A teacher walked in specifically looking for a girl with long hair. The girl, or more importantly, the girl’s hair, would be representing one of the four rivers in India for our Republic Day celebrations. Vani had almost immediately raised her hand. Vani with her long, silky straight hair and milky white skin.
Surprisingly, the teacher ignored Vani. Instead, her eyes chanced upon Mary, also a very fair girl with slightly below shoulder-length hair. But Mary was uncomfortable showing off her hair and politely declined the offer. It didn’t take a genius to figure out why Vani was being ignored and why Mary got more attention even though her hair wasn’t long enough. But as if to avoid any doubt, the teacher herself loudly proclaimed, “I am looking for some fair and trim girls.”
Vani was so fair, that her cheeks and her nose immediately blushed several shades of red and tears streamed down her face. Vani, the sweet, happy girl we all knew was crying because she knew she wasn’t the ‘ideal’ body type. Mary, on the other hand, was tall and thin.
I studied in a school in Dubai that prided itself on its virgin imports of Indian culture and values. In fact, every 26th of January, this school occupies a good chunk of a page in the Gulf News (a famous daily in Dubai) along with ‘India Pride’ headlines. When had this Indian culture reinforced a specific skin colour, along with specific ideals of weight?
The next person she identified was me. And she announced once more, “You’re quite tall and trim! And you have long hair also! Why don’t you take part?” Long hair had transformed into an afterthought. There was a bigger, more important criteria to fit into. I’m unsure of what triggered me- was it Vani’s crying? Was it just knowing that this was wrong? Was it patriotism, where I knew my country is host to women much more than ‘ideal’ looks? I don’t know. But I quickly got up to say, “I refuse to participate in an event where such discrimination occurs on the basis of colour and size.”
By doing this, I had subscribed to an earful from the teacher telling me I was wrong (though she never mentioned how); along with an elaborate show of ‘give me your full name and let me note down your class’ threats. I did, and three years later I’m still waiting for her to call me so that she could, ‘tell me how I was wrong’. The story spread in school. Soon enough, a friend came up to me and told me about how even in the march past that my school carefully selects and breeds girls. Dusky girls, accompanied with much shouting, are placed in the centre row, while fair and ‘trim’ girls were placed at either sides-the sides visible to the audience.
The worst part? Many teachers knew about this, the student council too. The Headmistress? She insisted on this differentiation. I cannot, and nor do I want to blame the student council. How can I? They had received their position mainly because they were the teachers’ pets after all.
The very idea of protest is a distant thought in a school in Dubai- where fundamental rights are just 6 bullet points in a blue box printed in a 9th-grade Civics textbook.
I can, however, blame the Savarna teachers who enforced this. The ones who never saw anything wrong in discriminating on the basis of skin and body type. Equally to blame are the teachers that remained silent when they saw such selection occurring. They added to the system, raising students who never learned to question the things that they are taught, where the only thing that matters is the numbers on your answer sheet. These same beliefs are further reinforced at home.
So what purpose is this ‘NRI’ education? Does it bring anything different to the table? It comes as no surprise that most of these students come back to India for higher education and find it very easy to identify with many fascist beliefs. Within one month of staying in India, they decide that Muslims are bad, forgetting that they were raised in an Islamic country.
Fair and trim is just a start. It evolves into a longer list- one that entails creed, caste and religion. If we don’t stand up to them when they’re only asking for ‘fair and trim’, very soon a list will be drawn up where you may find yourself excluded. Just a heads up- the list-making has already begun.