Teaching the girl… her place?


by Reva Yunus

The ‘cycle

It was in class V

That my father bought me a bicycle

‘go, get your own notebooks and pens now.’

On a deserted road, in that forsaken neighbourhood,

Supporting her bike, he taught her to ride.

She would whizz past on her new ‘cycle,

He would be all puffed up with pride.

Soon, the girl with the bike left her little town

For greener pastures, for the metropolis,

And fell in love…oblivious of the barriers of caste.

The ‘progressive’ father

Had never imagined

What was to merely make easier

His daughter’s life, will become a historical ‘blunder’.

~ original poem in Hindi by Asha Singh[1]

(English translation by author)

I begin with this poem because it captures multiple aspects of brahminical patriarchy, whether it is girls’ freedom of movement or endogamy and control over women’s bodies and decisions. The day when texts like this poem could become part of the “syllabus” children in India are expected to learn in schools, we can perhaps start expecting education to meaningfully tackle gender-based and other inequalities. In order for that to happen, there are questions that need to be posed to formal education.

In public and policy discourses, girls’ and women’s education is invariably linked with this very vaguely defined and unspecified term, ‘women’s empowerment’. However, given the pervasive nature of gender-based discrimination and violence across the country, we need to question this assumption that any sort of empowerment for women follows from education, particularly school education.

Alongside the question of girls’ access to school education, we also need to ask if/how the process and content of education address the question of gender injustice in our society. Existing research in India and elsewhere shows that all aspects of education – access, teaching-learning practices, content/curriculum, etc. – send students and staff messages about gender relations and roles. Yet, when it comes to debates around the fundamental right to education the only gender-based issue that gets any attention is that of access. And then every summer there is the usual flurry of comments on how well (or otherwise) girls have done with respect to boys in various subject areas.

While these are important questions, there are several other urgent questions relating to classroom texts and practices that remain unasked: what is it that girls learn when they learn how to clear examinations? What does their classroom experience as girl students –in view of the socioeconomic and cultural differences among them – tell them about the role and place of different women and girls in school and wider society? If we look at just one aspect of this experience and ask, ‘what do textbooks tell students about gender roles and relations in the world around them?’ it becomes clear that school education needs to go a long way before gender justice effectively becomes a concern, rhetoric around girls’ schooling and empowerment notwithstanding.

Existing research by feminist scholars shows that textbooks across states are overflowing with gender biases. Thus, a central component of education – curricular texts – systematically reinforce gender stereotypes by rigidly and narrowly defining the “masculine” and the “feminine”. These stereotypes send messages to both boys and girls about ideal gender roles and relations as notions of “girl”/“woman” and “man”/“boy” are constructed simultaneously, usually in opposition to each other and leaving no space for questioning a world organised through this rigid binary.

There are two related ways in which school textbooks reinforce stereotypes: one, by representing women in particular and limited ways and only showcase female characters in certain roles. Even these stories of the caring and nurturing mother or sister, or the devoted wife are narrated from patriarchal perspectives rather than from the point of view of the women themselves, thus systematically eliding and/or misrepresenting the everyday struggles of different kinds of women. In other words, such a representation of women/girls is made possible by excluding women’s experiences from textbooks.

Even when there are role models like a woman scientist or a queen, the nuances of their struggles are missing and only the dominant “feminine” is stressed through their characters. Consider the case of queen Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar (of Indore) as an example. In the Hindi language textbooks produced by the State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT) in Madhya Pradesh, she is only presented as a mother and a selfless and committed social worker. Her life as a young bride trying to establish a relationship with her husband and her escape from the ritual of sati are missing and so are her strategic decisions and manoeuvrings as a consummate stateswoman[2]. In other words, there is a distinct effort to de-sex women [in order to uphold the idea of the chaste, loyal, obedient woman] and to deny them abilities that are by dominant standards considered “masculine”. Thus, texts obscure the grim realities of various patriarchal family or community settings and the complex reality of women’s efforts to resist these, as well as their reasons to accommodate to these systems.

