Wednesday, May 18, 2011

gender equality rant

 Note added on 5/27/11: Received some great email feedback about this blog that made me realize that my point may have come across differently than I meant it in my head. The phrase "we are a product of our culture" might have been a little strong for what I intended. What I really meant, and failed to express well, is that where we are born plays a large role in determining our world view (for example, what constitutes an acceptable standard of living, our ideas about basic rights, roles in society, etc.). Thanks to Kristen Kraemer for helping me to better express what was already in my head :) You and Reece Smith keep me on my toes!

We are all a product of where we come from. This is neither good nor bad in itself--it's just something that one must acknowledge. We are a product of where we come from, for all the good, bad, ugly, and wonderful that that might bring. In a previous post, I pointed out that I am a product of my culture. In that particular instance, I was commenting on one of the negative aspects of my culture: fully prepared to admit the harm that comes with overgeneralizing, we tend to overconsume. We are wasteful. We have the luxury of not having to always cut corners or find a use for anything that can't be burned. We live in a bubble filled with excess.

But I am also from a place where I was raised to believe that I can do anything. Where I have never been made to feel inferior to anyone because of my gender. I am from a place where little girls are taught: "You are a girl. You are just as good as any boy--you can do, aspire to, anything that a boy can. You are anyone's equal. You are capable and intelligent; walk uprightly and with confidence. Assert yourself--you are not subservient to anyone. Anything a boy can achieve, you can achieve. Any opportunity is yours, if only you reach out and take it. You can do anything."

...Let me backtrack. You are probably wondering where this rant on gender equality is coming from. Truly, I think it's been subconsciously percolating for a while. Maybe it started in October when I learned that it's not appropriate for girls to whistle. Or maybe on Fridays, teaching at CMS High School, where the classes are co-ed--it always struck me as odd that even though the girls spoke much better English than the boys (I know this from grading their papers) that they would never, ever speak up in class. Or perhaps every Sunday at church when the men get to take communion before the women?

The point is, it's been percolating. And I'm commenting with respect to both the church in Kerala, and Kerala society as a whole. It's been percolating to the point where at one of my Malayalam lessons last week, I decided to randomly ask my teacher, Thomas Samuel Achen, about his opinion on ordaining women in the church. (Thomas Samuel Achen is the Chaplain at Mandiram. He is a pastor of the Church of South India (CSI), which does not allow ordination of women).

Achen is a funny guy. Immediately after I asked the question ("What do you think about women being ordained?"), he broke out into a huge smile, fully aware that I had him cornered. Talking to an outspoken young woman who he knew would be starting Seminary in just a few months, he had to choose his words carefully. While chuckling, Achen took my hand in a very grandfatherly, I'm-about-to-tell-you-something-you-don't-want-to-hear type of way and said that personally, he sees no reason why women shouldn't be ordained. He feels that the practice of excluding women is archaic and has no basis in modern theology or society. BUT--his viewpoint represents the minority, and he doesn't foresee anything changing in Kerala any time soon...or ever.

The conversation with Achen was lighthearted; I had expected an answer along those lines. I have always been aware of Kerala's patriarchal mindset (and not just mindset--Kerala's patriarchal REALITY), and I suppose that that particular manifestation of it--not ordaining women in the CSI--had never bothered me because I knew that it was something that would never affect me. Also, while I don't agree with it, not ordaining women isn't all that shocking of a practice--there are denominations even in the US that don't do it.

Still, in the days following, I found myself thinking more and more about what it means to be a girl in Kerala. I found myself remembering Shilpa, a 10th grade student at Buchanan who, back in March, asked me to write her a message in her 'autograph' book. On the first page was her own 'about me' page, which will serve as a momento for her to remember her high school years, her likes and dislikes, who her friends were, etc. Among the statements with spaces for answers were "My favorite color is _____." "My biggest role model is _____." "My best attribute is ______." I was amused to read her answers and know something of her beyond the rigidity of the classroom.

One of the last statements was, "My ambition is ______." Her answer was: to be a good wife.

Shilpa's autographh book was the first of many that I signed. I quickly realized that her answer was a popular one: "My ambition is to be a good wife."

Now, don't get me wrong. I do hope to get married one day. I hope to be a 'good wife,' whatever that means. I hope my husband is a good husband. But is that my AMBITION in life??? Is that what I think of when someone asks me what the single greatest thing I hope to do with my LIFE is?? Would I say that now, or in 10th GRADE?

