Do textbooks have a gender?
(This article was commissioned by M. Nirmala, and was first published on the Teacher Plus website on October 3, 2017.)
“Twelve years old when she went to her husband’s home, Manga gave birth to a boy, Krishnaswami, on the day following her thirteenth birthday. In less than two years, another boy, Ramaswami, was born. That Manga had to endure the pains of childbirth at so early an age would embarrass C.R. all his life,” writes historian Rajmohan Gandhi in Rajaji: A Life.
The book is a biography of his maternal grandfather Chakravarti Rajagopalachari who was a lawyer, a luminary of India’s freedom struggle against the British Empire, and free India’s first Governor-General, apart from being the founder of the Swatantra Party. With the author’s access to Rajagopalachari’s family, and the man’s private papers, the book manages to construct a narrative that is rich in personal detail, and present the leader as a human being rather than a hero with a halo.
I felt prompted to read this book after attending a colloquium on liberalism in India hosted by the Centre for Civil Society and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Manesar, a short distance from Delhi. In preparation for the colloquium, all participants were required to read a number of essays highlighting key issues, debates and personalities in the history of liberal thought in India. Apart from Rajagopalachari, names like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Pherozeshah Mehta, Minoo Masani, B R Shenoy, and S V Raju occupied centre stage in the unfolding of this history. I was stunned by the glaring absence of women.
The questions that bothered my mind were: Is it possible that there were no women liberals during this entire period? Do we not hear of women liberals because the history was written primarily by men? Were women deprived of access to scholarly pursuits and participation in public life, which might have established a firm place for them in recorded history? How liberal were these male liberals in terms of the opportunities that were (made) available to the women in their families? Were women’s contributions restricted to cooking, cleaning, and caring for their husbands and children? How did they participate in the life of ideas, movements and institutions?
I went down memory lane, and began to recall the names of women in our history textbooks at school — Razia Sultan who ruled over the Delhi Sultanate, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi who fought valiantly in the uprising of 1857, Jijabai who gave birth to and groomed Shivaji, Annie Besant of the Home Rule Movement, Sarojini Naidu whose poetry earned her the title ‘Nightingale of India’, and Savitribai Phule who accompanied her husband Jyotirao in fighting the caste system and paving the way for millions of girls and women to seek formal education. We did not learn much about them. They were usually sidekicks in a narrative dominated by heroes and villains, all male.
I completed my schooling in the year 2001. Wondering if things have changed since, I wanted to find out if today’s textbook writers are more aware of guarding against such omissions. Some answers came via an undated document published on the website of India’s National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). The title itself is quite a mouthful: Analysis of the Textbooks of Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Manipur and Rajasthan: An Overall Report. It includes analysis of textbooks from Jammu and Kashmir as well though the title does not reflect this.
From a preface written by Gouri Srivastava, Programme Coordinator with the Department of Gender Studies at NCERT, we learn that this textbook analysis project for the states mentioned above was assigned to her department by the Government of India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in 2013–2016. It is remarkable that the analysis is not limited to social studies textbooks but covers English, Mathematics, Hindi, Science and Environmental studies as well.
“The project focused on analysis of all textbooks of classes I to VIII from the viewpoint of gender bias and stereotypes,” writes Srivastava. “Attempts were made to suggest to the authors ways to make content portrayal and visual depiction gender inclusive. In this context, the department developed tools for analysis in four languages that is English, Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit for examining textbooks from a gender lens and developed guidelines for textbook writers to be adopted and adapted as per the requirement. The analysis work was carried out in-house, and in a workshop mode, engaging experts from states involved in textbooks writing. Positive aspects related to content portrayals and visual depictions were also highlighted in each report during the analysis.”
The report provides a detailed account of what could be broadly classified as ‘progressive’ and ‘regressive’ aspects of these textbooks. However, these terms can be vague, and can vary substantially in their meaning over time and across cultures. How can the teacher in the classroom benefit from this report’s findings? As the whole enterprise of textbook analysis can be dismissed by cynics as a highly subjective one, and therefore unworthy of serious consideration, it is useful to proceed towards the appendix for their ‘Evaluation Tool for Textbooks Analysis from a Gender Perspective’.
It is not possible to reproduce the tool here owing to constraints of space but it requires the analyst to pay attention to some of the following concerns while approaching any given textbook:
- Gender representation of occupations
- Roles assigned to boys/men/girls/women/both
- Reference to customary practices
- Weightage given to the contributions/achievements of boys/girls, men/women or both
- Are marginalized groups and their cultures and lifestyles represented?
- Are prejudices mentioned?
- Does the narrative speak only of a particular caste and class?
- Who takes the decision in the area of food, education, all money matters, health, occupation and any other?
- Does the theme reflect diverse areas of contributions of women substantially or in a tokenistic manner?
- How are women reflected in different domains of society in relation to family, school, workplace and society?
- Distribution of workload by gender in a framework of fairness
- Who performs productive activities related to production of goods and services for income generation?
- Who performs activities related to collection of water, nursing, child care, fetching fuel wood and all activities related to household chores?
