The Goddess Within
While we are smack in the middle of the 21st century, women still face many challenges and social constraints. In conjunction with Navarathri – the celebration of the female goddess, I started this amazing project with 9 wonderful women. Each one is a different women but what unites us all is that we are strong, capable women who are overcoming and standing up to the constraints of society.
I aim to reveal the goddess within each of these women over the next few days. For there is a goddess within every women, let us make our choices, stop telling us what we can or cannot do.
Wonder Woman - Overcoming Gender Bias
I work as a Technical Advisor or better known as a Front Line Service Engineer in a male dominated oil and gas industry. I cover the industrial sector where I deal with people in the technical and commercial sector. My job involves understanding the machineries in order to be able to recommend the righ products, provide technical services and most importantly be able to trouble shoot issues the clients may face.
Our customers are men, foreman, boilerman, mechanics, store keepers, lorry drivers up to the senior management be it the general manager or even the MD. Even my internal stakeholders are men and there I am one of the few women in this industry.
The job is a very masculine orientated one, especially suited to those who like machines. Before joining here, I was a chemist in the Pharmaceutical industry, so this was a total new experience for me. Despite suffering initially in a new field, not only did I survive but I achieved numerous recognitions, awards and promotions in the last few years till I rose to my current role.
But learning wasn’t my biggest challenge.
Being heard as an equal and knowledgeable voice was and still is my biggest challenge – simply because I’m a woman. There have been so many times that I have been cut off half way through my sentences during discussions. Basically people would cut me off from voicing out my views. I have also been verbally bullied and continuously been doubted on my capabilities simply because of my gender.
Initially this was very troubling for me to be treated this way. But thankfully I had people around me to support and remind me of my strengths.
Fast forward to today, sugar and spice and everything nice days are over. To get my job done, I continue to stand tall and confident, talk in my usual low tone voice (ensure I’m stern when I need to) and put on my serious face so that they know I mean business.
The social stereotypes is still very much alive and present in similar male dominated industries.
But I will continue to do what I need to do and excel as I ain’t NO QUITTER.
I am an only child
Usually after someone has known me for some time, they would ask how many siblings I had.
The moment they hear I am an only child they would say – “oh no wonder.”
And I’m like "no wonder what?"
They would immediately make remarks that make no sense like
“oh that’s why you look ‘well fed’”
“oh you look so manja (pampered)”
How is it that these remarks only came after you found out I was an only child?
If your initial reaction was that I was such, shouldn’t you have asked me "are you the only child" instead of “how many siblings I have?”
Here’s the thing. It does not matter how many people a person is born with. That does not dictate their character or their attitude.
Modesty, patience, tolerance, politeness, or any form of social behaviour does not come with the fact that a person is the only child, first born, youngest or even the 15th child. Character develops over time through upbringing, experiences and events in a persons’ life.
My parents are open-minded. They trust me to make my own decisions and that includes who i am friends with, what time i come home or where I decide to go. This is simply because of whom they are and what they believe in.
Not because they only have one child so they're going to let her do whatever she wants. Till this very day, I still get disciplined by my parents.
So if you want to pass a comment about the way I look, the food I eat, the places I go to, the people I am friends with or anything, do so based on what you see in me/ who I am, and not because God or the forces of the Universe decided that my parents shall have only one child.
Photographers note: While this is not a constraint that is faced only by women, it is one that I was very shocked to hear as this is my muse and cousin, that practically grew up with us. As much as we pampered her, she also has to deal with getting disciplined by all of us, not just her parents. So she is in no way spoilt.
She got a long lecture from me on “how not to be an entitled gen y” before she joined her first job as an accountant. In the last year since, she has been made permanent, travelled regionally for work, and just promoted. Not only that she is an excellent dancer and plays the sitar besides being an avid traveller. Seriously people should really not stereotype others.
Don't need to be a bride to dress up like one.
Having called off an engagement, the hardest part of which should have been ending things with my significant other and taking time off to heal turned into having to explain myself to people and pacify them instead.
Even people who claim to be family and friends. I've been told they feel sorry for me, that maybe I should have compromised more, that sometimes I'm too strong and stubborn, that I should have made it work.
Even with All fingers pointed at me, I stand firm by my choice. Sometimes fairytales aren't what they seem and that's okay.
I chose not to listen to people who say so much but mean so little.
I chose me and I chose to be happy. That's the hardest and best decision that I've ever made.
I’m currently a student studying Human Resource.
