The Female Experience

“Who are you looking for?” the woman in a red kurta asked Crystal and I.

“Shrinkhla. She told us to meet here now,” Crystal responded.

We stood in the center of the grounds for the school as young girls ran past us, stopping for only seconds to gaze up at us in curiosity. Shrinkhla, a friend of our director of the international program, had asked if there was anyone who could volunteer at the school. It was last minute, only the day before that she had asked, but Crystal and I had promised that we would be there. All we knew was that we should arrive by 10:15 and that we would lead a discussion on women empowerment.

Crystal wore navy khakis and a striped polo, and I had on a borrowed green kurta. Shrinkhla found us waiting to the side. She wore a hunter green and black saree, her black hair in a short bob. Her voice was quiet, yet her eyes darted from side to side, as she kept track of all the students and faculty. She told us how she ran the Udayan Shalini Fellowship every month, where she would bring all the students in on Sunday and schedule talks for them to attend. Crystal and I would be one of those talks to a class of thirty sixteen year-old girls.

Shrinkhla opened up a classroom door, where we were greeted by the girls saying Hello Ms Shrinkhla and giving a clap of their hands. The girls sat cross-legged on the floor of a dimly lit classroom, all of them keenly looking up at Crystal and I with smiles that encompassed their faces.

“Hi, girls,” Shrinkhla said. “I hope you’ve had good classes today. Now we have some special visitors for you. Be good for them, okay?” Shrinkhla turned to Crystal and I, saying “I’ll be back in an hour, see you then.”

With little instruction of what we should do, Crystal and I looked at each other, and then to the girls quietly sitting on the ground. I could feel their energy bouncing off the walls as they waited for us to speak. Whispers and giggles echoed in the small classroom. Crystal pulled a chair from the desk and I sat on the pull-out chair at the front of the room.

“So, guys, my name is Crystal and this is Annie. We’re going to hang out with you guys for the next hour. Is that cool?” Crystal asked the girls. “But before we start, lets stretch real quick, ok? You guys must have been sitting for the entire day.”

The girls shyly stood up, looking at their friends next to them and stifling a snicker. I was able to look at all of them as they moved around the room, doing stretches which Crystal and I led. Some of the girls wore kurtas, some wore jeans, some wore burkas. I could immediately tell who were the most eager students, as they concentrated on each syllable Crystal pronounced. We started the discussion off slowly, with questions about their classes, which subjects were their favorite, if they liked homework. The girls got noticeably more comfortable with us as the time passed by.

“OK, guys, I have a question for you,” I said to the girls. “Have any of you ever felt discriminated against in school or at home?”

The girls paused and looked at each other with hesitant glances, some asking the other to repeat what I had said. One girl in the second row raised her hand, and after having been called on, she stood up.

“I want to tell you a story that happened to me, if that’s OK,” she said to Crystal and I. “I have a brother who is the same age as I am. When we were in school together, he always got better grades than me even though I worked harder. I asked my teacher why I wasn’t getting good marks, and she…” the girl’s voice broke as she released a sob. Her classmates quickly rushed to her aid, holding her hand to prompt her on.

“The teacher, she said that she marked me down because I was a girl, and that I was never going to do better than the boys. I didn’t understand how that could happen, when I worked so hard, every day, to get good marks on my tests. When I told my mom about it, she was really nice and she made me feel better. But she said that I would always have to work harder since I am a girl.”

Tears filled my eyes as she finished her story, and glancing over at Crystal and the other girls in the room, I saw empathy in everyone’s faces. It felt as though we had been transported to a separate island, all alone, the only thing that mattered were her words. I felt myself entering into a childlike mind, and even though I could sympathize with this girl, I knew I would never be able to feel the pain she experienced.

The session continued on in a similar manner for the remaining hour. More girls, overcome with emotion, opened up about their own experiences with discrimination. We transitioned into asking the girls if any of them had a female role-model in their lives. So many of the girls stood up, proudly describing their mothers, friends, sisters, or teachers, who had inspired them to work harder or be more happy. They asked me to answer the same question. I immediately knew who it would be.

“I think my mom is my role-model. She taught me that you are never too old to go back to school, that age doesn’t have any influence over when you can learn new things. She’s strong, she’s independent, and she knows what she wants,” I said with confidence, imagining my mother staying up till midnight to complete her masters after working a full day as a school nurse.

The girls snapped their fingers, something that Crystal and I had taught them. Their smiles brightened the gray sky, each face so unique and full of potential. I disguised my tears of happiness as if it had come from a joke Crystal had said.

Each one of them reminded me of my niece, Sophia. Each time that she told me how the boys didn’t like her or the other girls didn’t hang out with her. Nothing I could ever say would make her feel more included by them. Not how she was so beautiful that the other girls got jealous; not how she was so smart that the boys were intimidated; not how she had every single quality that her classmates could ever desire, that jealousy consumed their ten year-old minds. Spending time with my niece or the girls in the classroom reminded me of how intense and painful the female experience can be.


