In my class of 32, there are just two girls, and they mostly sit huddled in a corner. In the neighbouring room, another bunch of five sit together. There are 80 students in that class. Last week, when I was noting down names for various events for the upcoming festival, the girls fervently shook their heads and looked away. On further questioning, it was discovered that the girls from the next class didn't want to attract any more attention. Some of the boys were already making things tough for them.
The girls looked down and hurried away to the class. This is their college, their class. Yet they rarely attend the lecture if the friends do not show up since they have assumed that going in alone is not an option. Most of them purposefully walk to the class and back, unlike their male classmates, who true to their age, goof around and can be heard laughing from miles away. Outside, a loudspeaker blared, 'Beti bachao, Beti padhao.'
"We learn to be afraid rather than raise our head and fight for what is rightfully ours. We learn to flee rather than stand our grounds. And worst, we learn to look away."
More investigation revealed that the boy who bothered them was just a nasty bully who was mean to everyone. It had nothing to do with their gender. But the apprehension in the girls' eyes had everything to do with their gender. Then it hit me. Most girls are taught to be scared - systematically from the day they are born. First it is the dark that we fear, and then it being alone that is scary, and behind all our fears, we are taught, is the man - ready to pounce, ready to take us down. We learn to be afraid rather than raise our head and fight for what is rightfully ours. We learn to flee rather than stand our grounds. And worst, we learn to look away.
A few decades ago, one afternoon, I got off the bus on my way back from college, and took a rickshaw for home, like always. A bunch of boys decided to have a tad bit of 'fun,' and tried to stop the rickshaw, circle it, and generally rattle the life out of me. It was 'just fun' for them but I felt the worst form of cold fear creep through my veins and benumb me. The rickshaw-puller thankfully was smarter and didn't stop. He just paddled faster. The boys lost interest and retreated to the roadside canteen. When I reached home, mum saw me shaking as I haltingly related the incident to her. I was half-expecting her to hug me and ask me to forget about it. She did no such thing. Instead, she took the car out and took me back to the bus stop. She asked me to point the boys out and I did. Within a blink, the woman got out, caught them by the collar, and slapped them one by one. She walked back and said, 'Never fear. Ever. It is never your fault. Never ever.' She broke the cycle of fear for me.
Most women are not that lucky. They learn to live in that cycle of fear where the circle gets smaller with each passing year. The subtle messages of staying indoors, and looking out for our own safety, soon get transformed into rules about being a step behind, of staying out of temples once a month, and of minding just the children and the kitchen - nothing more and nothing less. This may not be true for us - for we are the lucky city-bred lot. But step out of the city boundaries and step into the rural side. Though things are getting a facelift there, deep down the girls still stay huddled together, hiding behind the kitchen door, and most of them giving up a weak fight for education.
Gender equality is a rude fable in these parts. It is not supposed to exist. It is an anomaly that, if detected, is quickly fixed by the men. Women are swiftly put in their 'place,' because according to them, if the women start thinking they are equal to the men, they would 'sit on their heads' - exact words that I have heard over and over again.
So when I told the girls the next day that the college is theirs too, that they shouldn't sit in a corner just because they are girls, they looked at me, confusion written all over their faces. Some of them nodded uncertainly but none of them seemed convinced. I have three years to try and change that. Three years to undo all that they have learnt so far. Three years to get them to sit bang in the middle of the room.
"We are capable of opening the most formidable doors ourselves, provided that when we try to reach for the doorknob, no one pushes us back on account of our gender."
The boys too are in their bubble. They have been taught too - that they are the superior gender, that it is okay to have some 'fun' at the expense of the inferior ones, and that gender equality is all overhyped. One of them had once said, 'they expect us to open doors for them. If we give in, then that is what we will be reduced to - doormen!' And then he had proceeded to laugh at his own joke. I have three years to make a dent there. Three years to burst their bubble. Three years to make them understand that girls do not want the door to be opened for them. We are capable of opening the most formidable doors ourselves, provided that when we try to reach for the doorknob, no one pushes us back on account of our gender.
I don't think I'll be entirely successful on either count - the girls will not find a new surge of confidence and the boys will not look at them differently. My experience so far tells me that. But as a teacher, I am not wired to give up, and abysmally low expectations mean that even a hint of success anywhere gives me hope, enough to keep being the nagging voice. Most will shrug and shuffle out as soon as the bell rings. Some of them will pause and listen. Those are the ones that give me hope that the two girls in my class will get to open their own doors.
Gender Equality is not just about slogans. It is about us, you and I, and the difference that we can make without being revolutionaries. It is not just about teaching girls their rights, it mostly involves recognising the need for bridging the gap. Every time we make our boys mindful of that, we have made a difference. Every time we push the helper's daughter to get in school and stay there, we take a tiny step. All we need is to stop our day for a few seconds and take a look around. That is all it takes to make sure that no person is discriminated against on account of her gender, that no door is shut in her face, for she wears a skirt.