CHENNAI: When you ask four women, vocal politicians all, whether there’s a gender bias in our school books, the answer is probably a foregone conclusion. But the reasoning that actor-turned-politician Khushbu Sundar and MPs Kavitha Kalvakuntla, Sushmita Dev and Supriya Sule came up with still managed to provide plenty of food for thought.
In a session at the ThinkEdu15 conclave replete with ideas, a liberal dose of feminine energy as well as indulgent humour, Omar Abdullah who played the moderator was in his element. Kalvakuntla fired the first salvo about our curriculum’s shortcomings. “Culturally, we revere women in our textbooks. We do talk about Rani Lakshmibai and Mother Teresa, but there is a disparity in the way they are portrayed. Even today, women are shown scrubbing floors and cleaning houses in illustrations, whereas men are portrayed doing extremely masculine things,” she said.
The opinion found resonance with Khushbu, the only one of the ‘home’ panelists present. “I completely believe that. In a way, there is a bias in our curriculum. When we talk about the freedom movement, we talk about the men involved in it. The textbooks talk about Gandhi, Tilak, Ambedkar and others. How many of us think of the women who have been involved?” she queried, looking at the academicians and the students in the gallery.
Singling out her daughter seated amongst the audience, she quickly added, “When I asked my daughter, who’s in the ninth grade, about freedom fighters she had studied about, she named 10 men. What about the women?”
Khushbu then asked how many people had heard about Tyagi Mohanavalli Vadivu and looked around. After three hands slowly went up, she laughed. “She was the first suicide bomber in the world and was a firebrand during the freedom struggle. She threw herself into an arsenal filled with explosives because she didn’t want these weapons to be used against freedom fighters,” she pointed out.
Supriya Sule agreed almost whole-heartedly about the depiction of women in textbooks, but couldn’t help but wax eloquent on how progressive her State is.
“Maharashtra’s curriculum has been progressive and open. There are success stories of women that are taught to all the students there. In a lot of our programmes, we ensure that both boys and girls mandatorily take part in activities that cross the so-called gender barrier,” she said.
“If there’s a rangoli competition, all the boys have to take part. If a guest is visiting their school, the welcome song is sung by both girls and boys. When there’s cleaning or shifting of benches that needs to be done, girls are asked to lend a hand,” Sule pointed out.
The solution, according to Sushmita Dev, lies in reworking the curriculum to bring in a sense of gender equality. “The strength education has is that it teaches us the past. But it’s real power is it can imbibe in a young mind what the future can be like. Today, the role of women is stereotyped in books, yes, a woman is shown as a doctor or nurse, and that has to be removed. What we need is a textbook that can reach a girl even at a small village and tell her that she can become a pilot,” she said.
Suggestions that received nods of agreement from the panel included bringing in contemporary women role models who can not only inspire young women from a formative age, but also sensitise young men.