The constant portrayal of women as the weaker sex tends to take its toll on female achievement. Despite living in modern times, equality in all fields of life is still beyond reach.
Personally, I would say that I have had first-hand experience in this when it came to the question “what should I study?”
We are often pushed into courses that seem divided by gender. Regardless of gender, most students tend to end up pursuing a course based on their gender rather than their interest.
We see gender segregation in everything right from a young age. Marketing and media has successfully brainwashed us into believing on the need for gender segregation that eventually leads to gender bias.
Eventually pushing women into believing they should choose careers in more protected “female” orientated environments.
At home we are still told by anyone or whoever “you are a girl you need to know how to clean and cook.” Basically the division of domestic labour is swayed towards women, till this day.
Instead shouldn’t we be telling both genders they should learn how to cook and clean?
I wear many hats.
Mother, wife, a career woman.
I handle the procurement and finance for Tech procurement for a company that has more than 900 branches.
Can a mother be a career woman?
Why not? Motherhood actually drives me to achieve bigger dreams in my career. While some companies do practice not hiring women for the fear that they may get pregnant and have to juggle motherhood, they have failed to realise that the woman that rocks the cradle can easily rock the world.
Being a mom to my beautiful baby girl has been an exceptional experience. It is in no way a hindrance to my career. Instead it drives me to be excellent in anything and everything possible. I want to set an example for my daughter. So that in the future she will believe she can be whoever she wants to be just like her mom.
Here in Malaysia it is an amazing feeling to be respected and not treated differently for wearing the Hijab. While covering the aurat is deemed compulsory in Islam, I do it by choice.
However in the western world it is often perceived to be forced upon. Well, open your heart and understand what Islam is all about.
Each and every religion embraces differences and celebrates similarities. It is ignorance that often leads to animosity.
Women empowerment comes from their strength within, not by the dress a woman chooses to wear.
Photographers note: This was the shortest shoot but we made it work in 30 mins! I was glad my friend decided to join my project. It gave me the opportunity to explore this social constraint – where women are told their choice to cover up is wrong. Again people forget they are still telling women what to do. Let our choices be our own.
I work as an IT analyst.
I’m married and I live with my in laws.
While I love my job, it’s been really tough to survive in this male dominated field. I will often be cut off while voicing my opinions. Initially I had to learn everything on my own as very few people wanted to help me learn. Today, I share my knowledge with new comers as I don’t want them to suffer like I did in the beginning. I think people forget that everyone needs guidance in the beginning, no matter what job they are in.
We have very few role models to look up to, as there are very few women in the C-Level of my industry. Shouldn’t we have more women making decisions?
I’m lucky that my husband is understanding and supportive of me. I also have a pet poodle who brightens up my day, every day.
Being a career woman and home maker comes with its own constraints. We are never our own priority. Everything else comes first. No matter what happens at work, women are expected to come home ever smiling to ensure the house is filled with happiness. But there are days we are very stressed out with work.
I want society to understand that we are individuals and need to prioritise ourselves as well.
Only then can we confidently care for our family and society.
My mad passion for sarees has led me to start the #keepcalmandsareeon movement. I sometimes get discriminated when I try to style sarees in ways that I love. Some days, I get attacked on social media when I decide to wear something other than a saree.
I once wore a saree with a bikini inspired crop top saree blouse with my saree mundhani covering only one side of my chest. Apart from hurtful words that were thrown towards me (I was asked to go to bed with some of them and as far as I know no god approves of this harassment), I was also said to be putting my culture and tradition to shame.
As much as I wanted to get mad, I was forced to understand that most of them have been fed with the notion that an indian woman is obliged to uphold the Hindu tradition and culture they think is right.
Is it wrong to take the goddesses in the temples whom we worship and the illustration of women in our Hindu epics as my style icons? Now don't tell me I should not compare myself to these goddesses because let's not forget that the first thing most of us say when we see a woman in a saree, all decked in jewellery and is someone who conforms to social obligation is "she looks like goddess mahalaksmi/ amman". Why should we only represent the idea of goddess some of you have fixed in your mind? What if we have our own interpretation of the inner goddess within us?
It's very easy to criticize a woman for standing up for her beliefs, but do you know we are often burdened with the task of dressing, speaking, walking,sitting (the list is never ending) a certain way? I wonder whatever happened to the quote "be yourself"?.
To me, tradition, culture and even religious beliefs should be followed only because a woman wants to. Not because she fears a back lash that follows if she chooses otherwise.
