held captive for over a decade in the States. When I read about a vicious acid attack against a woman in Pakistan, I think of a similar predicament on the rise in Italy.
Uniting women is not easy in a world that preys on ranking us even before we develop breasts and ascertaining our worth superficially under a microscope.
If we are attractive, we must be harebrained and if we happen to be qualified or demonstrate wit, we must be poor in appearance. Of course, Mayim Bialik proves that is not the case in real life.
We are subliminally brainwashed from an early age to, at the very least, be fuckable to the opposite gender. In this self-imposed mind prison, many of us will go to great lengths to fulfill that artificial photogenic desirability, the kind of perfectionism expected of women in porn, an industry with a predominant male customer base.
[Porn is an important issue, not only because of the emphasis on penetration rather than the more compassionate aspects of making love, but because of the need for younger and newer females to feed the male gaze often compensated by sex slavery of the female victims.]
Dark or fair, we are one.
Burqa or bikini, we are the same humanity of women.
Yes, you may find women oppressed to cover up in the East or pressurized to show more skin in the West, but those of us who freely choose their attire should be respected. We simply cannot afford a mentality that supports the rape culture, an epidemic that is dreadfully normalized and must be reversed. Statistics such as 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted on campus (and without receiving justice e.g. Emma Sulkowicz of Columbia University and Leah Francis of Stanford), headlines of ignorant politicians condoning rape and blaming the victim, vulnerable girls being trafficked and sexually assaulted by men etc. are testimony to the prevalent culture.
We may be pressurized to lighten our skin tone, to vaporize every hair follicle on our bodies, to lessen our belly post-pregnancy or plump our breasts and behinds simultaneously. And don’t forget the butt facial on the bottom left!
Even then, we must learn to be comfortable in our own skin and women who do demonstrate self-confidence with all their imperfections of scars, hair, pigmentation, acne, sexual orientation, and body shape should be welcome with open arms, as they have been below.
Even my co-ed Business School provided aid in its own forms by virtue of women leadership groups and financial assistance. In fact, I met a wonderful woman whose life story still aches my heart. She lost her son, a distinguished alum of the Business School, in the Sept 11 attacks and started a merit based scholarship in his loving memory, of which I was a recipient.
But Douglass had a special charm about it. I was granted funding for my first study abroad in London, my first internship, an amazing entrepreneurial venture with seed money of $10,000, and a treasured human rights experience in Romania, all thanks to Douglass. Almost all of my memorable college experiences has come from the women leadership college. Plus, the friendships I have gained from the school consist of some of the most amazing woman I have ever had the grace to meet.
Recently, we had been witness to #Yesallwomen, a uniquely powerful internet phenomenon. Its strength lay in uniting women by vocalizing their subconscious fears, horrors of harassment, and providing inspiration for those who thought they were alone in their experience. It is amazing how happy the heart can feel when you deeply relate to the story of another soul and the catharsis it produces when you gather enough courage to share your own.
I also enjoyed reading supportive comments by men who did not realize how their seemingly normal actions may be uncomfortable for us; for e.g. invading personal space at a workplace; walking down the same street at night. etc.
The bit of time and resources I can give back, I shall do so for my alma mater.
If you have a son, I hope he will take up some quality gender studies classes in his lifetime and support women’s rights. If you have a daughter, I hope she gets a chance to study in a such positive environment for women, as I had been fortunate to do so at Douglass.