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Home > Women’s Rights > India: Sexism and Patriarchy in the Textbooks

India: Sexism and Patriarchy in the Textbooks

Good girls are submissive and subsidiary

by Deepti Priya Mehrotra, 22 November 2012

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Infochange News & Features, October 2012

Good girls are submissive and subsidiary

by Deepti Priya Mehrotra

School textbooks continue to portray a predominantly male and patriarchal world. Women are depicted as demure, stay-at-home accessories for the male. They seem to exist only to preserve the status quo

Sukh ka Dwar, Rajasthan Class 5

In this part of the series ’Education or Indoctrination’, we will focus on examining Hindi Language textbooks for Classes 3, 4 and 5, produced by the Rajasthan State Textbook Board as well as NCERT (1), with an eye to gender concerns. A qualitative approach is combined with quantitative content-analysis methods, to examine gender stereotyping, presence and visibility of female and male characters, women’s agency, and notions of ideal family and societal structures.

Gender stereotypes and work roles

School language and social science textbooks, including those brought out by West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and most other state boards, as well as by commercial private publishers, tend to reinforce gender prejudices, stereotypes and discrimination (2). Scholars have noted that Hindi-language textbooks of states like Rajasthan and UP project an India that is upper-class, upper-caste, Hindu, masculine and militarised. (3) Several scholars have pointed out that the NCERT-2001 textbooks promoted values contradictory to constitutional norms, with negative presentation of gender, as well as of deprived caste, ethnic and religious groups. (4) In contrast, the NCERT-2005 textbooks are framed within a progressive educational, social and political understanding. (5)

When we examine gender roles, identities and attitudes, NCERT (2005) textbooks emerge superior to the Rajasthan state texts, as well as those published by the private publisher Savio, which some private schools in New Delhi prescribe. In Rajasthan textbooks, an archaic, feudal or monarchical ethos is frequently evoked, with women relegated to subsidiary positions. They remain responsible for household chores, particularly cooking and serving; even the story of an activist woman, Imarti Bai, begins with the sentence, "Imarti Bai was working in her house" (Rajasthan, Class 3). Even queens are projected primarily as wives and mothers, rather than rulers: their horizons are limited to the (royal) household. Not one text or illustration depicts a male engaged in household work.

Men are traders, businessmen, kings and princes, soldiers, teachers and religious heads. There is a fleeting reference to a woman scientist, Kalpana Chawla, but an entire lesson about a male scientist, DS Kothari, who is presented as a `vigyanik sant’, saint-scientist. The representations of farmers too are all-male: only at one place is a woman shown in the agricultural fields, and that because she has brought food for the men to eat!

Rajasthan texts and illustrations have an overwhelming presence of soldiers, and groups of boy marching in uniform—soldiers-in-the-making. A number of statesmen are depicted including Gandhi, Chandrashekhar Azad and Rajendra Prasad, but there is no corresponding depiction of a female political figure. In biographies, women are mentioned only in mother or wife roles; in the lesson on Gandhi, Kasturba is not even named, she is just referred to as `Ba’. There is only one female teacher throughout the three textbooks, compared to 10 male teachers. Many `gurus’ are depicted—a term used interchangeably with `teacher’, but there are no female characters to match the stature of any of these. Visual depictions emphasise these distinctions.

Rajasthan and Savio textbooks make hardly any attempt to stimulate thinking on girls’ and women’s status in society; the NCERT textbooks do make scattered attempts to address social stereotypes, with stories and illustrations of girls and women engaged in a wide array of activities. Although NCERT textbooks also frequently show women as responsible for housework and childcare, at least there are some attempts to formulate a challenge. In the story Thapp Roti Thapp Daal (NCERT, Class 4), boys play-act a scene in which they try to cook a meal. By the end of it, however, they are disheartened, and illustrations too indicate their inability to cook.
Girls take over: a brave yet sad commentary on the slow pace of change in gender roles!

Thapp Roti Thapp Dal, NCERT Class 4

Gender-typed from childhood

NCERT textbooks depict changing images, with several stories and illustrations of girls and women in energetic, active postures, wearing different kinds of clothing, their faces and bodies expressive. In Rajasthan textbooks, by contrast, there are visual depictions of girls in traditional feminine garb, lighting diyas at Diwali, receiving presents at Christmas etc. Textbooks by private publishers such as Savio also portray girls and women as passive, basically within a set mould, although overlaid with a veneer of elitism and consumerism.