Equally important, the other axes of inequality that make things possible for some women while keeping them out of the reach of others, are missing too. For example, the SCERT mentioned above also published the astronaut Kalpana Chawla’s story in the English language textbook and the upper caste middle class teacher duly underlined Chawla’s achievements as an astronaut despite being a woman and exhorted the girls in her classroom to rise to the same standards instead of being afraid. What was missing in that classroom was a discussion of how the ideal the teacher was holding up to the girls was different in many important details of her life to the realities these girls were faced with. Or a reflection on the similarities and differences between the teacher and the students[3].

Differences of caste, religion, class and language between teachers and students also affect learning experiences in gendered ways. In the school in Indore (Madhya Pradesh) where I did my doctoral fieldwork, I found multiple instances of Brahmin teachers subjecting Dalit girls to moral policing much more severe than what other students (both boys and girls) were subjected to. Similarly, Muslim boys seemed to be under severe pressure to stick to the image of the “good” Muslim boy, i.e. to be obedient, non-disruptive and patriotic. This socialisation into desired gender ideals marked by religion, caste, etc. does not just happen in state government schools; “better- off” schools with more resourceful students or smaller class size do not show the motivation to challenge gender and other injustices either.

This problem of representation and diverse or conflicting worldviews is related to a larger issue with textbooks across the spectrum of schools in India: curricular texts usually represent the world from the point of view of the privileged. Whether it is privilege based on caste, class, or language[4] or any of the scores of other ways in which people are discriminated against in India. The problem of limiting textbooks to the life world of the Hindu, male, middle class, upper caste child, was also highlighted in the position paper Gender Issues in Education published as part of the National Curriculum Framework 2005 by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). This is why feminist sociologists of education have argued that textbooks be produced through engagement with feminist scholarship, various women’s movements and organisations working with women.[5]

However, the existence of the NCF 2005 itself highlights the problems of inequality in and through education. While it is intended to be a national framework, not all categories of schools have implemented the framework[6]; mostly because there has been no political will to monitor and implement standards for curricular quality across schools or to commit adequate resources for an effective curricular reform. This brings me to my most important argument: that stratification in education is itself a contributing factor to gender injustice in and through education. Parents’ ability to pay for their children’s education has become the single most important factor determining the quality of education these children can access. Since the school system is stratified, there can be tremendous differences in the possibilities for teaching and learning between different kinds of schools (not only private and government but within each sector there are again different kinds of schools offering education of widely varying quality). Because of this they differ in resources, infrastructure, class-size, availability and qualifications of teachers, teachers’ working conditions as well as curriculum and pedagogic principles and practices. Thus, the resources and physical and intellectual infrastructure required to build a feminist classroom are not equally available to all girls in the country. Worse, these are usually less available to the girls most in need of it. Girls fighting multiple oppressions – born of impoverishment, anti-minority propaganda, caste-based oppression and/or discrimination based on their tribal status – often end up in least resourceful schools.

Thus, the struggle for a gender just curriculum also always has to be a struggle for equal education for all girls.

(Reva Yunus is a Ph.D. candidate is Sociology at the University of Warwick.)

[1] This is a translation of the Hindi poem ‘cycle’ by Asha Singh, currently Assistant Professor, Amity School of Communication, Amity University, Noida. The original Hindi text was published on ‘Savari’: http://www.dalitweb.org/?p=2924 ‘Savari’ is a web platform for feminist reflections and debates by Adivasi, Bahujan and Dalit women. Poem has been translated and referenced with poet’s permission.

[2] For example, a most thought-provoking portrayal of Ahilya Bai can be found in the movie Devi Ahilya Bai. It tells the story of her life before she became a devi (goddess) and a universal ‘mother’. The movie also shows the weaknesses and failings of her husband and son.

[3] My own writing throughout my PhD has been complicated by differences (caste, class, religion and location) between me and the students on the one hand, and between me and the women teachers on the other.

[4] Malini Ghose has written an excellent paper on the relationship between questions of language, literacy and those of gender and power: Literacy, power and feminism in the April 27, 2002 issue of the Economic and Political Weekly.

