16 June 2010

Asserting Her Womanhood

Last night one of my students told me her husband left her after she'd spent two years in college.  Then a bunch of issues came up and she had to leave school.  Now she's back, and the ex-husband offered to pay for her schooling.  She refused; members of her family are pressuring her to take him up on his offer.  Others want her to quit school and reunite with him.  

I simply cannot imagine her doing such a thing.

I told her that, and she said she'd rather die than not finish school--or  get back with her ex.  She understands that for her, going forward means leaving him behind.  It has also meant leaving, or being left by, friends and members of her family.

She does not regret any of it, she said.  But then, she wondered, "Why do people do things like that?"  

There was a long pause.  She seemed to be waiting for an answer to a question that she had been waiting for the right person to ask.   At that moment, I realized that I didn't want to--actually, couldn't--talk to her as her professor.  She really wanted an answer to that question.

"Some people are threatened by people who know who they are and what they need and want."  Her eyes widened.  "Especially if those people are women."

"Yes!  That's so true!  Why is that?"

"Well, girls are trained to be people-pleasers.  That's what's expected of them, not only by the males in their lives, but by the women, too."

"Wow!  You're right.  That's especially true in my culture."

She is Guyanese, of Indian-Muslim descent.  I have known a few Indian-Guyanese women and have, for some reason, gotten along very well with them.  They were all very strong and independent-minded women.  Now, I wonder:  Are women, especially in those cultures, taught to be subservient because their female elders and the men know they're independent?  Or do they become that way because people try to beat them down?

That student and I talked a bit more, and something made sense:  From the first night of class, she almost seemed to be awestruck by, and studying, me at the same time.  Until we talked, I didn't understand why.  Did she see me as some sort of role model?  Or was she looking at me and wishing I could have remained a man?  I have met a few women like that.  But then I realized that she didn't want a man, or a woman.  She wanted someone who understood.

Now, I'm not sure that I understand what she thinks I understand.  But she definitely trusted what I was saying to her--and, even more important, that I was listening to her.  So, she was less surprised than I was at what I said next:  "They want us to be strong, but then they beat us down for it."

"You've experienced that?"

I explained that I came to understand what I've told her because of my transition.  "You see, I wasn't raised with that same expectation that I would be a people-pleaser.  Obedient, yes, at least when I was young.  But people wanted me to be more of a 'take charge' person than I was."

"You're very fortunate."

"When I was a man, yes, that served me well.  But now it gets me in trouble sometimes--especially on the job.  They really don't like women who speak up or take it upon themselves to do what needs doing."

I really wasn't expecting what she said next:  "But that's exactly the reason why you had to become a woman."

"You're right.  I had to take a stand on my own life, on who I am.   I simply couldn't have continued to live any other way."

"So you're in the same dilemma as us.  That's why you're one of us.  That's what I like about you."

I didn't tell her about the people I lost along the way:  I really didn't want her to pity me.  Besides, I think she understands that anyone who has decided to be his or her own person and has decided to live his or her own life has paid a price for it.  And, once you have paid that price, you have no choice but to move forward, in this moment.  

It seems that she couldn't do anything else now, even if she wanted to.  Nor can I.