By Meghna Chaudhury:
Strong, fair, sword-flinging princes saving meek, beautiful princesses are prevalent in children’s literature across the world. It’s no wonder a child grows up with subconscious beliefs of what men and women can and cannot do, and what they should aspire to be and look like.
By the time they hit puberty and before their conscious minds are even fully developed, these ideas become ‘truths’ or ‘beliefs’ for them subliminally. The rest is history… but also the present state of the world.
Here enters The Irrelevant Project (TIP) with a goal to interrupt bias, prejudice, and stereotyping in spaces of everyday learning. Started by my friend Alishya Almeida and I, the project strives to do justice by its very name: Make gender, colour, caste and other fixed definitions of identities simply irrelevant.
Between the both of us, we realised the importance of feminism, inclusivity, and diversity awareness/sensitization in this world. We started TIP in August 2016, starting with a workshop in a government school. Soon, we realised that stories were a powerful tool to influence mindsets, which is when we shifted trajectories and decided to enter the world of children’s fiction. Constant research, discussion with peers, and analysis of the Indian children literature diaspora led us to selecting five themes. We then sought the help of like minded people—champions and believers of an egalitarian society—and undertook the ambitious task of writing, illustrating, and printing these five stories. On January 13, 2018, we finally launched our books and the response to it has been positive and constructive so far.
Bibloo the precocious child who hates his uncle pinching his cheeks, finds a way to stop him from doing so. We wrote this from the point of view of a child, and the theme of the book tries to explore the grey-er areas of touch. The fact that a child is taught that an adult is unequivocally right adds to the confusion in identifying adults who cross personal boundaries. This is why most sexual abusers are people known to the child.
Anvesha, the curious kid loves asking questions like, “Why can we not wear short skirts in the temple?” We attempted this colorful book from the eyes of a curious child who notices status quo and rules in the society.
Two twins from Coimbatore dream of careers that are diametrically ‘opposite’ to their gender. A recent email to us mentioned how the reader really loved the character descriptions of Nila, the rational one, and Najam, the ‘soft’ one, a trait hardly associated with the typical male self.
The story is about a plump Mohit who realizes that fat is not a bad word and learns his body size has nothing to do with his talents. We’ve met countless children who feel pressured to look a certain way and the constant media reinforcements do not help! This book tries to offer solace and confidence to a child whose body does not fit the ‘ideal’.
Here we have Annie and Arjun, siblings who are perplexed with the chores assigned at home to them. This book deals with the concept that parents, albeit unintentionally, might cater to gender roles and expect gendered behavior from children.
The stories, albeit simple, are highly nuanced when read with a trained eye. For example, we wanted the stories to be less moralistic and more adventurous, we wanted child protagonists because we wanted children to know that they, themselves, were enough. Our illustrations have also been carefully thought through—we have brown skinned characters, characters with hair on their bodies, non-petite children and much more.
We do not consider ourselves to be publishers or a bookstore. It is only that our first offering is fiction. We now are actively creating worksheets of our books so that children can continue to interact with our characters and also share research on our Instagram page for people to apply these findings directly in their life.
Currently, our vision lies in two directions:
First, expanding the boundaries of our current work. As mentioned, we intend to be more than just a bookstore. We are creating worksheets, materials, and activities surrounding the themes of prejudice. We review research that is currently being conducted to reduce prejudice in early childhood, interpret them, and, finally, share them in easily comprehensible ways. We want to allow a free flow of information from the research world into the real world because we notice that some findings and activities as as powerful as they are simple to do. Some are already available on our Instagram account and we are currently in the process of setting up our blog to continue the conversation.
The second thing we want to do is explore partnerships. We want to collaborate with like-minded educators to explore a co-learning experience with us. This can mean someone wanting to use our books as pedagogical material, someone who wants to convert this into arts, crafts, and drama activities.
There can be other visions or projects that we take up in future but one thing that will remain constant is TIP’s aim of disrupting gender prejudices by making them “irrelevant”.