K C Bhanumathy

Bhanumathy Vasudevan

Sacred Cave for Women

Voice Authority for Teaching

How many times you have heard the following comments in your growing up years??

“Good girls are to be seen and not heard…”

“You ask too many questions…”

“Don’t talk back…’

“Keep quiet…”

“I don’t want you to breathe a word of this to anyone…”

“Don’t talk rubbish…”

“You imagined it…this could not have happened…”

“I suggest you pick your battles…every thing does not have to become an issue…”

“I’m warning you, by raising this you will open a can of worms…”

“Let sleeping dogs lie…”

“Why do you always have to complicate things…”

“All you want to do is talk and dissect, can’t you just take something at face value?

“There’s nothing to discuss- its all in your mind…”

“Watch what you say…”

“You don’t think before you speak- just say the first thing that comes to your head …”

“….I have nothing to say.”

“…I don’t want to share now.”

“….Let someone else speak, I will come in later.”

So we carefully measure out the words: how much can I say, what can I say, when can I say. We measure and weigh and like a good, tasty, fragrant dish, produce not a word more than is palatable.

It is true that we all do have a voice, manifest in the two long, thin, coiled vocal chords in our throats. These allow us to articulate and present our innermost thoughts and feelings; make our contributions to the world outside. And just as we discover this wonderful gift- this instrument with which to engage and be engaged with, we are asked to ‘hold it in.’ To watch, see, experience, but not to share. So, we learn, early on in life, to hold in this form of expression. Fine, we say, we will conform. Ha! We will sing instead. Or dance. Or paint. Or use our eyes, our bodies- to say what we want to, what we have to. But we are being watched. As we grow up and into young adults these forms of expression too are denied to us. “Girls from good families don’t dance”. “You cant even draw a straight line.” “What a waste of time and money.” “Act your age”. “Don’t give me that look young lady.” “Is this any way to dress?” “Girls don’t do this.” “Sit with your legs together.” “Don’t act cheap.” “Don’t stand with your hand on your hip.” And, even as we rebel against these diktats, like the slow dripping of a leaking tap, these statements drip insidiously into our being and start to inform our behavior.

Round two to society, community, family: not only are our voices stifled, but other forms of expression are denied to us as well. Our voices are withheld our brilliance and beauty under covers.

We worked on trying to reclaim our voices right through the five years of AVANI[1]. We began by speaking of how, as women we were silenced from speaking out and talking of experiences that we thought would diminish us in some way. These unspeakable included emotional deprivations, fears, rejections, humiliations or an inability to confront. As the group got more comfortable with each other issues of our sexuality (after the birth of a child for instance), sexual and mental abuse, inability to ask for help, inability to articulate negative feelings, caste-based discrimination, domestic violence and exploitation in the work place were spoken about.

Constant questioning and analysis led to us to the realization that the imposition of the silencing our voice came from two sources. The first silencer is society.  Constantly sending messages of what a woman, and a good woman at that, can and cannot do. Projecting images of what being a woman, the ‘ultimate woman’ should act and speak and look like. The torchbearers of society- religion and mythology- further deepen these images of a woman. By prescribing not only her roles as a daughter, sister, wife and widow, but also and exactly what she can wear, do, and speak. And history is witness to women who do not conform. Women are burnt at the stake for being witches, forced onto funeral pyres as widows, turned into concubines or prostitutes at times of war.

On the whole then, for a woman, its safer and simpler to sit tight, stay in and keep shut.  She gets the message. Loud and clear. So well does she understand what society wants her to be that she starts to repeat over and over for herself how she needs to conform. She internalizes completely what it means to be ‘good.’ Good is acceptable. Good is loved. Good grows up to the fairy tale dream with the happy ending. Good women do not have bad thoughts, experiences or feelings, and if they do, they just don’t speak about them. It would threaten the fairy tale life! So she learns early on in life to listen to those voices inside of her telling her how she can conform. Telling her what she should do, think, say. These voices are critical and often sit in judgment of her thoughts, feelings and actions. They are strict and watchful. Remindful of the terrors of not conforming. These are the Voices control us, our every action and reaction.

More often than not caste, class, race/colour, sexuality, abuse is thrown into the mix of her experience, making for a lethal concoction. But help is at hand, the voices that control also have a secret place where they can ferret away every painful thought, memory and feeling. This secret hiding place is also good for stowing away anger, humiliation, grief, guilt, hurt and fear. Often this secret place is so secret that the woman does not even know that it is there. So, mindful of the voices inside, and unaware of the secrets she carries, she tries valiantly to lead the good life.

