Rekha Desai

As Interviewed by Sesha McMinn, March 20, 2011

Rekha Desai: In Her Own Words

My full name is Rekha Mahendra Desai. I was born in a little village in India in 1939. All my family members were born in India [including my] spouse, [and] my children. I am Hindu by religion, and I am a classroom teacher by profession, and my political party in U.S., now I belong to independent party.

It was the culture I was raised in where gender discrimination prevailed. I noticed that, at the age of eight, even in the family, when my brother was born, and it was from the common issues like food, clothes, etc.

One very important, very dear aunt of my family was Lalli, and she was being treated very differently by the society, and that encouraged me to speak up against the gender treatment in the society.

My life time, I experienced countless incidents of gender discrimination. I was not accepted for the job I applied for, a prestigious position in federal security department, even [though] I had met all guidelines because no female were hired for that job in those days. I tried to run for the position of a president in my college, and my application was turned down. My friend with a master’s degree was not offered a job at the bank because it was supposed to be for men only. I was not allowed as a teacher to participate in school leadership council meetings at school as it was conducted by male teachers only.

It was the period of my life when women were supposed to get married at early age, leaving the education behind. They were raising families and they were not working full time, and at one point, even high school education was not preferred for women in those days.

How do you feel about Hillary Clinton?

Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of my role models in every aspect. She kept her family together despite of going through many ups and downs. And she is participating in current efforts, representing herself as a 67th secretary of state of U.S.A. I remember her words -- “It takes a village to raise a child” -- and I have very high regards for Mrs. Clinton.

Do you recall any women with whom you were friends as a child?

During my childhood, I had a school friend. Her name was Nergis and I have a very special corner for her in my heart. We attended elementary, middle, high school and college together. We were hired at the same school on the same day, and we worked together for several years before we got separated due to our wedding.

How did you feel when people treated you disrespectfully because of your gender and race? Did you ever become very angry with people? If so, who?

This is an interesting question. Yes, I think out of a box. I don’t get angry at other people. In fact, I start thinking this way. What if I was born in a different country, and received my education there? What if I was a male member in my family? The sad part of this question is yes, I was not involved in any decision making committee in many places I worked for, as I was a female. But the race discrimination is an essential part of my life, which I am experiencing even now over and over, and that makes me angry at myself, and at others. In [the] central part of Africa, in a little village called Mongu, I was asked to sit with non-white patients in the clinic, and nurse would not attend me if I would go to whites only ward. The same thing [happened]. There is a little town, little village, Mazabuka, where the membership of the golf club was offered to whites only.

I was hired by LAUSD in Los Angeles and reported to school, and was looking for the department chair, and I was informed by my assistant principal, “You seem to be ESL. You should look for ESL department teachers. Besides, I cannot understand your English language with accents.” So I reported to ESL department and there was another assistant principal, Mr. Willie White. He was African American. He saw the tears in my eyes and tried to console me by saying, “Don’t be upset Mrs. D. You may have to face several incidents like this, and several rejections in life. This is not an end, and don’t be discouraged.”

And the last thing, my last trip to Austin, Texas was really funny. I brought glass bracelets for my granddaughter in carrying luggage on [a] Southwest flight. At the Los Angeles airport counter, my bag was screened five times, and I was taken to the interrogation department for some questions. First, I was searched completely by a female security officer. When the officers were asking me questions, authorities were trying to make sense by screening my bag over and over. I felt funny. Then I was faced with a blunt question. “Why are you carrying wires in your bag?” I laughed and told them to confiscate the whole bag if they wanted to. These bracelets looked like coils of wire, and I was perceived as a part of a terrorist member. I never got angry as I know that this is to protect the innocent people of our country.

What is your definition of discrimination?

[The] definition of discrimination is, I would say, that this is a male-dominated, in one or another way. There will be a moderate change in the treatment of female world, but would never be the equal opportunity level.

Did your husband discriminate against you because you were a woman?

My husband always discriminates me because I am a female. But now it doesn’t bother me after 47 years of my marriage life. I don’t listen to him now, and I do what I like against his wish.

I notice at a very early age when I was six years old, when my country celebrated independence, and a national figure stood up against discrimination. Her name was Surogini Naidu, and that’s how I got all the idea of discrimination and I started thinking heavily.

What was your attitude while trying to find a job? Were there people who discriminated against you while you were trying to find a job?

My attitude trying to find a job was just I was desperate. I can tell you, it starts way beyond during my school life when one of my teachers, he said a few words when I raised my hand, to one of his questions about who wanted to go to the college and then the way he treated me. His name was Mr. Desai V. [While] trying to find a job, [my attitude] was very, very serious. I applied everywhere, and the people in those days, they would ask me not to look for a job, but to get married and raise the family because of my culture. I did not listen.

Would you consider yourself an activist against gender discrimination? Why or why not?

First off, I do not consider myself as an activist against gender discrimination, however, I always have supported the views of an activist against gender discrimination, and I have participated in all the efforts carried out by a female activist. I really wanted to be an activist, but the time of my life, in those days, did not allow me to.

Fortunately I do not recall my children being involved in gender discrimination. I do not think they were discriminated against as much as I was because I brought them in a different country, and I raised them in a different country, and they got educated in a different country than my homeland.

It was the combined effort [to stop gender discrimination], but the first lady, [whose] name was Anita, who had filed a case of gender discrimination, and then it started. And now there are the laws against gender discrimination. If you surf the website, you can find out hundreds of cases, of different companies, offices, etc. So I think that most of the part of the gender discrimination is over.

Are there any other things you want to say about gender discrimination?

There is only one incident when I was in my twelfth grade, and because in those days, the society was not willing to put up lot of money after the education of female, so when my teacher asked who wanted to go to the college, and I raised my hand, and I was perceived like a fool because the females where not being involved in the part of education where the money is being spent. So I keep thinking about that incident, and finally, I had my Mom help me. I never gave it up and finally, I achieved my goal. There was only one college in the whole vicinity, of probably fifty miles radius. So it was the arts and science college I attended.