Here is a link to a wonderful account of the personal politics (politics are always personal) of abortion, by Laura Lannes and Candace Russel. For a very compassionate discussion of the way that women’s reproduction is determined unfairly by racial, economic, and national issues, check out this article, recently posted at Rewire. And here is an excerpt from that essay:
Eleven years ago I joined the fight for abortion access, after a 14-year-old parent, pregnant again by an adult, told me it was cheaper to pay friends $10 each to beat her up and force miscarriage than it was to afford an abortion. She said she would lose her housing if she was pregnant again, and that it would be easier to explain getting beat up to her family than wanting an abortion.
There is no end to the men, mostly, who seek to govern women’s bodies, who deny women freedom, agency, and power. Now they want to prevent any woman who MIGHT become pregnant from drinking alcohol, even though there is no solid evidence to support such draconian prohibition.
Martha Nussbaum, a famous philosopher and a woman who has, you might say, “made it,” in the patriarchal halls of philosophy and academe, has this to say to women who would seek justice when famous and powerful men rape them:
Law cannot fix this problem. Famous men standardly get away with sexual harms, and for the most part will continue to do so. They know they are above the law, and they are therefore undeterrable. What can society do? Don’t give actors and athletes such glamor and reputational power. But that won’t happen in the real world. What can women do? Don’t be fooled by glamor. Do not date such men, unless you know them very, very well. Do not go to their homes. Never be alone in a room with them. And if you ignore my sage advice and encounter trouble, move on. Do not let your life get hijacked by an almost certainly futile effort at justice. Focus on your own welfare, and in this case that means: forget the law.
Source: Martha Nussbaum on sexual assault
Do you agree with Jennysaul, below:
Nussbaum draws on her own experiences to discuss sexual assault by powerful men. Her main argument has a deeply depressing conclusion, consisting of advice to women:
Are you a woman? Do you love someone who is female? Do you believe you have or she has the right to her own body and mind? Do you like tacos or beer? If you answered yes to any of these questions, please support this campaign to give women more control over their own destinies: Taco or Beer Challenge. It’s a heck of a lot more fun that dumping ice on your head.
This morning I donated money to Trust Women Foundation through this campaign. Check out some videos of other like-minded here.
BTW, I don’t like all the F-bombs in the subsequent blurb, but the cause is good. Please check it out. Taco or Beer Challenge.
My uncle Lars (not his real name) was troubled for much of his life. He had three daughters by two mothers. Well after all of them had children of their own, he took up with a much younger woman, “Elena”, and got her pregnant with a fetus that turned out to be male. He would have a son and was determined to name him after himself. Now, I do not know whether or not Elena used drugs, but he claimed that she did and managed to have her locked up in a State prison for the duration of her pregnancy. Whether a blood test was administered or not I cannot say. But I do believe that my uncle and the State violated her rights.
Why was he wrong? Because taking a woman’s autonomy away from her on the grounds that she is endangering her fetus treats her as though she herself is nothing more than a vessel, an incubator, a thing, an object to be used and abused. Such action pretends to protect the “unborn child,” the fetus, but actually serves the interests of those who take control of the expectant mother. In this case, my uncle’s interests overwhelmed Elena’s, and the State sanctioned this takeover. The fact that Elena was Mexican and poor, in addition to being female, made it harder for her to resist their assault.
In a well-known essay entitled, “Are Mother’s Persons?” (in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Berkeley, UC Press, 1993) Susan Bordo examines legal precedents and gendered attitudes toward the idea of a person as an embodied subject. She argues that men are allotted constitutional rights to bodily integrity that women are denied in our country.
For example, in the case of McFall v. Shimp (1979), the court protected the bodily integrity of a man who refused to donate his bone marrow to his cousin, who would certainly die of aplastic anemia without it). In fact, his cousin did die. In a similar case, a Seattle woman who pressed the court to force the father of her leukemic child donate his bone marrow was denied. The law sanctions these refusals on the grounds that a person is an embodied subject. Thus, as Bordo explains, the law of the land insists that,
the body can never be regarded merely as a site of quantifiable processes that can be assessed objectively, but must be treated as invested with personal meaning, history, and value that are ultimately determinable only by the subject who lives ‘within’ it. According to the doctrine of informed consent, even when it is ‘for the good’ of the patient, no one else–neither relative nor expert–may determine for the embodied subject what medical risks are worth taking, what procedures are minimally or excessively invasive, what pain is minor.