[5]Such material has been produced in contexts other than those of formal education.Unfortunately, as some feminist scholars have pointed out, in post-independence India, the various women’s movements have not really engaged with questions around girls’ schooling or gender issues in formal education. (Patel 1998; Manjrekar 2003)

[6]A ‘national’ framework does not imply exactly same content in textbooks across regions and schools, just a uniform standard and a framework within which schools and teachers can ideally propose a wide variety of content for different schools and classrooms.

Unspeakable Inequalities: Dangerous Freedoms: Some thoughts on Gender, Caste and Development in India

by K. Kalpana    

Gender violence cannot exist on the scale it does in India unless there is endorsement and social sanction for it or at least for the conditions that breed violence against women. To understand better the idea of social sanction, I suggest we see gender violence, not only as the horrific acts of sexual assault, rape and torture that seize public attention and evoke visible protests and outrage, but as a spectrum, a continuum of everyday practices that are part of the ‘normal’, the ‘routine’ and the ‘taken-for-granted’ as we experience it. Take, for instance, the pervasive tolerance for street sexual harassment or ‘eve teasing’, its rationalization or indulgence even as a form of masculine sport associated with the young (vaaliba vilayattu, in Tamil), an upsurge of ‘young hot blood’ or a legitimate exercise of manhood. Or take the condoning of ‘domestic’ violence or violence within households. There is a very popular Tamil song ‘adikkira kai thaan anaikkum’ that has a drunk man alternatively beat and embrace his wife who sobs and weeps her way through the song even as she supports her staggering husband! The notion that women are fully human autonomous actors is a radical idea that simply does not find purchase in many parts of India. But how do we account for the failure of this idea to take root and flourish in India more than sixty years into the life of the Indian republic? Perhaps some of the answers might be sought in the nature of development and of capitalist modernity in India and in the paradoxes and contradictions they have spawned for Indian women.

Social science research shows us that when state-sponsored development interventions/projects intersect with community and household patriarchies and ‘commonsense’ notions about the proper place of women in society, the outcomes are complex and unpredictable. They do not follow linear trajectories of modernity and progress. Take the case of the agrarian households in several parts of India that have gained a measure of economic prosperity due to developmental policies that include infrastructure growth (new roads and highways), the promotion of agricultural production, support prices for crops or access to new markets. These households signal their upward economic mobility through the withdrawal of women from the workforce and their seclusion within the household. The women partake in the relative affluence of their households, but experience a trade-off in terms of the loss of economic independence and autonomy and the socially valued and visible status of paid workers. Even where women have won the right to higher education and to participate in paid employment, what choices does this translate to for them? In a paper written in the late 1990s, the economist Nirmala Banerjee points to an emergent and growing class differentiation amongst women, given that a minority of women, belonging to the upper middle and upper classes have secured professional education and experienced an expansion of their life-worlds. She asks, provocatively, if the class-derived differences amongst women are more apparent than real, given the enormous social anxieties there are across classes to contain young women’s sexualities within the ‘safety’ of family-arranged marriages.

Banerjee’s poser is particularly resonant when we consider the ‘choices’ that were available to Divya, a young woman from the Vanniyar caste of Dharmapuri district who fell in love and eloped with a young Dalit, Ilavarasan. Divya, who had clearly enjoyed some degree of personal mobility and professional education as a nursing student, discovered to her cost and that of the man she chose, that her freedoms did not include the right to love, or to choose a partner across caste lines. What Divya’s case illustrates is that men act as intermediaries/brokers between the women of their households and caste groups and their constitutionally guaranteed rights. They decide what rights women may access and where the lines must be drawn. And the stakes have always been high. Lest we forget, the sexual control of women of the dominant castes and land-owning classes – the enforcement of their sexual ‘purity’ – has, historically, been indispensable to the transmission of property from father to son (to patrilineage) and, equally, the purity of the bloodline (and therefore of caste). Indeed, this control is central to reproducing caste and class dominance and is a vital ingredient, one of the building blocks as it were, of a deeply stratified social order. As the historian Uma Chakravarty shows through her scholarship on the making of patriarchy in Ancient India, if women could have moved easily between and across caste lines, the boundaries of caste (or lineage) could not have been maintained at all.

