Once upon a time: Girls or women? Latter has its own gravitas

  • Neel kamal Puri, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 13, 2015 10:29 IST
The Government College for Girls, Sector 11, was Government College for Women till 1981. (HT Photo)

‘Government College for Women’ became ‘Government College for Girls’ and similarly did the college for ‘Men’ become one for ‘Boys’. This was in the year 1981, when the colleges turned 25. In the women’s college a foundation stone had been laid for the Student’s Centre to mark the beginning of the silver jubilee celebrations and the institution had also been rechristened on that occasion. Turning 25 should qualify one to be called either a ‘woman’ or ‘man’. It is a coming of age that a little girl aspires for when she slips into her mother’s shoes and tries to wrap herself into the inordinate length of a sari. And the little boy is similarly at pains to become a big man in a big world. Of course, this is an institution we are talking about, and the older the better. It is not likely to take offence if asked its age.

However, we human beings have an uncomfortable relationship with age. When we are children we want to be grown up and when we do get there, we wish we could put the clock back somehow and we do try very hard – a paint and brush job or, in more recent times, even a scissor and paste job. I used to wonder why only the old women in that knitting and baking and home manual of yesteryears ‘Woman and Home’, published in England, wore bright red lipstick, but now I understand. Some may want to go back to being a girl.

However, there is a certain gravitas to being labeled a woman. You acquire more layers of richness and experience. The world takes you more seriously. My late friend, Usha Lal, who was a sprightly eighty plus in the late eighties of the last century and a very active member of the People Union for Civil Liberties in Chandigarh, had a very strong opinion on this subject and others. She attended meetings, discussed the river water dispute, which had become the heart of a movement for insurgency in Punjab, worked to bring out a report on the guilty of 1984 and was generally a personage who was not to be trifled with. Her cook of many years, recognising a certain camaraderie with her, decided to exchange confidences about her own drinking husband, held forth on the tough lot of women and then in a potent moment of empathy said to her, “It is always so with us ladies.” Usha, who had listened to her with the greatest sympathy till then, suddenly expostulated, “You must be a ‘ladies’. I am not. I am a woman.”

Many of us who had gone to school in the sixties and seventies, had a reading list that included Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’. Alcott’s publisher had asked her to write a ‘girl’s book’ and she did. But the novel was really about that stage in a girl’s life when late childhood is giving way to early womanhood. The three themes that ran through the novel were domesticity, work and true love.

However, from my distant recall, I do think that it was only suggesting a fairly circumscribed womanhood, particularly since it had a sequel that was titled ‘Good Wives’.

It was the Twentieth century that brought with it a myriad of meanings to the idea of womanhood. And that is why I am glad that I graduated from the ‘Government College for Women’ rather than the ‘Government College for Girls’. I do wonder why at all someone changed its name.


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