India is a country of oxymorons. The ICSE board prides itself on teaching Shakespearan literature and classic Hindi plays to almost 2.2 lakh students every year and rising. When one peels off this veil of deception, one sees an attempt to define femininity on behalf of women. Bade Ghar Ki Beti by Premchand is a part of the grade 10 ICSE Hindi curriculum that makes such an attempt and is a lesson that I particularly despise.
The story follows Anandi, the daughter of a rich landlord who is wedded into a simple rural Indian family. Anandi is the poster female for femininity and is decorated as the accommodating bahu. As the story proceeds, Anandi gets into a feud over butter with her brother-in-law. Maddened by hunger, he throws a wooden shoe at Anandi, causing a bloody gash on her arm. Anandi’s character is put on a metaphorical pedestal of pativratta dharma and waits for her husband to stand up for her. We also see a textbook example of self-victimisation by her brother-in-law. Finally, disregarding any repercussions on the victim, Premchand pens a heartfelt end where Anandi reunites the brothers by sacrificing her safety and jumping into the deep dark well of coercion and victimisation disguised as the free will of the victim.
Reinforcing toxic ideas of femininity
This lesson demonstrates just some of the sanskaars that ICSE tries to instil in impressionable girls, other values being motherhood redeems women, etc. These stories make me want to regurgitate. Is this what the ICSE chooses to teach its female students? Do we need to teach girls that selflessness is synonymous with femininity and their only chance at a fulfilled life? Are we teaching girls to endure violent marriages?
Students often hear from teachers that each lesson teaches us an undying moral. It is sad to see that the only moral that girls are taught is not to define femininity on their terms but to adhere to what reflects best in society. Most women in these stories define femininity as the capability of a woman to serve a man. As a student, these lessons have made me value my worth from a male gaze, making me believe that my femininity is a disability. ICSE has reduced to a toxic learning experience that is bent on streamlining women’s minds and in turn killing growth in social and literal spheres. It is doing a fabulous job at eliminating the one catalyst for growth that should be given to girls — choice.
We have to understand that diverse representation of women is lacking in the ICSE curriculum even without introducing girls to the stringent Indian definition of femininity. If ICSE wants to argue that they are not restricting femininity to such characters, I want to argue that it does not serve to teach us any other means of exploring femininity either. The average age of teachers in Indian schools is 42.5 years, raising the probability of girls being subjected to a prejudiced and patriarchal perspective of femininity. As a student in Mumbai, I was surprised to hear my teacher say that “gender inequality was a problem of the past” and I shudder to think what the girls in rural India have to hear from their teachers.
The WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 suggests that gender equality will take 135.6 years to achieve, however, it will not begin if we don’t start teaching girls that they can be successful without needing to be well mannered or beautiful as per society. No landmark legislation will bring about any change if we do not start showing girls that femininity, in all its forms, is a symbol of strength. We are doing nothing but cutting oxygen for the growth of women at the grass-root level by teaching femininity in schools rather than encouraging its exploration.
Dear ICSE, let us not create more problems than there are. Please let me define femininity myself, regardless of whether I am cis, trans, straight, queer, intersex, an abuse survivor, specially-abled, neuroatypical, rich, poor, Muslim or Catholic, or even the child of a sex worker or divorcee. Let us teach the world how to acknowledge women rather than teach us how to cater to the world. I want to grow to be more than just a mother, daughter, wife or student. It is time to set girls free.
The author is a student at Vibgyor High School (Malad East) in Mumbai. Views are personal.