During our travels in India we spent time in Uttar Pradesh (UP) the most populated state in the country, and Uttarakhand located in Northern India. After our homesteads in Dehradun we traveled to Rishikesh, a city up in the foothills of the Himalayas, and the birth place of yoga. In Rishikesh we saw the ashram the Beatles spent a year and a half at in 1968, dipped our toes in the Ganga, the largest and most holy river in India, and learned about spiritualism at a traditional Hindu aarti. Following Rishikesh we took a 12 hour overnight train to Lucknow, where we finally got our first real glimpse into the gender equality issues faced by young girls and women across the country.
Arriving in Lucknow at 10:00 AM most felt grumpy and groggy after enduring a long and bumpy journey, that in typical Indian fashion, was two hours off schedule. After a quick breakfast, dropping our bags at our hotel and wishing we had time for a nap, we got on the bus and headed to the Study Hall School. I was not prepared for the impact this visit would have on me as we stepped into the school yard. As we walked to our meeting room I saw many faces peeping out to catch a look at the strange group of visitors in their school, most were friendly and waving, and a few had shy smiles. We were led into a large room given a delicious lunch and tea and began to learn all about the Study Hall Educational Foundation (SHEF) from our coordinator Anand.
SHEF is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1994 by Urvashi Sahni, with the mission of providing a quality education and building a “universe of care” to empower students, particularly girls, and help them emerge as women with a perception of themselves as equal and capable individuals. SHEF is comprised of several schools including the Study Hall School, Prerna Girls School, Prerna Boys School, Vidyasthali School, and most recently the Study Hall College. In addition to these schools SHEF works with over 900 schools in Northern India through their Digital Study Hall program, and reaches 5,00,000 children living across the country through the use of teacher training and video lessons. SHEF tackles the most difficult problems facing UP today by integrating developing a social and political consciousness into their curriculum.
SHEF operates by using the revenue from the fee-paying students who attend the highly regarded Study Hall School in the morning, to provide free schooling to the Prerna girls and boys in the afternoon. The Prerna schools are for students coming from low socio-economic backgrounds, most of whom work in the mornings and thus are able to attend school in the afternoons. Currently the Prerna schools host 800 and 165 girls and boys respectively. The Prerna Girls School enables girls to take a feminist stance in their lives by integrating Dr. Sahni’s feminist pedagogy into their daily studies.
During our visit we were able to stop into a Prerna girls’ classroom age 16-18, where they were in the middle of a “critical dialogue” where the girls engage in discussion on topics such as equality, gender, health, etc. That day the girls were talking about what a “good” Indian girl looks like, acts like, etc. They asked us questions about what we thought a “good” American girl was like and they were surprised to find that we both face some of the same gender stereotypes. The girls were very curious what other kinds of issues we face in the U.S. including marriage, harassment, and rape. I was completely blown away by the girls’ maturity, confidence, and passion on these topics.
My admiration for the Prerna Girls and their determination to use their voice only grew when we came back to Study Hall the next day and met with students from Prerna, Study Hall, and Vidyasthali-a rural school outside of Lucknow all in one room. Four Prerna girls preformed a beautiful poem and dance in Hindi and English about girls never really having a place to call home as they are forced out of their homes as girls to be married off to another family. (see below) That day we interacted with all of the students and broke out into groups to have conversations and perform skits for everyone on the topic of equality. Each group had a creative twist on the assignment and addressed issues like gender, economic, and racial inequality.
I was shocked by the Prena girls’ openness to speak on their experiences and humbled by their courage in facing danger when getting to school or even using the toilet at home. Hearing these girls stand up and speak about their fight to avoid forced child marriage at just 15 put my life and my privilege into perspective. I left Study Hall School with not only a new point of view, but also with admiration for the resiliency and hope the students displayed.
In Search of a Home
Written by Prerna and Vidyasthali high school students
From birth to the day we die
We wander this earth in fright
Yet we find no home in sight.
My first world was a pitch black veil
Where I was overcome by a mysterious fear.
But I took comfort in my mother, in her warmth.
Cozy in her womb, my home was here.
As I left this haven, light flooded my eyes
I awaited my new home with utter delight
But I was left with just one thought
Is this new home what I once sought?
From mother’s embrace to father’s I pass
As she says “We are blessed by the gods.”
But as I looked into the faces of others
An unsettling gloom was quickly uncovered.
It wasn’t just a home, but also my playground
Every wall a mural, every rag was a crown.
The outside world called to me,
But inside I remained.
“Outside is not safe for girls,”
I was told everyday.
I am not truly theirs to keep,
So they must keep me safe.
But not to worry, they said,
That I’ll find me my home one day.
My illusions were shattered
and in corners I would weep
As my drunk father ravaged Mother
And threatened her with the street!
And in these moments I wondered,
“How dare he claim this house his own?
When really it is Mother
Who makes this house our home.”
The years went by, I turned sixteen.
Able, now, to understand my plight.
What I once thought was my house to roam
I then knew would never be my home..
Lovely it was, my wedding gown
Ceremonious vanity unmatched
A new journey began, as I bid farewell
And to a new home, unknown, I marched
In corners I heard them whispering
“She has finally found her home”
While my father pled, “Be brave!
“Your next journey shall be ‘til the grave.”
I knew he meant that he’d cut our ties.
What I once thought was home, isn’t mine.
He wanted me to brave the sins
Just as my mother stayed silent for him
I no longer knew which was my home.
Where I grew up? where I was thrown?
I wondered, where was my mother’s home?
I knew deep down that she had none.
As I entered this seemingly welcoming house,
A golden cage that wasn’t golden in the end,
I had the chains back on again
My whole being choked, but not a word I said
I was to them a homemaker
With two homes but none
The homes were made
But my life left undone
On God’s good earth, each has their home.
How can it be, that I have none?
In the end I am left, ripped at the seam.
The world has pushed me too far to dream
But, my dream, a home, I shall claim
Where I am at peace and finally safe
A place to finally call my own.
My final destination, my home.