What we can learn from the Pace Setters who ran with Kipchoge

the power of championship

“No human is limited” said Eliud Kipchoge, the Kenyan marathoner, Olympic gold medalist and the first human in history to run 26.2 miles in under two hours. I watched him as he broke through the barrier and I had tears in my eyes. Not because I’m an athlete (by any stretch) but because of the power behind his message. That with confidence and concerted effort, you can achieve anything. As an aspiring writer, his words rained on me like the monsoon on parched lands.

behind every man

I was overwhelmed when I heard that 41 athletes would support Kipchoge to achieve this world record, knowing that the event they were supporting would never really be about them. These weren’t just unknown runners looking for a bit of recognition or air time; they were some of the best distance runners in the world, Olympic and other decorated medallists.

Their sole focus in this task was to help Kipchoge to achieve his.

That is, their success was inextricably linked to and defined by whether Kipchoge would create a new world record or not. Their role was to ensure they executed their V formation meticulously to reduce drag; a single second’s delay could impact the final result. They would have trained for months, probably missing other athletics competitions and opportunities as they did so. But they did it – successfully. Whilst people may not immediately think of them, there is no question that they were essential contributors to creating world athletic history on 12 October 2019.

are you a pace setter?

Watching them reminded me of several articles I’ve read about the importance of championing others – with the often unexpected result of some personal success for you. We don’t have to specifically set out to do this or search for opportunities, but if we’re aware of the power of championing others, we’ll be more inclined to do it. I’ll share a recent example with you.

Screen Shot 2019-10-16 at 13.17.52 Mexican tales

In the summer I was in Mexico and had the once in a lifetime opportunity to swim with a whale shark – only I don’t swim well at all. Nevertheless, conscious that I may never get this chance again, I donned my snorkelling gear and life jacket and boarded a speedboat which took over an hour to get to the point in the ocean where the whale sharks congregate to feed. I was instructed to jump off the boat and swim hastily behind the guide who would lead me to a point where I could swim alongside a whale shark. Every possible alarm bell was ringing in my head; what if the vegetarian whale shark upon seeing me today, decided that he’d like to try some meat? What if I bob away with the current and can’t keep up with the guide, ending up somewhere I can’t be found? What if my life jacket deflates? It’s possibly the most counter intuitive thing to do for someone wracked with fear, to jump from a boat and plunge into the ocean – but I did it.

And it was the most horrendous experience of my life.

My heart was racing so fast that I thought it would burst out of my chest, simultaneously I wanted to vomit but needed my snorkelling tube to breathe and whilst I was paddling quickly, I was barely keeping up with my guide in his red wetsuit some feet ahead. I saw the gentle giant that is the whale shark (fortunately it was around 10 ft long so I couldn’t exactly miss it) and was ushered back to the boat where I resigned that this experience wasn’t for me. I relayed this to my husband and said I wouldn’t do my second dive and he could have an extra one instead. He looked at me and knowing me as he does said “you’re one of the strongest people I know; you’ll regret it forever if you don’t go back in”.

solidarity

As I was deliberating what to do and conscious that my name would be called in a matter of minutes, a lady climbed the ladder into the boat, visibly flushed, upset and bordering on hyperventilating. In an attempt to show some solidarity, I said “it’s tough out there isn’t it? Took my breath away too having to keep up”. She replied “I don’t do the sea, swimming pools are fine, I can swim for ages but the sea, no way. I knew it would be difficult but my husband insisted I give it a try because he loves these things but there’s no way I’m going back in; I don’t do the sea”.

I looked at her and responded: “that’s not true. You can’t say you don’t do the sea. You just jumped off a boat in the middle of the ocean and swam alongside a 10 ft sea creature; in fact, I’d say you didn’t just do the sea, you rocked the sea”.

She looked at me and for the first time since she’d returned to the boat, she smiled at the realisation of my words. It was fact, I hadn’t made it up; I’d just pointed out the magnitude of the achievement she’d just accomplished.

lifting others

Why is this relevant?

Because when we champion each other, we grow ourselves.

In the above situation, my husband championed me and I championed the lady. By pointing out her achievement I realised my own in plunging into the ocean despite every instinct telling me not to.

So what happened next? I jumped back in for my second dive, this time consciously switching off the negative internal chat and focusing on the beauty I was surrounded by; the crystalline ocean, the graceful whale sharks, the warmth of the beating sun on my shoulders. It was utterly incredible; I jumped in right next to a whale shark and swam with it, admiring it as we travelled together. I actually started laughing when we were face to face, marvelling at this most extraordinary situation.

It was a truly exhilarating experience and one I’d happily have again.

sisterhood

Selene Kinder* says:

“I wish that more women realised that helping another woman win, cheering her on, praying for her or sharing a resource with her does not take away from the blessings coming to them. In fact, the more you give, the more you receive. Empowering women doesn’t come from selfishness but rather from selflessness”.

Traditional images of masculinity at work subscribe to brutishness, crushing others to get to your goal, the end justifying the means and all that, but as many have attested, it can be lonely at the top if you’ve trodden on everyone around you to get there. Kipchoge’s pace setters defy this image; they were running for someone else’s glory.

Comparatively, women have been depicted for centuries as self sacrificing, subservient and inhibited. We know the tide’s changed and to a degree, it’s a more level playing field with opportunities abound for those that strive, irrespective of gender. But as we collect our baton, it’s important for us to also consciously bring others along with us on our journey so they may follow in our footsteps and eventually take over from us.

can you feel it?

