A bit of culture shock hit me today. I am really enjoying myself here, and yet there are a few cultural aspects that are hard to get used to, particularly what seems to me like rampant sexism.
For example, I smile at people. It is who I am. Yes, I’m sure I look insipid, but that is what I do. Culturally speaking, women should not smile at men here. Yet I smile without thinking, and then I get a disdainful look. I brushed it off, but when I was rejected from a temple today, it all suddenly got to me.
We (Jon and I) began our day out by going to the large temple to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. It is a very beautiful temple. I bought flowers and prasad outside the temple and gave offerings as I went through, and I did pronom to the various gods to which I gave offerings. Priests gave me a third eye with the red powder (they dab a bit of red powder on your forehead). It was a very lovely experience. One of the priests talked to us for awhile, explaining various mandirs. It was a lovely beginning to the day.
Then I wanted to see the nearby temple to Kali, the goddess of destruction. I really like Kali, partly because of the role she plays in Bharati Mukherjee‘s novel, Jasmine, and partly because she is a strong goddess, a female role model to some degree. She is a mother figure in Bengali tradition, though she is also very fearsome. She exudes power. I like this description on Mantra on Net. A devotee of Kali, Ramprasad, writes:
To be Kali’s child, Ramprasad often asserts, is to suffer, to be disappointed in terms of worldly desires and pleasures. Kali does not give what is normally expected. She does allow her devotee/child, however, to glimpse a vision of himself that is not circumscribed by physical and material limitations. As Ramprasad says succinctly: “He who has made Kali . . . his only goal easily forgets worldly pleasures”. Indeed, that person has little choice, for Kali does not indulge her devotees in worldly pleasures. It is her very refusal to do so that enables her devotees to reflect on dimensions of themselves and of reality that go beyond bodily comfort and world security.
So when I went to the Kali temple, Jon and Chauhan came with me. I was wearing a long sleeve kurta, and I had a dupetta on my head. I was also wearing a calf-length skirt. Chauhan went up first, and then Jon. It was I who really wanted to see this temple, and a man came up to Chauhan and said I could not go because I was wearing a skirt, so I turned and left, waiting outside in the sun with some kid asking me for rupees while Jon and Chauhan visited the temple. As I read now what Ramprasad said, I can see more clearly the serious iniquities between men and women here. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some serious iniquities in the US, but when I was rejected from this temple, it made me more acutely aware of the ways I was getting second class treatment. And it made me feel very unwelcome. I realize it is not personally directed at me, but I am an individual, and my experience is my own, so in that sense it is personal.
The disdainful looks (and I have been dressing very culturally sensitively — salwar kameezes, mainly), the direction of all questions, comments, tours, etc at Jon rather than all of the adults and children — they bothered me after that last straw.
I wouldn’t say that it ruins my trip, but it makes me very sad. I am not in the slightest expecting to be treated like a maharani, I just wanted be treated as respectfully as I am treating others. Though I was unable to stay in her temple, Kali taught me a lesson today.