The PeaceWorks Human Rights Defenders Programme at Chowringhee High School : Days 9, 10

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For the session on 29th January, Samya and I decided to stir up our usual routine. Instead of talking about a particular incident of genocide, we chose to discuss ‘power’ and the many ways in which it functions in society, with the students. Our objective was to work towards sensitizing them to the larger structures at play in society so that they would be able to view with criticality how these structures are leveraged during acts of mass-scale violence and genocides, and better grasp why the people who hold the least power in these frameworks  suffer the most, bearing the worst of the repercussions.

ccccWe opened the discussion with certain terms the students have heard over the past few months—from newspapers, textbooks and even our classes—terms such as gender, class, caste, capitalism, state, family and religion. What was their perception of these terms? We asked them to think about this, encouraging them to note down keywords that came to mind as associations with these terms in their notebooks. Once they were ready, we took up each term, asking them to explain what they thought it meant. What followed was a discussion that continued over two consecutive classes.

ccccThis discussion covered wide ground. Since gender was the term the students were most familiar with, we began there, talking about gender roles within the family, including differential treatment of male and female siblings and the unpaid labour performed by mothers in all of their families. Many of them admitted that they had never asked their mothers about their aspirations when they were young, those who had, reported that their mothers had either brushed off the question or said that all they had known when they were young was that they would have to marry. The conversation moved on to gendered expectations related to clothing, career choices and personal freedoms. Many of the girls disclosed that while their brothers are allowed to stay out late, they have to maintain a strict curfew. Similarly, they are expected to help out with household chores, but their brothers are not. One of the male students also talked about being bullied for being friends with girls and facing taunts for becoming ‘girly’. We hoped that this reflection on gender and its intrinsic ways of affecting our lives would help begin the process of recognizing gender as a construct.

ccccDiscussing perceptions of gender easily lent itself to the larger topic of understanding society in terms of its structures and power dynamics. Capitalist societies and the consumerist lifestyles they breed, who stands to profit most in such a set up, the schooling system as part of the State’s ‘softer’ means of governance, instilling us with monolithic ideas about ‘success’ and ‘the good life’, Aadhar cards as surveillance and regulatory measures, caste and class divides as societal frameworks that help further oppression— some of them pointed out religion as another form of division used to segregate people and incite hate. The directions these exchanges took were not quite predictable, propelled as they were by the students’ responses, observations and questions. ‘Who do you think has the most power in a society?’—The unanimous claim was ‘men’. Who are these men, how old are they, how rich/poor are they, what religion do they practice, what is their caste identity— we encouraged them to further question their own responses.

ccccIn these two classes we attempted to push the students to ask questions about the systems and structures that society teaches us to accept as a given, as the only ‘reality’. We hoped to draw their attention to the very weave of these systems and the discriminations within, which evolve into/ take on the form of human rights violations, the dehumanization of marginalized groups and the genocides we go on to read as historical events in our text books.