There seems to be a subtle movement underway, bubbling away under our feet so gently we barely know it’s happening. Things are reverting from the complicated to the simple.

We’re moving away from highly processed food to growing our own vegetables.

We’re scheduling our screen time to make way for more wholesome pursuits or to be more present.

We’re stepping out of the whirlwind of commercialism to pause and question what we’re spending our money on and the true meaning of our existence.

We’re realising that true happiness comes not from obtaining but by yielding, in direct proportion.

We’re starting to see each other not as commodities to achieve a decided aim but wholehearted beings, repositories of infinite talent and potential.

mirroring

Coach Emily Madill*, articulates this:

“…When I see the goodness and potential in you, I’m recognizing that it also exists in me. When I champion you, I also champion me – we rise together.”

So it seems that there is something ethereal yet completely practical about using our language and intention to recognise the efforts of those around us, to acknowledge them for it and to champion them in their cause.

We can be a voice that celebrates the victories of others regardless of gender for in doing so, we are retraining our own internal language and behaviour to:

  1. exemplify the qualities and attitude which will ultimately feed our own inner contentment;
  2. not use others’ perceived failures as the basis upon which we measure and extol ourselves and our abilities but instead create a foundation based on knowledge of our true worth;
  3. be a living example of authenticity in thought and action, thus enabling ourselves to feel truly aligned and live our ideal life.

This all may sound pretty deep and arguably intangible, however when we break it down to its simplest form, all it means is that:

♦  we do our thing to the best of our ability; and

♦  we champion those around us who are trying to do theirs.

When we reach our destination, we’ll see that along the way we’ve created our own community of well-wishers whose happiness is genuine and directly drawn from our accomplishments.

Being a pace setter actually seems quite glorious when you see it through this lens. Where do I sign up?

 

Acknowledgements:

photo credits – whale shark: copyright Walt Stearns, https://underwaterjournal.com

Kipchoge and Pace Setters: https://news.sky.com/story/eliud-kipchoge-marathon-star-bidding-to-make-history-with-sub-two-hour-run-11832252

Selene Kinder: https://empoweringwomennow.com

Emily Madill: https://thriveglobal.com/stories/when-women-champion-each-other-they-rise-together/

 

 

 

The Disease of Slander and How to Cure it

Bollywood times

As an Indian Gujarati, I grew up watching Hindi movies depicting stereotypical gender roles and personalities such as: the domineering mother-in-law who believes no woman is good enough for her son; the dutiful daughter-in-law submissive, obedient and never speaking out for her rights; the interfering aunt who makes it her business to know everyone else’s; the son with no real backbone who just wants to be adored by his wife and mothered by his mother; and either the quiet and deferential father-in-law or the father-in-law who rules the household with an iron fist and against whom no-one can speak.

And the typecasts go on.

is TV an influencer?

This isn’t a one woman crusade against the Indian film or TV series industry, however I do believe that given its pseudo worshipped status amongst the Asian community, it has a role to play in how it depicts the various familial characters on screen, and the typical conflict and conspiracies which transpire between the personalities.

In a study of the effect of TV violence on children’s behaviour, Palermo* concluded that: “…it is not the programming per se that creates violence, but that the violent programs may influence negatively those individuals who are already violence-prone…”.

Taking the essence of this, would it not be fair then to say that if you were gossip prone and regularly following those TV series which promote patriarchy, familial infighting and power struggles, then you’re more likely to be negatively influenced and exude those same qualities in your own daily life?

keeping up with the Patels

Growing up, I noticed that in my community there was always a lot of interest in what others were doing; be it comparing one’s station in life or their children’s academic  performance. The effect of this was that others’ successes became the yardstick against which one had to measure up to show that they were equal, good enough or worthy to be in the same company.

Factors for comparison between families could be anything tangible such as money in the bank, property owned, accolades achieved, countries travelled to, parties hosted – if it was measurable, it counted – and was talked about.

The problem with this is that the bar isn’t static; people keep achieving things, buying things, travelling to new places. As such, many of us Asians are constantly striving, never being content with what we’ve achieved and where we are in life, because it doesn’t fare as well compared to some other person in the community.

Growing up, it was rare to see or hear someone simply being happy for another at their success – and leaving it at that. It always became the gauge for the next endeavour.

I recall as a child being unjustifiably chastised that so-and-so’s child had achieved 10 A’s at GCSE and am I really doing enough studying to ensure that I bring home the same results?

Constant comparisons.

About everything.

It was like being in a race – I an unwitting participant – and every time I approached the finish line, it moved.

self-examination

What is it that stops us from simply celebrating another’s success without immediately employing it as a barometer to measure how we’re doing? And why do we look for the negative in every success story – and then talk about that with others?

Blogger Angi* says:

“… When I’m suffering a scarcity in the fulfillment department, seeing others thriving can sometimes create a twinge of jealousy. That’s a subtle tap on the shoulder for me, a reminder that it’s time to search out more purpose in my life.”

GoodTherapy* says:

“People might gossip for a variety of reasons. Sharing negative information about others can be a method some individuals use to feel better about themselves… Sometimes gossiping can also be a way to get attention—knowing something no one else knows about another person can make a person feel important. In some cases, people may engage in gossip in order to feel accepted. If other people in a social group are spreading gossip, it may feel necessary to participate in order to fit in.”

