Written by Sonia Joseph
My own story starts in a Catholic boarding school in Madras, Chennai in the south of India. At the vain age of 16, I left the USA to go to this boarding school, and I was wired and insufferable to everyone around me. I was elated to be going back to my earthly roots and the thought of being with girls and boys of my own kind that looked just like me and thought just like me was such a thrill. I knew I’d feel a sense of belonging and I was so sure I’d make tons of friends there. You might already foresee that I was living in a fool’s paradise. I was in a state of happy delusions till the day I arrived ready and ecstatic to the point of fervour. I looked like a child then full of hope and stupidity.
I arrived and walked into what looked like blocks of cement moulded into a roman temple, but without the regal and breathtaking engineering skills of great civilisations past. It was an enormous structure but not grand just monstrous and vulgar. There was a glaring emblem of a cross in front of the building egregious in design. This impression should have been an omen of some kind, but I was not lucid just deranged by my imagination. Once in the ghastly building, my insides jumped up in glee at the sight of my peers who I identified immediately as my soon to be best friends my soon to be boyfriends my soon to be family. At first notice though I observed that they all looked directly down onto the floors or onto the side of walls never making eye contact with anyone. Their demeanour cold and stern, but I had arrived and I was certain I’d be the one to change all of that!
It was easy to get into the rhythm of life there. The daily schedule simple enough was to wake up at 5am and try your hardest to get time in the shower. 6am on the dot breakfast. 6:15am breakfast over. And prayer till 7am; 7am physical exercise; 8am classes; 1pm lunchtime; 4pm classed adjourned; 5pm study time; 7 pm dinner; 8pm prayer and the rest of the day was meant for ironing school uniforms, and getting ready for the next day. Weekends were filled with Mass and the allotted study time at 5 pm and the normal activities of chores and washing clothes and imprisonment in the dorms. No one was allowed to leave the vicinity of the school nor were we allowed visitors.
The first week there I was severely reprimanded for merely my existence. I was told I was too friendly. I was told it’s not nice to be that way. I was told to stop smiling. I was told bluntly that I looked like a whore and to button up my loose, rough uniform white shirt all the way and never show any skin. I was told it was wretched of me to have wisps of my hair flying all around me and instead to tie my hair up in a harsh and tight manner. They constantly questioned my motives for I was too enticing. I sometimes reminisce of the moment I denounced the morals forced unto me by the catholic Indian version of the bible, gambled away my dignity and talked to a shy boy in the bench behind me. I gave him a fright of course and he was silent throughout. From then forward I would be grieving for my act. I was taken aside by the senior head girl whose duty was to ensure that all the girls were behaving and following rules. I remember so vividly, she was facing me and she reached out wrapping her right hand around the nape of my neck and pulled me forward so that I was bowing before her. Then with her clenched balled up iron fist with all her might and power she pounded my back over and over again. I never felt any pain. The shock of the incident helped me feel numb. In that instance my spirit broke. Thenceforth I learned that I must make myself as small as possible, invisible, never looking or talking to anyone. I tried so hard to be nothing, but still with all my efforts I felt the stare of the girls and female teachers. Their eyeballs burned right through me. I was still an obscenity. Fortunately there was a resolution, my body reacted and constantly fainted and had seizures. This allowed me to be hospitalised for most of the days and I was happily quarantined away from their judgements. I never showered and so my fingernails were stained with blood from trying to rid the lice infested in my hair. I had no desire to eat and was force fed. I was always so tired even with having been a sleep 12 hours or more a day. I lost myself, a part of who I was. What I was is indescribable and even now a decade or more later I will never get back what and who I was. As my condition worsened and I continued to wither away eventually I left that school. I left India.
My story and even my reaction in those circumstances are extreme. Growing up I was not religious and didn’t believe in all those ancient stories past down from generation to generation, but I never voiced any offence because it didn’t touch me. After my gruelling experience at that boarding school I awoke and a new passionate outrage dwelled within me against the sanction that women should be shamed for their bodies and must apologise for its ways. Among the many, to put it mildly distasteful ideologies in religion is the mandates of what a woman should be. She should be devoid of any sexual tendencies or else considered to be of the worst kind, the filthiest, the most dangerous, and will be banished for the threat she is. Wouldn’t you like to know what I mean by sexual tendencies? I’m sure you do. By sexual tendencies, I mean having natural “urges” towards the opposite sex or same sex, whatever pleases you. Wanting to feel the touch of another body. Wanting pleasure of the best kind. But that’s wrong so says others, it is even evil at least by some of the most conservative religions, Catholicism and Islam. Especially in certain developing parts of the world where the norm there is to punish women to death for crimes of a sexual nature like adultery. The barbarity doesn’t stop there. As I type, there are girls full of trepidation before or near the age of puberty in a dingy room sprawled on a floor with her legs wide open. While a wise grey haired woman holds a sharp object and cuts at her centre. This girl may very well die, or at the very least she may wish to die from the savage pain of this rite of passage. All of this is in the name of keeping her from feeling her own sexuality or worse acting upon it.
How can we change this culture? It is my belief that only women can do this by standing up against the guardians of this vile philosophy. Who are these guardians you may ask? They are none other than WOMEN. What’s complicated is that women who are themselves victims of this ideology turn themselves into the perpetrators and keep alive these traditions and customs. They prey upon us and torture all those who try to free themselves from these plaguing doctrines of sexual oppression. I have hope that a population of women specifically East Asian women can unite and strike down these “other women” that comply and even relish this subjugation. Only then can we be strong enough to destroy these universal ideologies fuelled by religion, tribal customs and uncivilised men and women. We must be as relentless in this cause for we deserve better.