We often forget that what was accepted in the past may not be necessarily be accepted now and vice versa. Change is the only constant.
Choosing not to follow your interpretation of culture and tradition does not mean she is disrespectful. It means she is wise enough to make her own decision. Traditional or modern, shouldn't women and everyone else always have the choice to make a choice? Stop putting your idea of honour, respectability and worthiness on a woman's body.
When I worshipped you in temples, I felt like an impostor. I didn’t know the mantras, I couldn’t dress the part. How was I to hold my palms together in prayer for inspiration when my mind struggled to muster the courage just to enter your holy shrine?
I have heard the tales of women who brought shame to the family one too many times. I know society never deems a woman with tattoos, short hair, and certainly not one with that much skin showing, as a good being. I wasn’t enough of a woman in your man-made temples, Saraswathi, so I searched for myself elsewhere.
I looked into a lover who garlanded my self-esteem with the wilting numbers on my weighing scale. I sought to find love of one’s self through the eyes of another.
“Just a few more kilos and I’d be beautiful. I’d be enough.”
By the time he left me, I lost more than my weight. I lost my worth.
I turned to philosophy as my community turned its back on me, and assumed moral superiority.
“The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply” said Nietzsche of amor fati.
Among other things, I returned to your vedas for answers. Fortunately, it was not written in an ancient, handwritten mantra in a forgotten tongue that I cannot, for the life of me, decipher, but rather eloquently in Times New Roman.
I didn’t fall to my knees in devotion right away or wear a saree with flowers tucked in my hair. I didn’t recite your splendors and glories with the perfume of incense in the air. Of course people assume I do not ever pray, because you, Saraswathi, were never seen to be worshiped by women in pyjamas with messy, unkempt hair in a room lingering with the scent of cigarettes and littered with cans of beer.
But you, Saraswathi, you heard the silent prayers I had whispered to the amethyst stone I wear around my neck in your stead. I sought for you in churches, and museums, in art galleries and dance performances. I saw your light gleaming across the borders of every new city, your knowledge flowing within the veins of every new stranger that I chanced upon.
I woke up one day and looked at my palms blooming like your white lotus with a tenderness for life’s beauty. I have found you, Saraswathi. Most of all, I have found myself.
I am merely twenty-seven years of age, but within me, I recognise the familiar, gentle coursing of the Saraswathi river, rushing to open its arms to melt into the age-old Trivani Sangam. My purity remains hidden to the common eye, but those who have the patience to see where others merely look, to trust in the ebb and flow of something larger than society’s mantra, are welcome to dive into my currents. I promise I will make my presence felt underwater.
I sway with the knowledge of every woman who has ever walked this world before me. I recognise a temple within each of us, like the small eddies in the river’s edge forming a resonant Om. After all, who is Saraswathi, but the goddess who leads to the essence of one’s self? I choose to flow without restraint in my worship of Her.
“I searched for God and found only myself. I searched for myself and found only God”- Sufi Proverb.
Poetry by Ruby Subramaniam and Enbah Nilah
People have such a hard time saying the word FAT. So instead they use cute, curvy, chubby, voluptuous, because being associated with fat means you are saying that someone is ugly, lazy, unhealthy and unsuccessful.
I was always told that the one thing that was standing in the way of me and success was being FAT. That in order to have a good job- I had to lose weight, in order to have a relationship I had to lose weight, in order to be successful in life- I had to lose weight. So that is what I did. For the most part of my teenage and early adult life, I was on a diet. I drank those disgusting shakes, went on protein diets, went for aerobics classes, the gym, vigorous intense exercise routines, etc. I remember so clearly, when I was 19, and having just come out of home and living the life in college, I was losing weight..and everyone started complimenting me, so I thought in order to be that, to be complimented, to be told that I was beautiful, to be validated and accepted- I HAD TO BE THIN.
I always wanted to travel and I enjoyed being in nature and also meet people..but somehow, I felt like as long as I was fat I could not enjoy these things, because it would all make more sense if I had lost the weight.
When I first found out about plus size blogging and body positivity, I felt like I had come home. The only difference between me and them (plus size- body positive bloggers), was the confidence. They were so confident about their bodies. I learnt through fashion about accepting my body the way it is, I slowly started to wear clothes that I really liked aesthetically but what people would think unflattering on a fat body, I started with clothes and fashion but the idea of body positivity grew on me and that’s when I decided that I could not put my life on hold any longer because I was not losing weight. Instead I did the things that I thought I could not do, I went and got PADI certified, I went hiking, I backpacked for months. I continued to life my live, but this time, I took the focus off the weight loss. I think that was the time when I really started to LIVE.