Could it be that inherently, we feel a sense of unworthiness or a lack of purpose in our lives and the only way to reconcile this with ourselves is to look outwardly and bring others down to our miserable soul level? Is this so inextricably weaved into our culture that we don’t know how to function, i.e. how and what to say to people, if we don’t have gossip as a common denominator as the basis of our conversations?

If this is true, then it’s time to take stock and change gears if we want to leave behind us a culture which is all embracing, unified and wholehearted.

that aunty

Growing up, I recall an animated aunt (who doesn’t?) who’d circle the room at weddings  and download exactly what was happening in everyone’s lives; where the kids were studying (and what, after all, media/business/travel studies weren’t proper subjects), how many bedrooms their house had, what holidays they’d been on, extracting every bit of information which could be cooked up into salacious gossip and then redistributed to listening ears.

There was a running (not publicised) joke amongst us that if there was any key announcement to be made such as a birth, death or marriage, one needn’t inform people individually, simply let this aunt know and the news will have spread to all and sundry by nightfall.

Human nature is such that people love to talk about themselves so when my aunt was  providing her undivided attention, people wouldn’t think twice about responding to her intense and persistent questioning.

It was only after she’d left the conversation that they’d realise they’d imparted information their own extended family didn’t yet know and that apart from learning that the aunt’s son was marrying a doctor (“by God, they’re so wealthy; they live in a six bedroom house in Windsor, far out of our humble league”) they hadn’t gleaned anything about her family’s movements.

And then after all the mingling, the well wishing of the bride and groom and goodbyes to everyone who should know that she’s now leaving, she’d get in the car and and before the car exited the car park, the post mortem would start. It would go something like this:

“Did you see Chanchal Masi? She’s walking with a stick now. Her legs must be giving up on her. Anyway, she’s 72 now so she’s had a good life if it all ends tomorrow. God, Bharthi has put on so much weight! She had her baby three years ago so she should have lost it by now. After I had Manisha, I was back in my clothes within six months! And Harsha’s son is going to Oxford university this year. Funny how she was less quick to talk about her other son who was recently cautioned on drugs charges I heard. And that Magan Kaka’s son has bought a villa in Spain. His dad must have left him a good inheritance to suddenly be able to afford that. I remember when he got married, Magan Kaka only gave saris to Kaki’s sisters, no laani* or gifts for anyone else. It’s all people could talk about for ages; doesn’t bother me in the slightest, just what everyone else was saying. I tried to tell them these things aren’t important but you know how people can be…”.

And so on, recounting every last detail of the conversations had and her take on things in a one way diatribe all the way from Birmingham back to London.

who’s gossiping? we’re just sharing information

Those of you from a similar background can possibly identify corresponding members of your own family who resemble my late aunt. In fact, there are some who expect and even consider it endearing when they hear their elders rambling on about others in this fashion.

Some consider it a facet of our community – but I reject this.

Often people engage in this type of talk to feel good about themselves. But this isn’t true contentment; it’s oneupmanship at play and it’s superficial, so is quickly displaced compared to true happiness which yields “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” (Sonja Lyubomirsky*).

For the Asian community to be a close knit one which our children will want to be a part of, we need to understand that inane and purposeless gossip is mindless and damaging.

We need to demonstrate and inspire our children to commend others’ successes and genuinely be delighted for them without drawing any reflective interpretation on themselves or their own abilities.

Furthermore, we need to teach them to filter out and consciously reject idle chit chat about others. But it starts with us.

all change!

Situations don’t change, people do – through the choices that we make.

We are each the custodians of our culture; we can choose how we react to information and situations – and we can choose to change our emotional responses too. It’s not just me saying this; there is significant commentary from people who’ve studied this topic, about the difference we can make to ourselves and others by reframing how we react to situations.

The incredible writer, speaker and research professor Dr Brené Brown says:

“… A lot of times, we share things that are not ours to share as a way to hot wire connection with a friend, right? …Our closeness is built on talking bad about other people. You know what I call that? Common enemy intimacy.

What we have is not real. The intimacy we have is built on hating the same people, and that’s counterfeit. That’s counterfeit trust….”

By being more mindful when we speak and by consciously rejecting low level conversations about others, we can empower ourselves to  feel healthier emotionally and psychologically as well as role model to those around us – young and old alike – what it means to be truly content and live in a positively charged state.

let’s be practical

“This is all very theoretical, how does this actually work in practice?” I hear you wondering. Here’s one suggestion, if someone starts tattling on about another to you, you can choose to:

  1. change the subject completely
  2. pick out the positives from what they’re saying and focus your discussion on those
  3. be bold enough to say it’s best not to talk about this because it’s nothing to do with you.

the BMW story

Not long back, my dad bumped into a family friend, Hansaben, whilst shopping for Indian groceries; he’d not seen her in about eight years. She and her husband had always been a quiet, salt of the earth couple and he received word that her husband had passed away last year. Hansaben exchanged a few words with my dad and then walked to her silver BMW 1 Series (latest reg) car. When recounting the interaction to me he said: “You should have seen that car, so beautiful and brand new. Bharatbhai must have had some good insurance policies to enable Hansaben to buy a BMW car!”.

