A Story of Personal Triumph and Empowerment in Honor of International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2013
By Aminta Kilawan
Exactly ten years ago, I sang for a large crowd for the first time on Maha Shivaratri night. In an effort to boost my confidence, Pandit Chunelall Narine asked me to stand up as I delivered “Dam Dam Dam Dam Damaru Bajaye.” At the time, I would have preferred to go unnoticed, but Pandit Chunelall wanted everyone to see me. Before I opened my mouth to sing, I looked around. Everything turned into one big blur. My sweaty palms gripped the microphone and my heart raced to the beat of the drums. In youthful anxiety – I was just fourteen years old – I chose not to look at everyone around me, but I couldn’t help but feel the good vibrations. As the dholak resounded, the dhantal chimed, and the congregation clapped, I realized I had found my first love: the gift of song. I never ever thought I’d have to let that go.
Two years after that unforgettable debut, I got my first real boyfriend. For the first year, everything was picture perfect. We were the kind to go on dates every other day, and celebrate monthly anniversaries. But when my strict parents found out, they forbade me from seeing him again. I was broken. In teenage rebellion, I continued to see him, but a couple more years into the relationship, things took a sharp turn… for the worse.
From stellar student and spirited singer I devolved into the subject of my boyfriend’s control and manipulation. First he eliminated human contact from my life. He convinced me that my friends were trying to break us up because they were jealous of our relationship, so I shunned them. When I effectively had no friends, he claimed that was because they were too embarrassed to be seen around someone fat and ugly like me. He also controlled the way I looked. He declared that getting my eyebrows threaded, wearing gold dangling earrings, and letting my hair down was a sign of promiscuity so I grew a unibrow, wore silver studs and kept my hair in a ponytail. He took me shopping before every family occasion to ensure that I dressed conservatively; I heeded his frequent orders to send photos of myself verifying I wasn’t breaking the rules. He denied me of my autonomy, checking my cell phone every chance he got to make sure I wasn’t contacting anyone but my parents. He later destroyed that cell phone. He was on call while I was in class, listening in to ensure I didn’t participate in any discussions. He even went so far as to choke and punch me whenever he felt an inkling of insecurity.
Helpless, alone, and ashamed of myself, I resorted to locking the door, shutting off the lights, and crying in the sanctuary of my room. In complete isolation, with no friends and a family that no longer recognized who I was, singing became my only outlet. But… he took that away from me too. Believing that my voice could attract other men, he banned me from ever singing again. Knowing his physical strength was three times my own, and continually hearing his threats to publicly humiliate me in ways too obscene to write, I made petty excuses every time I was asked to render a bhajan. I had to give up my passion. I was literally silenced. Even worse than the violence, he took away my voice.
There’s only so much silence a person can take. I’d reached my breaking point. He ignited hatred within me and I was willing to risk my life in order to free myself of him. I changed my cell phone number, advised my parents to ignore his incessant calls to my home phone (and their cell phones), and upon spotting his vehicle parked on my block every morning for days, I had my worried mother walk me to the doors of my college for weeks. For the remainder of my undergraduate education, I devoted my all to acing every class, striving to attend law school to fulfill my newfound activist dreams. I never looked back, but instead continued to move forward.
Even though I wasn’t fully aware of this at the time, I found the strength to get my life back through my Hindu faith. Ironically, my ex-boyfriend was a staunch worshipper of Kali, Shiva’s fierce female consort. In retrospect, I always wondered how someone who believed in the Goddess could treat a woman the way he treated me. That seemed to be the ultimate hypocrisy.
Though some might argue the contrary, I’ve always felt that Hinduism was premised on equality among men and women. After all, Shiva and his divine consort Shakti “constitute the whole of universe.” They are perpetually connected. They can’t exist without each other. They are two halves to one whole. As I readjusted to single life, I longed for such a bond.
But the idea of another committed relationship scared me. Naturally, it took me some time to heal from the wounds, to believe again in my inner and outer beauty, to build new friendships, and to regain that voice which had been stolen from me. I yearned for a relationship like the one Shiva and Shakti have – one of the purest equality, the highest energy, and the most profound love. But based on my experience, I didn’t think that could exist beyond the Gods. Then I met my partner, and he has successfully proven me wrong over and over again.
Many say that we’re a power couple, full of vision and determination to make a difference. But I say that we are two halves of one whole. We recognize our commonalities – we’re both passionate about culture, spirituality and social justice. As empowered individuals, we regularly debate issues. When we disagree, we embrace our differences – where he brings logic, I bring emotion (or vice versa). There is no violence. There is no abuse. In fact, a few weeks ago, when my partner and I attended CONNECT-NYC’s “Can Men and Women Live in Peace?” community dialogue, it was easy for us to answer “yes.” Our love is simple and it is pure. And that’s what every human being deserves in a romantic relationship.
On Maha Shivaratri in 2011, Pandit Chunelall called on me to sing again. This time, I unhesitatingly did. I held the microphone firmly. I not only sang a bhajan, I also delivered a message about equality between Shiva and Shakti. I have my voice back, and it is truthful and fearless. As I spoke that night, I bravely looked up and met my partner’s eyes. They were filled with pride and joy. I knew that I found my soulmate. Since then we have spent many hours childishly bumping knees as we meditate and holding hands under my dupatta while praying to the deities. Through my own power and faith, and through the love and respect of my partner, I have been healed.
I am the source of eternal love, consciousness, and bliss. I am Shiva, I am Shiva.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day and Maha Shivaratri,
I dedicate this post to all the young women who feel trapped in the cycle of dating violence.
Break your silence. Invoke your Shakti.