“When we pray, we bend over. If a guy was standing in front of me and bent over to pray, what would I see? Butt. Ugh. I’m not at all interested in seeing some guy’s butt.”
This is my sister-in-law, Danira*, explaining to me why they separate men and women at the mosque. It reminds me of when there’s that rare guy in yoga class and everyone else inches their mats as far away from him as possible.
Danira is ironing her blouse because we’re getting ready for the mosque. I’ve never gone before but it should be fun since it’s Ramadan, and they’re having a potluck afterward.
“Is that also why you cover your hair?” I ask. “So you don’t distract men?”
I type my question into Google.
“This says that a Muslim woman must cover her shins, forearms and hair or she is committing a sin and her prayer is not valid,” I say.
Danira rolls her eyes.
“Allison, I’m sure I can open the Bible and find some kind of crazy law that says a woman must be stoned for whatever stupid transgression. I personally don’t cover up because I fear that I’m committing sin or whatever. It’s just like, relaxing. Covering up helps you get into that prayer mindset. Plus, everyone else at the mosque is doing it so if you don’t you’ll stand out.”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” I say. I go to my room and put on a long black skirt and a long-sleeved black top. I wrap a blue scarf around my head, tying the ends under my chin. I go back to Danira’s room to ask what she thinks.
“Are you serious?” she asks and starts to giggle.
“What’s wrong? Isn’t it long enough? I’m going to put on some tights so my ankles won’t show when I walk.”
“You look like one of those Russian nesting dolls. Like, if one of the dolls had to go to a funeral or something. Please, look in my closet. I wouldn’t care but I have to be seen in public with you. No offense.”
I find a sky-colored blouse in Danira’s closet that perfectly matches my scarf. I notice Danira is wearing pants so I go and change into pants myself.
“You look so much better,” Danira says. She fixes my scarf for me—you don’t tie it in the middle but take the ends and throw it over the opposite shoulders—then turns her attention back to the YouTube hijab tutorial playing on her laptop. It involves multiple pins and clips to create crisp folds and swooping cascades of cloth. Danira emulates it perfectly.
“You look gorgeous,” I say.
“I know, right?” She bats her eyes at me and smiles. “And so do you.”
I look at our reflections in the mirror. When a woman wears a hijab, the eye is immediately drawn to her face. I notice that I have really high cheekbones. Danira’s black headscarf frames her face and brings out the green in her eyes.
This outfit is definitely not the style I’m used to when preparing for a night out. Usually, it’s styled hair, heels, and a short dress. I start wondering where I had gotten the idea that more skin equals more beauty.
I remember a scene on “America’s Next Top Model” where the models voice their anxiety when faced with doing a nude photo shoot. The host, Tyra Banks, says, “The industry isn’t going to change,” implying that if the models want to progress, they must do the shoot. I realize that when wearing outfits that showed a lot of skin, I felt that same anxiety.
Before the mosque, Danira and I stop at Starbucks. I start to feel nervous. This isn’t like every other Friday evening where we’re in our regular clothes grabbing a Starbucks before heading out to the club. What if people give us dirty looks? To my relief, the baristas are nothing but courteous, and soon we’re relaxing on a plush couch, caramel macchiatos in hand. A couple of Danira’s friends show up also donning YouTube-inspired hijab styles. We compare our different looks and take selfies.
That following Monday, a classmate asks me about the pictures I’d posted on Facebook.
“Hey Allison,” she says. “Were you wearing a hijab?”
“Yeah, I went to the mosque with my sister-in-law,” I say. “But you know what was great? We went to Starbucks and actually got to relax because random guys weren’t looking us up and down trying to hit on us!”
That night, I had prepared myself for the possibility of getting strange looks, but what I wasn’t prepared for was feeling more at ease than I’ve ever been in a public space.
After school, I go through my closet and pull out all my tank tops, low-cut shirts, short skirts, shorts, and dresses. These were the clothes I wore for nights out with friends. I remember the twinge of discomfort I felt every time I put on a revealing outfit and how I ignored this feeling, taking it as an indication that I should work out more or just force myself to wear it. I had bought into the notion that sexiness—not modesty—was the way a woman was supposed to feel empowered.
But showing more skin didn’t make me more confident. What I enjoyed was wearing nice clothes, putting on makeup and hanging out with friends. I could still have that experience while wearing a hijab and outfits with more coverage.
I threw the clothes into a bag to donate to charity. Dressing more modestly doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of myself; it’s a choice I’m making to acknowledge my own comfort level and honor my inner voice. Regardless of how much skin you’re showing, figuring out what you really want and respecting yourself enough to follow through on it is what female empowerment is all about.
*Indicates that the name was changed
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Sustainable development practices can be utilized as a model for addressing gender inequities worldwide. Empowering women with the resources to gain opportunities, learn skills and collaborate in a safe and welcoming environment is crucial to women’s growth and development as individuals.
After witnessing the first-hand effects of gender-based violence growing up in Guyana, Menakshi Babulall founded the Canadian nonprofit A Different View Project (ADVP) to promote and implement sustainable development methods across Guyanese communities. Vaksana, which means “nourishing/refreshing” in Sanskrit, is a branch of ADVP exclusively aimed at developing Guyana’s first eco-friendly women’s retreat center. The retreat will offer wellness activities, training services, regenerative farming and community outreach programs.
Babulall was inspired by Guyana’s rich rugged beauty as a child. Her dual passion for preserving the environment and aiding underserved communities contributed to her studying International Development at Toronto’s York University before launching a public service career. This eventually led her focus back to Guyana. Babulall talks to BG about her journey as the founder of ADVP, the progress of Vaksana and her perspective on sustainable and ethical charity work.
