Life teaches us lessons in very strange ways. As each new year is added to the registry of my life, I find myself faced with more questions and fewer answers. And my questions get more and more difficult, so that even those older and wiser than me cannot provide me with the answers I seek. The recent experiences in my life have truly challenged me, but also pushed me to introspection and retrospection. The question I come against the most is a question for all the women of my culture and generation. And all those of similar cultures. Why do we accept and tolerate all that we do?
The last few weeks I have conversed with many sisters, sharing my story as I listened to theirs. This is not the first time I have heard a story and been shocked, surprised and pained to hear another’s experience. But it is strange how your own experience will give you a deeper insight. You suddenly wake up and say ‘how can this happen to me?!’ ‘This cant be happening to me!’ Suddenly your story becomes one of those stories women tell each other as a warning or as proof of how unfair the world is and our society is. Take heed, be careful…haven’t you heard what happened to xxx? You are an example now. And all those tales that seemed too cruel and ludicrous and impossible are only too real. They could easily be yours. Maybe they even are yours.
And as I relate my story and listen to theirs, the same helpless thought flashes across my eyes and theirs: why didn’t we do anything? Why did we accept it? Why did we tolerate as much as we did or stayed as long as we did?
For years I have campaigned for women’s rights and actively worked on women’s issues. Domestic violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse. I know of it all. I know of in law issues. The drama of the Indian bahu. Dowry issues. Of cruelty, of culture and tradition being used as an excuse to mistreat or malign or slander. Of hidden backgrounds, of husbands with secret addictions and secret illnesses. I have, unfortunately, grown up with these tales. Read about them. Sometimes witnessed it too close to home.
The irony of my situation in light of this background does not escape me. It does confuse me farther, however. I was raised with much love and affection in a family that empowered me. I grew up thinking I could be whatever I wanted, like my mother. I was raised to be strong but to be polite, courteous, respectful of my elders. I was raised to love and give affection. To be responsible, to own my actions and decisions. I could question, but politely. I was raised to know fairness and truth and to stand by it. I had to follow my elders but not if it was wrong, unfair, or unethical. I had every opportunity and did my best, worked hard, obtained a good education, worked to be the professional I had always aimed to be. I am not dependent on anyone for financial help. I have a secure future, a brilliant one. I have an amazing support system. My family and friends support me and their love is unconditional. I have traveled the world independently, worked jobs, adapted to many different lives.
So why didn’t I wake up sooner? Why did I refuse to recognize the situation? And if I did, why was I willing to do all it takes to save something that was only hurting me?
The women in my life may ask themselves this too and may wonder it internally but they don’t ask me this. They don’t judge me or question me. I think this is maybe because they understand it too well. Maybe they know that if the situation was reversed, they may not have been able to do anything different. We are caught in a vortex. A vortex impacted by culture, tradition, society, preset moral values and norms, family pressures, personal obligations, sense of guilt and responsibility, expectations, fear, etc. etc. We are carried on streams not of our choosing, regardless of how strong, liberated, independent we may think we are. Our grandmothers, mothers, mother in laws, aunts, sisters, are all slave to these same forces. It is difficult to break the chains, break the pattern. My mother, my aunts, even my mother in law, may have once vowed that they would protect their daughters, that they would never let their daughters endure what they endured. They may have vowed to warn, teach, support and empower their daughters. Each mother would have envisioned a future for her daughter free of the negativity of her own past. I know my mother did. At some point, she even fooled herself, like I did, into thinking that we had broken free. Extremely loving in laws, a husband that is an equal partner, open minded family, etc etc etc.
However, as I stand on the other side and look back at my journey, I can only see the signs we missed that would have warned us that my path would be no different, maybe worse. I can see where we covered our eyes and chose the nicer, naive perspective, where we hoped for the best without taking action, where we decided to blame ourself rather than face the truth.
Because in the end, I really could not break the cycle. Not only in terms of what happened to me and what I endured but also in terms of what I did about it. The many chances to step away and walk away, the many chances to protect myself and my soul, I ignored them all. Despite everything, I took it all as my cross to bear and my burden to lift, even though it didn’t have to be.
And so my question is still unanswered. Why? Why did I? Why did all the women who did?
I think this is a question only stories can answer, and so I will keep listening to them and keep telling mine. And maybe one day it will make sense.