There are times where it still feels difficult when people fat shame- like they find it so funny that a fat person would want to wear something they deemed not suitable, or even somehow thinking that we are not entitled to feel happy in our bodies, like we should not have that cake but I gently remind myself that I do not care for anybody’s opinion on my food, choices in clothing and certainly not my body. I am constantly learning and unlearning things about my body and other fat bodies and I am so grateful for these experiences because right now I can safely say that I do love my fat body, just the way it is.
Photographers note: Ratna runs a fashion brand based in Singapore. Im so glad i got to shoot her as I really wanted to talk about body positivity. She was the 10th person to contact me and I had initially had to say no until i realised theres an extra day this year ;p so the universe decided she must be part of this :)
And today we arrive at the final day #vijayadasami – the day the 9 goddesses combined to be Durga who vanquished the demon Mahishashura.
We too have many demons in us in the form of insecurities and restrictions that are pushed on us simply for being a woman. And only we can overcome the issues we face by believing that we have a goddess within us and we are strong, beautiful, talented women who are capable of much strength.
I started this project on a week where I was frustrated from reading the news.
A mother and daughter had been murdered simply because a guy felt he had the right to force her to like him.
A lady decided she had the right to school a girl on her dressing, simply because she wore a decent sleeveless salwar suit to a temple. And her son decided he had the right to shame her.
It took me 30 minutes to plan and post the idea. In 2 hours I had my goddesses and many more requests. Thank you to all who have messaged me in the last 2 weeks. I wish I could include everyone but I can’t.
I did not pick my goddesses, I said yes to the first 10 girls to approach me. I did not know their stories. But I shared with them my vision and the idea. I did not expect to connect nor be a positive influence to them in particular. Nor did I plan any of the social constraints that I featured. It all came from conversations and back to back messages. Every photo represents their individual style and beauty. That is why they are all different yet each a goddess in their own right.
All I wanted to do was to inspire other women and to tell people they cannot and shouldn’t focus on what they deem is a persons flaw.
Nearly every shoot I had to convince them that they were beautiful, and that they fit the idea behind my project. I was at once sad and angry that people chose to focus on so called flaws and make others insecure. But I am also happy at the positive outcome these shoots have had on my goddesses themselves. We all simply need someone to believe in us and show us our best sides. For only then can we as individuals grow to our full potential. I didn’t expect that to happen, but I’m glad to be a part of their journey.
While I did not choose anyone, I did eventually not include 1 girl for she represented the people that were the reason behind why I started this project. Ah the negative naysayers who thrive on hurting others. They seem to have a need to put down others to feel good about themselves.
Ask yourselves this
Why do you need to focus on the negative?
What right does it give you to put down someone?
Why can’t you look at a person and encourage them with your words?
Sometimes these individuals mask their negative thoughts in seemingly so called concern or nice words. Well your nice words mean the same, no matter how you put it.
We are all beautiful in our own way. YOU don’t get to put someone down coz they don’t fit your idea of beauty. That just makes you a sad insecure person.
You don’t get to decide who deserves to be a goddess. We are all goddesses. No one is perfect. There is no such thing as perfection. Our flaws, differences, imperfections and weaknesses make us the wonderful individuals we are.
So my dear women.
If someone tells you, you are not beautiful, turn to them and say – That’s okay if you don’t think I am, coz I know I am.
If someone tells you, you are not good enough or shuts you down – stand up for yourself, make your voice be heard. Remember your opinions are worth it.
If someone tells you, you will never amount to anything – Smile say that’s okay, I will succeed in whatever I choose to do. I don’t need your approval.
If someone tells you, it’s your fault, you should give in – Stand up for yourself, you deserve better and right or wrong, you make your own decisions.
If someone tells you, you shouldn’t do something simply coz that’s against their idea of culture, morality or society – Tell them to mind their own business. It is your choice to make any decision that affects you. You do not need to answer to anyone.
Do not let them thrive on the power of hurting you. When you stand up to them, you are owning your own decisions and taking away their ability to hurt you or anyone else.
So everytime someone puts you down – go stand in front of the mirror and repeat – I am a beautiful, strong, talented woman capable of anything.
May these project and the words of these goddesses inspire you in your own journey. Like them, you too are all goddesses as well.
Thank you for being part of this project whether as a participant or a viewer.
Happy Vijayadasami to all.
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