Not wanting to instigate a conversation about what possible assets Bharatbhai may or may not have had here and in India, I replied “isn’t it lovely to see that since Bharatbhai’s passing, Hansaben has adapted to being independent and is shopping and managing all the things which he used to do. Well done to her”.

And that was literally the end of the conversation.

Gossip thrives when it has an active audience. But if the conditions aren’t present for it to grow, that is, if there’s no-one to entertain it and give it attention which enables it to spread, it’ll die its death swiftly.

be the change

“When words are both true and kind they can change the world” – Buddha

We’re so conscious about upgrading our technology; we need to ensure that we are also regularly checking in and upgrading ourselves; an internal audit where we question ourselves and our beliefs and check the needle is where we want it to be on our inner compass.

By doing this, we can consciously create a rich and wholesome culture for our children where they are fulfilled and energised by others’ accomplishments and where their own efforts are genuinely championed without worrying about how others may perceive or speak of them.

Now that’s something worth talking about.

 

Acknowledgements:

laani = traditional gifts given to all guests at pre-wedding functions often comprising organza bags of mixed nuts or sweets, something for the home, saris, money or other tokens.

Palermo, G. B. (1995). Adolescent Criminal Behavior — Is TV Violence One of the Culprits? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 39(1), 11–22.

Angi (blogger): http://www.mindfulandmama.com/blog/2017/9/12/when-women-support-each-other-incredible-things-happen

Sonja Lyubomirsky, positive psychology researcher and author of The How of Happiness

Dr Brenè Brown, The Anatomy of Trust, speech transcript available on https://jamesclear.com/great-speeches/the-anatomy-of-trust-by-brene-brown

GoodTherapy: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/gossip

photo credit: ‘Gossip at the West Gate’ by cowyeow on http://www.flickr.com/photos/cowyeow/8061307642/in/photostream/

 

“It’s not abuse if he didn’t hit me”

I recently attended a panel discussion where representatives from Women’s Aid and Surviving Economic Abuse [SEA] talked about raising awareness and responding appropriately to economic abuse and coercive control; politically, socially and professionally. SEA have been instrumental in pushing for the concept of financial abuse to be broadened out to include economic abuse – within the overall policy definition of domestic abuse.

The government has responded to this and in January 2019, the draft Domestic Abuse Bill was published aimed at supporting victims and their families and pursuing offenders. The new legislation will specifically include “economic abuse and controlling and manipulative non-physical abuse”. [source: http://www.gov.uk]

what’s financial abuse?

Financial abuse is “a pattern of controlling, threatening and degrading behaviour which restricts a victims’ freedom”. It’s usually experienced alongside other forms of abuse.

“Financial abuse involves a perpetrator using or misusing money which limits and controls their partner’s current and future actions and their freedom of choice. It can include using credit cards without permission, putting contractual obligations in their partner’s name, and gambling with family assets.

Financial abuse can leave women with no money for basic essentials such as food and clothing. It can leave them without access to their own bank accounts, with no access to any independent income and with debts that have been built up by abusive partners set against their names. Even when a survivor has left the home, financial control can still be exerted by the abuser with regard to child maintenance.” [source: http://www.womensaid.org.uk]

and economic abuse?

As well as the above, victims can experience restricted access to things like food, clothing or transport as well as opportunities to upskill themselves. The charity Surviving Economic Abuse [SEA] describes it as:

“Economic abuse is designed to reinforce or create economic instability. In this way it limits women’s choices and ability to access safety. Lack of access to economic resources can result in women staying with abusive men for longer and experiencing more harm as a result.”

relevance to me

Throughout my life, I’ve met many Asian women who are not just compliant but actively and consciously submissive to their husbands out of fear.

They may work but their husbands control the finances and make all key money related decisions.

They sign papers where told without the opportunity to read them or have a conversation about what they’re agreeing to.

They couldn’t tell you whom their mortgage is with or where their savings are kept.

They can go shopping with friends with their husband’s permission – but have no access to funds to buy things for themselves.

Sometimes their husbands aren’t physically violent; never a finger laid on them. But they’re met with spontaneous and erratic verbal vitriol without cause so they never know what to say or when, in case it triggers an explosive response.

Such a woman may not recognise herself as a victim of domestic violence, economic abuse or coercive control – but under the updated legislation, they very much are.

The sad truth is that even if they identify themselves as a victim, for reasons such as keeping the family together, fear of what society will say and a multitude of other shame related explanations, they won’t leave their husbands or speak out for themselves.

We all know such a woman.

In reality, the change in legislation will probably come and go – and they won’t even have heard of it.

We might not be able to help them exit their situation if they don’t want to, but we can be there for them, support them, listen to them, love them.

From attending the forum, hearing about the proposed legislative changes and reflecting on the ladies I’ve met who have experienced different forms of domestic abuse, I was motivated to write this poem:

I Know A Lady

I know a lady…

….who’s afraid to go out in case her husband needs her to do something and she’s not there to comply 

…who’s too embarrassed to speak to the neighbours because they hear her husband shouting and she worries they’re talking in hushed tones about her

…who awaits her instructions each morning as to what meal she is expected to prepare; she can’t volunteer any suggestions

….whose husband is praised by family and friends for his likeable manner but who never utters a word of love or kindness – or even meets the gaze of – his wife

…whose once broad and active social circle has now diminished to passing platitudes on the street because she’s been told not to maintain friendships with “troublemakers” who speak against him

…who is criticised by her husband when she offers to help and accused of deliberately belittling him

…who goes to the supermarket with her husband but isn’t allowed to choose anything

…who didn’t know that there were works starting at her home until she opened the door to the builders one morning

…who has no idea how much her mortgage is or how much money is in the joint bank account

…who relies on money from her children to buy clothes, shoes and food

…who experiences shouting, door slamming and controlling behaviour everyday but will say she’s not an abuse victim because she’s never been hit

…whose inner circle knows the truth about her reality but no-one talks about it

…who experiences physical symptoms of anxiety when she hears his footsteps descending the stairs, afraid of what mood he’ll be in

…who is only allowed to speak when addressed by him directly

…who can’t shake off his influence so even when she’s out, she’s anxious to return home

I knew a lady.

