Blinded by Belief

Education, just like food, clothing and shelter constituted a part of my basic necessities for survival. Stranded in this mundane cycle of classes and text books since a very young age, I never questioned if, years of schooling taught me to have a mind of my own or simply subscribe to a majoritarian view. I felt the need to pen this down, because the incident that birthed this article made me ponder over the role of education in building a free society. Is education, in essence just an indoctrination of ideas with its beneficiaries being only those who abide by social norms? Does an individual’s sexual identity or orientation have anything to do with his/her right to receive formal education? Oh, and although we claim to be an educated lot that despises stereotypes, deep down do we still think pink is ‘so gay’?

I admit until recently I did, and I’m not one bit proud of it.

I volunteer as a teacher at Sangama, an NGO that works for the rights of sexual minorities and sex workers. I teach a group of perfectly normal human beings (and just to clarify a couple of doubts, no I’m not even remotely scared of any of them) who also happen to be some of the nicest people I’ve worked with. I love my students and absolutely cherish the two hours I spend with them every day.

One uneventful Friday evening as I sat in the auto rickshaw with Nisha, a quick-witted and delightfully insightful 35 year old, who identifies as a trans woman and is also one of my brightest students, I wasn’t quite aware that, what I’d hear for the next 10 minutes, would leave me thoroughly distraught and disgusted with myself. Until then I was blissfully unaware of how the stereotypes that I had built with society – be it, kitchen for girls and fields for boys, or pink for girls and blue for boys etc. – would play out in the life of Nisha.

Nisha recalled how as a 10 year old, her concerned teachers complained to her mother that she would often hangout with girls or sit silently when most boys her age were out playing cricket. She said “My teachers would often ridicule me. They would ask me to act more like a man. They would say you ought to play cricket, boys don’t work in the kitchen. Leave that department to the women.” At 13, she started developing feelings for senior boys in school. She said, “I felt like I was the only boy in the world who had feminine inclinations, I had no one to confide in and through all this I was still bullied by my teachers”. One doesn’t need to be an expert to understand that when a 13 year old (or anybody for that matter) is facing an identity crisis, he/she is at his/her lowest, with insecurity clouding the individual’s mind. How much deeper could we possibly push someone, who has already hit rock bottom!

At 17, Nisha was sexually abused by a senior in college and when she reported this to her principal, she was in for a rude shock. Her principal, just like the rest of the faculty blamed her for the abuse. He accused her for acting ‘like a girl’ and told her that if only she behaved like a man, none of this would have happened. So with all the sexual abuse and mounting pressure to act more like a man, Nisha was forced to drop out of college in the 11th grade. “How I wish I could continue with my education, but for people like me it is very difficult. Just as much as I wanted to see myself graduate, I simply couldn’t stand the torture.”

No matter how far we claim to have progressed, it is a pity that we have to identify ourselves as either male or female, to exercise the right to education. And even if we are blessed with the gift of education, we’re at the mercy of bullies in schools or at work, if we don’t conform to the stereotypes of our gender roles. Sadly, Nisha had to face the ‘righteous’ rage of a patronizing and conventional education system.

Agreed, stereotypes and patterns have emerged over ages, and old ‘patterns’ die hard. But isn’t that what education is for – to break free from the shackles of these age old patterns, question beliefs, to enkindle curiosity and critical thinking, to accept and empathize with each other despite a plethora of differences. As Mahatma Gandhi rightly pointed out, “mere literacy is not the end of education or even the beginning.”

My drama instructor, Mr. Ranji David persuades us to stay away from stereotypes, templates and patterns. Patterns, he believes limit freedom – freedom to express, to analyze, to be different. Initially, I never quite understood what Ranji meant by it. But the more I observed, the more I saw! We assign rules to most things under the Sun – ‘Aren’t you too old for it?’ or ‘You’re a woman. Act like one.’ or ‘You’re the man of the house. But your wife’s earning more than you.’

As I see it, these very stereotypes we built, forced Nisha out of college. I understand that many of us don’t know what it feels like to be a woman trapped inside a man’s body or vice versa. But I also believe that we have no right to play God. Let’s not wait for more Nishas to put things in perspective. It is hard to accept the incomprehensible and embrace differences and even harder to love without condition. So I feel the urge to leave you with my best friend’s WhatsApp status – In a time of hate, love is an act of resistance.

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