It was summer, in 2001. I was in Grade 9. Our history teacher had just told us that she wanted each of us to write a report of 1000 words, on one important leader in history. She had a list ready – having chosen one leader for each student. I waited patiently for my turn – in alphabetic order, I was number 16. Until my turn, everyone was given a male leader: Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Pandit Nehru, President Tito, Nelson Mandela… you name it. It was my turn, and my teacher announced the leader I would write on.
Dag Hammarskjold, a former Secretary General of the United Nations. I wrote it down, feeling mildly dejected for a reason I couldn’t put a finger on.
She reached the end of the list of 39 students. I paid rapt attention to the names allotted after my turn. Of the lot, there were only three women: Indira Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu.
By the end of the class, my mood had plummeted and I finally knew why. Where were the women? Why were 37 out of the 39 allotted leaders meant for students to learn about, only men?
When class ended and the teacher left, I ran outside to speak with her. I’ll never forget this conversation, and you’ll know why in just a bit.
“Ma’am, can I have another leader to base my report on, please?”
“Why? You have a pretty interesting one. I know you’re interested in a career in the United Nations, this should be good!”
“That’s really thoughtful, ma’am, but I want to write about a woman.”
“A woman? Who? I already allotted the two that are prominent.”
“I don’t know, yet, Ma’am. I need to find a name. Will you give me a day? I’ll be back with a name tomorrow. I promise.”
She thought for a moment, perhaps wondering if this would spark a precedent where other students might ask for a change in the leader they were allotted. Finally, she said, “Alright. Tomorrow, first thing in the morning, you give me a name. When you’re searching for a name, make sure that you can access information to base your report on. I don’t want you coming to me later, saying you couldn’t find information and then ask for another change. Okay?”
I nodded, eagerly. In my mind, I had shrugged her words off – I mean, how difficult would it be to find information once I rounded in on a leader’s name?
Now here’s what my thirteen-year-old mind did not grasp: if I couldn’t come up with a name for a woman leader on the spot, there had to be a reason – it couldn’t be me, because I was a vociferous reader and ate books for a living. That evening, when I went home, I scoured my history text, a bunch of texts from my school library, and a few encyclopaediae there that I could get my hands on. This was 2001, when dial up internet was an expensive prospect and was reserved only for a few occasions, so I couldn’t “Google” it. I found scores of men listed in them: benevolent leaders, smart leaders, cruel leaders, downright naïve leaders, leaders with myopic senses of policy-making, leaders by chance, leaders by choice, leaders by circumstance. Sarojini Naidu was relegated to being the “Nightingale of India” in most of the books – for her lyrical poetry – but there wasn’t any mention of her work as a suffragette, as a social reformer and as a politician. Indira Gandhi was a line in most texts, telling us that she was India’s first woman Prime Minister. A lone name that stood out apart from these two women, was Margaret Thatcher.
I was astounded by the invisibility of women in the books I came across, and it scared me. I wasn’t willing to give up on my dream of writing about a woman, and I had to fight this silence. Finally, I went back to my teacher the next morning, and offered up Margaret Thatcher. She smiled at me, and told me to go ahead. When I submitted my report, she told me that I had made her think.
Well, I had made me think, too.
Back in the time, history was written by the male hand, and so women seldom found mention. Today, the oppression of expression and the imposition on a woman’s freedom of speech has merely found another outlet: the internet and digital media. Of course, you do have plenty of forums where women can find a space to express their thoughts and speak out – but what if there is a threat to their safety, if censorship is imposed, or if the exposure of their identity will turn into a dangerous prospect for their families and themselves? Whether it is women’s voices being shut down for political dissent like Zainab Al Khawaja in Bahrain, or terrorists shooting Malala for blogging about her life while daring to get an education; whether it was poet Kutty Revathi being riled for writing a book of poetry called Breasts, or Tamil Actress Khusboo Sundar being mistreated for her views on premarital sex, or it was Rupi Kaur’s instagram account being shut down for a photo essay on menstruation, women’s voices have been at the receiving end of antagonism.
This simply has to stop. Because it’s time the world realizes that HerStories matter.
There are so many women, so many voices since the dawn of time that are invaluable. Did you know that the American Red Cross was founded by a woman, Clara Barton? Here’s the irony. She was removed by a board she helped create after raising $4000 (IN THE 19th CENTURY!) for the Red Cross – on the ground that she was a woman. Did you know that King Charles remained in power because of Joan of Arc? And he didn’t support her or protect her when she was tried and burned at the stake. How about Rosa Parks, whose act of defiance led to the dismantling of racial segregation? How about Manal al-Sharif who spoke out and made sure that Saudi women can drive today?
As a result of ignoring and downplaying the contribution of women in history, there has been a constantdevaluation of women and their role in society. Their contributions in shaping history and in creating change at each turn cannot be ignored - and doing so only keepsgender inequality alive. Constant gendered oppression stems from patriarchal thinking and beliefs thatreinforce male dominance. When there is an outright act of ignoring the contribution of women, there is an unspoken message of invalidation of young girls and women. When we offer a male-centric history, we convey to women and girls that no matter what they may do, what change they may inspire and what action they may take, their narratives will be erased from history.
Education is invaluable, and schools are the first springboard to awareness. Beyond emphasizing upon scoring a given set of marks, there is a desperate need to create citizens who can build a world of empathy. Violence has been normalised at different levels today, and it is a dangerous spiral we are headed towards as a global community.In any attempt to change the narrative, it is important to restore the balance in the information we offer that makes the narrative what it is.
With all of this in mind, I am working on two projects through The Red Elephant Foundation. One is an instagram account called Femcyclopaedia, where I curate doodled portraits of women from history, with a short note about their work. The other, is this petition, where my team and I request for a reworking of history textbooks, by incorporating women’s stories and achievements in the rhetoric.
For each day that exists between today and the day women’s voices are valued, here’s a truth: We will not be silenced.
How to Get Involved
Follow Femcyclopaedia on Instagram: www.instagram.com/Femcyclopaedia
Sign my petition: https://www.change.org/p/ministry-of-education-india-reclaim-history