Educational institutions mould children into the citizens that they become. The ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that they imbibe from their education and experiences, especially in schools, will most likely carry throughout their life. This can be pernicious if the concepts of sexism, misogyny as well as patriarchal values are being ingrained into impressionable young minds. These ideas persist to this day as they are passed down through generations.
This is why the investigation of the content that textbooks in schools carry is important because they impart lasting lessons to young students. Most textbooks perpetuate and reinforce gender stereotypes through cementing prejudices like that of portraying men as heroic and strong-willed, while women are positioned as demure caretakers, whose purpose almost always seems to be only to act as background fillers.
According to the Global Education Monitoring Report by UNESCO, women and girls are underrepresented in school textbooks across the world, and when they are included, it is typically in traditional roles that reinforce orthodox ideas that assign them patriarchal gender roles. A study where a sample of 188 lessons from Indian textbooks was analysed, showed that a majority of 114 lessons (60.6 percent) had male characters as the lead, while only 13 lessons (6.9 percent) had women as the central characters. There is a very visible disparity that exists here.
Some exhibits of such harmful stories from school textbooks are the following. The story ‘Resignation’, from ‘English Rapid Reader’ for grade IX in Rajasthan, includes the ensuing sentence that is meant to illustrate the misery of a clerk’s life- “There was a disappointment and defeat all around him. He had no son, but three daughters; no brother but two sisters-in-law.”
These excerpts hoist patriarchal ideals of gender bias, where the preference of a man or boy over a woman or girl is made conspicuous. Such connotations are especially dangerous in a country like India, where female foeticide, which refers to sex-selective abortions, is high in numbers. To put an end to female foeticide, tests that can determine the sex of the gestating child have been criminalised since 1994, under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (1994).
Another example of a problematic lesson among others is a Hindi story called ‘Bade Ghar ki beti’ that I had the misfortune of learning in high school within the ICSE curriculum. This story communicates the idea that it is a tragedy and disappointment, that a family does not have any sons. Such lessons only reiterate the supposed inferiority of women and echo these ideas within classrooms, making sure students soak in gender discriminatory prejudices and are tuned to behaving the way patriarchy mandates them to.
The outlook and attitudes of teachers also deeply influence students. Children tend to idolise their teachers, and teachers need to ensure that they instill values of equality, mutual respect, and individuality in students. “Just because a teacher is going to school and teaching the kids, doesn’t mean they will forget who they are. Their upbringing is also carried out in the same stereotypical environment and that’s what they project onto the young minds,” says Dr. Shubra Sanyal, a psychologist retired from the National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science, MHA, who also authored the book ‘Save the Children’ for NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training).
When I was 16, my teacher advised all the girls to dress “appropriately” before a school trip. We were cautioned that we could attract male attention through our attire and that we must ensure to dress in a way to not make anyone uncomfortable. I found that this conversation ironically made me uncomfortable as it conveniently placed the onus of the sexualisation of girls on girls themselves.
I understand that the teacher might have had good intentions, and may have simply wished to ensure our safety, but this does not change the fact that this had been a one-sided conversation and the boys were given no similar instructions regarding their bodies or behaviour. Why are we making women feel responsible for men’s actions or worse potential actions of violence?
A woman who would prefer to remain anonymous recounts her high school experience where boys and girls were strictly segregated. “The school I went to in the 11th and 12th grade used to make boys and girls sit at opposite ends of the auditorium during events. The same would usually happen in classes too, and if guys and girls sat together, it was almost always the girls who were asked to move elsewhere.”
She further went into detail about how even during dire times like the pandemic, these partitions were maintained and even included in the safety protocols translating into problematic institutional decisions. “During the pandemic when schools were temporarily reopened, as part of covid safety protocols, the principal announced that there would be separate staircases assigned to boys and girls,” she recalls. Such rules reinforce discords and alienation between genders.
In short, sexist language preserves sexism and we have to reform how we speak, write and behave with young children. Sexist language oppresses people through labeling, exclusion, and stereotyping. However, some steps are being taken to mend this portrayal of women in educational textbooks and institutions.
For instance, the state of Kerala vowed to remove sexist language from their textbooks in 2021 after an enormous number of cases came to light where deaths of women were allegedly related to dowry harassment and domestic abuse. The Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan said, “In light of the recent horrifying incidents of domestic abuse, Kerala has decided to take more stringent measures to create a fair society”. As an effort toward this fair society, the process includes the audit of school textbooks, as the government wishes to “sieve” out sexist portrayals of women.
“Steps will be taken to turn our schools and colleges into spaces that embrace the idea of gender equality and equal rights,” the Chief Minister stated.
Thus, endeavours to resolve the problematic language and ideas surrounding how women and gender minorities are represented in educational textbooks are being carried out in isolation and must continue to be taken up by all state governments, so that we do not ingrain young minds with unequal ideas of gender bias, and lead them into embracing patriarchy’s discriminatory mandates.
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