DAY THIRTEEN: Opening the Pandora’s Box: Dilemmas in a Course on Family Engagement

In this engaging piece, Monimalika Day writes about encountering pedagogical dilemmas and ethical decisions when listening to oral histories of GBV in the classroom.

Monimalika Day

Featured image: ‘Group of Three Girls’ by Amrita Sher-Gill, source: Wikimedia Commons

A course on families in the department of education is usually designed to enable educators to begin to understand the structures, functions and perspectives of families from various backgrounds. Discussion on developing partnerships with families often focuses on issues of trust, respect, reciprocity and responsiveness.

As a faculty in the field of education one attempts to follow the principles of critical pedagogy “read the word” and “read the world” (Shor & Freire, 1987, p.135). In India and many other parts of the world, the majority of the students in education discipline are women. As our students grapple with these concepts of respect and trust, often stories, memories and narratives of gender violence slowly begin to emerge. A range of experiences are shared, with variations in the degree of violence, the relationship with the perpetrator, the nature of oppression, the site of the violence, each a powerful testimony of dehumanization. However, this approach often challenges the instructor to move beyond the well-defined space of a syllabus and explore uncharted waters.

The instructor introduces students to some of the key terms related to engaging with families and encourages them to reflect on their experiences to make sense of the words.

Respect refers to an acknowledgement and acceptance of the boundaries that exist between persons. Boundaries are markers that simultaneously connect and distinguish one from others…When these boundaries are crossed without permission, that person feels disturbed or even violated. When boundaries are acknowledged and crossed with permission, trust and connection are supported

Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 43

As students grapple with these concepts of respect and trust, often narratives of gender violence slowly begin to emerge. A range of experiences are shared, with variations in the degree of violence, the relationship with the perpetrator, the nature of oppression, the site of the violence, each a powerful testimony of dehumanization.

Is family a safe space?

Family is often assumed to be a safe space, a nurturing environment supported by a network of trustworthy relationships and yet it is the site for many of these violent incidents. One disclosure concerned a woman in her early twenties, who had repeatedly been molested by a cousin in the extended family. Her efforts to fight this had met with failure to find someone willing to support her. An uncle who visits the family found opportunities to molest her too in her home. Issues of gender and economic security interact to create a vulnerable situation. Her circumstances are complicated by the fact that her mother is a widow and does not have a source of income.  So she encourages her daughter to remain silent for fear of facing social isolation, extreme poverty and perhaps a life worse than what they have. This narrative highlights the long struggle of a woman trying to live with dignity in the family in which she is born.

Other narratives focus on the new relationships that women forge through marriage. With great anticipation, a newlywed woman travels with her husband to a secluded resort in the forests for her honeymoon. Her dreams turn into a terrible nightmare as she is tied up and raped by her husband and his friend for three days. She is shocked, dazed and unable to recall the details of this ordeal, which the judicial system demands of women like her. Upon returning to her husband’s home she manages to run away and get support from an ageing father.

However, seeking justice is a long, uncertain and tiring journey. For eight years she struggled to simply get a divorce. No action could be taken against the husband or his family as he lived abroad and managed to exploit the loopholes in the justice system. This was perhaps the most violent narrative that emerged in class. The narratives are uncomfortable both for the instructor and the students, and pose several teaching dilemmas.

The instructor and the students remained silent for a long period of time, no one moved when this story was shared. One could only hear the uncontrollable sobbing of the narrator, and sniffles of other students as they tried to desperately control their tears. It was as if a dark and heavy cloud had settled in the class, and infused a deep sense of helplessness, frustration and anger. The class was extended by an hour but no one left. As the instructor struggled to find words to end the class, the teaching assistant spontaneously began to sing and was joined by others “Ruk jana nahi too kahin haar kei, kato pei chalke milenge saare jahan se” (Do not stop when you face failure, walk on the bed of thorns to meet the world), a popular Hindi film song. Perhaps one can find a voice in the world of arts when the rational world of words fail.

Occasionally, the narratives follow one after another, as the instructor struggles to reflect on the boundaries of the classroom space and her role in facilitating learning. Neither her training, nor a long teaching career has prepared her to process these texts of violence. Critical pedagogy is guided by the principle of “Read the word and read the world.” The instructor attempts to help students make sense of the class readings by connecting it to their lived experiences.

However, sometimes, apparently simple words such as respect and trust open a pandora’s box and the answers to uncomfortable questions about human relationships cannot be found in the class readings. The overarching question that emerges in relation to the course is: Can we assume that family is a safe space? Can we assume any relationship to be safe?

Routinely the instructor refers these students to the counselling centre hoping to hide her feeling of inadequacy. Sometimes they seek counselling and at other times they do not continue therapy. However, often students return to the instructor to continue sharing their challenges and victories. Perhaps the relationship between a teacher and a student provides a safe space for such dialogues to continue as they struggle to have faith in themselves and others. The dialogues and the relationship continue even after students graduate and the frequency only fades with time.

Author’s Bio

Dr. Monimalika Day is Associate Professor, School of Education Studies, Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi and currently Deputy Director, Centre for Publishing. She has provided technical assistance to various states in India through the Center for Early Childhood Education and Development and has supervised research projects. Her research interests focus on early stimulation, quality of early childhood programmes, preschool education, inclusion of children with disabilities, teacher education and collaboration between schools and families.


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