I greet you all with my two favourite greetings:
Khushamdeed – I welcome you in the name of the universe from a bottomless heart
Namaste ji: “I honor the place within you of love, of light, of truth, of peace; I honor the place within you, where, when you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us”
Gender empowerment – nice words. What do they really mean?
I prefer the word liberation to empowerment. The first most eminent liberation has to be from cultural entrapments. For that a price has to be paid. I would have to say that almost every woman in this room has had to endure many forms of pain points in the name of culture, especially from woman folk in the family who take it upon themselves to be the champions of oppression in the name of the “elders”. Now is the time to convert those pain points into growth points and make some clear choices that benefit you so that you can champion and support the liberation of the younger generation.
My liberation came about as a result of becoming aware that I was born a curse, a burden, a pariah, defined as such. Intense irrational abuse from my mother and father, in the name of the father, his son and holy traditions. A gifted child who was in the final year of her medical degree was discovered by her father to have had the audacity of choosing her own partner, all hell was let loose. Imprisonment, beatings and drugging into semi-conscious state for a full nine months, an honour killing was declared. My father traded me with someone from England to marry me off in an arranged marriage and declared an honour killing – she has become dirty, she is dead for us. I was banished, never to return. I was 19. No one ever saw me again. It is 51 years this year.
Here is the paradox. I took that banishment and turned it into the most brilliant gift anyone could have received. My life was spared and I was in control of it.
I was 20 and now I was in England in a completely alien culture.
For so many years, I would see large trees and pretend I was sitting under my Neem and Mango trees in my grandmother’s home in India. Where was the sweet water from the village well? Where were Holi and Diwali? Why were their heavy curtains on windows cutting out light? Where was Prabhat Pheri on Guru Nanak’s birthday, my gifts of colourful clothes on Eid and Diwali? Punjabi culture is such an intense, vibrant, tangled web of dance, folk songs, colour, festivals, philosophical and spiritual traditions – especially from the North of India, a culmination of the richest Mogul and Hindu culture, ancient languages, poetry that gave birth to Sikhism, it was not a hybrid as modern cultures are but the best filtered out from Hinduism, Islam that got deeply embedded into my personality. I was born in that mixture.
In the middle of smelly nappies, sleepless nights, crying from a 100 reasons, when my son’s big brown piercing eyes gazed at me, the universe conspired again and I decided to become the champion of children and young people like myself who were lost on the wheel of life in a quagmire of deficits and constructed poverty. Both attention and intention shifted to the role of a mother. My first born in the spring season became my liberation and inspiration. I was 21. I realised that honour killing was a state of permanence. It was not an event, a fight, a quarrel, a difference of opinion.
When everyone calmed down, they will not receive me back and love and support me. It was a romantic notion to expect that. It was not a month, a year, it was for ever, for the rest of my life. Honour killings are permanent like a funeral. Metaphorically speaking I had been cremated, put on a pyre of logs and set alight in the setting sun. Words of the great poet Wordsworth were comforting. I was 22
What though the radiance which was once so bright, Be now for ever taken from my sight, though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains ————–
I immersed myself into learning and understanding of English poetry and classical children’s literature. Philosophical thoughts of Rumi, Khalil Gibran were a big issue in my life as a child. They became big issues of my youth. Added to that was the birth of scintillating rock, Sting, Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Vandana Shiva, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Jackson Brown and so many more of the Boomer generation; Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Marie Curie, Einstein, became my heroes. Intellectually and emotionally we were very alive connecting to the industrial revolution, human enterprise at its best. Learning was a great strength as a child. It became my great saviour in youth.
I hate all clichés, especially this one: Behind the success of every man there is a strong woman. I have never wanted to be behind any man, what a bizarre notion that your life’s purpose should be to be behind – a man. I am behind my own success and in front of my own failure. The largest liberation came, when I studied a Masters in Social Science – after the first basic teacher training degree in Maths, Physics and Biology, my first Masters looked at the collusion of Pseudo- Science with Economics, Politics and Religion to create slavery around the world. The trading of women, from the age of 5 onwards, violence, cruelty, oppression, subservience of women by both the white slave owners and black husbands and fathers was absolutely stomach crunching and soul churning.
From my daily English experiences, I could give you 1000 examples of racism and sexism. It was late 70s. It was common to be called a wog, a monkey or worst still a quaint little Indian, curry smelling and a Paki shit. I recall standing in a queue at the most prestigious Open University – a key note speaker at the annual Maths conference on how children learn. I was in a Punjabi suit. A tall English man approached me and spoke to me very very very slowly. ARE YOU LOST? CAN I HELP YOU? DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH? Professor John Mason, my host arrived just in time to escort me to the stage. I was angry but kept repeating to myself. They maybe in your space, they are not in your spirit.
In all of this the plight of the girl children and youth rearranged my brain chemistry on a regular basis. At the same time I had begun to realise that history is littered with African and Asian female genocide and oppression and slavery on a very large scale in every country and in every continent. In India and China in particular it is well and truly alive in every sector of society. Millions of girls are killed before they are even born. Alice Walker, Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex and Virginia Wolf were some of the writers highlighting the longest running revolution though we rarely revolt.
I was 39 when I became a widow. I wrote an autobiography and was completely in a traumatic state as a simple story seemed to have touched 1000s of women around the world. 2 years and visiting 23 countries, further curious cultural awakening reaffirmed my determination to educate as many black African children as I could with a special focus on growing girl engineers. A very large humanity never even gets to understand what their dreams might be, let alone realise their full potential.
I recall a journalist from Channel 4 asking me: What attracted me to my second husband: Hormones! Child Hormones! Was my reply. Would I have made such a choice if I was truly sane and had my own welfare at heart. What else is it that makes us distorted; rearrange our very features to attract a mate? Die our hair, Botox our face, inject horrendous chemicals to cut out cellulite or go.