The Henna Party

burkhaThe little girls in this story are teenagers now, but I think this story matters now more than ever. Jennifer, my daughter-in-law, told it to me, and it makes me smile.

My son and his wife and daughters live in a picture-book village of good-hearted, hard-working people in Connecticut.  Many people there are pretty well-off and some of them are truly wealthy. But, to be sure, there’s not a whole lot of diversity in that town. It must be harder to teach children positive beliefs and values about diversity and tolerance when they don’t see a mix of people in their schools, in their shops, in their get-togethers. Maybe they have to work at it a little.

My ex-husband is Hindu and from India. His brothers and sisters now live in Canada and the States, and, as my sons’ younger cousins married, my sons and their families were invited to lots of weddings. 

Hindu weddings are fabulous affairs. My granddaughters loved most everything about them. 

Their grandfather, step-grandmother, and other relatives were sure to present them with fancy, colorful, sparkling Indian party clothes to wear and armloads of bangles. The wedding ceremony is spectacular.  The groom comes riding on a white horse; the bride is dressed in an embroidered red sari and gold jewelry; bride and groom circle around a for-real sacred fire.

As is true everywhere, adoring older relatives must be endured.

“Ah beti, kaisa hal hai?” Oh, little one, how are you? “Bahut sunder hai, pyari hai.” So pretty. so lovely.

And those same older relatives will smother them with too many kisses and hugs and cheek pinchings.

But the parties make up for that. Children are invited and are always welcome, no staying in a motel with a babysitter.  They dance to the wee hours to the loud, happy music.

Now a pre-wedding party that the girls love is the henna party. An artist draws elaborate feetdesigns on the hands and feet of the bride, family, and friends with a dye made from the henna plant.  The stylized vines, flowers, paisleys, flowers, and birds will last for a week or more.  Each design has special significance. All are symbols of love between husband and wife and hopes for a happy marriage.

My granddaughters don’t care anything about symbolism. They just like the designs.

A henna party. Too cool. Just the thing, thought Jennifer, for her two youngest, Avery, seven, and Alix Lily, nine, to celebrate their birthdays, only a week apart.  All the girls invited would sit together, talking and giggling, while a henna artist painted designs on their hands or feet.  Then they’d have a dessert buffet, Alix Lily’s idea.  She’d seen one on a family vacation.  Afterwards, they could run around outside and shriek and be silly as little girls do.

But where to find a henna artist in Connecticut? My daughter-in-law, who is not Indian but Italian/English went to the internet and found two artists within commuting distance.  Both Hindus and Muslims have henna parties, and, as if happens, one of those artists was a  Muslim woman so orthodox that that she wore a burkha, the traditional garment that goes over clothes and covers a woman completely except for her eyes. And it was her designs on the website that were especially beautiful and interesting.

img_1753-2The girls made the final decision.  What mattered, of course, were the designs.  The orthodox Muslim woman got the job.

Jennifer passionately believes in tolerance and respect for all, and she didn’t tell me if she worried about the choice, just a little. How would the sheltered girls react to a Muslim woman in a burkha? What did they know of burkhas? Some had never seen so much as a hajib.

But all went well. The designs were lovely, and the woman was lovely too. The burkha came off when my son was not in the room, and she was comfortable answering all the girls’ questions. To me, that was the best part—that the girls felt comfortable asking questions.

The party was a success. Henna designs, dessert buffet, running around the back yard.

I think it matters. I like to think that from now on, whenever these little girls think about Muslims, they will first remember a nice woman who painted pretty designs on their hands and answered all their questions with loving patience.

Copyright 2016 by Margaret French