Having grown up in a country like India, with its history of epic narratives, I cannot begin to imagine a world without the existence of stories. What took me a long time to truly understand, however, is that all stories are told by people, and people have the power to mould stories in ways of their choosing- characters take form, battles are fought and enemies are created, solely through the vision of a specific group of storytellers. I then realised how some stories are more prevalent and visible than others, and that they are almost always spread by the ones with the loudest voices.
There’s much to be said about the story of ‘women in India’ as of late. One doesn’t have to try too hard to interpret the highlights of this story – the images of violence and rape, the calls for safety and protection, the endless debates on archaic laws: we, as women, are apparently victims. We are inspiring a new generation of acronyms (VAW, GBV, FGM) that capture the things that are being ‘done to us’. We are passive recipients of the potential dangers that could occur in society’s dark alleyways and crowded buses.
But then I think to myself, what about the other stories? The stories of women challenging and pushing back against socially-defined norms and behaviours in their everyday lives. Let’s talk about these everyday activists who are silently, structurally, questioning deeply ingrained systems of patriarchy and power…
- .. about the kindergarten teacher questioning gender stereotypes in her classroom of five-year-olds.
- .. about the Anganwadi worker who collects money from local villagers when her under-resourced Centre runs out of biscuits for the children
- .. about the woman who walked away from physically and mentally abusive relationship after fifteen years
- .. about the girls group started by young people in a community youth centre in New Delhi, bringing people from a cross-section of the city together through music
I’ve met and known all of these women during the course of my life so far. Most of them have had to work against the odds to bring about the changes they had envisioned for their own lives and worlds, and I can’t seem to ever find stories about them unless I look hard. But what if they didn’t have to work against all odds? What if we lived in a world that nurtures these everyday activists? How would this be possible?
As a young person in school, I never really had the opportunity to take the lid off issues, swim around in them, and ask stupid questions about my experience of being a girl and what that meant in a society that held women and girls in such low regard. We need to begin at the roots. We need to be able to give young people this opportunity- to discuss and debate situations that are relevant to their everyday lives – to talk about negotiation, relationships, consent, love, pleasure, identities, insecurities…. and the list goes on. We need an education that inspires questioning and rethinking of how we want not just women, but also men, to be perceived. We need an education that talks to us about how we want to treat each other and be treated.
So while people keep arguing about what needs to change in the system for ‘our women’ to be safe, we are missing out on this key opportunity to foster this kind of everyday activism, at the smallest of levels. Let’s begin by building school environments that are gender equal; that can help a young person negotiate and make informed decisions about their lives and can talk freely about this journey to their peers and elders. This is truly an uphill climb. It relies not merely on taking a class once a week, or having a counsellor in the school- but more broadly and structurally on schools taking a journey of self-inquiry: asking themselves tough questions about the spaces they create for young people, the governance structures they have in place, the attitudes and practices that they foster. It requires schools and people who manage education within this system to develop a vision together, and to integrate it into the way the school functions. It will not take extra resources- in fact, all it really needs is the willingness to explore the possibilities.
In practice, this is a challenging prospect. But in my mind, we need to start somewhere. Schools need to take these active steps in ways that take into account their local contexts and realities, without viewing this as something extra that they have to ‘implement’. One of the ways to do this is by exposing students to realities that are different from their own- interactions, discussions, visits to communities and individuals who are ‘doing things a little differently’. This allows them to construct and explore different narratives that may subvert dominant stories that they are exposed to outside of school spaces. It’s from here where activists emerge- young people who feel the necessity to challenge their own realities, and are uncomfortable with accepting what they are told: about themselves, others around them and the world at large. And there are a hundred other ways. This is an exciting prospect- schools as living laboratories that have the power to shape and change gender-insensitive assumptions and behaviours that we have to come to accept as normal in our societies today.
A lot needs to change about the world. I often get overwhelmed deciding where my contribution lies, and if I’m making one at all. And then I remind myself that I am an everyday activist too – I attempt and will continue to attempt to build a narrative that is different, that is unique and that makes people think twice about their attitudes and actions towards women specifically, and to citizens in general. I want to be part of a generation that can help build multiple stories that highlight the rich, beautiful and inspiring lives of the women and girls around me, and I am optimistic about this possibility. Solidarity and action come from having shared experience on the one hand, and sharing diverse experience on the other. And in my mind, the way to begin crafting a society that encourages both of these, is at the lowest common denominator- in the microcosm of the school space, where we have an opportunity to tell stories about these everyday activists and establish a different vision of the world.
(Gopika is a Team Member of Amnesty International India’s Human Rights Education (HRE) Team that works on creating human rights friendly environments in schools. For more information on HRE, visit http://www.rights4edu.org)