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Playing dead

Students from Isabella Thoburn College perform a street theater against dowry violence in a village outside Lucknow. The practice of dowry, where the bride's family pays the groom's family with money and objects, has grown in India, contributing to violence against many women whose family cannot keep transferring wealth.

In a rural village in northern India, students from Isabella Thoburn College perform street theater against dowry violence. Dowry is a practice where the bride's family transfers money and objects of value to the groom's family, and it has grown even more prevalent in India in recent years, contributing to horrible violence against many women whose family cannot keep transferring wealth. (Elsewhere on that same trip I photographed women who'd had their faces burned with acid or set afire with gasoline, simply because they and their families could no longer pay more dowry.) So students at this all-women's university in Lucknow take their criticism of the practice to urban streets and rural villages in hilarious and compelling dramatic presentations. The school was founded in 1886 by Isabella Thoburn, who arrived in India in 1870 as the first missionary sent by the Women's Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Church. A few years ago I spent several days with Isabella Thoburn students, an experience I enjoyed immensely. In addition to a lot of interviews, I made a couple of trips out with student groups doing popular education on HIV and AIDS as well as about dowry-related violence. They also took me to a wedding. The students were bright and witty and, as one would expect in India, came from all religious traditions. Although it's a Christian school, long supported by United Methodist Women and celebrating Christian holidays and offering a chapel service every day, only about 10 percent of the students are Christian; the rest are Hindu, Muslim and other faiths that make up India's rich cultural mix. Nonetheless, they got along wonderfully. Sunita Charles, the president of ITC, told me that's by design. "We teach that we need to not just accept diversity but also to appreciate it. There’s a big difference," she told me. "As a Christian college, we are breeding secular Indians." In a country plagued by fundamentalist violence, I found Isabella Thoburn a refreshing place, where creative and courageous women are making space for tolerance and understanding. This week Isabella Thoburn College is celebrating it's 125th year anniversary. Congratulations!

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