How and when did you create ADVP?
“ADVP was founded in 2016 with the vision of empowering communities and fostering sustainable development. The idea stemmed from my desire to create an organization that could address pressing social and environmental issues through innovative and collaborative approaches. One thing that fills me with immense pride is ADVP’s unique ability to bring together diverse stakeholders, including those from the diaspora, to create impactful projects that make a tangible difference in people’s lives while also providing them with an opportunity to connect with their homeland.”
ADVP has worked on projects within Guyana’s fertile Pomeroon-Supenaam region, a vast expanse of hills and villages that dot the Essequibo Coast. Past projectsinclude building a centralized outdoor recreation space for families and facilitating peer tutoring groups for children affected by COVID-related school closures. They also engage with the children of Queenstown Village through storytelling and interactive activities to nurture their passion for the environment. Overall, the focus of ADVP’s projects is geared toward education and sustainability while developing meaningful and positive relationships with the local community.
Babulall’s remigration to Guyana during the pandemic to oversee Vaksana was a humbling experience. Living in rural Guyana allowed her to witness the benefits that wellness and eco-tourism can bring to a community, but also highlighted entrenched socio-economic struggles. It heightened her senses of resilience, adaptability and empathy; all key facets she believed essential to an effective leader. She soon realized the importance of cementing Vaksana as a catalyst for positive change in the region, particularly as a safe haven for women and gender non-conforming individuals who may face discrimination.
“The idea of Vaksana was born out of extensive research and a deep-rooted passion for creating a transformative space that combines wellness, eco-tourism and community development. The journey began with a vision to create a place where individuals could experience holistic well-being, connect with nature and promote sustainable living.
Vaksana’s foundation is built on three essential elements: tourism, community outreach and regenerative farming/agriculture. These elements were thoughtfully chosen to ensure a holistic approach to personal growth, community empowerment and environmental stewardship. By integrating these pillars, Vaksana becomes a powerful force for positive impact, both within the retreat center and the wider community.”
Vaksana is an ode to Babulall’s Indian heritage that was originally displaced and irrevocably transformed upon arrival to the Caribbean. Like its namesake, individuals have the opportunity to reclaim and reinvigorate themselves. Future plans for Vaksana include a kitchen/restaurant alongside sustainable farming, a workshop/training facility and a multipurpose room offering wellness classes such as meditation and yoga in consultation with a behavioral psychologist and holistic therapist. Collaborations with local businesses and partnership with the University of Guyana ensures that Guyanese citizens are actively involved in every aspect of the project, providing employment opportunities and allowing them to take on leadership roles.
What is the current progress of Vaksana, and where do you hope to see the project in one year?
“As of now, Vaksana is in an exciting phase of planning and development. We have made significant strides in securing the land and are eagerly awaiting the approval of the lease for our carefully chosen site. Our dedicated team is diligently working on the architectural design and construction plans to bring our vision to life.
In one year, we envision Vaksana having completed its initial construction phase, with the retreat center standing proudly amidst the natural beauty of Guyana. We anticipate being fully prepared to open our doors and welcome our first guests to experience the transformative journey that Vaksana offers.”
Babulall believes in transparency regarding the difficulties faced with running a non-governmental organization. She has overcome several obstacles such as limited resources and bureaucratic hurdles by seeking collaborations, leveraging available resources and engaging in open dialogue with members of the community.
When asked about the misconceptions of running an NGO, she replied, “Many NGOs actually strive for financial independence by implementing income-generating initiatives and fostering partnerships that create long-term sustainability. Another misconception is that NGOs are not as efficient or effective as for-profit organizations. In reality, NGOs often have lower administrative costs and are driven by a strong sense of purpose and commitment.”
She also disagreed with the belief that NGOs only focus on aid/handouts and says, “Many NGOs prioritize community-driven development approaches, working with local stakeholders to identify their needs/strengths and supporting capacity-building initiatives that enable communities to thrive independently.”
By debunking these perceptions, NGOs such as ADVP can continue to attract like-minded individuals to participate in the diverse work they undertake to address social challenges and advance a more equitable future.
How would you suggest those get involved in ethical public sector/charity work?
“I would recommend starting by identifying your passions and areas of interest. Research and connect with organizations that align with your values and goals. Volunteer your time, skills or resources to make a tangible impact. Stay informed about social and environmental issues and advocate for positive change. Collaboration and learning from others in the field are also crucial for personal and professional growth.”
What is your ultimate goal and future plans for ADVP and Vaksana?
“My ultimate goal is to continue building ADVP as a leading organization in sustainable community development, promoting social and environmental justice. With Vaksana, we aim to establish a renowned wellness and eco-retreat center that serves as a model for sustainable tourism, community empowerment and holistic well-being. We envision expanding our impact, fostering collaborations and creating positive change at both local and global levels.”
Guyana’s raw and authentic lifestyle has left a profound impact on Babullal as an individual and a leader. While embarking on the Vaksana project has not been without roadblocks, she is grateful to have gained the strength to confront difficult realities head-on in hopes of creating a safe place for individuals to learn and flourish. She has found contentment in the beauty of Guyana’s lush surroundings and hopes that others find its premise rejuvenating and inspirational.
To learn more about ADVP visit their website here or follow them on Instagram.
To donate to the Vaksana project, visit their GoFundMe page.
Featured Image: Menakshi Babulall | Photo Courtesy of Menakshi Babulall