She was incredible.

A reservoir of love – always celebrating your achievements and commiserating your losses.

She’d cook up a feast for 20 in a couple of hours and serve you with the warmest smile.

She gave love in abundance to everyone she met but her heart ached for acknowledgement from her life companion.

She left with a heart full of promise of the places he’d take her and what they might see together.

She longed for the touch of his hand, a softly spoken word or a look of affection. To be included and noticed, to have an opinion that counted.

She had no appetite for material things and she eventually succumbed to emotional starvation.

She believed that God would make it all alright in the end.

Do you know a lady?

what can I do?

If you know of anyone suffering from domestic or economic abuse or is under the control of someone else, please offer to talk about it. You can provide practical support such as referrals to organisations that can help; or take them to a safe place where they can talk and unburden themselves; plan respite trips such as to a meditation class or for a coffee; help them realise their own self-worth by reminding them of what they’ve accomplished; and avoid platitudes such as “everything will be ok, don’t worry” which serves only to tell the victim that you’re uncomfortable talking about the problem.

The reality is that many (especially older) Asian ladies won’t leave their husbands following decades of marriage; they’ve become used to living in an unequal partnership and have grown to be dependent on their abuser husband. And there are many women who simply won’t reach out to organisations offering support because of shame and fear of judgement by the community.

listen

But we can each make a positive difference to the life of someone we know who is a victim of domestic abuse or coercive control. We can offer support and the gift of our time to hear their story.

I was once walking with my two year old son on a cobbled path at night in Africa and concentrating on where I placed my feet so I didn’t fall and take him down with me. He exclaimed “look up mummy!” and I followed his finger to the night sky which was bursting with millions of brightly shining stars. It was utterly magical. I was so consumed by the cracks in the floor that I almost missed the star studded spectacle above my head.

I learnt a valuable lesson that day.

We are one humanity; let’s look up from our lives and see what’s going on around us.

Let’s look after each other.

 

Acknowledgments:

Women’s Aid – https://www.womensaid.org.uk/research-and-publications/dame-project/

Surviving Economic Abuse [SEA] – https://survivingeconomicabuse.org

photo credit: bbc.co.uk

 

Period Dramas: calling out menstruation discrimination

I was chatting with a friend recently and as I often do, I innocuously asked “so what’s on the menu tonight, you cooking or date night?” with a cheeky glint in my eye. “Looks like a takeaway in the living room for me tonight” she replied with a degree of resignation in her voice and releasing an all-too-telling sigh. My senses were tweaked, I knew something was up so I asked “oh, how come?”. “You know, time of the month and all that” she said rolling her eyes.

And then I remembered. For the last 10 years of knowing my friend, I’ve also known her monthly period. Reason being, she lives in a household where her menstrual cycle is a monthly update for everyone. It tells her mother and father in law that progeny has not yet been conceived; it alerts her mother in law that she’s responsible for the family meals for the next week and gives notice to her four brothers in law that they can organise a mid-week lads night out with her husband since he’s not sharing a bed with his wife so not a lot else will be going on.

being untouchable

You may be wondering how on earth anyone would be alerted to my friend’s menstrual cycle but she lives in a household where periods are considered ‘dirty’ and so when mother nature pays her a visit, she’s not allowed to go in the kitchen, use the waste bins in her house whether it’s to dispose of a sweet wrapper or yesterday’s contact lenses (yes, even in the dead of winter), touch anyone or share a bed with her husband (there’s a double mattress permanently propped up against the bedroom wall ready for it’s monthly seven day usage).

She’s been married for so long and this situation has played itself out so many times that I can see her initial anger and resentment towards it all has now boiled down to forlorn acceptance of her situation. We’ve talked about her moving to her own place where her periods can become less of a public event but her husband is the eldest son and maintains that it’s his responsibility to look after his ageing parents. And but for the whole period publicity, she actually has a very happy relationship with her rather strict in-laws which is significant because she came from a liberal family where no one knew (or asked) about her periods and life was free and easy – from what she studied, to whom she hung out with – so the transition to this household required concerted adjustment.

reflections

Our chat caused me to reflect on how periods were treated in my own household when I was growing up and for other girls I knew at the time. I remembered one girl whom I went to Gujarati classes with (generally the only exciting activity on the weekends when I was a teenager) who had to leave home every month when she got her period and stay with her aunty. It never made sense to me that if periods were dirty, why would it be ok to sully someone else’s home but not your own?

In my own example, as a family we used to pray together everyday and so when I was on my period, I wasn’t allowed to enter the mandir* for five days after which I’d have to wash my hair and then my access would be reinstated. I was never told what the significance of the hair washing was but I assume it was symbolic of cleansing.

