Strength in Being Soft

What makes you a woman of William and Mary?

As a member of the St. Andrews program, I’ve only actually been here for two years and so have only been a woman of William & Mary for two years of my life, as a freshman and now as a senior. I was abroad for my sophomore and junior years, meaning I came here as a freshman and didn’t know what I was doing and now I’m a senior ready to leave and make her mark on the world. So, all the in-between growth didn’t happen here, but ironically, I think that’s made me view womanhood in two very different ways, because when you’re starting out, you’re so uncertain. You start freshman year and you’re not really sure what you’re about or what you’re interested in, so I think at that time, I look back on it with a lot of regret and I think there are a lot of ways in which I could have done better with my identities and done better to be more engaged with campus but I didn’t. So I think freshman year, I let myself be defined by a lot of other things, like I didn’t really make an identity for myself or I always kept looking for one thing to latch onto and the big lesson that I learned with time was that I didn’t have to keep looking, that I could be a number of things and could be multifaceted and still be Meher. So this year is probably the year I’d say I’ve become not just a true William & Mary student but I think very very proud of womanhood as a concept and as something that I can allow to blossom in different spaces and not feel that is has to be restricted to one area. So I’d say for me, a woman of William & Mary is someone who’s not defined by some boundaries, it’s someone whose colors bleed, it’s someone who is many many different types of a person and I think there is no one Woman of William & Mary – I think womanhood as a concept is something that is freeing because it doesn’t have the restrictions of masculinity and manhood and what those things mean in the modern age but it’s also something that, because of that, becomes a reception point for negative spaces. So for example, if manhood is all about being strong or being set in certain paths or viewing the world in a certain way, then womanhood becomes a contrast, and that’s often been what upholds the patriarchy, because women have often been relegated to being the “other” to men, but I think, and this is not my idea, many many feminists have thought this before me, that you can take that and you can make it something triumphant. And you can allow that negative space to be filled with what you wish it to be because it does not need to be delineated in the same way manhood is. So I think William & Mary by nature, being an institution that encourages the study of liberal arts and encourages different types of people to come here, has allowed me to see myself as a woman who can blossom in different spaces on this campus, which I think I can at least, now that senior year is ending, say I have done a lot better than I did freshman year.

So what have you gotten involved with on campus?

So this year, and my freshman year I guess, I’ve been very much involved with culturally-based organizations. That was one major side of identity that I started out with. I was like, “okay, the first thing that I see about myself is my race, and how am I going to engage with that?” Because for a long time in my childhood and in my teen years I didn’t really engage with it and I tried to sort of shut those things out, especially when I thought of myself as a woman. It seemed to me that womanhood should be uncomplicated and not have race attached to it, or religion or ethnicity or language or immigration status, those kinds of things. In high school I couldn’t reconcile those two so in college I was like, “okay I’ll pick my race over the other things.” And I tried to just first join culturally-based organizations but I always found something lacking in just that. So I was a part of the Middle Eastern Student Association for awhile, even though I’m not from the Middle East I kind of ended up in that slot. I was a part of the South Asian Student Association, and I did both of those things, and then I got more involved with religiously-based organizations, and this year I’ve been a huge part of the Asian American Student Initiative which is a lot of social justice work which I think, of all the clubs I’ve been a part of, has been the most fulfilling. And I think, like I said, what I finally managed to wager this year is seeing how womanhood can be a part of all of those things – that I can be a South Asian woman and an activist woman and those things aren’t necessarily separate or compartmentalized.

You mentioned that the Asian American Student Initiative was the one that was the most fulfilling. How did it make you feel fulfilled?

I think there are a number of things that AASI does well, and it’s not necessarily AASI member, like there is an archetypal South Asian Student Association member and there is an archetypal member of a number of other clubs on campus. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be the true person who joins it but it’s the vision you have, so like you have a vision of what a sorority girl is, you have a vision of what a member of Sikh might be. But because AASI really has nothing to define it beyond Asian, which is extremely nebulous as a concept, and activism, you could be anyone and be a part of it and I think in being presented that blank canvas, I have been allowed, as a member of that club, to shape more wholly who I’m going to be as an AASI member, and then I never have to feel like I’m failing to meet the standards of what a member of AASI should be whereas in another organization I’d often feel I wasn’t meeting them.

So you also mentioned that you have some regrets about  your freshman year here. Why is that?

I mean freshman year for everybody is, you know, it’s a time of discovery. I guess what I regret is…I think it’s very much tied to this question of womanhood and selfhood. It’s that I…I felt like I wanted to belong to something and I felt like to belong to something I had to contort myself to fit what the ideal version of that kind of club was. So because clubs are often places where you find yourself on campus, especially in a place like William & Mary where students are super involved, I thought to myself, “okay the archetypal member of blank club is like this, I need to shape myself to be that way.” And obviously, you know, if you bend yourself to that point you could break. Because you will no longer be your authentic self and obviously those quests are also futile because in the end you realize that you never felt like you were belonging, you just made yourself feel more excluded. So I think that was my big regret, and I think going abroad kind of helped with understanding myself a bit more.