Each one like an ant droning on, toiling away at the work of living. Still in silence we collude with the silence of other women. If even one woman goes against her inner voices, the secrets stored inside may tumble out. What if they mirror some of ours. The terror of facing that mirror. Of what that would mean we have to speak about. So, we collude and uphold the Culture of Silence. This culture of silence is propagated by a patriarchal society, seeped in misogyny. It ensures that the fabric and structure of society is kept intact, unquestioned and unthreatened. What women are doing is only what the system is forcing them to collude to. 

It seemed so small, so intense, so personal, this task of trying to find our real voices while we worked in AVANI- and what it led us to was gigantic. It was true that we were using the self as an instrument to understand the group and the system. But when faced with this daunting reality we were reminded of the microcosm that we were working as. It made us humble and gave us strength. The theory base that we were operating from was that if there is a critical mass moving energies in a particular direction, then the universe will collude with us to move forward no matter how insurmountable the barriers. We had to do our micro work in order to set the process in motion. Go in reverse gear against the current culture of silence and collusion. Be brave enough to take the first steps in this direction.

Our task was set, we had to get back to the individual. We understood how silence in the system leads to hurt and violence. We now had to look at how the silence works in the individual. What it does to women. We used exercises to get to those ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’ parts of ourselves. The pain on getting there can best be described by this excerpt from an AVANI journal

 “There is in me a wild woman

A woman who thrives on doing

One who’s passion is learning

One who thrives on performing

One who blossoms on fun, laughter

And on spontaneity

 Between her and me

There is a door

Vaulted and blocked

Barred by iron and a lock

I get a glimpse thro’a peep door

But neither the window opens nor the door

 She has closed the door

Too many conflicts

Too many struggles

The storms too frequent

And too strong

The door always remains closed

 She peeps at the others and her heart wrenches

Its neither jealousy nor envy

But wistful sadness

She yearns for her freedom

She yearns to let her hair down

But she has become desolate and has learnt to live on her own…”

When we came in touch with these internal keepers of our silence, we could see the energy we were expending in keeping the status quo. The energy generated to keep thoughts, experiences and emotions hidden is negative energy. And negative energies stored in our bodies turn toxic over time. These toxins of the mind and spirit are released into our bodies and slowly but surely make us sick. Our heads hurt, our backs hurt, we have migraines, tumors, cancers. We need hysterectomies. We break our bones. Our shoulders feel heavy or get frozen, we feel dull and listless, our skin peels, our knees give way (all symptoms and illnesses experienced by members of the group), sometimes we vomit. To remove this sickness, the door has to be opened, and the silence has to be broken. This is difficult to say the least. To dialogue with the wild woman in me is petrifying. The words I will have to form in order to make myself understood will unleash guilt, fear, sorrow, hatred, humiliation, anger and often times a combination these.

So how then does one get around to speaking the unspeakable? We worked on a principle  following some simple steps. These steps seem simple but are very difficult in practice.

The first is to acknowledge that there are some unspeakable things lurking inside, more often than not we are happy to say, I’m ok, “everything is just fine.” The second step is to get to the door, which is “vaulted and blocked, barred by iron and a lock,’ and to try to open at least one of the (often) multiple locks behind which we hide the unspeakable. Once the locks have been opened, the third step is to take the courage to speak the unspeakable to yourself. In trying to do so you feel vile. Evil and disgusted with yourself for even harboring such thoughts. Guilt sets in and you try again and again to refrain from making the conversation with yourself. Its like using words to wrestle with your mind. Some of us used pictures instead, and others interpreted their dreams. But once the conversation was completed there was a feeling of lightness. The door had opened a crack.

Achieving these few steps is tough enough to make us want to stop speaking out. But then comes the final step- speaking out in a circle of women. A circle (size and composition variable) of women sitting in shared laughter, tears, nodding in understanding and identifying with what is being said. Its hard to determine what is more difficult- speaking to yourself or speaking out in a circle. The only thing that is certain is that once they are out the words seem to take wing and fly away.

The speaking out is not to wallow in self pity or sadness but to allow us to move onwards and forwards. It helps us to take the first shaky steps, dropping the burden of emotional baggage. An AVANI voice, “staying silent is like being an unused wall- it gathers dust and finally disintegrates and crumbles…,”and another, “working together can help us break through this culture of silence and burn it away.  

Speaking out requires strength and courage. It is not easy to voice that which has never been stated before. Members of the AVANI microcosm are taking positions based on the strength and courage to speak out. Subtle changes in intimate relationships are being perceived by group members. The universe around us has no choice but to accommodate the change. One small pebble falls into a lake and the ripples are felt across.

The learnings in this article were not gleaned in a linear fashion. We have culled experiences gleaned over the formal five-year cycle, in sessions, in informal group discussions over coffee or while sitting out enjoying the cool evenings in the AIKYA campus and in our life journeys. These have been distilled to arrive at a coherent structure for someone who would like to know more about some of the concepts and theories we developed and evolved about our use of voice and self- authority.

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