And no-one ever explained to me what the cleansing of hair on my head had to do with what was going on in my uterus.

religion vs. culture

From my experience, I can see a conflict between religion and cultural practices which we just seem to have accepted without question. I say this because in the Hindu religion the feminine aspect is considered holy; Shiva (part of the Trinity) is said to be completed by Shakti; the female aspect. During Navaratri, the three female energies of Laxmi, Saraswati and Durga are worshipped.There are female deities and these are worshipped with the same degree of reverence as the male representations.

In the Asian community a fertile woman is considered to be a blessing because after all, periods reflect the potential to conceive a child. But our present treatment of menstruating women doesn’t reflect this same reverence and respect – and we don’t seem to question this.

old practices, outdated thinking

In an article by Mythri Speaks [mythrispeaks.wordpress.com], the author talks about the ancient reasons why women were secluded from their homes and avoided cooking and eating with others at this time. She says that the reasons were all generally positive and spiritually enhancing but these scientifically Vedic based reasons aren’t the ones we hear today in our community. Instead the words associated with periods are “dirty” and “impure” and serve only to cast out the afflicted female enduring a process created by nature and into which, she didn’t have any input.

o great man!

We really need to question what message about our culture we’re delivering to our children; in many cases, are we even providing a culture based explanation for this treatment or are we just telling our daughters that they’re dirty? Whilst it may be rooted in ancient culture or historical practices, we need to consider the wider impact of this treatment on the self-esteem of our girls, in today’s society. By blindly following anachronistic practices, it seems to me that we’re inadvertently reinforcing gender inequality because men don’t suffer the same ‘dirtiness’ warranting segregation and by default, are the more superior.

shame

We have a duty to empower our daughters but also to educate our sons, fathers in law and other male figures around us not to malign the image and respect they give to women because of a sense of impurity associated with periods. If we don’t correct this, then periods will continue to be synonymous with shame and don’t we already have enough battles with shame without adding more to the pile?

Dr Brene Brown** defines shame as: “the intensely painful feeling that we’re unworthy of love and belonging”. Ultimately, by maintaining practices which reinforce this ‘shame’ feeling in our girls, we’re reinforcing an inner dialogue in them that they are not enough; that they must subscribe to these rituals to maintain their worthiness and place in society and the Asian community.

Brene Brown says if you were to put shame in a petri dish and “douse it with a little secrecy, silence and judgement then it will grow exponentially”. She describes shame as “lethal” and that we’re often “swimming in it” however, she also says that shame cannot survive being spoken about. Therefore, in western society where hygiene is no longer a problem, I think it’s time for us girls to openly question why we’re following these practices and be brave enough to make choices based on what reinforces our self-worth; not choosing to follow something because we’re afraid of the consequences but positively electing to do something because we want to do it.

nurturing the inner, not just the outer

As parents we do a grand job of nurturing our children physically – preparing fresh food, ferrying them to extra curricular classes, clothing and accessorising them and more, but we need to put as much focus and attention on how we’re nurturing the self worth of our girls.

We could take the perspective that we’ll continue with these familiar, age old customs and then allow our girls to choose what they want to follow once they’re married and independent. But this seemingly liberal stance serves only to condition our girls to do things a certain way whilst growing up and then feel guilty or conflicted when the opportunity presents itself to make choices for themselves, i.e. once they’re in their own marital homes.

This leaves women feeling guilty if they don’t follow what their mothers have taught them and quick to assume the blame should anything unforeseen happen in the family as bad luck brought on by their violation of the cultural ‘rules’.

Shame, shame and a dollop of more shame.

choosing authenticity

As parents and carers we get to choose how we parent our children – and it’s ok to change track midway if after we look inwards and ask questions of our behaviour we realise something feels counter intuitive.

Another friend’s mother in law knows when she’s on her period because after marriage she lived with her for a while. Now in her marital home, she does as she pleases and has left all period discrimination and related practices behind. However, every month she’s on guard and ensures during that time that no pans with freshly prepared food are left on the stove and the spare room is made up and looking to be ‘in use’ just in case mother-in-law come over. It’s a monthly charade that’s kept up because like a sentinel, she wanders around the house for a general nose about. I can’t imagine anything more stressful than having to prepare to enact a scene on a monthly basis and my concern is the effect of this wearing of different personas for different audiences leading to us losing sight of our own identity [more about this in “Did you hear about her son?” – Shattering the Stigma around Autism in the Asian Community].

Authenticity is so paramount to our own well being and our self-nourishment – by just being whom we are regardless of the audience – we don’t just value ourselves, we give permission to others to do the same.

beetroots

In another case, a London friend was recently invited to a cousin’s baby shower in Ahemdabad. A week ahead of the event, her dad received a call to ask whether she was likely to be on her period at the time of the event lest she should have to sit outside of the main religious proceedings. Her dad’s cheeks reportedly went an interesting shade of beetroot as he digested what he’d been asked to do – to enquire of his 40 year old daughter for the first time in his life whether she was on her period. So he approached her sister to undertake the reconnaissance and then feed back the reply for him to deliver to said relatives in India. I found the whole episode superficially comical but at it’s core, fundamentally degrading.

I’ve been able to easily relegate my period experiences to the past and not carry them forward into my married life because I’ve married into a family where period discrimination simply isn’t a thing. For a long time, I assumed this was a thing of the past  but from the conversations I’m having with friends and wider, I’ve learnt that this is far from the truth.

