I am writing this after my work for a women’s rights group has been completely demolished. The irony of feeling completely misunderstood by an organization that is meant to stand up for women doesn’t escape me. I wonder, am I a terrible example of the so-called South Asian woman if I cannot even meet the expectations of my “own community” and people who I look up to? A voice inside has been adamantly fighting for my hard work, the time I put in, the effort, this and that, and I hope that I can be seen as something other than a demanding and argumentative woman. The truth is that the expectations and guilt that I hold never let me fight for myself, but I have done that now. It is because I believe we must allow for more free, creative, flexible, understanding and supportive workplaces, even if I stumble my way through the process of creating this as well as a sense of community. My question remains, can I ever escape the identity that I grew up with, all of its misgivings, wrongdoings and more?
I gather that this may be the best time to write about my UWC experience because it did not lack failure, but it taught me how to _____insert a redeeming sentence as a cliched story demands___.
In other words, I am sure MUWCI was supposed to help me learn how to turn challenges into opportunities, or maybe TV sitcoms taught me that we must only accept our fate and make the best of whatever little we were given, who knows. MUWCI definitely taught me how to handle the burden of identity with a little humour.
My first year at MUWCI was terrible. Not only was I feeling scrutinized and comparing myself to people who seemed much more confident and vocal, “exotic” to my Delhi-borne brain. The stark differences between myself and foreign kids lent a feeling of lack to many of us young, South Asian women. My roommates became depressed, and some of my friends mentioned eating disorders. I began binge eating as a form of escape. Today, I wonder that if we had been visionary enough to invite South Asian feminist icons like Kamala Bhasin, womxn’s rights activists from across the spectrum of gender, class and caste to campus, perhaps our experiences would have been less dependent on overcoming the problems of our identity and more revelatory.
Perhaps only these women could have exemplified how to live with our identities since we are all expected to fit this matrix like calculation of the human experience that is judged based on a series of bizarre criteria such as the nature of our biology or the colour of our skin. It has always baffled me that I must face the consequences of the behaviour of women who look like me, just as every Muslim woman must face the consequences of every Muslim woman, these categories based purely on the assumption that people who look alike or belong to the same caste/class/religion must be alike. Our experiences are stifled and enabled by identities which play into how we are treated. We can only ever perform different versions of ourselves, but we cannot undo the historic burden and perception of identities- however uncomfortable that truth makes us. The real challenge is to be our imperfect selves and find acceptance that can also help us to learn and grow as individuals facing this paradigm of strict structural control. Brown, Muslim, Woman, Marginalised, while all of these hold the real data based story of true discrimination and a lack of access to opportunities, the anger and dialogue around identity has failed to address some of the nuances that our experiences hold.
Today, after studying Sociology, travelling as a filmmaker, watching people live their lives despite it all, I know that there is no respite for us, that exclusion is a fact based on the burden of historic social categories. But I also know that many people are living full, successful, and meaningful lives, despite their social identity. I have learnt that exclusion can often become inclusion, since it creates groups of people who have all experienced similar violations. There is some hope in being part of the excluded, if we can use the common experiences to challenge the dominating narratives. If there can be cross solidarities based in an understanding that no ones experience is without suffering, and yet that some people are less equal than others even in the most equal places.
At the age of sixteen, entering a school full of people from all over the world was exciting, but as many do, I often felt a bit out of place. My parents and I had spent many hours trying to buy me a nice new set of clothes, a red shirt, hoping as we always do that it would help me overcome the planned obsolescence of the Indian girl identity I was to encounter.
While I was ready to escape the boredom of shared orange geometry boxes or school life in Delhi, my hopes for a more accepting, creative and socially aware cohort were met with even more questions at UWC. To my younger self, the hopeful idealist child who had trained in theatre, watched a lot of TV, Friends, Yogi Bear, I Dream of Genie, among others, my identity was not strongly defined by my race, gender, or my nationality. I never considered these questions relevant because I didn’t know how much they determined the way people saw us. I saw myself in various characters irrespective of their identities, finding resonance in experience across identity, more than anything else. I did not think too much about how I appeared to people and how their perceptions affected my life, but it slowly became clear to me how I was seen, my behaviour was scrutinised, judged, my body and words were observed, all in ways that I cannot specify, but enough to control my sense of self. I faced instances of exclusion, even if today I am seen as a privileged Hindu woman, the identity did confront discrimination and it wasn’t in the form that the right wing proclaims, but bullying, difference, all of these were part of the school experience, even if we only want to remember the good times.
Identity played an evident role in my experience at this international school that allowed some idealism, and I was only learning how as time went on. To imagine how little I understood the role of my own identity compared to today, I can only say that the education system was lacking a history of social exclusion or identity- a subject that could have helped prepare us for the failures society was to presume of us as a result of the stereotypes that they held us to, by way of historic lapses in social equity. I can only imagine what students from socially marginalised backgrounds must have experienced.
This is a critical essay, so I am not about to share stories of the good times at MUWCI, of which there were many. But I can suffice this to say that as an Indian growing up in Delhi, while MUWCI expected me to perform my Indianness at every step, it also helped me realize that despite being a good student, my textbooks could not cover everything. The historic Maratha warriors, the politics of Nepal or South Asia, communism, globalisation – we could learn about some of these from our lived and shared experiences with classmates, but what we could not do was to observe our socialised and internalised biases based on social categories. We could not truly ever understand another’s lived experience, even if we empathised with their pain.
