On Women’s Education in India, and Government Employees Who Take Themselves Too Seriously
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 01 July 2012
Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar. All Rights Reserved.
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Recently, a school in Tamil Nadu in South India disallowed two girls who got married immediately after finishing their Xth in that school from joining the XIth standard in the same school on the grounds that they would set a bad example for other girls and encourage them to do the same. This was reported in The Hindu. There are no other higher education institutions in the area for the girls and this action would effectively put an end to the education of the girls.
Many people were shocked by the attitude of the school in denying education, now legislated in Parliament as a fundamental right to all Indians, to girls, widely recognized as the one segment of Indian society in greatest need for education. While it is sad to see Indian parents still parcelling off their girls to their husbands’ homes so early (and, in this case, below the legal marriageable age), it is usually the case that after marriage, it is the parents or in-laws who put a stop to the girls’ education. However, in this case, the girls applied for admission to standard XI, only to be rejected by the principal of the school.
Distressed as I was by all this, I was even more distressed by a response to this action, also published by The Hindu in its Opinion section, written by a Professor Krishna Kumar, a Professor of Education at Delhi University and a former director of NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training), which actually defended the action of the said school principal.
According to this response, the fault does not lie with the principal. The author of this piece believes that the principal is trying to fulfil the school’s social contract and their response is just a way of “conveying her inconsequential anger” at being unable to do so.
Noble though this sounds, there are many flaws with Professor Krishna Kumar’s arguments.
First, the author refers to a 1988 study by Prof. Leela Dube. Accurate though the work may have been then, it is 24 years old, and many things have changed. Importantly, that study was done before the opening up of the economy in 1992. Society, especially urban society, has changed significantly since then. Just look at how many women work in the IT sector alone. Yes, Prof. Dube is right that women get a very different message in the home from what they do at school, but two things have changed how much of the home message they are willing to accept. One is that there are so many employment opportunities available for women. The other is that families need the extra income that women bring to the home and are not inclined to discourage women from working. Both of these are different from the the situation in 1988.
Second, Prof. Kumar mentions (via Prof. Dube’s work) that there is a fundamental contradiction between expectations of girls in schools which, in an ideal world, encourage freedom of thought, freedom of action, and develop confidence in girls that they can do anything, just as boys can; and expectations of girls in the home - obey thy father and mother, obey thy husband, devote thy life to thy children. Sure, this is true, and exists even today, but the intensity of the conflict is decreasing. More and more parents are trying to give their girls a strong educational base so that the girls can stand on their own legs. This isn't only in upper middle class homes - our maid servant in Pune was proudly telling us how she had big plans for her daughter, who seemed to be doing very well in school, much better than her son.
Third, the author assumes that teachers have taken upon themselves the mantle of reforming society and that the government also expects this out of them. As anyone who has interacted with government employees of any kind, including teachers, knows, most of these employees do their job as a contractual obligation. It is hard to believe that they truly think that the transformation of society rests upon them. There may be some sincere teachers (yes, I have had some good teachers in my school as I grew up, as I assume many others have had too) who want to do a good job of teaching what they are supposed to teach, but to presume that they believe that the transformation of society is in their hands is a bit too much.
Fourth, let's think about education in India. In his idealistic world at NCERT, Prof. Kumar loves to revel in illusions that Indian schools actually think of education as a means of teaching students to think and reason. The truth of the matter is that Indian students all over the country, by and large, are NOT taught to think at all. They are taught to memorize and learn by rote. They learn an essay in English and then memorize answers to stock questions such as "explain with reference to context" that are dictated to them by the teacher. And Prof. Kumar is telling us that teachers are trying to inculcate critical thinking in students?
The truth of the matter is that parents in India send their children to school for the certificate they get at the end of 12 years and the hope of getting a marketable degree in a college thereafter.
Fifth, how is denying the girls admission after they have been married helping anything? What was the principal expecting, that she should have been consulted and her approval obtained before the marriages were fixed? And how is denying women education helping with the mission of empowering women, even if we were to accept Prof. Kumar's thesis that that is the perceived mission of the teachers?
Sixth, and finally, what is this gibberish about "she is right in indicating that she is not equipped to run a school for married women. If the government is concerned about the education of child brides, it should develop a curriculum for them and start institutions where it can be taught." What is there about history, geography, mathematics, civics, physics, chemistry, biology, English, Tamil, Hindi, or most of the other subjects that are standard in XIth or XIIth standard schools that are to be taught differently to married women than they are to be taught to single women? When the same syllabus applies to boys and girls, why make a distinction between single and married women?
The whole essay by Prof. Kumar presents a distorted (and idealistic) view of what the purpose of a school is. It is as though Prof. Kumar believes that the sole purpose of a school is to engineer social transformation of a certain kind, and since getting such young girls married violated the objectives of that transformation, the girls should be expelled. This is such ivory-tower and impractical thinking, and so out of touch with reality – and the irony is that the author prefaces his article by speaking of Prof. Dube, whose writings he claims to like because “her view ... derived its perspective from a deeper commitment – to social reality, rather than to activism or political correctness.” Yet Prof. Kumar’s own article is completely divorced from the social reality of women in our country today! It should have been discarded on arrival at the office of The Hindu - yet, it has been published - maybe just because it is a contrarian position? Just because something is controversial is not reason to publish it. For a paper like The Hindu, the arguments must also make sense. There has clearly been a lack of proper editorial involvement here.
Note that I am not advocating that girls should be married off young. I'd rather that people take their time before getting married, get an education, get to know themselves a bit, and obtain some qualifications to stand on their own before marrying. But the decision to not allow them to pursue their education because they married early is an attempt to impose the teachers’ own morality or vision of society on others. Prosecute the parents for arranging a marriage of minors if you will, but you have no right to stop their education.
If what you are teaching in school is worth anything, then in time, it will have the desired effect. Maybe not in this generation, because the girls are forced to bend to their parents' will, but perhaps, when they grow up, they will think differently about their children. But it is education that will empower them to change. Maybe it will take a couple of generations, but it will happen. Let them get that education first.