Historically, Asian women would have shouldered these rituals and accepted them as a symptom of their gender, but today women are outwardly conforming but feeling inwardly divided about why they’re still subjected to such archaic rituals; they’re afraid to stand up and disagree or even to bring it up as a topic of conversation because of the perception that they’re abandoning their culture and inviting bad luck upon the family.

baaaa!

We need to stop the sheep-like mentality of just doing things because they’ve always been done like that. We also need to stop thinking that whether we do something or not won’t make a difference in the grander scheme of things. In the words of Anita Roddick: “If you don’t believe one person can make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito”.

Each one of us has the power to influence and role model and by following period discrimination practices we don’t believe in, we’re not serving anyone wholeheartedly; at best we’re just poor excuses for actors enacting a charade for a non-fee paying, judgement doling audience. Essentially, accessories to a crime against women’s self-worth.

If you don’t believe in it, then it’s time to stop. And the choice is entirely in our hands.

Period.

photo credit: http://www.sbs.com.au

*mandir = shrine room where deities are kept

**Brene Brown talks to Ophrah Winfrey on Super Soul Sundays, the podcast

 

Why your back pocket isn’t as secure as you think: choosing creativity over compliance

hairdressing talk

So I was sitting in the hairdressers recently – the greys in my roots meant I’d started taking on a zebra-esque appearance which required swift attention – and the hairdresser serving the client next to me enquired about her daughter. I observed the following conversation (C is client; H is hairdresser):

C: “She’s doing so well with her acting; in fact, today she has another audition to be in a film and there’s only a couple of others in the running. She’s been acting and dancing… she just loves it and she’s really doing well”.

H: “Ah how lovely- you must be so proud! It sounds like she’s going to be a star. Does she want a career in acting?”

C: “Oh yes, she talks about it all the time. And I don’t mind her trying it out but I’ve told her she needs to stop for the next 3 years and complete an academic degree in something so she has something in her back pocket in case it doesn’t work out”

say what now?

When I heard that last sentence it took all of my energy not to turn around and say “what are you doing?!”. Here’s a girl who’s clearly talented and you’re telling her to cut her creativity and success mid-flow and park her ambitions to complete a degree in anything academic just so she has something to “fall back” on? Where would that leave her acting career in three years time and how is she supposed to switch her attention to something “academic” if she’s not persuaded that it’s going to serve her future ambitions?

And even if she does complete a degree and then pursues acting, the fact that she hasn’t utilised her degree or gained any practical experience might make her qualifications effectively redundant if there’s no connection between her qualified subject and her acting. I’ve experienced enough rejection from recruiters to know they can smell commitment from beyond your LinkedIn profile – try explaining that you’ve completed an International Relations degree and then trained as an actor for a few years but really all your heart ever wanted was a job at the UN or Foreign Office.

let’s talk (on my terms though)

I wondered whether the mum had entertained thoughts of a year out, a part time degree or a vocational qualification perhaps for her daughter? Or better still, allowing her the freedom to express her creativity and then revisiting a return to academia at some point in the future. I pondered if it had been a mutually agreed two way conversation or whether the mum thought she was actually being very generous, accommodating and even forward thinking, by letting her daughter have the option of going back to acting after her academic degree had been completed.

Because I (a) wasn’t supposed to be listening and (b) thought if I said something and it wasn’t received well the next two hours would be rather painful and awkward, I kept silent. Maybe I oughtn’t have. I’m something of a reflector so making spontaneous decisions like whether to intervene or not, doesn’t come naturally to me and I replay scenarios over and over in my mind before I often actually decide anything.

what’s actually going on here?

But I did reflect on it and the possible motivations and mindset of this lady.

It was abundantly clear that she loved her daughter and wanted her to be successful – in whatever made her happy. But to me it seemed that there was a fear which perhaps unwittingly was driving her decision making.

In the Asian community we place great pride in academics. Perhaps it’s because as the children of migrant families we’ve been able to establish ourselves, access education and create opportunities which otherwise may not have been available. And as beneficiaries of this we consider academic achievements as the hallmark of success.

I’ve seen the hardships of my own parents in establishing themselves in this country and the tenacity and resilience they’ve shown, to be able to provide opportunities for me and my siblings, is both laudable and inspiring.

But the landscape of success for our children doesn’t have to be confined to academic prowess.

looking within

What if we asked our children to look inwards, identify the skills which come naturally to them and encourage them to pursue what they’re passionate about? From hairdressing to fashion design to engineering and computer programming – if we look closely at the people whose names are synonymous with success we’ll see a combination of talent, persistence and truck loads of passion. These people don’t work to live; it’s not even considered work for them – they are living their passion everyday which is what gives them the edge over everyone else in their field.

Steven Pressfield talks about each of us being born with the most unique identity and nothing – however powerful – can change it. In his book The War of Art, he postulates upon our existence:

“We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it.

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

If we were born to paint, it’s our job to become a painter. If we were born to raise and nurture children, it’s our job to become a mother. If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it’s our job to realise it and get down to business”.

