The names they gave themselves, almost as if they knew the power of self-naming (this is the allure of being young – you can carelessly believe in many things, apart from yourself).
Amazing Ahalya, Splendid Sapna, Talented Tanvi, Elegant Erica, Razzling Radha, Sparkling Sanika. Six of them.
“Razzling,” the first thing that came to me in those crucial ice-breaker moments on the first day of the writing workshop. Three girls, check, but the fourth moans, “there is nothing beginning with ‘R’!” and everyone else looks around, looks at me.
They accepted it calmly as an attribute they could have. It sounded like it knew its business, and knew that it had a right to be there.
My own chosen moniker, I would regard henceforth with a half-smile, half-regret, but it became a game for them.
They looked it up in the dictionary. They spelt it out in their notebooks, delighting in its strangeness. And all along I was thinking: Dear stranger, why did it not even cross your mind to call yourself “Marvellous Monica”? And if it did, would you cross that thought and claim less magic for yourself?
In her 1992 book, Revolution From Within, Gloria Steinem quotes several studies from the US that show mainstream educational programs end up disseminating low self esteem and disproportionate self criticism amongst girls and, later, women. The “common” curriculum, she says, “belongs more to one group than the other.” She adds, “…with each additional year of higher education, the women saw less of themselves, and less chance of being themselves. In the academic canon and in the classroom, their half of the human race was underrepresented in authority, often invisible, sometimes treated with contempt, perhaps treated as if success was “unfeminine,” and denied even the dignity of a well-recognized suffering.”
This may be changing. There are, now, gender sensitive syllabi and alternative schools, gender studies programs and many, many women who own their truths and their power. And yet.
I felt a pang for my magic girls. May they hold on to their magic through their years of education. May they find strong heroines in books and songs and movies and in real life; may they write stories about rambunctious, bumptious girls who take revenge on nasty teachers (rather than leave that delicious task to Noel and his gang); may they stick to their truths and may they, one day, stumble upon Audre Lorde’s line: “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.”
Beyond statistics are stories. Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, tells many, of self loathing internalised by black men, black women, and little black girls who desire nothing more than blue eyes. They are convinced of their own ugliness, and of the standard of beauty set by white baby dolls and by the white flaxen-haired children of white people for whom they work. The end is sharply poignant, and grips in its beak a loss – an accusation, a warning against the way we have organized our society’s rules for differences.