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Category: Children/Teenagers Date: 09 Jul 00

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 wedding days.


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 colour.


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 wrong.

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 listen.”


Part II next week.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur