CHENNAI: Images of men in uniform, and women engaged in household work. What’s wrong with this picture? They enforce gender stereotypes in the school textbooks of primary school children in India. This is just one example of the many ways in which the school curriculum, though it may not be anti-woman, does not take an effort at portraying gender equality. With a patriarchal past, and its shadow still looming large, this may not be surprising. It just goes to show what must change in the education of the present and future generations. This was the conclusion of a scintillating discussion between four women, able and vocal politicians all. Actor-politician Khushbu Sundar and MPs Kavitha Kalvakuntla, Sushmita Dev and Supriya Sule, gave people plenty of food for thought in the session on whether our curriculum was anti-woman. In a session replete with ideas, a liberal dose of feminine energy and indulgent humour, Omar Abdullah who played moderator was in his element.
The first salvo regarding our curriculum’s shortcomings was fired by Kalvakuntla, “Culturally we revere women in our text books. After all, we do talk about Rani Lakshmibai and Mother Teresa, but there is a disparity in the way they are shown. Even today, women are shown scrubbing floors and cleaning the house in text book illustrations, whereas men are seen doing extremely masculine things.”
The curriculum is also guilty of omission as much as commission, showed Khushbu when she asked how many women freedom fighters we were taught about. “When we talk about the freedom movement, we talk about the men involved in it. The text books talk about Gandhi, Tilak, Ambedkar and all the others. How many of us think of the women who have been involved?” she queried, looking at the academicians and students in the gallery. She then asked how many people had heard about Tyagi Mohanavalli Vadivu and looked around. After three hands slowly went up, she laughed and said, “She was the first suicide bomber in the world and was a firebrand in the freedom struggle. She threw herself into an arsenal filled with explosives because she didn’t want these weapons to be used against freedom fighters.”
Supriya Sule agreed almost whole-heartedly about the depiction of women in text books, but brought attention to the progress made in States like hers, “In Maharashtra’s curriculum, success stories of women are also taught. In a lot of our programmes, we ensure that both boys and girls mandatorily take part in activities that cross the so-called gender barrier,” she said and explained, “If there’s a rangoli competition, then all the boys have to take part. If a guest is visiting their school, then the welcome song is sung by both girls and boys. When there’s cleaning or bench-shifting that needs to be done, girls too are asked to lend a hand.”
The solution, according to Sushmita Dev, lies in reworking the curriculum to bring in a sense of gender equality. “The strength education has is that it teaches us the past. But its real power is that it can imbibe in a young mind what the future can be. Today, the role of a woman is stereotyped in books; yes, a woman is shown as only a doctor or nurse. What we need is a textbook that can reach a girl in a small village and tell her that she can be a pilot,” she said.
Suggestions that received nods of agreement from the panel included bringing in contemporary women role models who could not only inspire young women from a formative age, but also sensitise young men. Agreeing with Khushbu’s assertion that respect for women begins at home, Dev said, “Education can condition the minds of young children to not commit crimes against women.”