They are everywhere.
Trying on rustling silk dresses, buying bits of baby’s breath, or tea
roses to twine their hair, walking out of shops and dressmakers with a
gown (ice pink, dove grey, pale silver?) floating behind them, wrapped in
through plastic to be carefully placed at the back of the car to be taken
home, and brought out on the day of their graduation amidst almost the
same kind of hair, make-up, heart racing flurry they will have on their
Others like the ones at
ASJA Girls’ College graduate without fuss, happily settling for their
uniforms, knowing it will be the last time.
I discovered during their
simple but moving ceremony that the ASJA girls hold among the highest
academic records in this country; saw that although they were a
“Muslim” run school, there are almost as many Hindu and Christian
names on their roll call.
I saw girls of African and
Indian descent hold hands, cry, laugh, sing, speak, and cheer one another
on with a complete lack of consciousness of race, religion, class or
I saw intelligent,
compassionate, aware, strong girls who, in making something of themselves
will inject new life into our country. Watching them, I had more than hope
for the future of this country. I rejoiced.
Following are excepts of
my address to graduating students of ASJA Girls’ College, San Fernando.
“Looking at rows and
rows of eager, youthful faces - of curious bright eyes, of glowing
expressions, I feel as if I have been invited to a feast, into a rainbow-coloured
floating bubble of learning and laughter, friendship and growing pains,
innocence, the unfolding of knowledge.
Today, each of you, have
your own dreams - of becoming lawyers, and doctors, and surgeons, and
pilots, and of bankers and engineers. To be all you can be. But if you
want to be a housewife, or assistant, then that’s what you should be.
The only shame is in doing a halfhearted job. Living a halfhearted life.
Who are you? I am trying
to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.
Pieces of a Puzzle
First piece: not quite
children. Not fully adults. But old enough, smart enough to have
recognised acts of tenderness, courage, and sacrifice, small and large, in
your lives - a carefully prepared lunch-kit, a crisp-ironed uniform.
You are in that twilight
zone where you are half children, half young women. And sometimes, the
child in you has cried with disappointment, loneliness, insecurity, with
the feeling of being left out, and laughed with the joy of friendship, of
popularity, solving a difficult problem on your own, and finding the exact
material for the perfect dress.
The woman in you has
already told white lies so someone close to you wouldn’t be hurt, helped
a grandmother to the doctors; stopped a small child from crying. The woman
in you has also made sacrifices, exercised restraint - held back when you
wanted to throw a tantrum, did extra housework so Mom could take a little
rest, did without a dress or piece of jewelry because you understand that
the money is needed for more important things, like your future.
And the woman in you has
given you the discipline, drive, to stay up nights and switch off that TV
and miss out on that lime, because already, at 16 and 18, you are able to
see how your math and science, biology and chemistry will one day lead to
economic independence, and the fulfilment of your ultimate destiny.
Because, make no mistake,
generations of women have fought hard so you can fulfil your entire
potential - be it in science or humanities, sports, or business, social
work or politics.
You will have husbands and
children and responsibilities but you must always believe in your dream,
believe in that vocation that is tied up with your destiny.
You will find your place
in the world, and you will find fame, fortune and more importantly,
happiness from doing your own thing. But it will come with a strong sense
of social responsibility - of putting back something in the world, in the
unfortunate, the sick, the old, the sad and vulnerable so that at the end
of your lives you will be able to say, yes, I let my light shine over some
corner of the earth. My life meant something.
The woman in you has
already developed a strong moral fibre, an instinctive sense of right from
But this is also a time,
and your teachers and elders must forgive me for being so honest that you
have begun to notice the opposite sex, having discovered your own
womanliness. Each of you has already got a face of someone special,
imagined or real in your heart. But if it’s magical now, it is because
it has not had to stand the test of reality. Hold that bubble. It’s
precious because it shows you the wonder of being young and beautiful and
in love. The wonder of endless possibilities.
The woman in you knows,
too, of how female modesty is linked with respect. That if you start out
in life trying to get ahead with beauty or a shapely pair of legs, you
will end up with nothing but ash. You will be objectified, but not
respected, you will be lusted after but not loved because you will have
presented cosmetics to the world, and withheld your soul. Not that there
is anything wrong in revelling in your beauty. Revel in the swing of your
hair, and those new jeans. But don’t count on it. Beauty is just the
icing, and melts quickly in an empty soul.
The woman in you
understands the need to reign in all those hormonal impulses, because she
knows they are transient, and understands that the real knight in shining
armour is not out there, he is within you. He is a she. You.
A profession and economic
independence will give you the longest, headiest high you will have in
your life. It will allow you, when it is time, to walk side by side,
rather than three steps behind the man of your dreams. The knight in
shining armour is within you, the one that forces you to study, command
respect, think independently, walk unafraid and confident.
You will be kind and
compassionate, soft and beautiful, and gracious as a woman can be. You
will have the love and romance you dream of, but from a position of
strength of financial, social, moral equality.
The knight inside you
protects you from verbal and physical abuse. Because as thousands of years
of history of the relationship between men and women, worldwide, has
taught us - even the nicest of men, the ones you think will take you off
into the sunset, sensing weakness, will prey upon you, put you down and
the romance will quickly dissolve like a phantom.
Beauty only the Icing
There is no such thing as
a free lunch with a man. How can you respect yourself if you trade your
body for a living? Because that’s what it comes down to if you are
unwilling to do your fair share. Everything comes with a price. It could
be subjugation, it could be control, it could be abuse. And then where
will all this beauty, and talent, and spirit that I see flooding this room
be? Crouching in a corner. You must decide now that will never happen to
you. No man can rescue you. The fairy tales lied, OK? Accept that. You are
here in the sixth highest achieving school in Trinidad because you are
preparing to rescue yourself. Your profession, your destiny, these books
will not be separated from your life once you are out of uniform.
And never ever forget that
no one person should mean the world to you. To do that is a burden to that
person and a loss to you. Many people, hundreds of them from your
dressmaker, to your best friend, to the nuts man with the crooked smile,
go towards making you happy.
Don’t make the mistake
of hinging your happiness on anyone person or thing, or you will find that
millions of lovely things and people in life, will pass you by. You
won’t see the dew quivering on blades of grass at dawn, remember the
conversations with your mother while she cooked, or hear the thousands of
interesting, funny, sad stories of so many lives - be it the vegetable
vendors, or the person in the doctors office, if only you care to ask, and
Part II next week.