Anne Berset 

INDIA – UNIVERSITY OF HYERDERABAD, 2018 FALL

Anne Berset is double majoring in Creative Writing and Psychology as well as a minor in Philosophy. She is studying at the University of Hyderabad in India for the Fall term, where she will be taking philosophy and political science courses. She hopes to gain a new perspective on culture, politics, and religion while abroad. Anne loves to watch films, go on hikes, and spend time with animals.

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King Arthur and Merlin

Guys, I am in the land of ancient kings and castles. Naturally, I’m taking a class that is essentially a crash-course in the last millennium of Scotland’s history. We finished the Wars of Independence last week (far more dramatic than even Braveheart paints them) and went over the entire Scottish Reformation in one lecture. Fun fact, apparently kings from Robert the Bruce to James VI (centuries later) quote the unbroken line of 113 Scottish kings. One hundred and thirteen at the time of Robert the Bruce, and no more or less during James VI’s reign.

Questionable as that statement is, it illustrates the sheer power of the mythology of this ancient kingdom. Edinburgh Castle is still an active  garrison, and rally leaders for the second Independence Referendum quote the 700-year-old Declaration of Arbroath. In its self-checkout stations and contactless payment options, Scotland is very modern, but in other ways, it’s ancient to a level that is hard for my American mind to grasp.

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Meanwhile, it’s been a while since I posted. It’s a gap I didn’t intend before lectures swept me up into a whirlwind of note-taking and then buried me under a pile of reading. On top of that, there’s the realities of being in another country, as well as my dreams of hiking the Highlands and spending nights at trad music sessions. This madness has made me very aware of my personality and limitations.

For example, I can only really attend one, at max two, social events a day. This includes choir rehearsals and even the tutorials required for my courses. Otherwise, a variety of things can happen. I can end up feeling like my nervous system is frizzing. Often I zone out and stare blankly without really hearing or saying anything. Sometimes I get so tired that everything is extremely funny. This overwhelm has been a constant ever since I can remember, but I’ve always wondered, why do I respond this way?

For a long time, I thought I got overwhelmed so easily because I’m an introvert. Introversion explains why I love to sit quietly and research and why I prefer to socialize in small groups. That makes sense. But all of my research into introversion revealed that while large crowds and a rapid series of events can drain introverts, it did not indicate that these situations could overwhelm one’s entire body.

I found my answer in the university library. A few years ago, my dad mentioned the idea of a highly sensitive person (someone who happens to sense and feel everything more intensely) in passing. So when I saw a book titled – you guessed it – The Highly Sensitive Person on the shelf, I was drawn to it – especially since the subtitle was “how to thrive when the world overwhelms you.” Jangled by a day of walking up and down bustling Byers Road, I curled up in my quiet room to read it.

Elaine N. Aron’s book, backed up by years of scientific and psychological research, assured me that I am not, in fact, crazy. Fifteen to twenty percent of the population shares the same intense sensitivity that seems to dominate my life. More people than I could have imagined have the same tendency to pick up on the mood of every person in the room, take criticism to heart, and bounce off the walls after one cup of coffee.

I’ve often considered a career as a hermit. Some of us HSP’s do end up retreating. However, some of us brave the huge world of crowds of people, of drama that affects us intensely, and even scents that overwhelm our consciousness. Sometimes we go on to do great things.

In her psychological framework, Elaine refers to us as the king’s advisors. Behind the scenes of the reigns of kings like Malcolm I and Robert the Bruce, and even the legendary King Arthur, there were the Merlins, the people who would stop and check and guide their brave king to victory. Behind the great revolutions (and the not-so-great ones) of the last four centuries are those to whom the injustice to the people cannot be ignored, and they must understand it, they must write the great texts, they must change the world.

I don’t claim to know the neurological makeup of every great writer and thinker of history, nor do I necessarily commend all of their actions. However, it’s really exciting to find people like me in a historical record full of great adventurous men. My high sensitivity now seems more like a superpower – like a Spidey Sense!

Granted, I’m still a little annoyed that the mere passing of a motorcycle makes me flinch. It’s rather disappointing to be knackered after only an hour walking around Edinburgh Castle. However, I have a greater understanding of my strengths. My thin skin means I can empathize intensely. My acute hearing means that when the fire alarm goes off down the block, I hear it. And, least practical but best side effect, I can taste everything in my favorite mocha.

 


Alice Major

SCOTLAND – UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW, 2018 FALL

Alice Major is studying at the University of Glasgow in Glasgow, Scotland. She is a double major, focusing mostly on music and adding history because history is cool. Study abroad is Alice’s first time out of the country, and she hopes to come home in one piece and with a wicked Scottish accent.

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