As they tied her sari, finished the last touches on her makeup, and fastened the remaining flowers to her neatly plaited hair, Durga Devi smiled proudly. “Show, Akka, ” she instructed, reaching for my camera so that she could catch a glimpse of herself before returning to the festivities of her seer (the Irula tribe’s coming-of-age ceremony).
How Living in Rural India Challenged My Perception of Femininity
She smiled as she looked at her image on the small LCD screen. I nodded reassuringly, as I had several times throughout the ceremony — a gesture that was returned with an appreciative smile from my beautiful student. As Durga Devi walked away towards her awaiting audience, the power of the ritual sank in — in the most basic sense, it was a celebration of femininity.
In 2012, I graduated college and began teaching at a small, tribal school in the rural village of Anaikatti, India. Still heavily influenced by the caste system, the tribal areas in the south are largely neglected by government aid and NGO projects and suffer from a lack of access to quality education.
I was ready to expect the unexpected, but my understandings of Indian femininity were initially judgmental. The oppression of women was apparent to me in the arranged marriages, the effects of domestic violence, the constant comments and stares, the occasional ‘slip’ of the hand on an Indian bus, and the sexual harassment I experienced from a coworker. Often, I forgot the importance of being patient and accepting that change is inherently slow, and that my perceptions of oppression were potentially not the same as women around the world.
A few months back, five of my students excitedly ran up to me shouting, “Akka! Akka! Durga Devi came of age!” My understanding of the tribal coming-of-age ceremonies was limited to ethnographic interviews I’d conducted within the community. During one conversation, a woman explained to me the concepts of theetu and seer.
Theetu is the first part of the coming-of-age rituals, a process where the young girl is isolated for seven days, remaining outside of the home in a makeshift room erected from thatched coconut leaves. Throughout theetu, the girl is not meant to leave this room, and can only receive visitors from female family members and neighbors. At the end of theetu, there is a ritual burning of the belongings the girl had with her throughout the week — the various changes of clothes, cloth that she slept on, etc.
In the interview, I listened to the details of the seer that followed, attempting to visualize the ritual that was being explained to me. The girl was required to consume seven morsels of food, seven sips of water, and successfully smear oil into her hair, all while other girls from the village tried to knock these items from her hand. The process sounded terrifying for a young girl. I tried to understand the value and joy in the ritual, but it sounded embarrassing, daunting, and in some ways just mean.
Upon hearing Durga Devi’s news, I asked our school principal if we could visit her in theetu. I wanted to see the conditions she’d live in for the next seven days. But mostly, I wanted to make sure she was all right, that she wasn’t feeling abandoned or isolated from her community.
We traveled there by the small school bus that dropped our students off at the end of the day. Despite the constant, “Akka, akka! Why are you coming with us?” my students knew exactly where I was going, and, more importantly, why. On the walk to Durga Devi’s house, I tried to think of the correct words to say if it seemed she needed comforting.
We eventually made our way through the narrow alleys, past the hens and dogs scattered in the dirt roads, and ended our journey in front of Durga Devi’s house. The thatched-leaf room stood in front of the small patio that was attached to the anterior of the home. I heard her voice long before I saw her.
“Hi, Sarah Akka,” she said quietly, but strongly, from inside.
The other children warned me that walking any further required me to throw three handfuls of water over my head. I complied with the cleansing ritual, and they allowed me in. Durga Devi poked her head out of the curtain that lined the interior of her room. She had several books and notebooks, clearly dedicating this period of time to her studies. We chatted for a few minutes; she wasn’t scared, or upset. She seemed proud of her experience.
Weeks later, I stood at Durga Devi’s seer, watching as women from the village helped to prepare her for the final parts of the ceremony. More than ten women, all close relatives, crowded around her. Some adjusted the six meters of sari fabric, adorning her with glimmering jewels or wrapping coins in the folds. Others fixed garlands of flowers into her hair. One woman smeared black makeup over her eyes.
Durga Devi looked beautiful, but more importantly, she looked proud.
As I watched her make her entrance, I realized the power and pride held in the festival of the seer. It’s a celebration of womanhood, of beauty both internal and external. Here we all were, standing in unity to celebrate, respect, and tout femininity. Despite traces of patriarchy, the only role of significance for men during the seer is in offering their blessings to the feminine.
Then it was my turn to do so. I dipped my hand into the kumkum powder, smearing it on her left cheek, followed by her right, then her forehead and each of her hands. I repeated the process with turmeric powder, and finished by placing a flower on her head. She smiled at me graciously, her appreciation shining through.
It was fitting that my first experience with such a moving expression of femininity took place at Durga Devi’s seer. Durga is, after all, the goddess of femininity, representing both the beauty of womanhood and the earth’s fertility. As I walked away from the ceremony, I turned back to catch one last glimpse of Durga Devi standing proudly, officially as a woman.