If it’s sounding a bit deep, it’s because it probably is. I love the idea that each of us is so incredibly unique holding an abundance of talent which isn’t replicated in a single other body in this universe. And yet, culture and societal norms unwittingly lead us to shoehorn our children down a path which might not serve their true calling on this earth.

my journey

Taking my own example, I always loved to write. I recall writing an essay until 3am at the age of 12 because I simply couldn’t stop riding the buzz of words flowing from my brain to my finger tips. I created my school’s first ever year book at the age of 14. I took photos of every single girl in my year group (it was a girl’s school), interviewed teachers, procured quotes from pupils and raided the art submissions for the past year to create a collaged outer cover. I had no experience of putting a publication together – but I did it. There was a fire in my belly and it came so naturally to me.

And then I got good grades and was pondering what path to take. I wanted to become a journalist but I had no idea how to go about this and had unsuccessfully approached many newspapers for work experience only to be told ‘no’. My careers officer at college produced a compatibility report having asked me some basic questions about things I was doing well at. The report recommended a career in law amongst other humanities based jobs which I now can’t recall – but journalism wasn’t on there. Added to that, family and friends started to ask which illustrious profession I was going to pursue. It felt like such a burdensome question to answer – that once I’d declared my chosen path that was it; I’d be wedded to that career for life. There was lots of encouragement to be a lawyer and the seeming financial incentives – having come from a thrifty background – made it attractive.

So that’s the path I took.

to law or not to law

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, I did enjoy parts of it – I loved research, writing essays and I made some lifelong friends. But I didn’t ever feel complete or aligned from within. I never felt I was an excellent lawyer; I was a hard worker and certainly competent and thorough but I didn’t have the flair and exuberance as some of my colleagues who loved to debate points of law until the small hours, got excited about tax issues and were giddy with excitement when the Human Rights Act was about to become ratified into UK law.

I followed the path; I became a lawyer and I felt that now this was my career, any deviance from this into another career was a big no-no. I didn’t just tell myself this story; I contacted several organisations about policy or other public sector work and the feedback was always that my experience was only legal and this is what I was best suited to. Thankfully, the employment industry has since evolved to take better account of transferable skills.

square peg, round hole

But this feedback and feeling that I was destined for a life as a lawyer and nothing else, left me feeling inadequate and dented my self esteem because it seemed to me that I had to work so much harder than my peers to achieve the same results they did. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps I wasn’t in a job which I felt aligned to and through which I could achieve my life’s purpose.

Fast forward and I ended up working for a public sector organisation when the markets crashed and every property lawyer I knew was clinging on to their job. It was a refreshing change where I learnt more about myself; I loved to write, serve people through my work and feel like I was making a difference – lots of continuities from being a lawyer but I felt better about this job and could feel some inner alignment coming through – but not completely.

Finally, following my operation [see Accepting Life’s Lemons] I took up writing. Now I can see how everything I’ve ever enjoyed has led me to this moment; the first year book, the numerous articles for the college magazine, the dissertations and legal arguments – the thread which bound everything together was my love of words and writing. So here I am, I want to write and to serve through my writing – I’m doing it and it feels good. I’m feeling pretty aligned right now which is a feeling that’s quite incredible. Sometimes I don’t know what I’ll write about but I’ll sit down and it all flows out – it isn’t dragged out or jostled along – I feel like a mechanism from which my inner creativity pours.

setting up our children

Maybe on some level as Asian parents we think that if we’ve put our children through university then in the eyes of society, we’ve properly discharged our parental duties. Forcing our children to study an academic qualification just to satisfy a checklist which we’ve had no input into is both an insult to the creativity of our children and is potentially damaging for their long term outcomes, including their mental health and sense of fulfilment.

If we accept that we all have at least one gifted talent, then forcing our child to compete with others for whom the area is one of interest, passion and purpose is setting them up to fail – because they’ll never have the edge those children have; the edge that comes from working alongside and harnessing your innate talent – the edge that makes work hardly feel like work.

are you excited?

So I’d invite you to ask yourself and encourage your children to do the same; what makes you excited? What things do you do that come so naturally to you you don’t even have to think about it. Maybe you’ve always loved creating fusion food or drawing still life pictures; maybe you’re into animal welfare, writing poetry, applying make-up, creating handicrafts or creating a travel blog – whatever it is, it’s fine if it’s just a hobby and you’re happy with that.

But don’t rule out turning your hobby into something more just because you’re afraid it’s not the “done thing”. In the end, you are harnessing something within you which no-one else in the world can offer. Aren’t you even a little tempted to see the impact your talent could have on the world? Don’t wait for society to tell you to pursue your dreams; society praises results and likes predictability and conformity. If you ask others, they’ll ask why you want to upset the apple cart because presumably things are quite organised in your life (you have a regular income, a loving partner and maybe a kid or two – it’s all quite a pretty picture).

If I had any advice for my younger self it would be this: trust yourself and just try. It might work out, it might not – but you’ll always learn something about yourself from every experience and you can build on this.

“Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be; embrace who you are.”

Brenè Brown

now what?

So if you’re thinking, where do I start? My humble advice is:

  1. Question your purpose.
  2. Carve a way to experiment with what you love, i.e. if you want to write, start a blog. If you like to paint, buy some paint and set aside one hour to just see what happens.
  3. Follow your instincts – how did the activity make you feel? Enjoy it? Then do it again.

It’s said that no-one ever regretted the things in life that they did; only what they didn’t have the courage to try.

Be brave and try; if we come to the world with nothing and leave in equal measure then by definition, you’ve literally nothing to lose.

Photo by jarmoluk on canva.com