Many years ago while sorting out books of the last academic year during the summer break, I happened to leaf through my son’s fifth standard text book on Value Education, a subject that was there at that time with the Maharashtra State Board. A chapter titled Equality of Sexes and Adjusting to Changing Trends caught my eye and I started leafing through it. It talked of a girl called Geeta who was as well educated as her brother by her widowed mother and then married into a rich, joint family that owned a cloth business in Lucknow. But instead of “plunging into a lifetime of enjoyment as another woman would have” Geeta started her own dress designing business that grew by leaps and bounds in just two years. She employed a few tailors and even her sister-in-law joined in. But while earlier her orthodox father-in-law, husband and brother-in-law had given a tacit acceptance to her work they now started feeling threatened by it. So one day they asked her to shut it down on the pretext that her business brought her in contact with “all sorts of men” and that may bring the family disrepute. Geeta was sad and disappointed but closed down her business. She then did her post graduation and after sometime started a bookshop. “The family did not object to this business as it was small and she worked at it alone”. And everyone lived happily ever after!
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It took me a few moments to absorb and understand that over the past year this was the notion of gender equality and “adjusting to trends” that had been passed onto my son and all other young boys of that generation. But the year was over, as was the lesson and much to my relief in a few years the subject “Value Education” itself was dropped from the curriculum.
Still I remember keeping aside that textbook (and have it till today) to be cited as a sad example of the kind of misguided and warped thinking educationists are capable of unleashing on young impressionable minds and the societal damage it holds the potential of doing.
I needn’t have bothered. Or at least used the space all these years to store a better book. For 15 years down the line the Maharashtra State Board has not just repeated history, but outdone itself by even eschewing the slight subtlety it had employed earlier. With the Std XII Sociology text book stating that “if a girl is ugly and handicapped, then it becomes very difficult for her to get married… and parents of such girls become helpless and pay dowry as per the demands of the bridegroom’s family,” they have managed to raise the bar on regressive thinking to a whole new low.
Hardly had this news made the rounds that, almost as on cue, we had the principal of a government-run polytechnic in Mumbai finding it suitable to share her Eureka moment when she stated that girls who wear trousers start thinking like men and hence find it difficult to conceive! And on the eve of women’s day came the news that Jessikutty, the principal of a Kerala nursing college has forbidden the girl students from closing their hostel doors even while changing ostensibly to prevent homosexual activities.
While deep set prejudices and gender biases are a disturbing fact of the society we live in, they become particularly dangerous when they are nurtured and propagated by people who have been vested with the responsibility of guiding and shaping young, impressionable minds.
For too long, our text books have promoted the continuation of a societal system that thrives on mute acceptance of laid down rules and exhorts unquestioning adherence to them as the ultimate virtue. And the disastrous result of this conditioning of convenience that is surreptitiously permeated into the psyche through the education system is there for all to see. The Swati Deshpandes and Jessikuttys of the country are nothing more than unevolved, unthinking products of those decades of questionable lessons on ethics and values, that went unquestioned. Simply because, coming as they did through the stamped authority of an approved syllabus, they acquired the halo of irrefutable truth.
Recently though a faint ray of light has appeared. Resource material prepared by the Health Ministry for adolescent peer educators has taken a step in the right direction as it actually tells young people that it is all right to “feel attraction” for the opposite sex or the same sex during adolescence. Significantly, it goes a step further to add that the crucial aspects of all such relationships are consent and respect.
It’s time to bring that same sensitivity and sensibility into mainstream education when it comes to gender studies. To make a concerted attempt at correcting the syllabus that has over the decades – sometimes subconsciously, sometimes very deliberately – invariably deepened the divide between the sexes. For those involved in bigger power games, it needs to be said – rewriting history can wait, rewriting her story cannot.