On 13 March, a school in Kallakurichi of Tamil Nadu witnessed an unusual event, visuals of which have now gone viral – girl students of eight schools discarded their dupattas from atop a three-storied building to greet a woman author, Geeta Ilangovan.
Why? Speaking to The Quint, Ilangovan, a 51-year-old Tamil author, said, “They grasped the essence of my work and told me, ‘We don’t like wearing dupattas but are forced to’.” As many as 167 students of Tribal Welfare Schools of Kalvarayan Malai in TN had assembled at the Kallakurichi private school for a camp on eradication of child marriages and Ilangovan was to have an interaction with them when the scarves were flung off the school building.
The author whose 30 essays on feminism were compiled into an anthology titled ‘Dupatta Podunga Thozhi,’ (Wear Dupatta, Girlfriend!) was surprised to see scarves of different hues being flung down from the building as the students mouthed a collective greeting – ‘Hi’. The gesture harboured both cultural and gender connotations, Ilangovan said.
In Tamil Nadu, since 2020, feminists have been circulating memes ridiculing those who force women to wear their dupattas as a safeguard against sexual assault.
“The first essay in my book is about body politics and why girls are asked to wear dupatta, as they hit puberty, to cover their developing breasts,” Ilangovan said. The girls at the camp were inspired by the essay which questioned patriarchal control over women’s bodies and clothing. “They found it fit to greet me with this liberating act of discarding their dupattas. Throughout the day they did not wear the scarves back on,” Ilangovan beamed.
But was this a planned event prompted by adults?
When 13-Year-Olds Grasp Feminism
The camp was organised by Aware India, an NGO which has been conducting gender workshops for Tribal students of Kalvarayan Malai for the past six months. Ilangovan was invited to the camp a day after her friend and fellow feminist Nivedita Louis interacted with the students. “I learnt later that Nivedita had discussed my essays with the students and suggested in jest that they could even throw away their dupattas to welcome me the next day. But no one expected them to do it,” Ilangovan said. Her essays were first published by Her Stories, a website run by Louis and JM Vallidasan.
The teachers of the Tribal schools silently supported what transpired, the author vouched. But what caught Ilangovan’s attention was the deep understanding the students had about gender norms. In an interaction which followed the dupatta act, the students spoke to her about love and break-ups.
“Alluding to my essay on romantic license, they said women can have all the love they want and end as many relationships as they want. Here, 13-year-olds were discussing the basics of women’s autonomy. I was thrilled to listen to them as they had understood the concepts very well,” Geeta Ilangovan said.
At the camp the girls were exposed to the author’s essays that explain, in lucid language, why women should have physical, mental, and economic autonomy. The anthology questions familial pressure on women to marry and give up economic autonomy. The essays deal with varied modes of sexism which demand that women “surrender their ATM cards and IT return forms to their husbands.”
Ilangovan’s essays ask why women, who are also bound by the caste system, are confined to their families and why they are not allowed to choose not to bear children. “I asked the girls what troubles women the most and they said, ‘the womb’ referring to societal norms that force women to procreate even if they don’t want to be mothers,” Ilangovan proudly remembered.
But why should young women be taken through feminist tropes when they attend a school camp on eradication of child marriage?
Life Beyond Marriage
Ilangovan thinks young women should be encouraged to understand notions of feminism so that they themselves learn to resist underage marriage. “It’s not enough to ask them not to marry before turning 18 years of age. That’s not how it works. We need to tell them what they can do with their lives,” she explained.
The camp encouraged girls to pursue education and employment goals even as the adults who interacted with them acknowledged that they have had tough lives.
Most students at the camp hailed from families of migrant labourers and were often forced to discontinue their education as the families moved from one state to another in search of jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic too had contributed to many girls dropping out of schools. “We tried to inspire them to have lofty ambitions and achievable goals,” Ilangovan said. Apart from her writing, the girls relished Nivedita Louis’ book on women who pioneered their fields.
As the camp ended on 14 March, the students were left with a stack of books they wanted to read and a volley of ideas they wanted to discuss with their friends and family.