Educational institutions shape children into the citizens they become. The ideas, beliefs and attitudes that they imbibe from their upbringing and experiences, especially in schools, will most likely continue throughout their lives. It can be pernicious if concepts of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchal values are ingrained in impressionable young minds. These ideas persist to this day as they are passed down from generation to generation.
This is why studying the content of textbooks is important because they impart lasting lessons to young students. Most textbooks perpetuate and reinforce gender stereotypes by cementing biases such as portraying men as heroic and determined, while women are positioned as wise guardians, whose aim almost always seems to be solely to fulfill the role background.
According to Global Education Monitoring Report by UNESCO, women and girls are underrepresented in textbooks around the world, and when they are included, it is usually in traditional roles that reinforce orthodox ideas that ascribe gender roles to them patriarchal. A study where a sample of 188 Indian textbook lessons was analyzed, showed that a majority of 114 lessons (60.6%) had male characters as protagonists, while only 13 lessons (6.9%) had female characters as main characters. There is a very visible disparity that exists here.
Here are some examples of such harmful stories from school textbooks. The story ‘Resignation‘, of ‘English fast reader‘ for Grade IX in Rajasthan, includes the following phrase which is intended to illustrate the misery of an employee’s life-“There was disappointment and defeat all around him. He had no sons, 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 highlighted. Such connotations are particularly dangerous in a country like India, where female feticide, which refers to sex-selective abortions, is high in number. To put an end to female feticide, tests to determine the sex of the pregnant child have been been criminalized since 1994, under the Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act (1994).
Another example of a problematic lesson among others is a Hindi story called ‘Baden Ghar ki beti‘ that I had the misfortune to learn in high school through the ICSE program. This story communicates the idea that it is a tragedy and a disappointment, that a family does not have a son. Such lessons only reiterate the supposed inferiority of women and echo these ideas in classrooms, ensuring that students learn from discriminatory prejudices against women and listen to behave as the patriarchy compels them.
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Teachers’ perspectives and attitudes also profoundly influence students. Children tend to idolize their teachers, and teachers need to ensure that they instill the values of equality, mutual respect and individuality in students. “JJust because a teacher goes to school and teaches children doesn’t mean they’ll forget who they are. Their upbringing also takes place in the same stereotypical environment and that is what they project onto young minds.“, said Dr. Shubra Sanyal, a retired psychologist from National Institute of Criminology and Forensic MedicineMHA, who is also the author of the book ‘save the children‘ for NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training).
When I was 16, my teacher advised all the girls to dress up”appropriatelybefore a school trip. We were warned that we could attract the attention of men by our dress and that we should be careful to dress in a way that did not make anyone feel uncomfortable. I found this conversation ironically uncomfortable because it conveniently placed the burden of girls’ sexualization on the girls themselves.
I understand that the teacher may have had good intentions and just wanted to keep us safe, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was a one sided conversation and the boys weren’t given any instruction similar regarding their body or behavior. . Why do we make women feel responsible for the actions of men or worse for the potential actions of violence?
A woman who would prefer to remain anonymous recounts her experience in high school where boys and girls were strictly separated. “The school I attended in grades 11 and 12 had boys and girls seated at opposite ends of the auditorium during events. The same thing usually happened in the courtyards too, and if boys and girls sat together, it was almost always the girls who were asked to move elsewhere.”
She went on to detail how, even during difficult times like the pandemic, these partitions were maintained and even included in security protocols, resulting in problematic institutional decisions. “During the pandemic, when schools were temporarily reopened, as part of covid safety protocols, the headmaster announced that there would be separate stairs assigned to boys and girls“, she recalls. Such rules reinforce discord and alienation between genders.
In short, sexist language preserves sexism and we need to reform the way we speak, write and behave with young children. Sexist language oppresses people through labeling, exclusion and stereotyping. However, some measures are taken to correct this representation of women in textbooks and educational institutions.
For example, the state of Kerala pledged to remove sexist language from its textbooks in 2021 after a huge number of cases came to light where deaths of women were allegedly linked to dowry-related harassment and domestic violence. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said“In light of the recent horrific incidents of domestic violence, Kerala has decided to take stricter measures to create a just society”. In an effort towards this just society, the process includes auditing textbooks, as the government wishes “sieveon sexist representations of women.
“Steps will be taken to transform our schools and colleges into spaces that embrace the idea of gender equality and equal rights“said the Chief Minister.
Thus, efforts to address the problematic language and ideas surrounding the representation of women and gender minorities in school textbooks are carried out in isolation and must continue to be taken up by all state governments, so as not to entrench young minds with uneven ideas. gender bias and lead them to adopt the discriminatory mandates of patriarchy.
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Featured image source: India Grandstand