That is the theory of the embodied subject and informed consent. In practice, this doctrine has not been applied equally. Women, especially non-white, poor, or non-English-speaking women (women like Maribel), have been treated differently. As Bordo puts it, “the pregnant poor woman (especially is she is of non-European descent) comes as close as a human being can get to being regarded, medially and legally, as “mere body.”
Again and again the court has forced women to give birth against their will, or have forced women to have Caesareans in spite of their clearly stated, religious objections to the procedure. Women, particularly women of color, have been sterilized without their knowledge or consent. Consider these cases:
1985: Pamela Rae Stewart was charged with criminal neglect for failing to follow medical advice during her pregnancy.
1989: Jennifer Johnson, 23 years old, is sentenced to 15 years probation upon her conviction of delivering illegal drugs via the umbilical cord to her two babies.
1990 A Wyoming woman was charged by the police with the crime of drinking while pregnancy and prosecuted for felony child abuse.
1992: A 28 year-old homeless, pregnant, Native American woman, Martina Greywind, mother of six and addicted to paint fumes, is jailed for recklessly endangering her fetus by inhaling vapors. She is also sentenced (ironically) to 9 months on a State prison farm. She eventually won her release from jail and had an abortion.
A Massachusetts woman who miscarried after an automobile accident in which she was intoxicated was prosecuted for vehicular homicide of her fetus. (Bordo)
2008: A SC court overturns a conviction of Regina McKnight, who had already served 8 years in prison on the grounds that she had “murdered” her stillborn infant by using cocaine during her pregnancy. Source: Alternet
Does the State go after fathers for their drug habits, smoking, alcoholism, reckless driving, physcial and psychological abuse of pregnant women? No.
A recent study at the University of Bristol concludes that there is no evidence that a woman who drink moderately during their pregnancy endanger their fetuses.
Anti-abortion campaigns routinely ignore the personhood of the mother, arguing increasingly that the fetus, even at the zygote state, has more subjectivity than the woman in whose body it is lodged. In other words, “as the personhood of the pregnant woman has been drained from her and her function as fetal incubator activated, the subjectivity of the fetus has been elevated” (Bordo).
In other words, it is not only women’s reproductive rights that are being challenged, but women’s status as subjects, embodied persons with inherent rights to say what can and cannot be done to them, that are being threatened by the anti-abortion crusaders. These opponents of women’s autonomy have launched an assault against the personal integrity of women, whom they would reduce to fetal containers of beings whose rights exceed their own.
What makes pregnant women different than the kind of individuals that Locke, Hobbes, Descartes and others envisioned, is that women have the capacity to contain within the “other” within them. When we are pregnant we are not singular, and certainly we have a responsibility as ethical human beings to nurture the beings we intend to bring into the world. But we do not lose our bodily integrity and rights to self-determination the moment we become pregnant.
It is wrong to compel women to incubate a zygote or fetus that she does not wish to mother. It is also wrong to force her, with force, imprisonment, or other coercive measures, to behave in a way that others do not consider acceptable during her pregnancy because that denies her right to self-determination.
To finish the story, a few years after the birth of Lars Jr., my uncle committed suicide. No one knows where Elena took her son, who is my first cousin and the brother of my uncle’s three daughters. I don’t know why Lars killed himself, or whether Elena left him before he did so. There is a tragic justice to her disappearance. Why would she want to be associated with the family of a man who turned her into the police and had her jailed until she delivered “his” baby? I hope she returns to us. I would love to know her and welcome my unknown cousin to the fold.
Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.
I HAVE been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.
This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.
At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.
The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.
In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.
The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.
It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.
I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.
The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”
We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.
The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.
I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.
The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.
Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.
