The Irrelevant Project is a self driven initiative to reduce the multiple negative stereotypes in various learning realms or in other words to make gender stereotypes irrelevant in the classroom. It started off with the founders, Alishya Almeida and Meghna Chaudhury doing workshops in schools to understand the extent of gender stereotypes in the classroom. The idea of creating fiction books came to them as they are a great medium to spread a message. The initiative gained a momentum with publishing 5000 books; The Irrelevant Project aims at creating a gender equitable ecosystem. Following is an interview with the Co-founder, Meghna Chaudhury where she talks about the project, its growth, and the vision for this project.
Simran Kaur: The content deals closely with various forms of prejudices, consent, identity, and gender bias, what was the inspiration behind this project? What triggered the idea?
Meghna Chaudhury: People change over a course of time and I have been very open and vulnerable about the fact that I have led quite a sexist existence, in the sense that I was not capable of doing XYZ things, or I should not do it because I am a girl till I turned 25 and joined the Young India Fellowship and met Alishya. I was bombarded with these new ideas which I found myself very uncomfortable with. The more I started learning about it, it was exhausting to unlearn and continues to be an unlearning process.
But I realised that while growing up the books, at least during the growing up period, they were very stereotyped. These were the books that gave me an idea that you should be a certain way as a girl. When I realised that I am capable of unlearning in my mid twenties, I thought to myself, what about starting this new journey about creating a landscape where egalitarian mindsets are a norm as opposed to anything else. I think this was one of my inspirations and Alishya being a feminist and having experience further nurtured this idea. However, it is still a learning process and I do not think as a feminist and as an entrepreneur, I can ever say that I have learnt enough because if you say that, it reduces your ability to see it through what people need and how much can you contribute.
SK: What is the process and ideation behind creating these books?
MC: I think, first is paper and pen. You just start thinking about what are the stereotypes around me, then how can I remove it and finally how can I create a story out of it. Then once you write it down, you show it to your peers, get their review. Since you really have to write to your audience, I cannot write about gender equality to a six year old because the child will not understand it.
What about starting this new journey about creating a landscape where egalitarian mindsets are a norm as opposed to anything else?
However, the way I can tell a child to care about gender equality is through stories. If you have been told that you cannot drive a car because you are a girl, here is a story of girl who learnt how to drive a car, for example. The idea is how do you tweak a bit of content into something a child will not only be able to find it relatable but also be very excited about.
After writing it out, I started reaching out to artists who wanted to illustrate. We did face a lot of rejection initially because it was a pro bono project. After finding the illustrators, we did a lot of discussion on how we want to portray our characters. I particularly wanted the children in the books to look like how every normal child looks like and not something extraordinary, say petite or fair.
The illustrations for the books were very important, because that is what is going to make or break and they are very subtle. We got some really nice illustrators who were into the cause. It was a two-way process with lots of editing and feedback. Finally came the printing part and distribution to which we had a pleasant response.
With current time of #MeToo and #TimesUp, sometimes it is sad that people use these movements for capitalist benefits but this was never a part of our game-plan. We do this because this is our belief that if you can achieve equality or if you can help a child think equal from a very early age onwards, then you can actually change the landscape twenty years down the line. We probably will not live to see the change but we will have planted the seed.
SK: Can you tell us a little bit about your team?
MC: The team is me and Alishya. I have quit my job to do this full-time now. I am an engineer; I worked in the Akanksha Foundation as a teacher. Then I went for the Young India Fellowship, later I worked as curriculum designer, followed by working as a curriculum director while in the process of working on the The Irrelevant project. Now, I am doing it full-time. Alishya was an analyst at Deloitte, and then she joined the Young India Fellowship. She did her masters in Queer Studies. She is now a research and teaching assistant at Ashoka University.
SK: What do you see this project growing into and what has been the response to it since its inception? Do you also see this project being incorporated into school curriculum?
MC: Given we saw the success with us working with full time jobs, a volunteering team and pretty much hustling up the fun, we realised that there is potential in this idea. So what we are trying to create is India’s only tech-platform for gender which a school or a parent can sign up for. They can give us their details, we give them a service so that we can analyse their child’s stereotype level, and based on the data you get a set of activities.
We are actually working with two schools as a partner but we are trying to broaden this scope because when I was working with these two schools, I was also working full-time. So now that I have the scope, I want to reach out to more school groups and create a safe and gender equitable ecosystem. By ecosystem, I mean something as simple as improving the quality of the standard of books in school libraries.
There are actually books like Zubaan Books who have broken gender stereotypes, so why not supplement your library with this. How about holding a culture day in which you learn about different cultures, about different castes in India and teaching hard history about what has casteism done, what has patriarchy done, what is the intersection of it. We are really trying to build up a series of products, curriculum services that could help any school regardless of their budget and time to set up gender equitable spaces.