What do you think changed when you went abroad? Did you get involved with different things, was it just being away from the states that made you grow? What was it about being abroad?

I think it was a couple things. One, I was in Britain, that’s where the St. Andrew’s program is, in Scotland. One thing is I used to live in Britain when I was younger and personally, for me, it’s a huge part of my identity. I think in my heart I identify more as a British Asian than I would an Asian American or Indian American. So I think I had wanted to return there for a long time, and returning to that space and being around other British Asians and being in Britain again was very joyous for me because it was like in some sense I could finally connect to a path that felt a lot more real to me than America did. And I think understanding one’s past, even if it is an idealized or constructed version of it, is a huge part of finding yourself because if you can tie yourself to these roots or your authentic origin, then you can kind of move forward. So joining clubs over there that allowed me to connect with other British Asians was a great way of having people I could have more authentic discussion with about who I was and what my childhood made me than maybe South Asians here could do for me, and that’s not their fault, it’s just naturally who I am. One big thing was there was a feminist club in St. Andrews that I joined and I know we don’t really have a feminist club here, I guess the closest we have is Vox maybe, and that was actually a huge part of understanding womanhood because that club in St. Andrews was very white and very very upper class which is naturally St. Andrews, it’s a very elite institution, it’s mostly rich students, so because I joined that space and I was really interested in feminist discourse but everyone around me was so unlike me in everything except being a woman, I really began to ask myself about “what is womanhood in comparison to all these other people?” And then I was like, “Maybe I should bring back all of these other identities that matter to me and bring them together.”

Wow, that sounds like a great experience! So are you hoping to end up back in Britain eventually?

Yes. I want to be in London. I interned there this summer at a law firm so I’m hoping to work in a law firm there.

How many years did you live there?

So in St. Andrews I was there for two years, and then as a kid it was a good portion of my childhood, from age 5 to my early teens.

So that definitely shaped who you are then?

I think so.

Okay so this is kind of related to questions I’ve already asked, but if you could talk to a future Woman of William & Mary, what would you say to her?

Like an incoming student?

Yeah, incoming student, a year from now or twenty years from now. What would you tell her?

I would tell them that there’s an amazing strength in being soft. Empowering women has become an obvious part of the zeitgeist now and everyone wants to carry around a feminist bag. They want to talk about empowering women, label everything she does as empowering – from how she wears her hair to her lipstick to how she walks. Unfortunately, the movement has been somewhat co-opted by the very forces that have upheld patriarchy. So now we have this idea that a strong woman should be someone who is involved in a million things, who has to constantly undertake the emotional labor of sharing her voice, who has to act in a very certain way, and as much as that feeds into ridiculous fantasies of the “femi-Nazi”, it also feeds back into the feminist community the irrefutable image of the strong woman as an iron lady. This to me seems like womanhood with all the negative qualities of toxic and aggressive masculinity. Strong women don’t necessarily have to be what patriarchal men were. The best lesson I could tell a future woman of William & Mary is that there’s amazing strength in just owning who you are and if that is someone who doesn’t fit this cookie-cutter vision of what a strong woman has to be, which is itself a fiction, embrace it. There is remarkable strength in speaking your truth and testifying for that truth. In these four years, I’ve learnt that the most fulfilling moments happen only when you bear witness to your most authentic self. You don’t try to fit a truth that others may enjoy or that you yourself may want to believe – just be honest with yourself. This campus is at a turning point. We’ve got President-elect Rowe, who has a stunning resume and has done a lot of great work hiring minorities and women. We’ve reached 50 years of African American students and 100 years of women on this campus. Going forth, William & Mary has a blank canvas. Rather than passively inheriting the past, it can forge a new path, a path grounded in softness, in understanding. Like the ideal woman of William & Mary – strong and understanding and who knows herself.  

Yeah I think knowing yourself is very important. Well those are the questions that I had prepared if you want to add anything else, if you have something else you want to say, you’re welcome to say it now.

