As I get older, I realise I have fewer and fewer things to prove to people. Take for instance, an ironic encounter that I had with four older women last night. I was at the Network for NGOs for the Advancement of Women’s Annual ‘Young Woman of the Year’ Award Ceremony.
I had been told that the event was ‘very formal’ as in more properly dressed than not-jeans and, if you know me, you know that as soon as I heard that I knew that extra effort was going to have to be involved. So I raced home from work, ate, bathed, ironed (!), dressed and finished my speech in under an hour, and rocked out of the house feeling as authentically ‘put together’ as I get. Hazel had personally told me to wear proper shoes probably knowing that I turn up everywhere in sneakers so I wore my one pair of good heels and carried a stylish bag. There was no make-up, but it wasn’t a beauty contest I was entering (been there, done that) after all.
I roll in late, blaming the shoes and was escorted to a table with none other than Zalayhar Hassanali, widow of the late President of the Republic of T and T Noor Hassanali; Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development Marlene Coudray, who stood up against PM Patrick Manning in court, ran the San Fernando City Corporation and has switched party affiliations from PNM to COP to UNC; Brenda Gopeesingh who has long been associated with the Hindu Women’s Organisation, a middle-class, conservative group whom she is a leading figure in and clearly more radical than; and two Raja Yoga Centre nuns.
Cool. I already knew most of these folks. For example, I met Mrs. Hassanali many years ago when I gave another feature talk, probably in one of my painted t-shirts, at a Child Welfare League event. On my way out, and never having even met her as the President’s wife, I mischievously asked for a lift into town (in the official President’s vehicle no less) and we chatted the whole way. Then and there, I decided the woman was cool.
Anyway, check me bonding with Sister Indira, sitting on my left. Don’t ask me how the conversation got there, but she managed to tell me that she thought my strapless top, part of a set with linen pants, wasn’t respectful given the event and my role as feature speaker.
Mash brakes! Here was I thinking I was looking youthful and stylish when that was clearly not how I was being read. It didn’t help that the raja yoga card I randomly got said something about our first achievement having to be self-respect. Sister Indira wondered if I had a scarf to sort of drape over my shoulders and maybe hide my tattoo a bit? Well, you coulda knock me off de chair.
But, hey, what does it matter to me? I pulled out the scarf which I brought exactly for this kind of moment and, in an attempt at righting the world, inquired from the others around the table if they also thought if I should put on the scarf, you know, to be more appropriate. Except for Brenda, who thought the whole thing hilarious and actually said how I wouldn’t let a man tell me what to wear why let a woman (Yaay Brenda!), there was a motherly and grandmotherly series of approving nods around the table. The ayes had it. I donned the scarf, which Sister Indira then lovingly adjusted because I clearly had no sense of what was required, and everyone seemed a bit more comfortable and satisfied all around.
Me, I was in shock. Here I am, almost 40 years old. I have three degrees. I pay my own bills. I done make child. I even married. I dey to give de feature speech. Do I have any authority? No. I was foremost daughter, grand-daughter, beti and young woman in their eyes and I wasn’t (apparently) at my most respectable. Did what I thought matter? No. If mothers, grandmothers and wizened older women knew best, was it worth rebelling in my old age, making some kind of generational statement, asserting my sense of individuality? No.
It was best to know that, no matter how old you are and whatever stripes you’ve earned along the way, aunties, mothers, grandmothers and the old ladies of our world do not care. They know what is right, they were glad to set me right and most important was that I perform a dutifulness that gave them the respect they were rightly due.
I had to laugh to myself, sitting there feeling like some teenager who, given the chance, they would have sent back inside to change. Me, big woman, never too old to be told what to wear, what is proper, and how I should carry myself and behave. Even if I disagreed, I still appreciated what I thought was an act of quiet, womanly care and advice on their behalf, only for my benefit, and I was glad I had in fact reached an age where I could just do as I was told, knowing that all they wanted was recognition of their greater experience and wisdom, and it took nothing from me to show a little deference.
Especially given that my speech was, among other things, about the need for abortion and lesbianism to be totally decriminalised. I figured my words would send my uncompromisingly anti-“respectable” message so that my bare shoulders didn’t need to.
Ah, the ironies of growing up woman.