SK: 6-8 is the age group that is your target audience, how important do you think is the role of parenting in what a child reads and in what other ways apart from reading can parents instill these values in children?
MC: I follow a researcher called Rebecca Bigler and one more person called Betsy Bevy Paluck. Rebecca Bigler works specifically with the field of gender and psychology. She basically found out that if you intervene in the age group of six to eight, you have quite a high chance of converting the way in which a child looks at the world through the medium of fiction.
There are other ways for adolescents, for them you to do more of workshops and exposure. These are all mediums, the goal being the same. But we wanted to work with the younger age group, because we actually read about it and hopefully if this works out well, maybe we will have a series for across age groups.
I really believe in spatial design, as in what are you keeping around yourself. Even if you do not have say the money to buy a book or you think you cannot spend time reading these books to children. I would say print out pictures of people who have broken stereotypes and just paste it across the wall. There is evidence that shows that it really kind of changes the way your child will think.
It is a very simple thing, for example, in one of our books, Annie and Arjun write down all the chores of the house and put them in box. Then you just pick a chit and whoever gets the chit, does the chore. So, the chore stops being gendered. Any person can participate in it, even working parents can participate in it, even children can participate in it and it is a very simple way of de-gendering a chore.
The reason why the The Irrelevant Project exists is so that we can interrupt prejudice and let every child irrespective of their identity live up to their full potential.
Rebecca Bigler found out that babies and children use gender as a primary category as in the first thing you notice about a person is not that a person is wearing a nice dress, you will probably notice that, this person is a boy who is wearing a nice dress. The reason why this happens is that the environment uses gender as an organising principle like in school there is a boy’s bathroom and a girl’s bathroom, there is boy’s uniform which are pants and girl’s uniform which is a skirt.
Gender is actually used as the organiser of the environment and if you can remove that organising principle and use a different organising principle for example- all people wearing green will use this bathroom, or at home the parents say that everybody who woke up before 6 AM today has to do X chore or those staying up till 10 will do the Y chore, it stops being gendered. It stops being used as an organising principle.
I have read research about this and even on our Instagram page, we take these academic papers and convert them into info-graphics because what I have understood is that, people love dismissing your experiences and cannot say anything if you have data in front of you.
If you see my latest post about why sexual assault victims actually not report sexual assault, it was actually shown that there is a huge gulf between what people actually think they will do in a situation as opposed to what they actually do. So now people actually say “thank you! We can now shut people up” who say if she was raped, why did she not stand up for it.
For us it has been very important that we make these academic researches very accessible for everybody and it is an open source. Say, if tomorrow when we grow our team, all of it is going to be open source.
Yes, we will work with children and schools, but I also want the general person to be able to a very informed argument when they are trying to reduce sexism in and around them.
SK: How are you using social media as a tool to advocate the removal of gender bias?
MC: There are a lot Instagram pages that talk about gender equality. What is missing here is the psychological research, what is the psychology behind someone making a sexist statement. So, we are looking into the behavioral aspect of it. For example, one of the papers that I found out that I shared on social media was that this person basically took a question paper and one set of the question paper he asked people to write their gender and in the second set of question paper he asked people to write their ethnicity. He gave it to a group of women. The women who were asked to write their gender performed poorly because it was math and they were reminded of the women stereotype. While the women who were asked of their ethnicity performed very well because they were Asian by descant and Asians are known as hardworking.
Imagine if a school could use this and say for example one of the researchers had said that if you want a student to perform well, just say that their birth date ties up with a Nobel Laureate of Math. This is such a simple research; you can do it and boost a child’s self esteem. In the process of doing this, you can break gender stereotypes. So this is the kind of civic engagement we are looking at through the Instagram posts.
SK: Why do you think a project like The Irrelevant Project is important in today’s age and space?
MC: I will start just by saying three things that keep my mojo going.
Firstly, in India 66% of women do housework and only 12% of men do housework. If men increase the duration of their time in kitchen by 45 minutes, India will see a 6% rise in their GDP.
Secondly, by the age of 10, girls stop playing sports because it does not fit the idea of a fragile and a beautiful girl. By age 12, children start limiting themselves to what they can and cannot do. This is a big loss for their very basic potential.
Finally, my basic reason why the The Irrelevant Project exists is so we can interrupt prejudice. We will do this because every child irrespective of where they are and who they are, every child irrespective of their identity should be able to live up to their full potential and this will not only benefit the economic growth of the country but also for human development. If anybody tells me that I am talking about an idealistic world, then I have all my facts in place. I know exactly how much the GDP will increase, if women become a part of the paid work which they are not able to because the domestic work is seen as a woman’s work.
FII thanks Meghna Chaudhury for taking out time to do the interview. You can follow The Irrelevant Project on Instagram.