I attended my first Model United Nations (MUN) with dreamy eyes and aspirations. It made me feel that public speaking was exactly my calling. I had researched and was well prepared with the set agenda; my idea of learning public speaking was only of discoursing and debating.
I had no idea about representation or what the comfort of representation meant back then. I was not aware of the complexities public speaking had imbibed in its practice. My idea was shattered when I saw only two active speakers who were women.
I understood that public speaking was something boys were encouraged to pursue rather than girls. These women debaters represented the raging gender disparity with women speakers in the Kolkata MUN circle.
Women debaters and public speakers are much less in number because of several factors. Women MUNers or speakers rarely had any idols to look up to which only worsened the situation and made them feel more alienated and alone in these public speaking circles.
“MUNs and debates are meant to imbibe leadership skills, problem-solving and teamwork in today’s ‘youth’. However, strangely enough, ‘youth’ has been confined to cis-het men.
“As a woman, I have personally found the environment discouraging because since the very first time at a conference and debate, I have only seen men dominating the stage. My seniors have always given me names of these men and termed them as ‘big’,” confessed Rai*, an experienced debater in Kolkata’s MUN circuit and Secretary-General of one of these conferences.
She believes that it was time we trained more young girls to give their opinions out diplomatically rather than teaching them that being silent was virtuous.
Historically we have always seen men having more debating space. A sharp historical gender disparity has created and enforced debating and public speaking as a more men-inclusive space. We have seen dominating, opinionated men dominate the circuit rather thrivingly.
The frequency of all-boys schools coming to these conferences is way more than an all-girls school. We see older prestigious boys schools have a history of debating and MUNing, whereas girls from all-girls schools rarely have seniors who excel in the field of public speaking.
I have had a senior MUNer tell a senior from a girls school, “She is from a girls school. That is how good they get at public speaking. She is ‘good’ in accordance to her school.” Many girls are systematically told to be less powerful as orators and speakers because “girls are not supposed to be loud or overpowering”. Teaching them to mute their voices tactfully leaves women speakers out of this circle.
“I have seen the lack of women speakers in most Indian committees and conferences, both offline and online.
“There are around 10 speakers who are men and around three to four women speakers, which portrays how girls are always taught to shy away from having a political opinion and from being loud,” said Priya* an orator who has been debating for over 5 years. She has chaired over five MUNs and has been the Secretary-General of her college MUN.
As a girl who has been public speaking for 2 years, I would say the institutions and society are to be blamed more than the individuals who participate. I have had the pleasure of chairing a few conferences. In the first conference I had chaired, I remember how one of the organisers had said that he was surprisingly proud of how two girls had moderated a committee so excruciatingly well.
The organisers were from one of the prestigious nonprofit organisations of Kolkata. He kept on repeating how “proud” he was of us. These comments did not only infuriate me but also my friends and seniors. These statements showed us how we, as individuals who speak about equity and women’s rights, have failed because of how they intertwine our gender with our potential as speakers or debaters.
Rupkatha, a MUNer with several prestigious awards in the school MUN circle, says, “If a woman from her childhood is encouraged against speaking out or standing her ground for what she believes in, her choosing to not pursue a career in public speaking, even though she’d like to, is perhaps the most foreseen result of it.
“There aren’t a lack of stories of women who have had to work twice as hard as their counterparts to get half as much in the media or otherwise, and often, these women are characterised as being headstrong and ruthless, ‘women who won’t be able to build a life with a man’ because a wife is expected to listen, not speak, simply because they had to fight tradition to get where they did.
“If a woman is silent about how she views certain things, it gives everyone else less to deal with and acknowledge, less to confront and come to terms with. Thus, the scheme of demonising outspokenness so girls won’t dare look that way works out quite conveniently for everyone—everyone but women, of course.
“If women were encouraged to speak more, the discourse would be easier. The floor would be opened up to so many more perspectives, so many ideas would be brought to the fore.
“However, free speech for women would mean loosening the hold patriarchy has on them and admitting that the way they have been treated so far has been unjust, and that isn’t something I think Indian society is ready to deal with yet.”
Imbibing and encouraging younger girls to speak up and take up space is the first thing we should make the practice of. Inculcating the habit of debating and having all-girl debates should be a step that should be taken. Organising MUNs with all women organising committees too should be a step forward. Debates having women-focused motions and women speakers too would help us get more representation.
Along with this, experienced chairs refusing to chair committees with very few women speakers would show resistance towards these set patriarchal patterns. Conversations with institutions regarding a more women-friendly environment should be brought about along with the inclusion of more women speakers.
*All names have been changed to maintain anonymity.
Note: The author is part of the Sept-Oct ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program.