“So she gets to campus and she is hurrying because she is late for class and then she runs into him…” I begin.
“And then he, what? Grabs her by her waist and pulls her toward him?” Krupa suggests. My fingers hesitate over the keyboard.
“Hmm, I don’t know if they’ll get what that means,” I say, referring to our students, the eventual readers of the story.
She thinks again. “How about ‘He grabs her arm and pulls her close to him?'” We consider the wording. It sounds clear enough. I add it.
Our discussion occurred during a brainstorming session earlier this evening. Krupa and I went to Ciputra World, an upscale mall in western Surabaya, for dinner and a movie. The dinner was our usual stuffed-crust veggie pizza from Pizza Hut. The movie was Badrinath ki Dulhania. It was a Bollywood film that featured the usual troupe of flashy dancers, gorgeous main characters, and plenty of heartache. Sadly, the audience felt even more heartache than the characters; not because of the story but the way it was told. There were a few disturbing themes–for a film produced in 2017 no less!–that we noted after the film:
- Male chauvinism and entitlement, which was slightly glorified and never rebuked despite the presence of a strong female lead and other seemingly rational characters.
- Deeply rooted sexism and a culture of silence among women, which was addressed and reinforced through the female characters who were allowed brief moments to show their intellect but then were forced to hold silent smiles for the rest of the film.
- Physical violence against women. This occurred too many times to mention. The most extreme examples were when the father of the male lead ordered his son to find his bride after she ran away. His reason? So that the woman could be hanged in public for everyone to see what happens when you shame the patriarchy. And when the jilted groom finally found his former bride-to-be (who was making a name for herself as a flight attendant based in Singapore), he threw her into the trunk of a car then nearly strangled her while threatening to kill her on the bank of a river. Thankfully the police intervened, but the officer who questioned the pair did so with them both in the room. Even someone inexperienced in justice relating to domestic violence can know that nothing productive for the victim would come from such a set-up.
- Victim-blaming. The male character outright blames the woman for his angry and violent outbursts.
- Stalking. After the male character finds his victim in Singapore and assaults her, he continues to stalk her and pick fights with anyone who gets in his way. Not only is this an unacceptable way for a person to behave, the film romanticized his fanaticism with a love song during the stalker montage of his stalker activities.
- Unconditional forgiveness for all of these issues. At the end of the film, the independent woman we had cheered for married the man who was prepared to kill her. Says Krupa, “I’m deeply hurt that a strong, independent woman who can obviously hold her own succumbed to loving her abuser despite all the red flags.”
There are more social problems with this film that should be addressed, but let this working list suffice for now. While this is a Bollywood film, these problems are not unique to India. Sexism, violence against women, victim-blaming… These things happen everywhere from corporate offices in America to classrooms in Indonesia. As women, these are things that Krupa and I must contend with now and forever, no matter where we live.
But at the moment we are both English teachers in Surabaya. As teachers, we do our best to serve our students. With all of our hearts, we try to deliver material that is relevant and engaging for our students. We strive to make our classes fun, though sometimes we feel duty-bound to cover material that is not in the textbook and that is not fun, no matter how much we try to sugar-coat it.
This brings me to the discussion Krupa and I were having earlier: “He grabbed her arm and pulled her close to him.” We were writing a story about harassment which directly paralleled the film we had just watched. At first we meant to write a fairy tale with indirect mentions of harassment, but in the end our story was not much more than a catalog of violence against women.
After I finished typing a few more sentences for the description, we looked at it again and took a deep pause. My task for the week is to teach about “narrative text,” which can include fairy tales. Our only intention was to write a fairy tale, but what we created was something else entirely.
Oh, how my heart is torn!
On one hand, I feel a blaze in my stomach to speak up, to bring this discussion to the classroom. I am a teacher, aren’t I? And if I don’t, who will? I can guarantee that all of my girls have experienced harassment. I want them to know that they are not alone, that others’ treatment of them is not okay. I want my boys to hear their classmates’ voices. I want them to realize that being a “man” can indeed be a noble thing if it does not come with airs of entitlement to the bodies and lives of women. I want to put emotion behind the “Stop Sexual Violence” billboards that dot the roadsides in Surabaya. I want all of my students to think critically when they watch films, listen to music, and talk to their friends. I want them to know that all of them, every single one, deserve nothing less than to be treated with respect no matter their gender, skin color, sexual orientation, parents’ occupations, or any other factor. For you, my students, I want all of this and more.
How my heart is torn. I teach English, not social activism. My students are still in high school, not college. They are only 15 or 16, still so young. They didn’t choose this material. They might even have hiden traumas that this discussion could bring to the surface. Are they ready for it? Am I?
Must English be a mutually exclusive subject? Is it bound to grammar and composition, the likes of which will appear on my students’ exams? Have I not already taught about the history of racism in America, connecting it to Martin Luther King’s biography and culminating in listening to his “I Have a Dream” speech? I will never forget hearing his voice ringing from the walls, floor, and ceiling of my chairless classroom as wave after wave of students soaked in his words, both in English and Indonesian.
Yes, I will never forget those afternoons where my students put me on trial for America’s past injustices. I prepared tissues, knowing class after class would see The Miss cry. As I spoke, the American Dream lay shattered on the floor: “No, it is not the place you see in the movies. America still suffers from racism and great injustice. Even you, my dear students, would likely fall victim to vicious commentary due to your beliefs.”
Can I delve into another deep subject using English as my medium? Will talking about harassment be as well-received as our lesson on racism? Will my co-teachers play along, permitting us to teach this subject and playing the supportive role I will need when teaching about a topic that affects me daily? Are they ready for it? Am I?
Oh, how my heart is torn. And as I write, I grow weary from this self-imposed burden. It would be easy, wouldn’t it? Just download a story and an activity and close the class with a game. The students would enjoy themselves and, who knows? They might actually learn something.
I feel as if I cannot simply let it be. I, who have admittedly been silent, want to speak up. I, who have suffered like women everywhere from the leers, words, and hands of uncouth men, want to bring the issue to light with my students. I, who have been given the monumental opportunity to be a part of their lives, want to give them something even more important than English: knowledge about society and how to change it.
It is a heavy task. I am not sure how to go about it properly. The story that Krupa and I wrote is perhaps not the best vehicle to open this discussion. What else should we do? It requires more consideration, as long as we do something.
To those who are reading this: I am not searching for accolades. With this writing, I have merely tried to process a very heavy evening with a wonderful, deep-thinking, go-getting friend: Krupa. I say thank you to Krupa for pushing me to be a better person. And I want to say to everyone else who is out there, fighting the good fight for justice everywhere. Keep up the good work. You are not alone.