Over two years in MUWCI, social categories played a part in our experiences, especially if we had never thought of ourselves as being part of any and didn’t know how to manage the discrimination we faced based on them. In a progressive world, we hope to be free. At the same time, we cringe when people around us fail to see us for anything more than the category we belong to, stereotype us or make assumptions about us based on categories that they conveniently label us with. It is my understanding now, that until privileged students realise that exclusion is inevitable, we cannot truly recognize or change it.
It may be fiction since memory plays with time that has passed, but I can swear that voices in the MUWCI shadows often referred to “my kind” with the moniker of “some Indian girl.” It was a term used for young girls who grew up in India, every time some students couldn’t be bothered to learn our names, or about the places we came from, the languages we spoke, etc. We may have belonged to diverse social identities within India, but we didn’t look different enough, and so we became one set of people. The students from the West and non-West brought with them these residues of racism and tips on baking among other things. I also found within me my prejudices, the internalised coloniser or voice that said you are not good enough, the desire to be different from women who looked like me, to fit in, to be accepted at an cost.
Idealism, a value that is ambient on UWC campuses, doesn’t mix well with experiences of social exclusion. On the one hand, each student there has been given an assurance of their merit, a belief that changing the world is possible, that social justice is inevitable. At an international school, while dynamics of racism, classism, casteism and sexism are at play, the idealis of UWC can blind students to these dynamics. To fail at Math at UWC can prove the bias that everyone holds easily, that Indian girls cannot do Math. Even if other factors are affecting ones’ performance- factors that are also created by gendered experiences such as higher expectations for emotional support, caregiver roles, their impact on women is not taken into consideration. At the same time, giving up on Math is a very difficult choice for Indian women, because it means we are accepting the lack, yet another lack that is already perceived within us.
Identity is not in our hands, if it is based on the facts associated by ones’ birth or genetics, it can stifle as much as it can reveal. Every Indian boy may be inculcated into a culture of cricket, even if everyone doesn’t enjoy it. It isn’t easy to distinguish between socialisation and fact, because the two are intertwined in very insidious ways.
Failure is inevitable no matter who you are, but some people are expected to fail more than others, especially at some things. Women at Math for example, or the colonised at European etiquette, or a teenager from the non-West at Westernised behaviour and anglicisms. These stereotypes may not be as prevalent in the teenage mind, as much as they are in adults, teachers who tend to hold deep biases and strong opinions on social justice without access to data on these facts.
No one asks why these domains are considered too great for some, and the playing field for others.
To me, despite eventually studying Math Methods at MUWCI, I can say that failure is just one probability out of two. My Math teacher at UWC was a white man who thought I spoke too much in class. If the boys in my class spoke too much, it never became the reason to remove them from the section altogether. This is why I mention his race, because he chose to criticise me for speaking in class- I can never prove that my identity played into his decision to ask me to take a lower level of Mathematics, but I think it enabled his decision to discourage me from studying Math any further. The idea that I couldn’t do it was never questioned, and if it had been, I would have had to prove that I was capable, which is an even more humiliating experience to put a student through.
I hope that the Tarini entering MUWCI for the first time in a parallel universe finds someone who notices her carefully chosen t-shirt, her endearing family and years of striving, hard work and hoping and idealism. I can’t help but wonder that if my Math teacher had been an Indian woman, perhaps she would have been more encouraging. The key here, however, is not to reinforce the argument that identity is important, but that anyone can perform well if they are encouraged.
I hope that in this age of excruciating identity politics, you can all find systemic support, friends, and people who see you as whole people despite whatever mathematics of identity is applied to you. I know that I found a loving community among all my roommates, friends, and people who have over the years become closer friends despite the occasional moment of identity based exclusion, and I continue to wish that we had all spent more time together.
I hope you can find the same compassion in one another irrespective of identity and the burdens it brings. I hope Muwci can support students from excluded communities and backgrounds. There is a book by a social psychologist called ‘Whistling Vivaldi,’ which makes the case for identity through an association with high art. It mentions that even reminding a student of their identity can lend to a lack of confidence in their own abilities, if it is a socially marginalised identity. Till date, I wish there were enough people invested in the success of minorities, instead of the neverending debates around who is truly marginalised.
What MUWCI taught me was that just like my experience in Math class, the world is far from perfect. But we can definitely do our part to create a little corner of idealism and hope within it. It also taught me that it’s ok to paint your own room with colours that you love, something that was near impossible in the average Indian home. Sharing hummus and worries of going into the army with friends from Israel whose lives also represent the conundrum of global politics and their discomfort with an identity didn’t choose, or never meeting a Palestinian student, learning about global politics from secret high school crushes that I never had the courage to pursue because relationships were a tabboo, and worrying about our friends- whether they were “Indian girls” or not, howling at the moon and sharing moments on the hill with the whole campus – this is what freedom meant in MUWCI. No theoretical identity matrix imposed on me socially, nor a perceived lack of Math abilities can take away the learnings or the experiences of autonomy that come with volunteering, creating ones’ own projects and taking a step in the direction of independent living.
I got a seven in Math Methods by the way, maybe I could have done HL, I will never know. And no, I can tell you that South Asian women don’t turn into werewolves when they howl at the moon. I have tried it. On the other hand, they can definitely tell you a thing or two about overcoming the restrictions that come from without, and enabling others to do the same.