Following the murder of Chennai techie Swathi by her alleged stalker in July this year, there was much uproar and discussion on violence against women in Tamil Nadu. However, while much of this outrage remains at a surface level, only to rear its head again when there is another sensational case, a school in Thiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu decided that it was time to talk about gender inequality to its children.
Shree Niketan School, Thiruvallur, was founded in 2006 and has about 5000 students enrolled. The school is part of Design for Change, a global movement that encourages children to drive change in their own communities. As part of the DFC, the students have engaged with different social issues, including an interesting project on footboard travel.
After the Swathi murder, the students set up a club for discussing gender inequality and spreading awareness about it within their community. The core team came up with innovative ideas like issuing a questionnaire to their schoolmates on gender bias to find out how bad the situation was in their own homes, designing a comic to explain gender inequality, and performing skits about the same in other schools in their district.
A few pages from the comic book written and illustrated by the students.
From the responses to their survey, they realized that gender bias was prevalent in most families with fathers taking the important decisions and boy children having more freedom than girl children.
Pg 1 of the questionnaire prepared by the core team and the results of their survey.
They concluded that for the situation to change, gender inequality must first be addressed at home. The gender club is called âSaindha Tharaasuâ or the âTilted Balanceâ.
Students performing a drill to represent the tilted balance.
After reading my article published on The News Minute, which looked at the glorification of stalking and violence against women in cinema as part of the problem, the school invited me to speak to their students about gender issues on Saturday. Pooja Vijay, Delhi-based standup comedian, was also invited to share her views with the children.
The students, comprising Class 9 and 11, were about 750 in number. They were an aware and interested audience that remained engaged right to the end despite rainfall occasionally disrupting the talk!
Many of them have already experienced or observed gender bias to varying degrees. A boy said that while he was allowed to go out and play with his friends outdoors, his sister was confined to the house. âI never used to think this was wrong,â he said. âBut with this program, Iâve realized that it is. Iâve tried to talk to my parents about it but they are not listening.â
As part of the talk, I took them through what we mean by gender, how itâs different from sex â sex is biological while gender is sociocultural â and why our society is considered to be patriarchal. We also discussed what we mean by masculinity and femininity and how these ideas change with time, place and socio-political circumstances.
They were surprised to know that women started wearing pants in the West because of the World War, that nursing became a âfemaleâ profession during the World War too, and that until early 20th century, the colour pink was for boys while blue was for girls. We took examples from their everyday lives to show how gender expectations change all the time â for example, more fathers than grandfathers knew how to cook because it is becoming more acceptable for men to enter the kitchen with changing times.
How patriarchy affects men just as it does women was another issue dealt with. While womenâs rights are curtailed in obvious ways, men are oppressed by patriarchy too. Not many boys are encouraged to take up professions that donât guarantee a monthly salary, for instance, because they are supposed to be the âprovidersâ. They are taught to suppress their emotions and often donât know how to channelize their sadness or anger without becoming aggressive.
Since the students were clearly affected by the Swathi murder case and had followed similar incidents that had taken place in the state with keen interest, we talked about victim blaming and what we mean by consent in a relationship. I used clippings from films to demonstrate this. Heroes like Vijay and Dhanush are popular among the student body and while they cheered through the misogynistic dialogues initially, they quickly caught on to why such representations were problematic.
Pooja Vijay shared her personal experiences of growing up in a household without men, and the gender bias and violence that she has faced as a woman who studied mechanical engineering and works in standup comedy â both male-dominant fields. She gave instances of victim blaming that she has experienced and also discussed ways to push back against the system.
The Q&A session had students asking us questions ranging from âWhy doesnât my father allow me to put my legs up on the sofa just because Iâm a girl?â to âHow do I defend myself when someone harasses me?â
From the Q&A session.
The openness with which the students asked their questions says a lot about their confidence levels and the impact that gender inequality has had in their lives. It also tells us that the teachers and school management have been supportive and courageous enough to let their students think for themselves about such topics that are generally considered a taboo.
Gender is more about unlearning what the world has told us than learning. If only more educational institutions would take it upon themselves to talk to their children about whatâs happening around them instead of burying them in their textbooks, the world would be a better place.