For me being a part of Nirmukta, organizing monthly meets, the annual Thinkfest and meeting like minded people was very liberating and satisfying. So when the International Women’s Day celebrations in office opened up a new opportunity I gingerly attempted it. Actually my friend Prema was the idea person – why should we not talk about Gender issues in office, she said. I was not very sure about the reception it would receive. But then she insisted and when three of us, Geeta Charusivam, Prema and I got together and discussed, it sure appeared promising as Geeta’s experience in activism infused confidence in us. And so we organized an interactive session in office where we talked about gender roles, stereotypes, patriarchy etc., The response was excellent and gave us a lot of encouragement. Many colleagues heard the above terms for the first time and were eager to know more. The discussion went on for hours and was continued later for days over tea and lunch. Then we were asked to conduct a training on Gender Sensitization in our Training School and we attacked that with vigour. The response of some men when we talked about Patriarchy was an eye-opener. It was okay to talk about gender roles and stereotypes which was met with a sort of amusement and slight condescension but mention of patriarchy was treated with consternation. Feminism is an extreme position, some said. Things are not that bad these days, said one. Infact men are having it tough nowadays said another. But we were happy that we had set the ball rolling and the conversation had started somewhere. It might die a natural death but at least they had heard these terms and we could keep making the noise whenever we got the opportunity.
Attending a Training of Trainers organized by Prajnya gave me a little more confidence and I learnt how to present ideas without antagonizing the audience and how it was important to stay unprovoked and cool when confronted with hostile questions. I had reacted badly during an earlier training session when a colleague was stubborn and insisted that there was no such thing as patriarchy. I was determined to never let it get to me when I addressed a group of people. So when Prema now suggested that we should talk about gender issues to students in schools and colleges, I was ready though slightly apprehensive. The same evening I approached the correspondent of a small private co-educational school near my house and asked for permission to talk to students of 8th/9th Std. He was curious and after probing into the issues we proposed to cover, he invited us to give a talk to about 120 students of 9th Std.
On 6th of July, I, Prema and Balasubramaniam S reached the school, a bit tense, not knowing what to expect and how the students would respond, but excited at the same time. Bala was our Technical support armed with a laptop, projector etc., We learnt that there was no auditorium nor a big hall where the children could assemble, watch the videos and interact. We discussed the various choices with the Headmistress who was approving of the topics we were about to speak on and said – ‘let us sow the seeds; ‘god’ would take care!’ We finally decided that we would screen the videos in a classroom for the students in 3 batches and then carry out the interaction in the playground. Thankfully it was not a sunny day.
At the outset, the children were very enthusiastic to know that it was not something related to studies and also that it was not a lecture but an interactive session. As the students filed into the classroom batch by batch, we played the song ‘Achcham Naanam Madam….,’ which was written for ‘Arivoli’ a government funded NGO involved in building an adult education movement in Tamilnadu. The song was sung by Samarpa Kumaran, a ballad singer active in social movements for about two decades now. He is also a friend of the NGO Makkal Mandram in which Geeta Charusivam is an activist. The song has some excellent lyrics and the excited children slowly settled and started listening to the song. The lines ‘Won’t the little girl take a bat and play? Won’t she become someone like Steffi Graf or Martina,’ brought broad smiles and the girls looked at each other. Next we screened the short film Girl and Boy and a couple of films on gender violence – Bell Bajao. And then the children assembled in the playground. I started the session by asking what was gender and whether they thought they considered men and women to be equal. And then I explained the Constitutional basis for equality.
I asked the children what they understood from the film and a few children came forward with their interpretations. They had understood quite well. I then explained how the society tries to trap each child into a gender mould and then punishes when the child ‘transgresses’ the limits. I spoke about gender roles and the expectations of a society. I veered the discussion towards stereotypes by mentioning a few adjectives like brave, soft, pleasant, angry, ambitious, courage, adjustable etc., and asked the children which would be generally used to describe which gender. The result was predictable. Next I mentioned a few professions like doctor, teacher, auto driver, engineer, leader, scientist, astronaut , chief minister and asked which gender came to their mind. Again the results were predictable. The children laughed with surprise when I pointed out that in spite of living in Tamil Nadu they had said male when I said Chief Minister! I also asked them what kind of toys they played with when they were little kids. The dichotomy in the girls’ toys and boys’ toys was quite revealing.
Next I talked a little about ‘the man box phenomenon.’ I asked them how a girl is scolded generally. The idea was to make them think – they realized that they were constantly told to behave demurely because they were girls and they were going to ‘live in another house after marriage.’ I pointed out that the ultimate insult for a boy is to be called a girl and the ultimate compliment for a girl is to be compared to a boy. The children participated with vigour and there was no dearth of responses. I discussed about how household work is viewed as if it is of less value and how a homemaker is considered to be ‘simply at home.’ I asked them whether they helped their parents with their work. I asked how the boys contributed and how the girls contributed towards household work. One boy very hesitantly said that he helped his mom in sweeping the house. He received a well-deserved applause. I suggested that they could speak up if their parents hinted at inequality. I explained how equality is liberating for girls as well as boys.