That’s funny. I already wrote a blog and thought I had posted it, but for some reason it didn’t go through. So, the last post won’t make any sense. Here’s what should have come first.
I’m fasting today to honor Nasrin Sotoudeh, the heroic human rights lawyer imprisoned by the Iranian government for her willingness to take on human rights and political cases, ended a life-threatening hunger strike. The authorities finally capitulated to international demands that the government stop punishing her family, specifically, in this case, her 12 year-old daughter, who had been prohibited from traveling until today.
Today Nasrin will begin to take sustenance again, and she will live. But she still remains unjustly and inhumanely imprisoned. I will deny myself food today, as she has done for the past 49 days, in personal protest against the Iranian government’s cruel treatment of this noble hero. Won’t you join me and fast to demonstrate your solidarity with Nasrin?
I have not been able to write for a while because I have had very limited access to the internet. Also, my last days here in Nepal have been richly complicated and busy, and I have not had the energy or ability to post. Right now I’m sitting in a delightful garden café at the Shechen Gompa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near the great stupa called Boudha.
There are magnolia and mango trees, and swooping bushy hot pink and orange bougainvillea vines, hibiscus bushes, marigolds, impatiens and countless other shade and sun flowers I cannot name. I have spent a lot of time here in the last week.
There is much to report, much to record, and much more to consider. For now I’m going to upload some thoughts that I wrote during my transition from the last post to today. During that period bedbugs drove me out of Sugandha’s house and into what Sugandha called a palace. It was a nice, upper middle-class Nepali house. I lasted less than a week and ended up here. Brendan moved over with me a few days ago. We’re sharing a well-appointed room at the Tharlam gompa and have had many adventures and conversations.
25 July, 2011
I’m having a difficult time adjusting to the new house. First of all, I miss Brendan. I don’t like having breakfast and dinner without him, and I liked getting to say goodnight. Second of all, I have a lot less privacy here. Every move is scrutinized. Not so much by the wife, Nirmala, as by the husband, Kalidas, a traditional Nepali man. When trying to make conversation on the first day, I asked Nirmala what she liked to do. Did she like to garden? Yes. She told me about her garden. Did she like to cook? She hesitated, and then Kalidas interrupted, practically shouting, “Cooking is her duty!” It didn’t matter to him whether or not she liked it. He asked lots of personal questions, as Nepalis tend to do, and quickly discerned that I was divorced, a status that most Nepalis find disgraceful. He makes me uncomfortable.
I don’t have the nice view from the room that I had at Sugandha’s house, and I can’t hear the frogs chirping in the fields at night. I can’t sleep because the bed is super-hard and the machine that recharges the battery intermittently fires off a round of zaps like a machine gun. This noise goes on from about 9 pm to 2 am.
Kalidas does not approve that I get up at 7 in the morning. He likes to inform me that he gets up at 5. He plays badminton with three other Nepali businessmen, who come over afterwards and drink tea on the front porch. They keep the front door wide open so when I come out to take a shower they are all there gaping.
At meal times, Nirmala serves Kalidas, then me, and hovers at the table to see if we want any more vegetable curry or rice. I am so sick of dal bhat. Somehow I have got to persuade her not to pile the rice into a mountain on my plate. If I say “pugyo,” or “I am full,” when she wants to give me more, Kalidas suggests that I do not like the food. Nirmala sits only after Kalidas has had his second or third helping. I want to wait for her to finish her food before leaving the table, but Kalidas gets impatient and wants me to bring my dishes to the sink as soon as possible. He barks at me to get up, so I do. He is used to ordering women around. I find this unsettling. I like Nirmala and am willing to like Kalidas.
Nepali sexual politics are difficult for me. There are four ways to address a person in the language: the very, very formal “You” (hajur) used for kings and magistrates; the ordinarily formal “You” (tapaai); the very familiar “timi” used for children and between friends; and the very low “ta” which is used for dogs, lower beings and between intimates. Kalidas says “ta” to his wife but she says “tapaai” to him. He addresses her by her first name. She always and only says “tapaai” to him. “The husband dominates the wife,” he explains to me as she sits beside him smiling and agreeing. Nirmala never leaves the house. Her sister-in-law comes over with her 18 month-old during the day and they watch t.v.. Nirmala keeps a relatively clean house—but the bathrooms are not nearly as clean as mine back home.
