Monday, May 24, 2010

Convent culture

“Wanted fair, slim, beautiful Convent-educated Brahmin girl for tall, handsome Kaushik boy”

Convent schools are known for discipline and a ‘premium’ standard of education. So while their stereotyping about Christian missionaries remains well-preserved, parents are obliged to send their daughters into ‘safe’ convent hands. Fourteen years in the close-lid pan and their little angels will become ‘perfect young ladies’, they hope.

A typical convent-educated girl (young lady in convent vocabulary) is expected to be smart-looking(a ‘well-fitting’ dress or a skirt with a perfect hairdo and dainty nails), well-mannered(mannerism from around the world, exception: India) and has a good command over her language(an imported accent in English). Ironically, the convent curriculum lists out two goals- reaffirming faith in god and good, and producing a mature and fully-integrated personality. A lot of emphasis is placed on simplicity and modesty. Strict discipline ensured knee-length skirt, no fancy earrings, no nail paint, a simple hairstyle and a refined language. Following these standards, the ultimate product should have been of a humble-looking woman, an angel not a princess! So what goes wrong then?

It was an English-medium school and so speaking in Hindi was a punishable offence. Infact, even during recess, sisters were on the prowl to ensure that we were speaking in English. Once a sister had become so fed-up that she had asked us to suggest a way out! Ironically or not, English was an off-campus thing. The moment we stepped out of the campus, we started speaking in English! And the English was nowhere near what we call hinglish. Infact, even when we spoke in Hindi (school premises), we avoided words which sounded ‘weird’. It was also ‘cool’ if your Hindi was not that great! Convent schools are also supposed to have their own set of pronunciations (oxford standard, they say!). At home, I was never corrected on pronunciations. But I always made a point to tell them the ‘right’ one! Even in abusing, there was a divide. Hindi abuses were considered cheaper than their English equivalents! Coming to mannerism and culture, I remember a girl from south who used to have food with her hands. She was condemned for this. It was considered ‘rural’ (this has its own share of stereotypes!). Just few days back, I learnt that this practice of eating with hands is actually pan-Indian! It is disillusioning as we were alienated from our own culture. Eating with forks was not a part of our curriculum but we had all learnt it. Now comes the aspect of regionalism, people were not very keen to give the whereabouts of their village (incase, they admitted they have any!). It is a fact that Delhi hardly has ‘natives’ left. A large population hails from UP but the ancestry was hardly ever transcended beyond Meerut! The ‘rural-urban’ stereotyping was very prevalent. All this was not a part of the convent curriculum. This was never encouraged ‘directly’. But this level of elitism is a product of this.
Now comes the fundamental aspect- the gender-specific approach. Here there are two contrasting processes working simultaneously. Convent schools emphasis on ‘simplicity of women’. Women should be elegant. She should be dressed in a simple yet elegant manner(most convent schools still have skirts). Her speech should be polite. She should not shout or talk in a loud voice. This is considered non-feminine or masculine. She should be soft-spoken(society-approved standard). She should always conduct herself in a ‘lady-like’ manner. So on one hand, they oppose ‘objectification of women’ but support feminine standards on the other. A line on the way the other gender was presented may also be useful. A teacher had introduced the other gender by striking a similarity between them and honeybees! Developing crushes deserved capital punishment. There was a student whose parents were called when the teacher had found a love-letter in her bag! If your marks were low, one of the questions that you could be asked on PTMs was, ”do you have a boyfriend?”! Afterall, Good girls do not have boyfriends. The underlying principle here is to have women venture out but within the ‘limits’.

School Life is very important in the respect that it prepares us for the society. Convent schools enjoy a high reputation as it reflects the ideal nature of our society. Hierarchy is what sets this society. Elitism and gender-specific approach is the ideal way. Convent schools have their origin in British Raj. In the Indian context, there is western romanticism. This furthers the elitist approach in language and culture. The reason for the difference between ‘before 1’(during school premises) and ‘after 1’ (after school premises) convent girl is that the society accepts stereotypical girls. Convent school tries to ‘liberate’ them but since they have some demands to meet, they are helpless.

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