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A patriarchal rural society, where my students showed that a #PressforProgress towards a more equal society could be made, if only one step at a time.
It takes half an hour to reach my workplace from home. Half an hour to transition from city to the rural outskirts. Half an hour to reach the underbelly. Half an hour to witness groups of girls huddled together hurrying to college, all eyes fixed on the road. Boys of course on bikes, or foot, or some even in SUV’s, having sold chunks of agricultural land. Boys, shouting, singing, or at least looking ahead, not counting pebbles on the road.
Out of nearly 500 students we now have a strength of 100 girls, quite a few of them married or at least engaged. The married ones come to college with their heads covered. ‘Ma’am, what to do.? Half the boys are our brothers-in-law!’
Each day gets to be a struggle with these kids barely managing to write a legible sentence in Hindi, let alone Freud’s theory of personality. Each day, we take rounds of the college lest a girl from a village is caught talking to a boy a form another village. That often leads to fights in the name of the village’s honour.
Girls usually sit huddled in a corner, away from the boy. The college is a co-ed only to the extent that we give admission to both genders. After that, genders do not mix. And the rare girls who wear ‘urban’ clothes are an easy target for the boys’ comments and free judgement. The first year girls mostly keep to themselves, rarely sharing a laugh or two. The second year ones have gained a little confidence and hence today they shuffled in to the classroom giggling. When I looked up, a happy chorus rang out.
‘Happy Women’s Day, Ma’am!’
Once they had sing-songed their wishes and settled down, I asked, ‘What is Women’s Day?’
Some muffled laughter came from the boys’ corner who had leisurely strolled in to the classroom a good ten minutes late.
‘Do you want to say something?’ I tried to suppress the annoyance.
‘All days are theirs only. Humari sunta kaun hai!’
The girls just shook their heads, a resigned smile plastered on their faces.
And then we talked about realities relevant to them – Ghungat, women seeking permission from men, not stepping out, not laying claim on public spaces, and as a boy pointed out, girls in college being mocked for being too chatty, loud or generally laughing too much. It all happened. They justified most of it. Most girls agreed with it all too.
The village has a lady sarpanch. Yet her husband is referred to as the sarpanch. ‘She has to keep her face covered, na. So she can not go out and talk to the villagers. Stays indoors. Hence, he is the sarpanch.’ Their logic. To hell with the fact that she won an election, and that she is qualified. To hell with a nation gloating about Women feeling more empowered. The girls agreed.
The why’s that I threw at them about women covering their face, about girls being controlled were met with shrugs and puzzled faces. Mostly boys. Some used words like, ‘culture,’ ‘society’ and whatever else they could think of.’
‘Why is the culture not the man’s responsibility?’
The girls sat up. One of them dared and asked, ‘Ma’am, they can all go and watch a movie. I have never even seen a cinema hall. Why can’t I go?’
The boys were getting visibly uncomfortable. ‘But even if you are right, what can we do? Change does not happen overnight.’
One boy had been sitting quietly so far. He started speaking, his voice barely audible thanks to the din. I waved my hand to quieten everyone and he hesitantly started again, ‘Ma’am, revolution can be singular. In our house, chachi does not cover head in front of my father. And he supports her. We have to hear a lot of things from neighbours and relatives. But we have chosen to support her. We resist the pressure. I think if all of us can make such small changes, we will not need a revolution.’
That is my Women’s Day for you. A boy, mostly quiet, created a noise today that silenced others. The others that often pick fights in the name of honour, the others that moments earlier were relating a story of a man burning a woman’s face with an iron because he suspected her of being promiscuous. The others who laughed when I asked, ‘would a man go through the same if found out?’ The others were quiet now. Some even showed a glimmer of understanding.
Happy Women’s Day, people. Here’s to the hope that his classmates too learn to resist, learn to question.
Images source: Tanu Shree Singh