Nimesh Ved, Arti Pandey and Anshumalika Rai
Our journey began with a few conversations on the need to bring gender and sexuality on the discussion table in our school. Located in a peri-urban setting in north India, our Hindi medium school caters to lower income group families.
During the initial days we agreed on certain basics:
• It may not be easy to sell the concept to colleagues – yet it is crucial to get them on board.
• Given that none of us had swum in the proverbial waters – we would not only need to get more familiar with the subject but also converse frequently amidst ourselves.
• Sporadic visits by experts would not help – we would need to take the plunge ourselves.
• We were taking a gamble – the chances of failure were not low.
During the initial days, we realized that the three of us need to give our time, move beyond our comfort zones, and cross a few barriers. This – for example – included using select terms (sex, masturbation, etc.), which we seldom used even with those close to us. Also, figuring out where and how to begin also consumed a lot of time!
However, as conversations flowed, our body languages altered and slowly a lot else, fell into place.
During COVID there were stretches when children were away from school while colleagues attended the school regularly. This allowed us to engage with them at length.
During the initial days, reactions from a few colleagues were in the nature of: Why are we doing this? All is fine with us. After a few sessions we also realized it was not a great idea to over-stress on male-bashing and menstrual-health. The approach could be more positive and nuanced.
We changed gears and dove-tailed the topic with the activities in the school. Book readings and discussions were encouraged on the topic, as were poems and film songs. Menstrupedia Comics and A S Neil’s Summerhill warrant a special mention – especially the latter with its shock value. Group work focussed on activities that are usually within the female domain: including stitching and making tea. We also deliberated on issues like awkwardness, harassment, touch, equality, and abuse. At this stage, the reactions broadly were in the realm of: These issues do exist but with neighbours and distant family – they are distant. Conversations had begun to flow beyond the structured sessions into tea-time talks and sub-groups.
Next, the sessions had colleagues discuss laws and recent news on the topic. A judgment that was then creating waves in the media was also taken up. However, what clicked was film screenings followed by discussions. An eclectic range – from English Vinglish to Mirch Masala – that included short films. Discussions post the screenings revealed that not only did we see different aspects in the same movie, but we had also begun to talk on issues that we would previously have not touched with a barge pole. A couple of colleagues who remained silent during the previous sessions also opened up. The depth of some of the points raised during the discussions surprised us. We had now moved into deeper waters.
Slowly personal experiences came up as did caste and religion.
After the children returned, post-COVID, we took the initiative to them. During the initial days, linking gender and sexuality with ongoing activities was the fulcrum. Within a short period, we moved to planning activities where these were subtly inbuilt – especially in the domains of books (reading, discussing), home-science (cooking, stitching), and of course school-trips.
We had been concerned about how children would react and as a result had gone slow. Time told us that we had been unduly worried and like it happens many a time – the children surprised us. Their acceptance was almost unconditional despite some of their day-to-day practices being questioned. Also, more than a year of engagement with colleagues had us better placed in terms of not only the what and the how but also our confidence levels. The children too – probably – read this.
We slowly moved towards having sessions on the topic with children. The initial session had us listen to a couple of film songs. We selected a few terms from the songs to begin with; after a few minutes the conversations flowed smoothly. Of course, towards the end they insisted that we end with another song.
Engaging with children has been fun.
Today, those initial conversations that the three of us had appear serendipitous. The mutual trust which enabled us to take them up has since evolved into a healthy friendship and we are glad about how the journey has so far shaped up – be it amidst us, with colleagues or with children.
However, as we shift gears and other societal inequities and dilemmas make way into the conversations, we realize that these conversations are not just about gender and sexuality but about the society all of us share. About a society that is changing at a rate that is faster than what many of us are comfortable with. Labelling or boxing these conversations may not help.
We have only begun.
The authors enjoy being amidst children, books and music. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.