They are Brahmin and not particularly religious, which is somewhat of a relief after Sova’s morning puja, which began loudly at 5 with the same version of “Om Nama Shivaya” on the stereo, and concluded at about six with a long and vigorous ringing of a bell and the blowing of a horn. I will try to adjust to this new dwelling.
I’m frustrated and depressed. Most of the women at the center have never been to school or studied a different language, unlike their brothers and husbands. They have been coming to English classes now for more than a year and still do not know how to conjugate the verbs “to be” or “to have,” not to mention any of the other useful verbs in the English language. And then there is the problem of getting them to understand how to use the verb “to do” in combination with other verbs, as in “do you have a toothbrush?” or “she does not live at that address.” If they cannot progress beyond this very rudimentary level, then how am I going to teach them to think critically about gender, which is what I imagined I would be doing with them?
I had this lovely fantasy of getting them to talk about their relationships with their husbands and their sons and daughters and asking them why they go along with certain customs. For example, if the family is having meat for dinner, then usually only the men will get some. Why do they regard women whose husbands have abused and abandoned them as fallen women? Why do they think it is so shameful for a woman to get divorced? I had imagined having stimulating and revealing discussions about these and other, similar questions in class.
One of the women in the class is, in fact, divorced, but she doesn’t want any of the other women to know. This woman’s husband beat her before taking off and leaving her with three children. She gets by on the earnings her 13 year-old son brings in. She can’t reach out to her sisters for emotional support, because the women have internalized the cultural codes that stigmatize all women who have cut themselves off from their husbands. The underlying, unconscious assumption is that women do not count in and of themselves, but have value only in relation to men, who alone have inherent value. So, a woman who stands alone in society is valueless, without worth, and should be treated accordingly. The very few Nepali women who have gone to college and established careers are beginning to challenge these assumptions, but they must fight their own and their families’ deeply-ingrained beliefs. Women who marry work 40+ hour weeks and then cook, clean, and cater to husbands, sons, and father-in-laws. Women who wise up and reject this drudgery are shunned. It is an appalling situation that does no one any real good.
Yesterday I visited an important Buddhist shrine, Namo or Naya Buddha, with two other volunteers, Shannon and Darima, and a group of Hindu women from the Women’s Center. I teach these Nepali women English, and they taught me more about Nepali spirituality than any book or article I’ve read. They don’t think of the Buddha as a god–he is “very different,” they said, from Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Saraswati, Durga, and the rest of the Hindu pantheon. They think of him as a “wise man.” He is buddamani, sage. So why do they venerate him with all the same emotional intensity as they bring to Ganesha and others? Because they are Nepali. The following are notes from my journal during the day. Headings have been added.
2 July 2011
I’m on a bus with Menuka, Devi, Susshila, Dilu, Ambica. They are taking Darina, the other teacher at the Women’s Center, and me somewhere towards Banepur to place called Namo Buddha. Shannon is coming along for the ride because tomorrow is her last day in Nepal and she and Darina have become very close. It is raining, of course. This bus looked suspicious decrepit when we boarded it. It did not seem to bother Dilu, who tends to take charge, that the driver’s head was halfway into the engine. The last bus ride that started out this way was supposed to take only one hour but actually took 6 because the bus kept breaking down.
I’m very pleased to be going anyway, since this is my first outing with my new Nepali friends. I love women but would not say, as I was about to say, that I like women better than men. Sometimes I trust them more, but not always and not finally.
As I get older, I find comfort in the similar experiences and challenges that women have and suffer because we are women: menstruation, childbirth, menopause, hormonal shifts, surges, stress, discrimination, catcalls on the streets, harassment, come-ons, rape, stares, the policing of the body, its clothing, gestures, and locations. Not all women will admit or talk about it. Some women are ashamed to be women; some deny and some repress.