Hamein Jalashaya Lagte Pyare, Rajasthan Class 3

Rajasthan textbooks project a number of boys with extraordinary personal qualities, for which they are usually amply rewarded. Luv and Kush are presented as child prodigies, Aaruni as the ideal obedient child, Shravan Kumar the quintessential son serving his parents, while Dhruv is fearless and virtuous. These boys are framed in historical and mythological narratives, a context in which no brave girls are depicted. The stray instances of brave girls dwell on one exemplary action; for instance Kalibai, a tribal schoolgirl, sacrifices her life to release her school teacher (in Gurubhakt Kalibai). Roshni, in the story Roshni, runs out of the house to rescue her baby goat, facing firing from across the border. Buddhimatta portrays an ordinary working-class child, Sohni, a rag-picker who aspires to attend school, and plays a key role in the arrest of terrorists. None of these girls matches the stature of the brave boy-heroes.

Role models

The lack of diverse female personalities and adult women in different occupations means that there is a paucity of role models for girls, especially in the Rajasthan textbooks. While girls are sometimes shown as hard-working students, women are shown as working primarily within the household. Girls reading these books are likely to be caught in a dilemma: although they are exhorted to study, no long-term goals and role models are made visible to them. As they grow up, they are supposed to adopt pre-ordained roles of womanhood: wives, mothers and household drudges, devoted primarily to their families. In Savio Publishers’ Hindi textbooks too, there is a lack of positive role models for girls, although at least a female teacher is shown. When a male teacher is depicted, it is interesting to see him communicating directly only with the boys in class, while the girls either stare straight ahead into space, or look somewhere in the direction of the boys!

`Svasth Kaise Rahein’, Satrangi Class 5, Savio Publications Pvt Ltd, New Delhi

Women in Rajasthan textbooks are invariably shown wearing traditional clothes, their heads demurely covered, faces expressionless — which is not the case in NCERT textbooks. In Savio texts, girls are usually shown as sweet, pink-cheeked, wearing cute frocks. In NCERT books the images are more realistic, and diverse. Rajasthan and Savio illustrations have girls with homogenous faces and figures, expressionless. Society, whether the home, classroom or a public function, is shown as segregated on the basis of gender. The age-group to which these textbooks cater often has girls beginning to grow taller than boys—a reality nowhere reflected in the illustrations, which uniformly show girls smaller than boys.

Presence and visibility of girls, boys, women and men

To examine the presence and visibility of girls and women vis-à-vis boys and men, a count of characters in the textbooks was carried out. The count indicates a clear imbalance in the texts as well as in the illustrations, in both Rajasthan state as well as NCERT-2005 textbooks.

Counting all characters in all the lessons in Rajasthan Hindi textbooks for Classes 3, 4 and 5, we find the ratio of male to female characters in the written content is 3:1. Surprisingly enough, the ratio is exactly the same for NCERT textbooks (Hindi, Classes 3, 4 and 5): 75% of the total characters are male, and 25%, ie a mere quarter, are female. There is a similar acute imbalance in the visual representation of females vis-à-vis males in both Rajasthan and NCERT textbooks: approximately three-quarters (76% or 74%) in illustrations are male, while only one-fourth (24% or 26%) are female. Thus, the male-female ratios are extremely low, across the textbooks studied.

Table 1: Number of female and male characters in textbooks

Textbooks: Text/ Illustration Total characters Male characters Female characters
Rajasthan, Cl 3, 4, 5: TEXT 187 141 (75%) 46 (25%)
Rajasthan, Cl 3, 4, 5: ILLUSTRATIONS 589 450 (76%) 139 (24%)
NCERT, Cl 3, 4,5: TEXT 162 121 (75%) 41 (25%)
NCERT, Cl 4: ILLUSTRATIONS 381 280 (74%) 101 (26%)

Examining illustrations in Rajasthan textbooks further, we find just three illustrations with only-female characters. In contrast, 65% illustrations are all-male, while 33% have male-and-female characters.

The ratio of male to female characters is skewed in Hindi language textbooks brought out by private publishers as well. In the Class 4 Savio textbook, the male to female ratio in the texts is 2:1.

Such skewed gender composition is indicative of deeper qualitative issues. This evocation of a predominantly male world provides children with a gender-skewed vision of society.

Patriarchal social structure: No questions asked!

In Rajasthan textbooks, the stories are all set within patriarchal family and society/state structures. There is no questioning of patriarchy, no depiction of alternatives. NCERT textbooks are better, with a relatively more democratic ethos, and some characters who question patriarchal norms.

In Atal Dhruv (Rajasthan, Class 3), the king’s two wives are key characters. Polygamy is casually projected as a natural way of life, with no historical framing, or information about its present status as illegal. Reading this story, we step back into a feudal, monarchical, patriarchal world: a world in which God comes and stands before a boy-child, resolving all his family problems, simply because the boy is virtuous. The story plays out the tension between `good’ mother-and-son, and `bad’ mother-and-son. The `good’ woman is shown as submissive, silent, innocent and homely, while the `bad’ woman is cruel, wicked, manipulative and worldly-wise.

