‘Ugliness Is A Reason For Dowry’: What Maharashtra State Board Is Teaching Kids

Posted by Rupal Bhandari in Dowry, Education
February 3, 2017

“Ugliness is a reason for paying dowry.”

No! No! Not yet! Hold your horses of disapproval and scorn for now. There is more.

“If a girl is ugly and handicapped, then it becomes a very difficult for her to get married. To marry such girls, bridegroom and his family demand more dowry. Parents of such girls become helpless and pay dowry as per the demands of the bridegroom’s family. It leads to rise in the practice of dowry system.”

So basically if you’re “handicapped”, or “ugly”, not only are you an object of disapproval, but also the reason that practices like dowry exist in our “proud modern Indian” society. How are you allowed you to expect love and care, how are you allowed to expect that someone will want to marry you? You have to give them an incentive, girl! You have to give them the incentive to marry you. Start collecting those pink ₹2,000 notes already, because you’re never going to be pink like them. Pinkness is all that matters at the end, isn’t it? That’s what’s beautiful.

Well, as furious as this stream of thought makes me, it is what is being taught to school children, by the Maharashtra State Board. The text quoted above is from their class XII Sociology textbook.

I am not even going to let the feminist in me get started about the notions of beauty in the Indian society. We all know it is the white-skinned girl with a toned figure without a hair out of place. Everyone else, you better start coating your skin with the likes of Fair and Lovely, because that is the only way to have guys asking you out at every corner, and jobs being thrown at you when you walk down the street.

To come back to the statement we have at hand, what the Maharashtra Board textbook is doing is making a grave error in shaping the society. For starters, one doesn’t have to be a psychologist to guess how many of the girls reading this in their textbook are going to go back home, stare at themselves in a mirror for hours, and conclude that they aren’t beautiful, conclude that they aren’t deserving of love, care, and affection, conclude that they aren’t deserving of a partner.

The same girls then are going to grapple with a lifetime of neglect, and of not being able to love themselves, thus making bad romantic and sexual decisions, and a never ending loop of depression. You think I am taking this too far? You think gone are the days when things like these used to matter. You think we aren’t living in a Balaji soap opera. Let me assure you, things aren’t quite like that.

I am a 22-year-old highly-educated independent brown-skinned woman, who, for the majority of her life has struggled with body image issues. All through my teenage years, I was the butt of  jokes in my school. They called me gulab jamun (a dark coloured Indian sweet dish), because hey, I am brown skinned, and what business does a brown-skinned girl even have in the modern Indian society. I went back home to try a new fairness nuskha (home remedy) every day. Disappointed, I avoided all mirrors. I never made any friends, because I could never get out of my shell, and I never cherished any of my achievements.

Whenever a “hot” boy in class paid any attention to me, I’d let myself be treated like a doormat by him. After all, I wasn’t deserving of any better now, was I? I was brown-skinned and who would even want me around, a coffee shade covering me all over. The insides of my hands aren’t brown, the base of my feet aren’t either, my chest, and back, my thighs, none of those are brown as such. They’re wheatish, leaning more towards white than brown. But hey, the part of me that’s visible, that’s what matters right?!

So, I let boys abuse me, and treat me like doormats. I let them walk all over me, never having much self-respect to stand up to them. It didn’t matter that I was smart enough to beat all of them combined. I was the school topper in my board exams, and subsequently a university topper in my grad-years, but my smarts didn’t matter. Who wanted smart people anyway? The point was to be pretty, right?!

I had many bad relationships, and many bad flings, not because there was something wrong with the guys (not always at least) but because I could never get over my insecurities. I ended up with depression, sitting on a shrink’s couch once every week. And no, unlike what “Dear Zindagi” would have you believe, the shrink’s couch isn’t much of a revelation either.

I can still hear their laughter ringing in my ears. The hatred came more from the girls around me than from the boys. Later on, I grew to understand how interpellation had enabled them into thinking of me as competition, and thus demean me, but back then it was only helplessness and loneliness I felt. Later on, I also figured out that it wasn’t exactly their fault, they didn’t set out to be mean to me, they were only acting upon what had been fed to them, and their inability to understand further than that. Which is precisely why we, as a society, need to address what it is that we are feeding the children. Are we feeding them all our social evils?

What we are taught in a school makes for the foundation of our understanding. It not only defines who and how we are, it shapes our ability to learn, to understand, to be perceptive, introspective, and retrospective. What we are taught in school, in our early years, has a power that we don’t give credit for. This kind of teaching in a school textbook is not very different from feeding the children slow poison; it is going to harm them in many ways and they’ll spend years evaluating and dealing with it.

I am still brown-skinned. That is a lot of people’s definition of ugly. Because, hey, everyone wants chittiyan kalaiya (Punjabi for fair wrists) right? It took me a decade to believe that that it doesn’t make me undesirable, or undeserving. No one deserves to be taught otherwise, let alone in their school text book.