Not all women become mothers, of course, or get to keep and take care of their children. But we all as women share the common lot of women. We all live in cultures that, to various extents and in different manners, insist that we dress, behave, and move through the world as women. Those who resist these codes are brave. If they survive and thrive, we celebrate them, but not generally during their lifetimes. What do we call the ones who defy their cultures’ policing of the body and mind and who then fall into poverty, isolation, and depression? weird, insane, unnatural, or evil.
We’re climbing through endless terraces of rice fields doted with brick houses. Many of the houses are habitable only on the ground floors. These send up aspiring columns of brick or concrete that bristle with steel reinforcing rods. Many roofs in the city are flat, which is useful for hanging laundry or creating gardens with potted plants. In the country, where there is room, roofs are peaked. Susshila touches her palms together as we pass a giant stature of Shiva, who holds his trident and looks benevolently over the valley. She says this place is called Sagar, or something like that. The bus strains up the mountain and we go through a small village where a butcher displays flayed carcasses of unidentifiable animals on stone counters and rocks.
The sun breaks out and I want to mention it, but have to look up the word, surya, for sun. Suriya the sun-god is one of the oldest Indo-European deities, along with Chandra, the moon, Indra (war, storms and rain), and Agni (fire). My book is wrong about the word for sunny. Gamlagyeko is the correct term. It is not yet gamlageko but the surya has come out.
I see women bent under loads of bricks carried with a forehead strap, dark-skinned children standing in dirt lanes between fields, corn in patches everwhere. Women wearing red headcloths and ragged red saris are planting rice in the rain. A butcher shaves the hair and hooves off of a headless goat. A shirtless man washes himself by a concrete cylinder. Now we are arriving in a larger town, driving down a broad street bordered by 4 and 5 story buildings. Dogs forage in spread-out mounds of garbage lining the road. This is Banepa.
We have boarded a crowded bus. The Nepalis sit three to two seats and push towards the back, where all the spots are claimed. Darina and Shannon are complaining that the trip is taking too long. We have gotten on our third bus. The women told them that we were going to someplace far away. Menuka said that it will cost 1500 rupees to get into Namo Buddha, and this has really set Shannon and Darina off. They say, “I’m not paying that,” and want to go home. Darina is sick with a bad case of gastrointestinal dis-ease. Shannon has been traveling too long and longs to get back to the States and her boyfriend. Darina understands that the women have high hopes for this journey and doesn’t want to disappoint them, but she looks miserable.
At least she has a seat. Ambica is sitting on Susshila’s lap. The rest of us are standing and have been standing for almost an hour. Once we get going we will travel for yet another hour, so we will be weary when we arrive. I don’t know where the bus driver is. Few of the Nepalis appear to be distressed or impatient. Ah, here is the driver. He has started the engine, but still we sit. At last we are leaving the filthy city of Banepur.
We climb through a village where I see a tall, thin, grey-haired woman in Tibetan dress, which is much plainer than the Hindu style. Tibetan women wear long dark skirts and vests over along-sleeved blouses, and tie horizontally striped aprons around their waists.
The family next to me has brought cucumber from a vendor outside. It looks and smells delicious. I dare not touch it.
We have been climbing a winding, steep dirt road and seem to have come up 2 or 3 thousand feet. But bus rolls into a deep pothole and everyone hears tearing metal. The driver cuts the engine and the ticket-takers jump out to inspect. No damage is found, and we crawl forward. I have finally found a seat, which I am sharing with Menuka. It is quite uncomfortable but better than standing.
We get off the bus at an inauspicious crossroads—a muddy track bordered by brick shacks. We head down a dirt trail and I am worried that Shannon and Darina are going to be very angry because there seems to be nothing here. Signs of civilization ahead include an outdoor restaurant where the chickens are pecking around the frying pans on top of the stove. A battered sign reads, in English: “We serve hygienic, fresh food here.” There is a somewhat clean squat toilet with a door. After we use it a ragged boy with a Dalai Lama medallion appears from nowhere and shouts at us to pay the fee. Devi gives him 30 rupees. He still complains, so she throws some coins into his palm. We head down the hill and pass under prayer flags that lead us to a medium-sized stupa. This is Namobuddha, then. This is looking better.