Atal Dhruv, Rajasthan, Class 3

Women and girl-children, and to an extent boy-children too, are framed within the patriarchal family, community or nation—to which they are totally loyal and committed, and for which they continually perform various services. Even the few stories with lead female characters are framed within a patriarchal ethos. Thus Ganga (’Ganga ki Chaturai’, Rajasthan Class 4) is intelligent and quick-witted, but uses these attributes solely in the service of her husband and sons. In Buddhimatta, Sohni receives an award for bravery, but the visual depiction is dominated by the males on stage, and an overwhelmingly male audience. The audience seating arrangement is sex-segregated, with the men prominently placed, and female audience tucked away in a corner. While women in these textbooks wear traditional clothing and jewelry, men wear a range of clothes—from dhoti-kurta and turbans to more contemporary clothes like shirt, pants, suit with tie etc. Their appearance and body language indicate that they are assertive and sure of themselves, while women are submissive and subsidiary.

Women as agents of change

Rajasthan textbooks show Imarti Bai, who prevented deforestation by sacrificing her own life, and Kalibai (Guru Bhakt Kalibai) who sacrificed her life to save her teacher: these characters are harshly punished by the state for their courageous actions.

Imarti Bai, Rajasthan, Class 3

Sohni, in the story Buddhimatta, comes across as a hard-working, sweet, `good’ girl, who catches two terrorists in a totally unrealistic sequence of events. Nowhere in the three sets of textbooks is there any indication of women’s collective action for social transformation.
Girls and women hardly ever emerge as a group, especially in a progressive ethos. They are shown as a group only within traditional contexts: celebrating festivals, heads covered and eyes demurely lowered, quintessential `feminine’ images. Female protest, when presented, is interpreted in ways that suit the interests of maintaining gender hierarchies. Women never raise a voice against patriarchy within family or society; at times a heroine-type figure engages in spontaneous action (to save trees/a baby goat/a revered teacher), for which she is instantaneously punished, usually by death. After Imarti Bai’shead is cut off because she protests tree-cutting, the story glorifies the king who corrected his action due to Imarti Bai’s martyrdom. She is shown as mere fodder for the monarchical state, whose legitimacy is never questioned.

Apart from the three women or girls who take some action in the public sphere — Imarti Bai, Kalibai and Sohni — there is no female political agency. There is no hint of women’s participation in politics, whether in panchayats or in higher echelons of governance. Women’s movements are blanked out and there is no sense of women’s collectivity, whether in everyday or public life. They are not part of the workforce. India is depicted as a seamless whole in which patriarchy co-exists with a jumble of monarchy, feudalism and capitalism, ruled uncontested by wealthy men, male politicians and teachers; women and girls exist, with the sole purpose of perpetuating the status quo.

In NCERT textbooks too, girls and women are rarely depicted in groups, while boys and men (as in Rajasthan and Savio textbooks as well) are frequently shown in groups—playing ball together; students with their teacher/guru; boys and men in the marketplace or walking on the street; kings and courtiers in palaces; etc. They are also predominant when it comes to questioning or protest, as in `Daan ka Hisaab’ (NCERT), where the dissenting citizenry is shown as largely male, with one or two women included. The ethos is predominantly masculine. The typical or ideal putative reader, it seems, is a boy, not a girl – in all the textbooks reviewed — including the NCERT textbooks.

1) Hindi Kaksha 3, Hindi Kaksha 4, Hindi Kaksha 5, produced by Rajasthan Rajya Paatthyapustak Mandal, Jaipur, 2009; and Rimjhim 3, Rimjhim 4, Rimjhim 5, produced by National Council for Educational Research and Training, New Delhi, 2007
2) CABE Sub Committee on Regulatory Mechanisms for Textbooks and Parallel Textbooks Taught in Schools Outside the Government System Report, 2005; also Nirantar, Textbook Regimes: A Feminist Critique of Nation and Identity, 2009
3) Apoorvanand, ’Kaun si Pustakein Patthya Hain’, Shiksha Vimarsh, Issue January February 2007 pp 7-20. In the present article on `Gender Concerns’, we examine the `masculine’ nature in detail, whereas other articles in this series look closely at caste, class, religion and militarization.
4) Ritubala, ’Patthya Pustakon ki Rajniti’, Shiksha Vimarsh March-April 2001, p 19-25; and Bhadu, Rajaram, `Paatthya Pustakon ke Antarpath’, Shiksha Vimarsh, January, February 2007, p 60-63
5) Ritubala, ibid, and Joshi, Kamlesh Chandra, ’Patthya Pustakon ke Naye Swar’, Shaikshanik Sandarbh Volume 5 Issue 62, Nov 2008-Feb 2009, p 29-42

(Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based writer and academic. Her recent book is entitled Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur)