Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Meek girls, brave boys and school books.

In this (hopefully..) short post I would like to present to you what I discovered in India, while helping my little neighbor with his homework. 

Before I tell you how shocked I was with his books, let's talk about one word that is sending shock waves around the globe. GENDER. (I hope you know how shocking the concept of gender is in some parts of this world)

In case you are one of those people who believe that studies about gender are dangerous to traditional family structure and really the society as we know it, let me tell you few fun facts. 
  • Gender studies don't claim that men and women are biologically the same. No, we all know women have vaginas, men have penises. 
  • Gender studies don't encourage kids to become gay or transgender. No, they promote acceptance and equality of all sexual orientations or genders. 
  • Gender studies don't encourage erasing traditions or cultures, unless misogyny and patriarchy is the main theme in any given culture. 
The end of fun facts, hope you're not blown away by those revelations. Oh, and no, moaning about gender bias doesn't mean that leftists are plotting to replace patriarchy with matriarchy. We're just trying to be friends here, ok? 

Let's get back to India now. So, my 8 year old friend came to me few times to seek help with his homework (kids in India have a loooooottt of homework!). While helping him with his English I noticed something strange about his books (he had 7 of them just for one semester... thank god I didn't grow up there). 

His books were full of stories about amazing men. I mean it, great role models like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay - first people to climb Mount Everest. Other examples weren't any less amazing, my young neighbor would read about great sportsmen, politicians, historical (male) figures or soldiers. This way authors of his books were teaching him about perseverance, power of motivation, hard work and strength of character.  What strikes me the most was huge disproportion in stories about men and women. In fact, initially I had an impression that women are virtually absent from his textbooks. 

My boyfriend thought at first I'm over reacting, since I'm thinking about feminism and gender all the time... So I sat down with him, looked through every single page of each and every text book to count how many times women appear in those 7 books. 

Before I share with you what I found, let me tell you how I explained to my boyfriend why do I think it's important for children to have more balanced proportion of women and men in stories that they read. 

If human understanding of gender was universal, males and females (because obviously, according to most traditions other genders don't exist) in all cultures, throughout the history would behave in exact same way. That's simply not the case. That may lead you to think that biological sex is not necessarily a determinant of human behavior or traits of character. Gender roles are built into us not by nature, but by society that works very hard since the day we're born to socialize us into certain norms, including behaviors traditionally appropriate for our sex. 


School, teachers and textbooks are powerful agents to enforce social norms. Children at school are told what is expected of them as boys/girls and any deviation from this norm is noticed and might be even punished. Boys behaving loudly is just "boys are always so hyperactive" while girls behaving loudly is lack of good manners. Girls are those quiet, meticulous students who work hard to have good grades. Boys are disruptive, lazy, unable to focus creatures who get good marks not because they spend their evenings studying, but because they're simply clever. 

School books that I had a doubtful pleasure of reading show sexes in two opposing ways, if they show two sexes at all. Boys are those full human beings, with interests, ambitions, determination and curiosity for the world. Where as girls are shown as domestic, quiet, calm, meek, subservient. It worries me that girls and boys in my neighbors class will grow up with such stereotypical views about women. This kind of books are teaching children about notions of masculinity and femininity as two opposite poles. 

If you look at social problems faced by Indian society today you will see that many of them (like rape or domestic violence) are somehow connected to stereotypical understanding of gender roles. Boys are brought up by mothers who are grateful to have a son. Boys are given a lot of freedom and are made to believe they are the boss who orders and expects. Girls on the other hand grow up hearing that god cursed their family by giving them a girl. They are brought up to be "good girls",  quiet, shy, ready to serve, cook well, make great tea and in general be a good material for a wife. Obviously there are great examples of girls being brought up to be strong, empowered beings too, but those are more of exceptions from the rule and happen usually among higher (and richer) classes (we don't believe in casts anymore, right? :P ). 

In all 7 books, full of different stories I found, to be exact, TWO stories where women had the stage for themselves. I also took some very bad quality pictures of every single depiction of woman. 

