“If a girl is ugly and handicapped, then it becomes difficult for her to get married.”
While this may seem like a quote from an Indian politician, it is in fact a sentence part of a larger paragraph in a Class XII Social Science textbook published and circulated by the Maharashtra State Board authority. It teaches that a man’s family may demand high dowry, particularly when the girl is ‘ugly’ or ‘handicapped’. It further articulates that due to the girl’s physical appearance, the girls’ parents are “helpless” and are therefore compelled to bow to the demand for dowry.
A few problematic issues emerge here: First, rather than strongly underscoring that dowry is illegal and regressive, it inextricably links ugliness to the abysmal practice. Two, it reinforces the idea that girls are ‘parayah dhan’ (someone else’s property), and ingrains in the pliable psyche of children that not only is dowry “okay”, but that it has a inversely-proportional relationship with the physical attributes of a girl. Third, by virtue of sentence construction (“If a girl is ugly and handicapped”), it dangerously draws a close relationship between ‘ugly’ and ‘handicapped’, suggesting that being differently able is ugly, and conversely, being ugly is a handicap.
In the entire text, however, there is no reference to the boy’s physical appearance. By virtue of his gender, the boy is assured dowry – irrespective of his physical attributes, profession or nature (i.e. it doesn’t matter whether he’s an alcoholic, a wife-beater or a womaniser).
Regardless, ‘ugly’ is a loaded word. It’s a term that demeans and undermines an individual’s physical appearance. Therefore, we need to be cautious and sensitive when it comes to using the word, particularly around children.
In the pantheon of children’s literature and fairy tales, ugliness has always been at the centre of any narrative. In fact, what is beautiful and what is ugly are established very early on. Think: Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, The Ugly Duckling, Snow White and so on. Flawless fairness is associated with beauty, while ugliness is associated with a beastly nature. If a character is evil, he/she is portrayed as ugly or physically unpleasant. Think: witches, goblins, zombies. Goblins and witches are greenish in colour, have crooked teeth and large pointy noses, while zombies are flawed with countless scars and pale, decaying skin. What I’m trying to establish here is that ugliness sits at the core of childhood upbringing, and popular culture.
In Hindu mythology as well, the rakshasi (female demon) Putana, who was sent to kill an infant Krishna, is visually depicted as a diabolical creature with fangs and claws. But even in Hindu mythology, gender plays a crucial role: Lord Krishna isn’t portrayed as a conventionally beautiful god – he is after all, blue-skinned. So is Lord Shiva, affectionately called “Neelkanth” (blue-throat). That detail, however, is overlooked. Could it possibly be that their gender subconsciously makes us forget about their physical appearances? Lord Ganesha’s elephant head doesn’t falter our affection for him either. In contrast, most mainstream Hindu goddess are portrayed as fair, physically proportionate women with big eyes and long hair – all markers of beauty. Kali is the only goddess who is depicted as a vicious, wild, hair-flowing, demon-eating goddess, who revels in her glorious, empowering rawness.
But let’s steer back to the Maharashtra State Board school textbook. Ironically, the aforementioned paragraph in the textbook inhabits a chapter titled, the “Major Social Problems in India”. However, rather than condemning dowry as a social problem, the text seems to condone it. And that’s worrying because the educational system influences our mind as a collective people and the way we think. And it’s mortifying that under the pretense of describing the biased gender disparity rampant in our country, it’s indirectly advocating it. At the same time, we also need to hold a magnifying glass over what we as a society have advocated through children’s books, mythology, literature and other arts.