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There exists a book titled Current School Essays and Letters by Purabi Chakraborty. It came to my attention only because a Facebook friend had shared pictures of an essay from the book. Simply titled ‘The Modern Girl’, this multi-page piece is one of the hundred and forty-one that is in the ICSE school syllabus. It was all fine for the first few words: “The girl in the modern age is generally very smart, intelligent, conscious…” — and went plunging downhill from there — “…and fashionable. She is always imitating the male fashion, ambition and professional endeavours.”
That is all I needed to confirm that the title is only half as ridiculous as the text but I kept at it, though slighted that after frequent furores about sexist content in school textbooks, something as regressive as this has gone unnoticed. Some more gems from the first two pages of the piece that focusses on (i) fashion: “She likes to change herself with the changing fashions. She loves to wear jeans, pants and hot pants.
The colourful sarees have no place in a modern girl’s stock of garments.” (ii) character: “The modern girl is no longer shy, obedient and homely creature as she used to be. She is not ready to confine herself within the four walls of her home. She claims for her rights as she wants to enjoy life like the boys. She is more a self-centred creature than a loving daughter or sympathetic sister. She talks and makes friendship with the boys freely and easily. (iii) career: Today, girls are very conscious and alert about her career. Most of the girls leave no stones unturned to reach their goals. She has no hesitation in talking to men and feels no need to be reserved and shy. Most of the modern girls are indifferent to their duties as a loving daughter, wife or mother.
A modern girl is too selfish to think about others. Only latest fashions and cosmetics are very dear to her. I think I need say no more. The above extracts show how the piece in simple language suggests that the modern woman is a separate species, and women creatures without agency that need careful guidance to keep them from becoming this horror that the modern woman is — a selfish, self-centred person that takes easily to beauty and boys. This reminds of a recent movie in which the leading lady is shown to eat only burgers and fries to reiterate that she is a modern woman with modern morality for smoking, drinking, socialising and sex. And then it hits me that cinema has had for the longest time the trope of a modern woman.
First she was the vamp, then the baddie, the anti-heroine (who saves the day so it’s apparently okay). These women will sport short clothes and even knee length boots in the sweltering heat in contrast to the religious, pious good woman in everyday wear. It is like cinema is yet to figure out that there are temple going women and not temple going women, and the temple going woman does not go there in a pair of shorts - but the modern woman in their cinema does. As with the woman who is disrespectful to elders, does not listen to her partner, disobeys her in-laws and is dealt with at the end.
I agree that this trend is just about dying down, but we sure seem to like a ‘modern woman’ in our movies just so she can be booed at till she mends her ways. There a million ways to be a modern woman and none is the wrong kind, but modern does not mean devoid of sentiment, sympathy, sensitivity and sense.
A ‘modern’ person must be able to see that stubborn, self-centred and selfish behaviour is not singularly owned by women, though the label is liberally used for those women who want to have it all, or choose not to have a family at all. A ‘modern’ society is really a people who get these texts out of the syllabus, these tropes out of cinema, and stop telling a woman where to be, how to behave and what to believe, and lets a woman have a mind of her own, ‘modern’ or not. Kanji soru and cocktail, casual sex on the Kamma karai
The writer is a city-based activist, in-yourface
feminist and a media glutton