The first story about a women that I stumbled upon was this one. The lady in pink sari is a protagonist in a story about bravery. YUPII!!
No, not that fast. If I recall it correctly, the village of this beautiful woman was in danger, armed robbers were prowling around and nobody felt safe, so men from this village, including this lady's husband went out to look for those hooligans. Unfortunately, while he was out, the robbers came to plunder his house. Not to worry, his brave wife was just waiting with her magic samosa recipe! She cooked for those villains and her delicious food made them forget about their evil plans.

 Amazing, isn't it? Boys get to be the soldiers, sportsmen, politicians, and girls get to be... great cooks!!! Yes girls, you better learn to roll those round chapatis, because that's one of the most valuable virtues a girl can posses. 

The second story (with another awful quality photo, please forgive me) with a female heroine was about Albert Einstein's mother. She was shown as the perfect mother, ready to sacrifice everything for her son. According to this story, she struggled to give young Albert everything he needed, including education, despite all her problems. 

Yes girls, boys can take example from first men on Mount Everest, and you can identify with one women who did a great job bringing up her son. Good luck with that. 

Those were all stories with female protagonists out of 7 text books. Am I really overreacting? I believe that response that I've got on my social media after posting it clearly shows the kind of attitudes buys grow up with when we don't address gender issues from the very beginning of education. 

People who grow up reading only male oriented stories have no idea what patriarchy really is and what is does to their lives and lives of women around them. They have no idea about the difference between being equal and identical. They think that woman can be great only if she is like a man. That's pure, unadulterated patriarchy. 

Except for two stories about women I also found few depictions of women and I took a photo of every single one of them to show you. Don't worry, there won't be many. 

Triumph!!A woman got a whole huuuuge picture just for herself!!! I thought, she must be someone famous! She's the only lady depicted in a 30 page book, but no... She's just cooking. That's it, really. 

When I saw the second picture, with the girl in a mini skirt, I thought to myself  "oh my goodness! I must have been wrong about all those books! Look how liberal!" Again, nope. I wasn't wrong. It was an illustration to an exercise where kids were supposed to fill in the gaps. The correct sentence goes something like this "Your skirt is so short! I can buy bigger one for you." I'm not kidding. In all 7 books kids were shown dignified ladies in saris, and then BAAM white girl in a mini skirt who can't afford kapra (material) for longer skirt. FU*KING SH*T. 

The last one. My favorite one. It depicts life in India, as I know it, in perfect way. 

Just look at it and ponder. 

Do you see the men sitting in the shadow of a tree, on the wall? Busy with.. well, life. 

Do you see the lady dressed in sari, carrying some heavy stuff? She's working my friends, physically, probably all day long. And it's hot outside, and her husband clearly doesn't give the slightest gram of a fu*k. 

Do you see the happy little boy in the boat? He's so adventurous, in the middle of a river, alone in the boat, discovering the world and enjoying himself. Perhaps he's about to jump into the water, it sure would be fun on that hot summer day. 

At last, do you see two girls, shyly watching this boy from the safe shore? They won't jump into the river, they are not allowed to. 

If it didn't make you sad then I don't know what will. Those are really ALL the pictures of women that my young friend will see in his English books for this semester. SAD. 

(Just one more comment on the last picture. The lady carrying this metal bowl reminds me so much of those countless women who are employed in the construction sites across India. They are much more attractive employee for low skill labor because their paid less than men, but do the same work.)

Books like those described by me here are actively reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes about men (brave, strong, active, heroic) and women (always ready to sacrifice for family, subservient, meek, timid, weak, submissive). It teaches children from early age that women are worth less then men and are less interesting than men.

We live in a different world! Girls today are becoming educated, successful professionals. Bringing up children in this old fashioned way of boys vs. girls makes life harder for both sides. They will grow up and face a boss at work who might be a woman, will they be able to cooperate with female boss without questioning her authority? That's just one out of many examples. The idea that girls are hard to understand comes from the fact that boys and girls are taught to play in two separate, opposing teams from the beginning. 

It's a pink vs. blue battle and we are all loosing it. It's time to stop. Time to stop teaching children that boys don't cry and girls are weak. 

The saddest part of all is that India has so many amazing female role models. Why aren't they anywhere to be seen in textbooks???? Out of sight... out of mind. 

If you live in India and have school going child, please look through the books of your child and maybe give us a shout about what you found. We would love to see more comments on school books and gender equality in Indian schools or any schools for that matter.. 

Written by Inanna

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