It was just two years ago when I took Purdah by Imtiaz Dharkar to the class for the first time. The poem was a feminist’s protest against the system of Purdah. The poem couldn’t have been more politically correct because it was written by a Muslim woman who had a first hand experience of the system. I remember thinking how to deal with this sensitive text in a classroom full of students from varied religious backgrounds and ideologies. My idea was to keep it rooted in the inherent feminist ideas of the poem.
I did this exercise: I drew two columns on the board and asked my students how an ideal woman should be and how an ideal man should be. The class was just warming up to an exercise which involved them sharing their opinions. They tried their best to give the most politically correct answers. But, their answers could not fill both the columns. Then began the listing of all gender roles ascribed by the society to a man and a woman. They analysed how all gender roles ascribed to women belonged to the private sphere (or inside the house in lay terms) and all roles ascribed to men belonged to the public sphere (outside the house). Slowly, the conversation moved towards how women are often seen as the markers of honour in the family and men were the protectors of said honour. These were some of the directions our conversation took as far as I can remember. I did it in two or three other classes too. Similar responses came in. This helped me to set the tone for introducing the poem in the class, in such a way that it is thought-provoking for the students – those who wear hijab and those who do not, and also to also eliminate stereotyping and Islamophobic comments. Instead, I hoped to shift the focus of the class to addressing patriarchy in any form. Of course, there were also students who couldn’t care less about anything else.
Cut to the present, the honourable Chief Minister of Karnataka announced a three day closure of all schools and colleges in the state to stop the altercations involving hijab-wearing girls and saffron shawl wielding boys and girls. The politics of communal hatred that entered the classroom has prompted me to write this, as that happens to be my workplace.
There are two broad conceptions of a classroom that I know. The first one is the liberal idea where the classroom serves as space for every student to express their thoughts and share their experiences about everything. Here, learning happens through getting exposed to several different life experiences and ways of thinking. There are high chances of students learning to empathise through their constant interactions with each others’ varied life experiences.
The second one is celebrated by the middle class. Exams and entrances to institutions are the holy grail. Methods to do things the most effectively are internalised with a ruler in the hand. Here, politics is often frowned upon. You see, it will not fetch a job. Yet, the model fails to produce wholly employable output as often the students come out with absolutely no awareness of the world or mainly not knowing how to interact with the world.
The products of the second model are easy targets to one of the most sophisticated propaganda machineries that history has ever seen. Fascism, with the most invasive media and an already communalist parent generation, is a deadly cocktail. One must not mistake the sudden intolerance against hijab as just a feminist fight. It is also an explicit projections of the distaste of the ‘other’.
There is no difference between the objectification of women by the Islamic fundamentalists who want women to cover their bodies from head to toe and the Hindu fundamentalists who also want to decide what they should be wearing and what they should not be wearing. It is here that the cleverness of the machinery comes into picture. This is such an ambiguous territory for even a liberal that you stop short of words in commenting or are wary of standing in solidarity.
Sati, another archaic tradition, was also successfully uprooted. But, it happened through the reformist movements by people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy who fought for a law to be brought by the British to ban this dehumanising tradition. This was a movement from inside. But, in the case of the hijab row, it is the strong-arming of a majoritarian group who claim to know better that we are witnessing here. While it is ironic that both groups want to say what to wear and what not to women, the truth is also that the matter at hand is not about how politically correct the hijab is. Rather, it is the crystal clear Islamophobia of the right wing conservatives that denies the Muslim hijab wearing women the right to be, that needs to radically questioned.
One struggles to have a clear view in this hazy mess created by the right wing. But, I feel these are two different fights; what is happening now is nothing but bigotry and more objectification of women.
Classroom is not an apolitical space. It has already sewn many narratives for successive generations. Bigotry and ‘Us vs The Other’ narrative has historically taken up space in our classrooms more prominently now than ever. This has been fostered till now with the wink-wink, nudge-nudge statements by dominant groups. The dangers of it is the loss of the sense of a community in the class which wants to be accommodative of all markers of diversity, because that is the secular India we have been Constitutionally assured of as ours to have.
Pruthvi is interested in anything gender and films. He teaches Language and Literature at National College in Bengaluru.
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