Lunch: Amazing food: channa (round, red beans), roti, tharkari (curried vegetables), roti (fried bread) and chura (beaten rice), ladu (Nepali sweet cakes), and coffee-chocolate candy which we wash down with Mountain dew and sweet Nepali tea. We westerners cannot believe that they brought so much to eat, and are even more surprised and grateful when we find out that they have gotten up at 4:30 in the morning to cook it all. Menuka pays for the tea. Shannon says that she feels better and that she always gets cranky when she is hungry. Darina has a serious stomach ache and cannot eat much, but she soldiers on.
After we eat we visit the small stupa. I make an offering and light a butter candle, then round the shrine, spinning prayer wheels as I go. I join the Hindu women at the inner temple of the stupa, and offer prayers. Menuka pour a handful of rice into my hand and give me some marigolds and a white, silken scarf. I throw the rice around the Buddha inside and give the flowers and the scarf to the old man who tends the shrine. He tucks the blossoms into the statue’s knees, drapes the fabric around the Buddha’s neck, and then blesses me with a tika, a smear of red powder that he mixes in his hand, combines with some of the sacred orange smear on the Buddha, and then rubs into the crown of my head. He also pours holy water and flower petals into my hands, which Susshila shows me to throw over my forehead and hair.
We go to another shrine nearby, removing our shoes as we enter. Inside there are three relatively large Buddha statues and a frightening looking demon who looks like Bhairab, the angry manifestation of Shiva. I have no idea which bodhisattva this is, but I make an offering here, on impulse, and hope for strength to manage the stormy changes that seem to be coming my way.
End of journal. Continuation of the Story
We walk up a very steep hill bedecked with thousands of prayer flags. Many of the women fall behind and finally it is only Shannon and I puffing towards the summit, where we find expansive views of the valley in all directions and a line of Buddhist shrines. The red, yellow, blue and white flags festoon the top and lead down the hillside on a path that I am eager to follow. We wait for our companions. They, however, refuse to take another step, so I content myself with what purports to be the holiest spot at Namobuddha, the site where a young prince—who may have been the Buddha himself—encountered a starving tigress and her five cubs. She was about to devour a small child, but the prince offered his own flesh instead. His sacrifice transformed him into a boddhisattva. After he died, legend says, he was reincarnated into Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha himself. The Tibetans call this place Takmo Lujin (Tiger Body Gift). Namo Buddha means Hail to the Buddha.
I feel especially moved by this place, because tigers have always been my favorite animal. When I was little I had a giant Steiff tiger named Suzann who guarded me while I slept. She had glowing green eyes and was nearly as big as I was. I made up the story that she protected me so that I would not feel afraid of her. I say a sincere prayer to the tiger spirits of the mountain and move on with my friends, who have gone ahead.
From here we follow a narrow path up the spine of the mountain to another sacred spot, where we again give rice, flowers, silk, and money. Menuka seemed to have an endless supply of scarves. Susshila, the holdest and most overtly religious of the group, brings out her chrome offering bowl, her waxed wicks, and incense, as she does at every holy spot. She circulates the burning flame and smoke three times over the sanctuary while murmuring a prayer. Menuka waves the heat and light from the butter lamps over her head. All the women pay their respects by raising their hands to their foreheads, setting money, and pouring rice into the center of the shrine. Before we enter, we walk clockwise around it turning prayer wheels. I join their venerations out of curiosity as well as spiritual need. Shannon and Darina stand apart and watch.
We still have not reached the highlight of our journey. a spectacularly beautiful, enormous, and seemingly brand-new monastery, the Thrangu-Tashi Yangste Gonpa, which at first glance looks like an expensive resort hotel.
The Tibetans have thrived in Nepal and they like to spend their wealth on monasteries. Inside we find a large and elaborately painted rectangular passageway with columns decorated with tiger heads and lotus flowers.