The teachers were also drawn into the discussion when I mentioned the four qualities a woman is supposed to possess – ‘acham, naanam, madam, payirppu,’ (fear, shyness, less knowledge?). The Tamil teacher of the school came forward and explained payirppu as meaning refinement. And later when I quoted Bharathiar’s lines ‘Nimirndha nann nadaiyum….,’ the teacher enthusiastically completed it.
When I asked what they understood from the ‘bell bajao’ film, a boy cynically said ‘ringing a bell would solve all the problems!’ I was taken aback for a moment but soon recovered to say that it might not solve all the problems but it did 3 important things: 1) It gave a break to the suffering woman. 2) It put the abuser on notice. 3) It sent a hint to the woman that she has an ally whom she could probably approach for help. Most often we are helpless and could not act like films heroes and rescue people in distress but we could do ‘something’ like the above or give the number of an helpline.
My Favorite Moment
I asked the boys if they cried – not a single hand went up. But they were all quiet. Then I asked if they had ever felt like crying. Two boys raised their hands slowly but when they turned and saw no other hands raised they immediately put it down and laughed shyly. Then I said, “It is okay. It is not a crime for boys to cry. Crying gives a lot of relief. I am sure everyone would feel the need at times,” slowly hands went up. It was a sight! And they were all laughing as they raised their hands. The girls and the teachers started clapping encouragingly and it was such an endearing moment. More than half the boys had raised their hands and were happy looking at each other.
Before winding up I told them I would very briefly mention two points since they were important and it would be helpful if the children were made aware.
1) I asked them if there were only 2 genders. One boy softly said ‘Transgender.’ Whenever a child made an exceptional remark or showed good knowledge I asked the child to come forward and make everyone applaud. I found that to be motivating. I asked them if they had seen transgendered people. They said yes – in railway stations and near bus stands. I remarked that they did not come from some other planet – they are part of our families and most often they are chased away from their homes and are compelled to face a lot of pain and cruelty. When I quizzed whether they knew the Tamil word for transgender people I was pleasantly surprised when a girl answered correctly – ‘Thirunangai.’
2) Next I asked if they had heard the word Child Sexual Abuse. They had no clue and one boy asked if I meant female foeticide. And then I asked if they had ever experienced that someone known / unknown to them touched or stroked them and they felt it was just not right but could not explain exactly or even say no. A few girls nodded and a few looked at each other and smiled. I explained what safe and unsafe touch meant. I told them that they should know that it is never their fault, they could say no vehemently and they should immediately talk to their mother or teacher about it.
Prema spoke briefly about the importance of self-confidence and told it was alright to stumble and fail at times. She introduced her favourite motto ” I CAN I WILL I MUST” to the children and made them chant it a couple of times which they did enthusiastically. It was a beautiful moment when one boy repeated the terms to himself softly, then turned towards a boy on his left and asked, ‘hey, third ennada?’ And when he said ‘I Must,’ he repeated it to himself again squirreling it to his memory. Prema emphatically told them that the be all and end all of life was not the marks scored in their examinations. Life was much more important than education and a slight fall or fail in education should not deprive their parents of their children. She also told them that life was full of hurdles and obstacles and it was their choice to either face it , duck from it or avoid it. When she asked why students were reluctant to share notes and help their friends in studies, one girl said it was because of ego and another boy said it was because he feared losing the top position. The children were able to relate to this concept very easily. One could always find the ways and means to overcome the hurdles faced and it was not worth losing one’s life over trivial reasons like failing exams or facing a rejection in love. She also spoke about the values of honesty, sharing knowledge and helping each other. These were very well received and the children enjoyed her examples and anecdotes. It hit the target and it was obvious that they could relate to whatever example she gave. There was much laughter and eager interaction. All the students stayed interested and absorbed till the end.
Bala Subramanaiam wrapped up the session by encouraging the students to come out and voice their understanding and thoughts on the various concepts introduced. Finally , very simply and in a matter of fact tone he spoke to the boys telling them that it was “okay for boys or men to cook, clean, wash clothes, clean vessels and even toilets .. after all it is ‘our’ house and nothing wrong in doing it…” The boys looked at him with awe and respect and that was yet again a very beautiful moment. The effect was excellent.
Overall it was a satisfying 2 hours. Though it looked like we had discussed a number of concepts it was actually a relaxed chat with the children. The teacher who thanked us finally said: ‘It was great to learn not only about ‘pudhumai pen’ (liberated woman) but also about ‘pudhumai aan’ (liberated men).’ The highlight was when she said that they hoped a “pudhumai aan” would emerge from their school. She also requested us to have one session for the teachers as well. Obviously we cannot expect any change overnight and from everybody , but even if one person is able to recall what we told and tries to follow it we would have succeeded in our endeavour. We wish to speak to as many children as possible and we want to keep going back for improvisation or repetition and if somewhere somehow a change starts it would be a small step towards a distant milestone and our efforts would not be in vain. We have already got an opportunity to visit an engineering college where we would be talking to a group of first years and then another school – this time an all-girls school. We are enjoying this interaction with the future citizens of our country and we hope we could contribute in making at least a few of them sensitive humanists.