From Teachers to Textbooks: Gender Stereotypes in Indian Schools
When Neha Singh, a Mumbai-based theatre person, feminist, and founder of the women’s movement Why Loiter, co-wrote her first collection of short stories, she made sure to write an equal number about boys and girls,...
When Neha Singh, a Mumbai-based theatre person, feminist, and founder of the women’s movement Why Loiter, co-wrote her first collection of short stories, she made sure to write an equal number about boys and girls, as a matter of principle. Moreover, she says, “Sometimes the family comprises of a single parent, a mother, who manages home as well as chores outside of the home. Even on the cover page, my illustrator Sonal Gupta and I made sure we had an equal representation of boys and girls.”
It sounds pretty basic; however, it is by no means common, and is often a missed opportunity amongst publishers, who tend to treat gender representation as a special or ‘different’ issue from children’s literature.
Small wonder that Singh’s experience in educating children through drama and storytelling in schools and NGOS, has taught her that across schools, the older children get, the more influenced they become by gender stereotypes. The biggest culprits, according to her, are the textbooks that are supposed to be teaching kids how to live in the world.
”Our textbooks not only follow the gender stereotypes to the ‘T’ but also reflect patriarchy in all its abundance,” she fumes. “Hindi and English textbooks lack equal representation of men and women and even history and civics books misrepresent women in text as well as illustrations.”
This was easy enough to verify. I flipped through my son’s class III Hindi textbook, prescribed under the ICSE course titled ‘Bal Bhasha Bahrati’ and published by Goyal Brothers Prakashan in New Delhi. There are roughly 10 male professionals illustrated in this book. In contrast, the few grown women that appear are wives, and mothers – none of them seem to hold jobs. Most texts that I glanced through had one thing in common: Boys were active participants and engaged in physical activities. Girls were passive and often framed in traditional and festive contexts.
That Indian textbooks are sexist is not news. It is more than three decades since the National Council of Educational Research and Training issued an angry rebuttal of Narendra Nath Kalia’s 1980’s pioneering work Sexism in Indian Education: The Lies We Tell Our Children – and the institution seems to persist in its obstinacies, judging by the quality of textbooks available today.
Educational policymakers may have pledged in 1965 to purge reinforcements of female inferiority in school textbooks, but the reality, as reported in The Hindu last year, adds up to a depressingly chauvinistic picture. The report, a fresh, follow-up examination by Kalia of 10 NCERT textbooks for subjects including Hindi, mathematics, English, and environmental studies shows a glaring absence of gender parity. The class V environmental studies textbook portrays soldiers, doctors and officials as men. Women are relegated to domestic duties: cooking and cleaning tasks. In terms of proportions, more than half the illustrations are of men, whilst 20.06% show women.
Kalia, who teaches Sociology at Buffalo State College, in New York, studied 20 Hindi and 21 English language textbooks for classes IX to XI in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana, used by more than 13 lakh students annually. Some of the books had been prepared by the NCERT for the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and are in use in states other than those included in the sample. He published the results of this study in a detailed article in India Today. The analysis is disturbing both in terms of hard data, and in an understanding of the qualitative damage such literature does through persuasive story selection. Out of a sample of 188 lessons, 114 lessons still have male subjects or leading characters, while only 13 feature women. He further reports, “in family settings, particularly, a subtle degradation of females [is] a foregone conclusion.”
There are many examples of blatant chauvinism in the NCERT selection of reading material for children. The story “Resignation,” from English Rapid Reader (published last year for class IX, Rajasthan) thus describes the misery of a clerk’s life: “There was disappointment and defeat all around him. He had no son, but three daughters; no brother but two sisters-in-law.” The damage extends even to a valorization of savage and outlawed practices like sati and jauhar. The NCERT includes a story titled “Dear Departed,” by Stanley Haughton, in the English Supplementary Reader: “What is the basis of human relationships? Love. We have heard innumerable stories of a wife jumping onto the funeral pyre of her husband; for life without him is unthinkable for her. It usually takes a tragedy like death to bring out these latent qualities in relationships.”
As recently as last year, national newspapers publicized details of a book taught at CBSE-affiliated schools. It was titled Health and Physical Education, by Dr VK Sharma, and published by Delhi-based Saraswati House. Among its more notable excerpts, under the chapter titled “Physiology and Sports,” is the endorsement that “36-24-26 shape of females is considered the best. That is why in Miss World or Miss Universe competitions, such type of shape is also taken into consideration.” Eleanor Ross in Newsweek reports another textbook taught under the Maharasthra state board that openly compares a woman to a donkey. Another text reflects, “If a girl is ugly and handicapped then it becomes difficult for her to get married. To marry such girls [the] bridegroom and his family demand more dowry.”
Chrisann Creado, a psychologist with more than 12 years of experience in teaching in IB schools, and teacher training, says sexist representations aren’t limited to textbooks; teachers tend to perpetuate those stereotypes, as well, until it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
”Twelve years as an IB practitioner has me thinking of a particular case of higher level math… In my experience girls and boys are being given different advice about higher level math by guidance counselors and again unintentionally by teachers, who I have personally heard say things [to girls] like, ‘Are you sure you need it for uni? Maybe you can take stand level and focus your energies on your stronger subjects,’” she says. “Or statements like, “You’re not doing so well at higher level math, are you sure engineering is your thing?’ For boys, on the other hand, choice is less of a factor and hence to opt out of higher level math is unthinkable, so the nature of encouragement is different.”
In terms of changing textbooks, Creado would like to see, “content and visuals done in such way that it shows a more equitable distribution of roles in the household; women and men in non-stereotypical roles, so a man feeding the baby, a woman changing a tire…. that kind of thing.”
Singh’s attitude is more radical.
“I think to start off, we need to turn the gender stereotypes on their head completely and challenge them repeatedly and to an extremity so that it is always there for children to see,” she says. “For the next fifty years, we should never make a mother cook [in illustrations] and always make the father cook and only then maybe things will start changing.”
In the meantime, she recommends, kids and parents do some reading on their own time.
“Young Zubaan, Tulika and Pratham have some great material specifically related to breaking gender stereotypes,” she says. “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is a great book to start the conversation about gender with children.”
Considering the dismal state of gender parity regulation in Indian textbooks, it may well be that the onus rests on parents to provide role models and inculcate the value systems for a fair and equal society.
Karishma Attari is a Mumbai-based writer, book reviewer and sunshine generator. She is the author of I See You and Don’t Look Down and runs a workshop series titled 'Shakespeare for Dummies.'