Delhi: Going on stage at school and acting out scenes from your home life can uncover hidden truths. The stage at Prerna School for Girls in Lucknow is the place where the performers – girls from poor families in the surrounding slums – suddenly realise they are unequal.
As they recreate and enact family routines, the scenes show how, in the mornings, their brothers are allowed to sleep late, are given milk and, if any are available, eggs for breakfast while they get leftovers. After school, the boys play with friends or watch TV while they cook, clean, wash, and fetch water.
‘We get them to ask questions they have never asked. Is it fair that you do more household chores than a boy? Why is your homework not as important as his? Why does he get more food than you – does he need more nutrition?” says Urvashi Sahni, founder and director of the school.
Feminist principles are conveyed through drama, music, and videos to make the girls aware of how Indian society functions and their status in it. Their eyes are opened to the daily discrimination they face.
“Once we have made them aware, we ask them if they ever protest about the unfairness to their parents. Once they start to resist in small ways, they resist in big ways,” says Sahni.
The school was set up in 2003 with 80 students from kindergarten to Class 12. Now there are almost 900 young girls, mostly from very difficult backgrounds, who pay just 100 rupees per month. The fathers are often alcoholics and sometimes on their second or third wife. The mothers work as maids. The girls too often work as domestic helps in the mornings which is why the school operates from 2 pm to 5.30.
Ignorant fathers, backed up by stepmothers who want the girls to help in the house, are reluctant to let them go to school. When they hear that girls are being kept at home, Prerna teachers often intervene by visiting the house and persuading the parents to let the girl attend.
Most women in India have so profoundly internalised their second class status that they are not even aware of it. When asked why they are denied opportunities, the answer is a shrug and ‘this is how things are’.
The school’s feminist pedagogy aims to undo this internalisation. “Every effort in every class is to build a perception of being equal,” says Sahni.
Apart from the special sessions on society and patriarchy, a feminist perspective pervades every classroom. In a maths class, for example, the teacher will use examples that show women working outside the home or making their own decisions.
If it’s a history class, the teacher will take a historical figure such as the 19th century Queen of Jhansi, a symbol of resistance to British rule, and ask the girls: What are you resisting? What weapons did the Queen of Jhansi use and what weapons are you using to fight discrimination?
Even the way the girls carry themselves has to be tackled. “Girls are told to look down to avoid eye contact, speak softly, be quiet and passive. We tell them to speak out, to laugh loudly, be confident and to speak up for themselves,” says Sahni.
All these small daily acts of questioning what happens at home and of changing their bearing add up to a different consciousness – and a different life. Moni Kannaujia, 22, was in Class 10 when her father said it was time to get her married. Her teachers visited her home many times and, with great difficulty, persuaded him to let her continue her education.
Kannaujia is now doing a journalism degree at Lucknow University. “If it weren’t for the school, I’d be married with two kids. That’s what has happened to all the girls in my family,” she says.
Though a University of California, Berkeley Ph.D graduate, Sahni says that her own realisation of the inequality in her own life came late, in her late twenties. Though from a middle class family, she was married at 18 – no questions asked. When she gave birth to her second daughter, the family’s response was cold.
Then, in 1982, a cousin who was married with a toddler “set herself on fire” and died. That was the official version but Sahni has never bought it. She feels that something else happened and it was covered up by the suicide theory. “That was when I began to explore feminism,” she says.
One of her pupils is Jyoti Pal, 17, who is in Class 12. Pal’s mother is a maid and her father works as a gardener. She says the school has changed her and she has changed her parents. “My father didn’t want me to come at first but now he says that since I and my sister are doing so well at school, sons are no longer so important,” she says.
Although some parents resist the idea of sending their daughters to Prerna, it’s intriguing that the level of resistance is not higher than it is. After all, this is the education that can transform their daughters from obedient to rebellious.
Sahni has a theory about this. She thinks that most uneducated parents think of education as memorising textbooks, sitting exams and getting certificates. “They have no idea it can be subversive. By the time they do, it’s too late!”
The state government of Uttar Pradesh (Lucknow is the capital) has been so impressed that four years ago, it asked Prerna to train its schools not just to teach, but to act as advocates for girls’ rights. Out of the initial 746 schools, Prerna has trained 346 so far.
Sahni is currently working on a policy brief to present to the government which will offer training to all 243,000 schools in the state.