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The Cultural Context of Girls’ Education in India

Krishna Kumar
June 7, 2009

If a broad profile were to be drawn of the common experience of growing up female in Indian society, it would highlight physical restrictions as well as mental or psychological negativity communicated to little girls from birth onwards. A son’s birth is greeted with celebration while a daughter’s birth is at best, endured. The unwantedness of daughters gets conveyed in ways which are hardly subtle. The idea of life-long dependence and insecurity get communicated in terms of marriage and motherhood being the sole objectives of a woman’s life. The temporary nature of one’s natal home and the anxiety of adjustment in an unknown family form part of the learning that a girl cannot escape during childhood. Communication of deep-rooted beliefs, such as the “impurity” of menstruation, enables girls to internalize their lower ritual status under patriarchy. Transmission of culturally sanctioned attitudes constitutes the gendering process which guides girls into becoming socially acceptable women. Socialization in the family setting receives powerful reinforcement from the modern media, including both television and cinema, which use these basic elements of culture to weave commercially successful products which perpetuate tradition both in terms of its material practices and attitudes. 

Little attention has been paid in educational research and teacher training to the implications of such negative aspects of girls’ upbringing on their psychological development. Educational policy endorses child-centered pedagogic practices which essentially respond to the child’s own search for opportunities to express agency. Nurturing of self-esteem is another major value in the child-centered philosophy of education, as it enhances the motivation and confidence to learn. In the case of girls, both agency and self-esteem come under stress and, in many cases, get damaged at an early age by behavioral practices and beliefs entrenched in the culture of child-rearing. Some of these practices have an explicitly discriminatory character, involving positive parental behavior towards the male siblings which heightens the negative treatment meted out to girls. But even outside the frame of discriminatory behavior, the everyday signal conveyed to girls that they have a vulnerable body and a “weak” mind, unsuitable for the rigor of subjects like science and mathematics, poses a major challenge for school education. There is little evidence to suggest that teachers recognize the challenge or appreciate its nature and scale. They themselves carry patriarchical prejudices towards the feminine self, and in this matter, male teachers may not differ much from women teachers.  Internalization of patriarchy is common to both, and teacher education does little to induce self-reflection or questioning. Teachers are trained to impart subject knowledge and that is what they mainly do, without worrying about the socially constructed structure of their students’ minds.          

There is then the question of the larger social milieu and its effect on girls. Little is known, for example, how school-going girls emotionally respond to the rising incidence of female feticide in many parts of the country, or how they interpret the aggressive behavior of Hindu political activists which often leads to violence against young women. My own experience as a teacher suggests that girls are well aware of the deep misogyny underlying Indian societal norms. Many of them regard education as a means of acquiring greater strength to endure a social environment which is hostile to women. They expect schools and colleges to provide them with a special, positive ethos, and many institutions do make a serious effort to create such an ethos. Unfortunately, the number of such institutions is quite small, and their impact on others is insignificant. Discrimination against girls is a pervasive aspect of classroom and campus life in the overwhelming majority of educational institutions at all levels in India.

This takes many forms, some of which are entrenched in curricular and institutional policies. According to V. Geetha, as the recent studies carried out by Nirantar show, gender bias and stereotyping are not just common but structurally embedded in textbook writing, and the relatively more developed States like Tamil Nadu are no exception to this trend. The vast effort made by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in this respect, on the basis of the National Curriculum Framework – 2005, has yet to make an impact on textbooks development processes used by State governments and private publishers. NCERT’s new syllabi and textbooks take a pro-active and analytical, rather than a remedial stance towards gender asymmetry. They re-articulate social and economic relations in ways that would enable both teachers and children to notice the presence of women in social spaces where they have been rendered invisible by the symbolic power of patriarchy. For instance, in the Class VI textbook of the new subject called Socio-Political Life, the farmer whose profile is drawn to draw children’s attention towards the rural economy is a woman. Gender relations are introduced in other subjects and textbooks at a deeper, epistemic level, not merely to avoid the charge of bias towards women.

Such a new approach requires a revamping of the present teacher education system. Operating at the present on the margins of academic life, teacher education needs to be brought to its center. For this to happen, bridges need to be built between teacher education, on one hand, and the departments dealing with the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics, on the other. Only an inter-disciplinary structure of study and training will allow the deep-set gender asymmetry to come under critical focus. Isolated strategies cannot be expected to go deep enough to touch the levels at which the cultural architecture of patriarchy overlaps with structures of knowledge.

Progress made towards gender parity over the recent years is quite evident in the early years of elementary education as far as enrollment is concerned. Though more girls are now attending primary schools than before and even though their numbers are comparable to those of boys in many parts of the country, the experience of the two might radically differ on account of what they have already “learned” at home about learning. Therefore, avenues of knowledge and skill open to them may also be quite different from the ones regarded as being suitable for boys in India’s growing and competitive political economy. Relevant proof of this disparity can be found in the gender break-up of entrance figures of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). The proportion of girls among the successful participants in this year’s joint entrance examination for IITs is just about 10 percent. This sharp disparity between the performance of boys and girls is a symbol of the multi-dimensional discriminatory regime which is culturally imposed on girls and which the system of education is unable to counter.

Girls’ education needs to be looked at in a far wider and more complex and nuanced perspective than what is generally applied with reference to gender parity. This wider perspective needs to be constructed on the basis of the realization that girls’ lives and education in contemporary India continue to be shaped by historical forces which have their roots in culture. The specificity of India’s patriarchy lies in the relation between gender and caste. The concepts of purity and pollution are fundamental to caste, and though women themselves are deemed “impure,” the major burden of the maintenance of caste purity rests on them. According to Leela Dube, “the principles of caste inform the specific nature of sexual asymmetry of Hindu society; the boundaries of caste and the hierarchies of caste are articulated by gender.” How caste and kinship affect girls’ lives should be a matter of as much interest to the modern state as the challenges posed by the caste system to the Constitution’s egalitarian social vision are. Matters pertaining to girls constitute a hard area of social policy, and the state’s record of dealing with such matters offers considerable signs of continuity since colonial times. The latest evidence of this continuity comes from the revised version of act, approved by the parliament in 2006, which seeks to curb child marriage. The 1929 version mirrored a hesitant state, and so does the 2006 version. The state’s capacity to deal with such matters was shaped during the colonial period in the context of the emerging relations of power between native elites and the colonizers. As Charu Gupta points out, Hindu revivalism and Hindu-Muslim separatism developed, during the late colonial period, a modern discourse of misogyny which later became part of a political ideology. This historical legacy continues to act as a resource for the symbolic violence that permits modernity and democracy to operate in conjunction with women’s oppression from an early age. An engagement with the structures of knowledge and power which permit this conjunction to perpetuate itself is necessary to devise a new policy and strategies for girls’ education.

Krishna Kumar is the Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), located in New Delhi, India. He was a visiting scholar for the spring semester 2009 at the Center for the Advanced Study of India. Email:


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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