A neglected community within the intersectionality of oppression is the one that is unable to read and write. Literacy which refers to the ability to read and write was reported at 73 percent in 2011 in India. Over a quarter of the population has been denied access to literacy. Being able to read this article is a privilege that we often do not consider and assess. And considering how women have been the downtrodden among the downtrodden, due to several factors such as patriarchy, class, caste etc. oppressing them, they have seen higher rates of illiteracy prevail among them than men.
Illiteracy is a problem which has intricate layers attached to its roots. In India, illiteracy is the product of grave disparities that exist and appear in the form of gender, income, caste, religious, age, geographical, technological, and state imbalances. Even within illiteracy, there exists a statistical disparity in communities that are most likely to be denied access to education. The literacy rate among women in India is 64.6 percent, a staggering sixteen percentage difference with male literacy being recorded at 80.9 percent. The intersectionality of oppression must not be forgotten when looking at literacy rates with caste, age, state, socio-economic background, and geography contributing to higher illiteracy rates amongst women.
The politics of literacy enable and sustain a vicious cycle which leads to many marginalised communities remaining dependent on someone else and forgotten by the institutional structure and workings of society that takes literacy as a given.
I sat down with Kamla Devi Sharma, who recounted her experience of growing up without ever having the opportunity to learn how to read and write and how it affected her life.
Alaya: Could you begin by telling us a little bit about yourself and your socio-economical background?
Kamla Devi Sharma: My name is Kamla Devi Sharma. I am around seventy years old; I guess slightly older. I am the second eldest amongst five sisters and one brother. I grew up in a village in Himachal called Sialdi and moved to another village Senaldi after getting married. I was ten years old when I got married to a man who was fifteen years older than me, and I gave birth to my first child at the age of twelve. As a young girl, I was never presented with the opportunity to go to school, and as a result, like many women my age, I cannot read and write.
Alaya: Can you talk a little bit about the education system in rural Himachal when you were growing up. Who was and was not allowed to go to school, and what was the dominant belief behind this rule?
Kamla Devi Sharma: My brother went to school, and so did two of my sisters. The three of us (three older sisters) did not get to study. It was extremely uncommon during the time that we grew up to see young girls go to school. There was no such consideration amongst the village elders and my parents to send the girls to school. At that time, there was no value seen in educating a girl, simply put. In my village, none of the girls that were my age went to school. We were expected to learn how to raise cattle, cut crops, collect fodder and water, and cook food. It was almost as if there was an unsaid rule that this was what we were designed to do.
With the changing times and more awareness about the importance of education for all, people began sending their daughters to school. Around that time, I gave birth to my son; opportunities started opening up for girls to go to school in my village. My two younger sisters went to school, but that was after I had a son. One of my sisters is younger than my son.
Alaya: As a child, what did you think about the gender segregation in for education followed in your village?
Kamla Devi Sharma: I really wanted to go to school, and I was passionate about wanting to learn and do everything that my brother and my male cousins were doing. I used to pick other people’s school bags and run off to school and sit in the same class as my male cousins.
I stopped doing that after my mother questioned me about my whereabouts. I would often get slapped for trying to sneak off with my male cousins to school. My mother would get angry at the thought of me going to school alone. I was scared and made to fear the possibility of going to school. Fear is an essential emotion, an emotion that often prevents us from doing things that we wish to do and become people that we want to become. So, I would say I was passionate but felt fear.
Alaya: In what ways do you think has illiteracy affected your quality of life, access to resources, and freedom? How does it lead to a vicious cycle of oppression and fear?
Kamla Devi Sharma: I got married earlier than most girls my age. Girls my age were twelve when they got married; I was ten when I got married to my twenty-five-year-old husband. My husband’s engagement got broken off, and at that time, men would get married to another woman instantly. I got married to him, ten days after his first engagement had been called off. I was beyond nervous and scared and felt trapped and without any resources. I had to listen to everyone in his family, and their needs were always above mine. Not being able to read and write bounds you in so many ways, your options of working and earning an income become increasingly less, and you are constantly dependent on others.
Our society functions so much on knowing how to read and write that we become invisible and overlooked. You need to rely on someone else eternally. When I was working on my own in Hyderabad, I would send letters to my family. Someone would have to write a letter for me, and it was tough because I could not express myself the way I wanted, I could not share my struggles and concerns. I would alter my words because someone else was writing it for me, and I was embarrassed.
The inability to read and write keeps you in a constant state of fear; the first time I boarded a train, it had been difficult for me because I could not read my compartment number. I remember getting up to use the bathroom and being afraid that I would forget what compartment I was in and people would suspect that I had gotten on the train without paying. I still recall looking at the passenger next to me, trying to remember what he looked like and what he was wearing. My heart was beating fast, and I decided to tie a red thread on the compartment door in order to find my way back. That was one of the incidents that really made me think of what my life would have looked like if I had known how to read and write.
Alaya: Are there assumptions people have of you due to your educational background?
Kamla Devi Sharma: There are a lot of assumptions that people have about you when you can’t read and write. The biggest one is that you are unaware and ignorant. There have been a couple of incidents where people have tried to deceive and take advantage of me. People have attempted to extract money from me and threaten to take me to the police. You need to be strong; most people out there think that they can trick you. Most people believe that you don’t know as much as them and make uninformed decisions, but that is absolutely far from the truth.
Alaya: Is there something you would like for people to take with them after reading this interview?
Kamla Devi Sharma: Most people, around me today, know how to read and write. Everyone in my family and most people in my village can read and write too. I think that as a result, today’s generation does not understand precisely how hard it is for people to go about their life without being able to read and write. There is a really negative conception that we have built that people who are illiterate are the root of every problem and are uninformed. I have seen the world for what it is, I have worked for my family and raised them while having an alcoholic husband. Yet, I am the one at fault because of my educational background. We need to change the way we see literacy and its accessibility and remind ourselves not to blame the people, who have been denied a basic fundamental right.
Alaya Purewal is a third-year undergraduate student at Sciences Po Paris where she majors in political science and international relations with a regional focus in Europe and Asia. Her interests include reading nihilist poetry, an alarming obsession with true crime, collecting old books, identity politics, dismantling oppressive systems, and trying to understand the world. She also produces a docu-series, s(H)e, that looks at social issues through an intersectional feminist perspective. You can find her on Instagram.
Featured Image Source: As provided by the author