This is my culture, International Women's Day

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 Odissi dancer Sitara Thobani's address at the British Parliament celebrations for IWD, reflecting on the cultural heritage that empowers her as a modern woman

 
As we commemorate International Women’s Day, I would like to reflect on what it is that we are to celebrate. IWD reminds us of the need to stand in solidarity as women with women around the world, to question the power and injustices that affect the lives of so many women in so many ways, however different these may be.  This solidarity does not aim to do away with difference, but rather seeks for us to come together through this difference. All too often, this difference is named culture. Another euphemism for race, this idea of cultural difference is often identified as the cause of women’s oppression. As a young woman raised in an immigrant South Asian community, I have seen what damage this simplistic idea of culture does, how dangerous it can be, how it makes the solidarity that is so necessary so difficult to sustain. As an Odissi performer – a style of dance that is readily treated as traditional, static and unchanging – I have also seen how this simplification of culture works to silence women, in artistic realms and beyond. 
 
Recently after a performance, a friend and I were approached by a woman who asked if, as modern young women we found it stifling to perform a dance that could only represent women in subordinated ways through its association with ancient texts. Essentially, she was asking if we found our culture oppressive. Though not unusual, this question still took me by surprise for this idea of culture, of Indian culture, is not one with which I was raised. For me, the upbringing that my mother gave me is culture; the influence of her sisters – familial and communal – on making me the woman that I am today, this is culture. The texts that I learn and learn from, the texts that I engage, interpret, and perform, the texts that are living, that are dynamic – this is culture. This is where I draw empowerment. This is a source of strength. 
 
In calling for a solidarity that attends to difference without essentialising such difference, I do not intend to absolve culture – all cultures – of the violence that they are capable of. However, I wish to draw attention to how complex, dynamic and empowering culture can be. If we see culture, our culture as well as that of others, as complex and living, we can stand in solidarity to truly identify and challenge the power and injustices upon which IWD inspires us to reflect. A dynamic understanding of culture can help us challenge patriarchy, give the daughters and sons in our communities a different sense of themselves and of the women – and men – who raise them. It is in this spirit of a living, dynamic, empowering cultural practice that I offer the dance I wish to perform for you this evening. 
The Odissi repertoire always concludes with Moksa, the dance of liberation. Originally choreographed as a pure dance with no narrative content and ending with a sloka calling for peace and harmony, this concept of Moksa as a finale was more recently re-interpreted by Guru Bichitrananda Swain as a dance in honour of the Goddess Kali. The dance begins with images of the Goddess as she holds the sword, discus, mace, trident, scythe and conch. Her ferocity is inseparable from her beauty; both compose her femininity. Adorned in jewellery, she is dazzlingly blue in colour with eyes as radiant as the lotus flower. She has the strength to hold the weight of the world. When all is darkness, she is present. Kali, the illusion that brings sleep and the power that takes it away. Glory be to you, Goddess Chandika, Goddess Durga, Goddess Chamundi with the garland of severed heads that represent infinite wisdom – Oh Kali, you are the strength of these Goddesses combined. All are you. Yours is the power of creation, preservation and destruction. You are the energies of nature. You give salvation to the distressed and remove their suffering. There is nothing but you in the sciences, the scriptures and the texts. The lamp of understanding, it is to you we pray.
 
This is how the dance was taught to me. This is how, as a young woman, I have learned to come into being.
 
Today, in commemoration of International Women’s Day and in honour of all the women who have come before me, it is with this particular expression of femininity that I wish to leave you. Fierce and beautiful, this femininity is complex, alive, powerful and empowering. This is my culture.