It’s interesting in that you guys asked for nominations rather than applications. So rather than having someone come forward and say “I believe that I am The Woman, you should talk to me,” you asked the community. And when I was told that I was doing this I was genuinely surprised because I was like, “Am I even a student of William & Mary? I haven’t been here for even two years as of yet!” And I also was like, “Who on earth nominated me?” I’m incredibly honored but I don’t know who these people are but I’m very very grateful however. So it kind of put me in an interesting tiff for a couple of days because I was like, “Am I a Woman of William & Mary? I’ve never considered this.” And does this mean I’ve had an unspoken impact on people where I haven’t realized it, enough so that they felt the need to nominate me for this. And in that moment I kind of realized one issue that I see a lot with women on this campus, and women in general who do well and are smart and brilliant, is a kind of imposter syndrome where we’re like, “Oh, I really do matter? The stuff that comes out of my mouth isn’t stupid?” And I think that in itself was like a “Oh, wow, I tell others to believe in themselves but have I been believing in myself all along?” So that’s one thing that kind of got me thinking of like, “Oh so when I’m interviewed for this, what am I going to say?” because I haven’t been thinking of myself as a Woman of William & Mary. I thought of myself as Meher. And that isn’t necessarily a William & Mary student or just a woman – it’s a lot of different things. So I think what I’d say, again maybe to answer the question that you just asked, because there’s just so much that you can say to a future woman, is that there is no ideal Woman of William & Mary beyond one who knows herself, who speaks her truth, and who is not afraid to be soft. I think that’s most of what I would say. And then just embracing your own complexities. Don’t think that you have to prioritize womanhood over being anything else, and also don’t think that you have to make being a woman subservient to anything else.

Yeah so for our nomination process, we like to get input from the community, and for this project we got around 94 nominations and we spent a long time just going through them. We ended up with 18 because you know, 2018 is the year, and it was a very hard process because the nominations were wonderful and it was just so warming to me to see all of these nominations of people, like you had mentioned, of friends who nominated their friends for being their support system, for being their rock during their four years here, or we also had a lot of professors nominated and a lot of other staff around campus nominated. It’s just things like that that show that this sense of womanhood throughout campus is so strong and it’s so supportive. It was very eye-opening for me to see all of those.

One other thing I was say is it’s interesting because this here, more than I think in the past three years of college, I found myself because I was just putting myself out there but also in just moments like these, I have been asked to speak at things. I was a Charter Day Speaker this year. Recently I spoke on a podcast about diversity with the Student Engagement Office. Leadership Office? Development? Something like that. Or there’s grander things, there’s administration which I’ve had to tweak at, and it’s interesting because like Ladies of Alpha asked women around campus to talk about their experiences, and in each of these moments I would kind of drop on myself like, “Okay this is a moment to speak.” I’ll be speaking as an immigrant, all of these things. And I’ve thought “Okay how do I balance all of this and not sound like a fool and do well by all of these communities?” And I’ve realized that in these opportunities which I’m so grateful for, I’m able to go through almost everything I’ve really wanted to say to my alma mater, and everything I really wanted to say to a place that took me a long time to learn to love, because we had such a bad relationship freshman year and then I wasn’t here for two years. And though I can firmly say I love William & Mary, I have come to love this place very much, one thing I would love to say to it and one lesson that I’ve learned, and I think this ties in with my point about finding strength in softness is when I was coming back this year, I only had the memories of first year, which were largely fruitless memories. And I kind of was like, “Oh man I’m just coming to this place with this bad attitude, I haven’t really gotten much to build off of. I have good friends that I’m coming back to, sure, but more or less the narrative of freshman year isn’t a very triumphant one.” And I kept thinking to myself, “How do I move past this pain and not just be stuck in it?” And I realized the only way you could really move past things that have hurt you, and this is an art I think women have perfected over time, is to take trauma and to build something new out of it. There’s a saying that my mother always says, it’s translated but it’s “flowers always grow around cemeteries.” And I thought to myself that I have to take the things that hurt me as a woman, as a South Asian in my freshman year and I have to do good by them and I have to make things better for all the women who are going to come after me. And one of those things that really made me think about women was freshman year, I really wanted a female mentor, and that’s one thing I really sought out. I never quite found it. In St. Andrews I found so many women I looked up to with totally different backgrounds, but I came in this year and I thought to myself, “I want to do better. I want to be the person I needed when I was younger.” And in that sense, I’ve had a lot of like…I have a little who I adore, she is like future Woman of the World, she’s on like 3 exec boards already, I’m proud of this little freshman. But I also have a lot of quasi-littles in other clubs, you know, people who you just sort of take in as like your babies, and all of them I look in their shining faces and I take out time to be there for them, and I hope I have been, but I constantly think like “Okay what can I do to be the kind of mom that I always wanted to have for myself in these spaces?” And it has been the greatest lesson of senior year and maybe of college, that you can move past pain and you can bring something great from it if you try to make flowers grow from that cemetery, and now that the year is ending and like I’ve told you, I’ve had all these wonderful opportunities given to me and I’m not sure if I deserve them. It’s just wonderful things I’ve been allowed to do like speak at Charter Day, and now this nomination here from people I don’t know who nominated me but I’m very grateful, it just makes me think, “Wow, if you could take me from freshman year and four years later you have me with the amazing chance to speak for all the women who have been at William & Mary, or to be a part of that quilt of voices, it should be a lesson that you can do anything, that you can really take anything and bring good out of it, not by trampling on it or going angrily against it or rebelling against the past, but embracing it and trying to do good by yourself and trying to heal yourself in the good you do.

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