by Sania Muzamil
If we trace the historical process of the evolution of education in South-Asia, taking into consideration socio-cultural and economic factors like colonization, patri-focal family set-up, privatization and globalization, etc. we can map the differential structures of institutional education for ‘male’ and ‘female’ students respectively. State policies or the macro-level of education cannot be independent of the culture of that society (micro). This interplay of education with social factors helps us posit the changing role of women’s education in countries like India in particular.
The social reformist, Hindu revivalist movements of 1920’s targeted sexual crimes (dowry deaths, ‘Sati’, child-marriage, etc.) rather than the societal discrimination based on sex-gender differences. Access to education for women was solely advocated to ossify the already-existing societal and familial roles and not to empower girls or propagate liberating ideas and values.
Reasons for Gendered access and ends of women’s education:
Education for women comes with a whole baggage of cultural myths based on control and discipline of little girls, starting early; often before birth. As Foucault explains in ‘Discipline and Punish’, structures of power are upheld by subtle forms of control, done through disciplining or not-so-subtle forms of punishing ‘bodies’. This is accurate in talking about how ‘women’s bodies’ are controlled (female sexuality-virginity, restricted mobility, etc.) and their lives molded and streamlined to keep the dynamics of power alive in gender relations. Women’s education brings with it certain qualms for orthodox parents as women’s mobility in public spaces, interaction with male students, teachers, and questioning of gender roles is not desirable to the misogynistic politics of the family and State.
Women do not have an equal or similar access to their own time as men do. Girls are not allowed to enter higher levels of education, as it is seen as an impediment to their marriage prospects and marital life (‘grihasti’). Fields like Science, Technology, etc. were earlier totally inaccessible to girl students (despite their better performance in written exams) as these fields of study usually required more time and demanded focus; luxuries that women cannot afford. People also felt that too much study-work could affect the physical (sexual) appeal of girls, by impairing their eye-sight for example and requiring them to wear spectacles, thus reducing their marketability (more dowry etc.)
A system of corporate control was thus developed, as a result of the nexus between conservative parents/ guardians and the newly burgeoning school systems; these schools whether for ideological or strategic reasons cooperated in controlling girl students by imposing an unwritten (or written) ‘code of conduct’; akin to the social and moral codes in place, maintaining the importance of cultural practices such as virginity before marriage, purity, obedience, submission and passivity. Mobility, choice of attire, expression and questioning of girl students have multiple constraints resulting in a claustrophobic marginalization of these students and is evident in the everyday negotiations girl students undergo, to somehow expand the constricted spaces they occupy; inside as well as outside their homes.
In a society like India, where religion and culture have a huge impact on the larger legislative policies and their execution, non-conformists are punished if disciplining strategies fail. Education provides exposure to women in multifarious ways and even though it consists of several problematic facets, yet it is central in imparting the requisite agency, leading to liberalizing and rejuvenating lives. Revenge crimes and honor killings are frequently heard of every time existing structures of love, family, representation, politics etc. are questioned or challenged, making wide-spread education not just impossible but also relegating its role to mere skill-development and social training.
A range of movements demanding more egalitarian education-rights including a re-designing of textbooks to make education not gender-neutral but gender-sensitive, are part of the larger agenda to redefine the very notion of knowledge- freeing education from the narrow, confining role of training and opening it up as an agent for larger social change and ideological evolution.
Sania advocates for equal gender and human rights, and calls for a free world for all. She has a postgraduate degree in English Literature from the University of Delhi and is currently studying and researching Gender perceptions and manifestations. She is currently interning at kractivist.org