Last night I gave a speech to the Indian Woman's Association to celebrate the 100th year of Woman's day. Since I worked so hard on it I thought I would share what I wrote.
Your Excellency, members of the Indian Women’s Association, ladies. Thank you for your kind introduction and for your invitation to speak to you tonight. I am deeply honored to be here. As you have heard my name is Valerie Jeremijenko and I serve as Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, a school for Art and Design on Education City. I am also the director of Yama Yoga studios, a center for yoga, dance and well being located here in Doha. In both of these roles I work predominately with women. VCUQatar as some of you may already know was the first university on Education City and opened as a women’s only school. It was only four years ago that we began to accept young men into our university but our population remains predominately women and it is my privilege to work with them and to foster their development as they form their identities as designers, women, and leaders in a changing world. Similarly, the students that come to my yoga studio are predominately female – women of all ages and from many countries, all of them seeking health, well being, community, and peace. In both I am involved in facilitating their drive towards self actualization, their exploration of their passions and creativity, their independence and their freedom.
Obviously the opportunity these women have to explore like this is the result of the drive and passion of our mothers. As many of you already know we are celebrating the centennial of women’s day this month. 100 years ago on March 19th in 1911 one million people came out to protest against unfair wages and poor working conditions for women. These conditions still exist throughout the world and there is enormous amounts of work to be done in the fight against women’s poverty and for women’s rights but it is the drive towards women’s self actualization, their need to live fulfilling passionate lives, that is the underlying goal of this struggle, not just work. Women need to thieve not just survive and our work and the conditions of it should ultimately be about this.
Unfortunately sometimes the focus on women’s rights at work has not only forgotten about the need for self actualization but has also been presented as conflicting with our roles within the family. This has not been my experience nor the experience of the role models that inform the way I live. I am the daughter of a strong mother, the great niece to an extraordinary artist and the sister of a leading environmental technologist. It is from them and from yoga that I have learnt that what we must continue to strive for is not just food for our children but nourishment for our souls.
To speak briefly of my role models and the lessons that they taught me: first my mother.
As the oldest of ten children I came from a chaotic and hectic home environment. My mother’s slogan was – you think education is expensive, try ignorance. For all of her child raising years my mother continued to work, mothered us all ferociously, sent us to every kind of extra curriculum activity available and tried, mostly hopelessly, to work towards a PhD in education. Our house was always a mess, our dishes were never done but for the most part our homework always was. I remember the day my brother was born – the youngest of our ten. My mother gave birth to him at 7 am, (I was there and he was slightly blue on arrival,) then she swaddled him up, jumped into the car and took me to a drama rehearsal at 9 and arrived, late to work that day, with a new baby in tow, at ten. Now well past her retirement age she drives an hour or so to work at various schools teaching handicapped children, then tutors the grandchildren lucky enough to live nearby her before going home to try to pick up with her ongoing and as yet incomplete PhD. Her struggles were many but the lesson was strong. Always strive and never give up, regardless of the odds.
My mother was herself raised by another strong woman, her aunt – a single woman – who rescued her whole family from the depression in Ireland by getting a job as a piano teacher in Australia. She was 16 at the time and was eventually able to bring all her brothers and sisters and her parents out from Ireland to Australia where she supported them for years, only then to take on my mother and her brother when their family circumstances turned to the worst. My aunt taught and performed piano until two days before her death at the age of 93. She was finally recognized for her work, her artistry and her achievements by being nominated as Member of the British Empire by the Queen Mother but I can’t help thinking that at another time, now for example, as a benefactor of women just like her – she would have been worldwide famous. The lesson she taught me -- always worked at not just a job but at a passion and always served your family. Her motto and key slogan was stickability
My sister was just last week named one of the most influential women in technology in the world and has numerous other accolades to her name including being named by the MIT Technology Review as one of the top 100 young innovators and by ID Magazine as one of the 40 most influential designers worldwide. Her three children have been dragged from Iceland to Barcelona to Croatia (and next week it will be Qatar) to sit outside lectures theaters and conference rooms and mostly they have grumbled while they have tried to keep up with their school work but still they are aware, they live it in their bones, that their mother is working with all the passion toward a better world, a world that will be a gift to them and their own self actualization.
These women in my family never only worked for food and shelter but for something they believed in and in my own small ways, in my work supporting young aspiring designers and the sometimes lost women who come to yoga I try to emulate them.
In my role at VCU I very consciously buck the system by bringing my daughters to work as often as I can, trying to model for them and to the young middle eastern women around us that family and career are not at odds with each other but rather necessary companions on the road to self fulfillment. I advocate for flexible work schedules and everyone on my team is on a part time or job share schedule so that they too can combine family, their other interests and their driving passion for their work. What I see as a result are totally committed and passionate women serving students and modeling that as women we have the right for it all. So too with our students. In our department we aim to treat them as holistically as we can recognizing that the best approach to inspire creativity and productivity is the support of their various abilities, and enabling their the freedom to express who they are and want to be.
But just as my mother’s passion was for education, my great aunt’s for music, and my sister’s for the environment, mine is for yoga.
I was in my early 20s when I first went to India and fell in love with yoga. I remember my first yoga teacher, an elderly woman with a long silver plait and white sari. I would go to her house and with her grand children around us we would practice salutations and breathe and chant. She was the one that began me on this journey. Since working with her over 20 years ago I have returned to India 7 times but unfortunately all my subsequent teachers were men. The field of yoga, like cooking, fashion design and interior design has been professionalized by men and is lead by men but regardless – even as men may lead the world wide yoga resurgence that we see today it is the spirit of Indian woman, women like my very first teacher, that remains at its core and that is informing in some small way every yoga class that is held.
And what are the key things that I have learnt from yoga and that I try to share with my daughters, my students and my friends. Two things leap out.
The first is the concept of tapas. Tapas as presented in the Yoga Sutras translates as heat, fire, passion, dedication or more properly burning desire. It is presented as one of the niyamas or ethical principles - as basic almost as non violence and I come back to it every day. Tapas is the basis of my practice and the foundation of my way of life.
And second, of course, from our most beloved Bhagavad Gita: “Work alone is your privilege, never the fruits thereof. Never let the fruits of action be your motive, and never cease to work.’
As we move into our next century of celebrating women’s achievements and advocating for their rights I urge you to work ceaselessly and passionately towards your self-fulfillment. Remember it is never an indulgence but a necessity. Work on your fulfillment and let it nourish you and your family and our future generations.