By Anina Tweed
I took up my position in the back of the tiny, sweating room ready to hear my students, a group of young women from across South and Southeast Asia, read the personal stories they had worked all semester to create. A cluster of lanky, awkward Bengali boys stumbled in and crowded onto the floor in front of the girls. Their composed, stately fathers lined the back. I looked around nervously, wondering how these men would receive a collection of stories depicting what it is to be a young woman in South Asia. I wondered whether our giggling girls could compose themselves and convey their stories as women.
As the first few students read, quivering at first and then building strength, I realized that the audience was surprisingly receptive. By the time the fourth student knelt in front, she belted her opening line proudly: “My body has never embarrassed me.” Dressed in a shocking orange and fuchsia salwaar kameez, she stood out amidst the sea of black men’s blazers, her appearance matching her bold statements. The girls took their turns, telling the audience what it felt like to lose a cousin, to be a girl in a physical education class, to learn English, to decide to leave your country, to experience freedom, to struggle for education, and to have all the weight of your mother’s dreams upon you. They were all at once hilarious, heart-breaking, brave and shy. At the end of the reading, the audience of men clapped and fell silent. One of the gangly boys raised his hand shyly, eyes wide, and whispered “you girls are an inspiration.”
Over the course of the semester, I witnessed my students turn from fearful, reluctant writers, certain that they had no narrative worth listening to, to powerful storytellers. Most of them wouldn’t have been able to access a higher education without the scholarships provided to them and shuddered to think of what their lives would be like had they not had the opportunity to attend university. They transformed from young women certain that their futures held only marriage and child-bearing, to leaders with grand plans to found their own NGOs, become parliamentarians, and create economic opportunity in their communities.