We remove our shoes and follow a young monk up to golden doors, and then wait with him for an older monk, who opens the great doors to the great hall, drawing a gasp from all of us. Inside we see a huge, vaulted temple with six huge, golden Buddhas serenely staring down over rows and rows of prayer benches, silken banners, drums, and exploded thangka-like wall paintings, some of which are still in process. There is the customary large photograph of the Dalai lama on the central dais, where we leave more rice, scarves, bills, and prayers. We linger for a long time but not long enough for me. As we leave monks begin to arrive and to sound cymbals, drums, and chants.
Back downstairs in the open passageway that runs beneath the temple, I copy out the following text from a newspaper entitled “The Voice of the Young Monks” and dated July 2011:
Today we collectively are facing so many environmental crises such as global warning, natural disasters, extinction of animals, population growth…
Now we cannot simply rely on current economical and political systems to solve the problem, because to a large extent they themselves are the problem. The critical element of our problem is lack of awareness, which brings us to Buddhism.
Buddhism offers a precise solution to the environmental crisis by showing the method of cutting the self [off] from clinging. The delusions of a separate self, which does not exist and is empty in nature, still because of which we become obsessed with things that we hope will give us control over situations, especially the competition for power, sex, and fame.
The syntax gets a little convoluted there at the end, but the message is clear enough.
I think all of us have been renewed by our visit to Namo Buddha. I feel more at peace with myself than in a long time. It has been a welcome escape from the tensions of the VSN project, which have been particularly taxing lately.
Here the journal ends.
Returning home through the language haze
The journey back to Pepsi-Cola was so arduous, the buses so crowded and steamy, that we decided to walk the last short leg home. This turned out to be more difficult for some of the women than they had expected. Shannon and Darina, anxious to get home, sped ahead and were soon lost in the mud, dust, cows, motorbikes, vendors, bicycles, dogs, and mayhem of the busy road. I also longed to rush towards my room, but remained with my hosts, who had taken us so far to see wonderful sights. I had happily spent most of the day with them anyway, listening to their chattering, picking up words were I could, and building my vocabulary. While Darina and Shannon and spent most of the day talking to each other, I had made the effort to speak to my friends in their own language. They were not very good students of English, after all, and if I was going to get to know them I would have to do it in Nepali. But this long, voluntary language lesson had exhausted me, and I was eager to retreat and recoup.
To my dismay, Ambica lived on the road we were walking along and invited everyone in for cold drinks. It would have been rude to refuse, so I spent yet another hour in a language haze, following the women’s tone and facial expressions more than what they said.
Dogs and Men
Ambica’s son has a beautiful German Shepherd puppy, with whom I fell in love. The son—I never did catch his name—said he was going to get rid of him because the dog does not bark and is too obedient. To my mind, this made the dog perfect, but the son wanted an animal to scare unwanted visitors. He spoke pretty good English and launched a barrage of questions at me, which I was glad to escape. He insisted that I come back again soon and often, to see the new, better dog. I demurred and explained that Americans do not like to drop in on people without warning. Throughout this interchange his mother, Ambica, said nothing. She remained silent not only because her English is weak, but also because in Nepal women have very little say about what their sons do. The husband rules the house and in his absence, the eldest or only son takes over as lord.
Nepali women are strong, like women everywhere, but they use their strength to endure and cooperate with their subordination, instead of resisting it. If they work a full-time job, they come home to cook, clean and cater to the men in their families. A good wife presses her forehead to her husband’s feet. She marries a man from a collection of suitors from her caste whom her parents have selected. Then she moves into her husband’s family and never return to her mother’s house again.
Very slowly, I am learning about how women live within these strictures. One of the women at the center, for example, is divorced. But she tells everyone else that she is married, because even these seeming friends of hers would shun her if they found out the truth.
Finally it was time to go. Susshila split off a few steps down the road, and Dilu and Menuka accompanied me to Sugandha’s house, where I gratefully collapsed, finally alone, onto my bed.
All in all it was a very good day—ramaylo cha—as I learned to say. I made better friends with the women from the center as well as with myself. We had made a pilgrimage together and it was very good. Hail to the Buddha and to Nepali women!