Festivities & Womanhood
Durga Puja - a 5-day festival celebrated by Bengalis all over the world and one which marks Mother Durga’s victory over evil and worships her protective and powerful nature. It’s also widely seen as a celebration of women’s empowerment and feminine spirit. This 5-day festival is closely followed by Diwali (or Kali Puja as we Bengalis know it). Diwali literally means a row of lights and is a time illuminated with love; a time when Hindus all over the world rejoice and celebrate the triumph of good over evil. These pujas of the East are comparable to the Christmas of the West, and we wait with bated breath each year to mark these events with the same glitz, glamour and festive spirit as we do in the lead up to Christmas.
There are many other festivals in the Hindu Calendar that celebrate women deities (Saraswati, Lakshmi, Radha, Ganga to name but a few). Each goddess epitomising many of the qualities we strive to instil within ourselves and values we wish to embed within our daily lives – such as strength, wisdom, knowledge, happiness, affection, peace, and harmony.
Way back in 1983, my father and some of his companions set up and became founder members of the Sanaton Association, when I was only approaching 12 years old. The main mission of this organisation was, and still is, the preservation of the Hindu religion, culture, and values amongst generations of Hindus in the UK. Today the organisation continues to grow from strength to strength and has widened its member base beyond imagination. The festivities attract in excess of 500 visitors each day and young and old alike support the committee in their pursuit to continue the aims and objectives set out almost 40 years ago by just a small group of friends.
I fondly remember supporting my father and fellow committee members with much of the administration and organisation involved in hosting such large-scale festivities at the time, but at that early age I never really appreciated the true meaning of Goddess Worship. To me they were just another set of religious festivals held in the home and community, like Easter and Christmas was celebrated at school, and meant praying to idols (mostly women idols I hasten to add) and following and conforming to a range of customs, rites and rituals with meaning I never quite had explained to me in any great detail, nor did I take time to appreciate with any deep consideration.
However, that childhood gullibility transformed over the years as I progressed through school, college, university and eventually my career and leadership journey. I started to think more deeply about many things and appreciate that my religion really respects womanhood and other feminine identities as equally as it does masculine identities. Idol worship became a little more transparent as I could see how they created a “Drishti” (a focal point), a visualisation and ultimately assisted with realisation. As I got to understand myself a little more and appreciate how much of a role I have in this world as a woman, it made me start to recognise how much my religion too holds women in such high esteem and how I could draw strength from this in my day-to-day life and strive for equality and inclusivity in all that I do; whether that be in my personal or professional life.
It hasn’t always been easy, and I’d be wrong in denying that there haven't been times when I’ve given in and seen my femininity as a weakness and drowned in self-doubt and unrest, desperately seeking ways in which I could lift myself to be believing in myself again.
About 20 years ago when working in the NHS, I, perhaps by hard work or maybe by sheer luck, started surpassing my own expectations and climbed up the ladder of management into a junior leadership position, and just a few years after that and in rapid succession I was at a point in my career where I had progressed to a senior level. But suddenly, not only because of my race/ethnicity but perhaps by a little gender inferiority, I was feeling very lonely and outnumbered at a senior management level. I had never experienced these thoughts till then. After some management resistance, I enrolled and embarked upon the NHS Ready Now Leadership development programme for BAME leaders and I wanted to do the programme to break down the barriers (some perhaps perceived, some actual) I felt were put up against my ability to develop, but to also understand why BAME colleagues were under-represented at senior levels, learn from this and encourage others to follow in my leadership journey.
That started my deeper journey of self-discovery, giving me a stronger ability to self-reflect and developing my confidence to another level. I developed networks and connections from all walks of life and started to recognise my transferable skills. I became determined to not let what I was suddenly feeling, whether self-created or reality, be a hindrance. My faith was never that transparent but significantly rooted enough to have kept me going.
With maturity and belief, I feel I have transported myself into a different way of thinking, training my brain to be reasoning in different ways. I genuinely love being a woman, I love being a Hindu woman, I love being a leader, I love being a woman of ethnic background in the UK; a country which embraces equality and diversity on such a large scale. I simply love the fact that my femininity, my religion, my abilities, and my perspectives are now recognised and embraced in so much of what I do.
In 2022 I was delighted to be awarded the Moorfields Eye Hospital Leadership Award - indeed a very special moment in my life. I am now enjoying making use of some very transferable learning and the challenges and opportunities of a career in the world of Further Education.
Whether it’s a Hindu puja or a Christian festivity, these days such events hold much deeper significance than rites and rituals for me. They are much about celebrating myself and the individualities with which I came to this world!
“A woman of faith is never intimated by what is happening around her. She knows beyond her belief, lies many breakthroughs!
Gift Gugu Mona