'What is your fortune, my pretty maid?'
'My face is my fortune, sir.'
'Then I can't marry you my pretty maid.'
'Nobody asked you sir!'
Those are lines from a nursery rhyme I had to learn when I was about seven, about the pretty milkmaid and the handsome nobleman, and I remember that I puzzled for a while over the rhyme -- brought up on a diet of fairy tales that had not yet been adjusted for Political Correctness, I subscribed wholeheartedly to the notion that men had fortunes that could be weighed in gold while it was enough for girls to have pretty faces and aim for a husband. This rhyme confused me at two levels -- why was this silly nobleman asking for a wife who was rich as well as pretty? Wasn't he mixing up roles here? And why wasn't the milkmaid sad that he wouldn't marry her? Years later, hard, round pebbles would drop into the clear, still pond that was my head -- 'Dowry' PLONK! 'Fair and lovely' PLONK! 'Sex-selection' PLONK!'( Un)marriageable daughter' PLONK! 'Patriarchy' PLONK! 'Feminism' -- major SPLASH! And that silly ditty would never be the same again.
A major pebble fell into my head this morning and stirred up memories of that same sad little rhyme and that telling line 'my face is my fortune': Our Open Space Fellow from Mumbai, Shirin, a charming, eloquent, highly intelligent and courageous young woman who is conducting a six-month project on prevalent notions of beauty and the impact of disfigurement, wrote to say that she had been asked by the principal of a well-known local college to keep away from the college students -- in fact not to enter the college campus at all. The principal doesn't want Shirin interacting with her girls because Shirin's face bears the scars of an acid attack -- her husband's planned and cold-bloodedly executed response to her request for a divorce. The principal seems to fear that having Shirin interact with her students would give them 'negative' ideas about marriage and frighten them: "I don't want people like 'her' in my college. I don't want any burn person or acid attack victim speaking to my students. I don't want my girls to be negative and get scared of marriages," she told one of the project volunteers.
Shirin herself had received a completely different response from both students and staff members when she had interacted with them earlier in the college -- they were more than interested in her project, having recognised that it touched the very core of the way young women view themselves and form their identities. They were keen on engaging with the issues she was studying and suggested that she meet with the principal before they planned the sessions with Shirin and her youth volunteers. A date was even set for the first session. Naturally, the principal's reaction has thrown Shirin off balance. She is angry and hurt and appalled that the head of an institution responsible for the formation of attitudes and mindsets in young people could be so close-minded and insensitive. What is perhaps most appalling about the principal's reaction is that it is not the issues themselves that are disturbing her -- she is okay with other volunteers from the project coming in to the college. She just doesn't want Shirin, carrying the marks of her survival...
When I first met Shirin in Pune, at her Fellowship interview, I was apprehensive -- about my own and the office staff's reactions. How do you sit across the table from an acid attack/burn survivor and pretend you don't see what you see? Suppose your eyes linger on the scars? Suppose you feel uneasy? Would her speech be slurred, would I understand her -- more importantly, if she was to be on a fellowship, how would the people she was to interact with, react? My doubts were dispelled just a few minutes into our meeting and I realised that although physical appearance is our largest contact point, there is so much more to human interaction -- Shirin's charming smile and soft voice, her typical Bombay girl way of speaking and candid sense of humour set us at ease. I decided to not pretend that there was no difference between her face and the ones that I came across in my everyday interactions and let my eyes wander as they wished -- and after a while, after they had explored the unfamiliar terrain, they came back to where most human interaction takes place: eye contact.
But eye contact and human interaction is exactly what the college principal wishes to avoid. Shirin recognises the fact that it is not easy for people to not react to her scars -- she has faced enough insensitivity in her daily commuting in Mumbai, from the boy trying to videotape her face as she shopped ("For what?" she asks angrily,"To post on youtube?") to the college girl on the local train who held her hand up to shield her eyes from Shirin, talking about her loudly in English, as if being scarred meant that you were also hearing-impaired and brain-dead. She just wishes they would react in a manner that was respectful and deepened understanding. Shirin points out the deep-seated discomfort that still exists in India with deviations from the physical norm -- while perfect strangers feel free to ask you the most intrusive questions, they feel no obligation to smile and say hello or be courteous in any way -- you are in effect, a non-person. In the West, mothers may ask their children not to stare, but here they often shield their children's faces as if the physically different person carries negative energy, is 'ashubh' in some way, to be kept away from all that is 'shubh' or auspicious -- whether pregnant woman, or marriage ceremony, or child or marriageable girls... Think about our stories and films -- isn't the evil person always dark (or albino or has leucoderma), hunched, squint-eyed, crippled, scarred, six-fingered,club-footed, hare-lipped, blind...
Shirin's project is not about Violence Against Women (VAW), it is not about surviving vicious attacks -- although these are issues that, naturally, are close to her heart. Her project is about beauty and disfigurement, about sensitising people to accepting differences, whether the mild disfigurement of Leucoderma which is still a major social stigma, or congenital conditions that affect height/weight/shape/mobility and eventually, life prospects. She hopes to get young people and women in particular to explore how stringently they want to conform to prevalent, externally laid down notions of beauty at the cost of their own well-being and identity. She would like to push for the recognition of disfigurement as a social disability (after all, no matter how good you are at your job, a person who looks 'different' will generally not get a front desk job or one that requires social interaction). She would like people to remember that there is a person inside the body that is different. Eventually, she hopes to begin a dialogue on acceptance -- of oneself, of others and of differences. Perhaps the college principal, if she overcomes her biases and participates in the project, will be one of the first to benefit?
-- Ujwala Samarth is Programme Coordinator at Open Space, Pune.
Also see this comment on the same incident: http://blogs.rnw.nl/southasiaw