No, no, and no.

The real catalyst for this little rant on gender equality, however, took place just last Saturday night. I was helping to clean the chapel before Sunday morning's church service. Having just distributed the hymnals to each row, I went to climb the two steps to the raised area behind the main podiums, where the altar is located. One of the wardens, Jijo, was wrestling with the cloth to cover the altar and looked like he could use a hand.

I hadn't made it up the first step before he waved his hands, shook his head, and said no no no to me, abruptly stopping me in my tracks and leaving me to wonder what I had done wrong. "This is a holy place," he apologetically said. "No ladies allowed."

Caught off guard doesn't even begin to describe how I felt. Try not to cry was the first order of business. I know that sounds ridiculous, but while I wouldn't consider myself a sensitive person, times when I can be unexpectedly sensitive are situations when I'm rebuked without warning, especially if I thought I was doing something good at the time. All I wanted to do was help :(

I managed a smile and probably said something along the lines of "oh, sorry, I didn't know" and sat down. During the next few minutes I tried to look normal, but in truth I was deeply troubled by what had just occurred. Poor Jijo--I think he could tell I was upset. Which made me feel even worse, because it wasn't his fault. He is actually my favorite warden--he is always laughing and singing, and in spite of the fact that his English grammar is terrible, rambles on like only an orator could.

Like me--like all of us--Jijo is a product of his culture. He genuinely believes--and so does his church--that only men can be allowed in/near holy places, as if women were inherently worth less, or men were inherently more righteous, in God's eyes. Come on--I understand that no matter what degree I hold, you will never, ever let me serve communion. But I can't even go near the ALTAR? Not even to CLEAN it?? (Funny, you would think that was my place...).

Obviously, I have a problem with this viewpoint on a multitude of levels, one of many being theologically. Before I open that can of worms, however, let me admit that the altar incident was so minor, and I know that. But it was the first time in my life I have been turned away from anything because I am a girl. And the fact that a tiny episode that took place in a span of three seconds was so hurtful to me only made me think of all the people throughout history who have been made to feel inferior or judged or excluded merely because they belong to a certain group. If I got upset over not being allowed near the altar because I'm a girl, what would it have felt to have been black during the Civil Rights movement? To be an immigrant in the US today? To be gay?

One thing I have neglected to mention is that I was slated to give the sermon the next morning. "You are lower in the chain of the heirarchy of God's love and you are inferior to 50% of the population" is not what one wants to hear before such an event. Part of me considered telling Thomas Samuel Achen what had happened and that I was not willing to preach in a church that did not see me as equal. Another part of me wanted to ditch the sermon I had written the week before and churn out a new one replete with phrases like "God loves all of his children equally," "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female...(Galatians 3:28)", and "ARE YOU SERIOUS, PEOPLE???"

But let's face it: even the most passionate, rationally argued, theologically sound sermon from yours truly isn't going to revamp the patriarchal mindset of an entire state. Sunday morning rolled around and I went with Plan C: stick with the original sermon. Because I didn't come to Kerala to advocate for gender equality in the church or society--I came to be present. I came to experience another culture and learn from it, positive and negative aspects included. Standing in front of the congregation and harping about gender equality wouldn't have changed anyone's mind. What would change their minds--or at least get them to question their own viewpoints--would be to go up there as planned, speak confidently, and hold my head up high. And that's what I did.

Later that day, I was tutoring two girls, Monisha and Sunitha, who volunteer at the hospital and plan to start nursing school next year. Both are 18 years old; we meet every day, if/when we're all free, to study English. That particular Sunday afternoon, we practiced writing a letter to a friend and talking about activities that are done at different times of day. After about 45 minutes we closed our notebooks for the day and went to have afternoon tea.

Monisha, shy when we first started having English lessons about 2 weeks ago, is now a regular chatterbox. As we sat around the table with our tea and cookies, she commented on my sermon from that morning. "Madi chechi, your message was super. You know, that is my biggest dream: to one day give a speech, in English, to a huge audience of people. Like you did."

Monisha, you are a girl. You are just as good as any boy...You are anyone's equal...You can do anything.

Origami Emotion
Hope is 
folding paper cranes
even when your hands get cramped
and your eyes tired,
working past blisters and 
paper cuts, 
simply because something in you
insists on
opening its wings.
-Elizabeth Barrette

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