The continuing control of women’s mobility and sexual and reproductive lives and choices in post-independence India is thus hardly incidental. What is interesting is how this imperative to (re)-establish clan, caste and community control over women has come to be seen as urgent and pressing in the face of new developmental trajectories that offer the possibilities of challenge to the status quo, of resistance and defiance by subaltern groups and by women. For instance, researchers situate the growing intolerance of the dominant and intermediate backward castes to ‘love’ marriages and cross-caste elopements in Tamil Nadu with reference to the shifting patterns of labour and livelihoods, the increased migration of the young in search of employment, the diversification of jobs that make it possible for the Dalit poor to refuse degrading agricultural labour on farms and fields and the growing caste mobility of young Dalit men. The objection of the Khap Panchayats in the Northern states of India to the use of mobile phones by young women, amongst other things for instance, likewise hints at the enormous anxieties that are at play. These include the fear that the new technologies and the new public spaces outside the household that women have come to inhabit may foster dangerous liaisons and connections that imperil an existing social order. In the face of the severe and ongoing backlash against women who seek to exercise dangerous freedoms, we might ask, following Banerjee, if the emancipatory possibilities opened up by higher education and employment are more apparent than real for women, more specter than substance.

The state is not a neutral spectator to any of the developments discussed here. The signals it sends out to social actors and entities on the question of women’s right to an autonomous existence and to identities not defined by male kin or household-based relationships are incredibly important. For instance, women were not granted an independent status by economic development programmes for over three decades after independence. India’s famous Green Revolution targeted its package of seeds, fertilizers and bank credit to men, re-instating men in their ‘natural’ role as household head and disregarding the overwhelming evidence of women’s work in agriculture on family-owned or leased land. The distribution of land to the landless poor, as the economist Bina Agarwal has persistently argued, invariably meant titling men. Independent land titles for women in their own names (and not as joint patta holders) is seen as a dangerous demand as it gives women the means to quit unhappy marriages and abusive partners and sends out the message that women’s interests and identities cannot be subsumed within family and household interests. More recently, the state’s categorical refusal to legislate on marital rape following the recommendations of the Justice Verma committee report may be construed as sending a socially retrogressive, nevertheless unmissable signal to household, kin and community patriarchies that their suzerainty over the bodies of married women is quite right and may continue undisturbed.

States might act in ways that shore up patriarchy and state developmentalism may have the effect of exacerbating the inter-locking inequities of gender, caste and class, rather than dismantling these. But what of progressive social and political movements and parties wedded to inclusive notions of social justice and anti-caste politics? Even when they have condemned the attacks on cross-caste marriages and espoused support for the right of the young to fall in love, equally strident calls for women’s emancipation or the denunciation of patriarchal control over women’s life-choices and sexualities have not been forthcoming. And this is disappointing indeed. For the writing on the wall stares us in the face. To parcel out and ration women’s democratic rights and to permit some entitlements while proscribing others will simply not cut it any more.


Agarwal, Bina (1994) A field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia, Cambridge University Press

Anandhi, S and Vijayabaskar, M ‘Where buying a motorcycle can spark a riot’, The Hindu, January 7, 2013

Banerjee, Nirmala (2002) ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Sea: Shrinking Options for Women in Contemporary India’ in Karin Kapadia (ed) The Violence of Development: The Political Economy of Gender, Palgrave Macmillan

Bardhan, Kalpana (1985), ‘Women’s Work, Welfare and Status: Forces of Tradition and Change in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, 20(51/52), 21-28 December

Chakravarti, Uma (2003) Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens, Stree.


Dr. Kalpana Karunakaran was with the Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF) for a number of years, part of its rural microcredit and community health initiatives. Impelled by her interest in poverty and gender issues, she then went for a PhD at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, and is currently an Associate Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Madras.