- Who performs community activities — welfare related, organizing meetings, marriage, funeral, religious activities, neighbourhood meetings, any other? Who takes the initiative in such activities? Men/women/both
- Who are shown as agents of change?
4. scientific attitude/temper
5. scientific achievements
- Who is active (the ‘protagonist’) in the visuals? Who is passive (the ‘receiver’) in the visuals?
- Do the exercises explore issues related to gender, class, and caste?
- Do the exercises attempt to question power relations?
- Do they help children to connect with their lived realities?
- Do they promote critical thinking and problem solving skills?
These are questions that every teacher can ask of the textbook they are expected to use in their classroom. It would be even better if they offered their students the opportunity to discuss these questions, and present their views on the same. It can be a rich exchange and through this even a dull textbook could become a beneficial aid to learning. Teachers are often exceptionally creative when faced with scarce resources, and it is possible for them to support students in reading against the grain.
If students are not used to having the opportunity to participate in such discussions, they might need some orientation or training. The glossary provided in the NCERT report can be a good starting point even if it is not the most well-articulated one. It defines gender, gender bias, gender inclusive, gender neutral and gender stereotyping in the following manner:
Gender — is a social construct. It refers to social differences between men and women which are conceived, enacted and learnt within a complex of relationships. They vary between societies and cultures and change over time. Gender is cultural specific variable. Gender is used to analyze the roles, responsibilities, constraints, opportunities and needs of women and men in any given social context.
Gender Bias — invisiblization/underrepresentation of girls’ and women’s contributions in textual materials and in schooling processes.
Gender Inclusive — it includes activities performed by both sexes.
Gender Neutral — text mainly representing the natural habitat. Does not aim at either men or women and assumes to affect both sexes equally. Treats women, men, girls and boys as they were part of one homogenous group. Gender neutral policies do not challenge existing gender division of resources and responsibility. Avoids references to masculinity and femininity and their social and cultural associations.
Gender Stereotyping — is the assignment of roles, tasks and responsibilities to a particular gender on the basis of pre-conceived prejudices and impact of socialization processes. Gender stereotyping is portrayed in different forms of media such as films, audio visuals and audios, conversation, jokes or books, of women and men occupying social roles according to a traditional gender role or division of labour.
What are the other resources that teachers can consult if they want to use gender as a critical lens for classroom enquiry? The Central Board of Secondary Education, an autonomous organization under the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, has published on its website a well-intentioned document called ‘Checklist for Gender Sensitivity in Schools’. It can be viewed as a useful framework enumerating “gender sensitive parameters which should be followed to promote gender sensitivity in classroom transaction and extra-curricular activities.”
This ambitious checklist sets for itself the task of identifying “the specific standards that schools should conform to in order to build and support an environment, system and processes that are sensitive towards the requirements of students of both the genders.” It covers various aspects of life at school, using the following sub-headings: School Vision, School Mission, School Management, School Infrastructure and Utilities, School Administration, Curricular Approach, Textual Material, Pedagogical Practices, Co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, School Uniform, School Transport, School Support Mechanisms (Clinic/Infirmary/Counseling Services), and Gender Based Violence.
The section on ‘textual material’ poses the following questions:
- Does the textual content reflect a gender sensitive approach?
- Is there any bias reflected towards a gender in any of the textual contents?
- Is there equal weightage for both genders in the selection of content?
- Are there any guidelines to the content developers with regard to gender sensitivity?
- Is the language used by the content developers gender sensitive or does it show any gender bias?
- Do the images, pictures or visuals used in the textual content indicate any bias towards a gender?
- Is there adequate representation of women in the texts of history, science, technology, mathematics, language and literature?
- Are there any statements or inputs that provoke gender bias/demean either gender in the content?
- Are there guidelines to publishers of textual materials with regard to gender sensitivity?
- Is there any mechanism to vet the content published by the private agencies with regard to gender sensitivity?
- Are there any anecdotes, incidents, events and descriptions in any of the textual materials that directly or indirectly suggest bias to a gender?
- Is the language used in textbooks gender neutral?
While the NCERT report does recommend devoting more attention to the issues and concerns of transgender children, the problem with this checklist is that it assumes two genders, and does not make explicit how ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ can be connected but are not the same. This distinction can be tricky to understand and explain. Many theorists have worked on this subject but, if you are looking for a resource that is accessible yet not too jargon-heavy, go for Marina Watanabe’s video ‘What’s the Difference Between Sex and Gender?’ published on everydayfeminism.com in June 2015.
Excerpt from the transcript of Marina Watanabe’s video:
When we talk about a person’s sex we normally use it to refer to their biology. It’s a two-category or a binary system based on a person’s genitalia, chromosomes, and hormones that classifies people as either male or female. It’s also the social, the legal, and the medical classifications of one’s body that’s assigned at birth.
Gender is how someone identifies, and it’s something that’s ascribed to each of us at birth in relation to our bodies. When you are born you have no say in what gender you’ll be raised as. Basically, if you have a penis you’re a boy, and if you have a vagina you’re a girl. If you’re born intersex, like one out of every 2,000 people, meaning your genitalia is ambiguous or doesn’t fit the traditional definition of what we consider male or female, then immediate emergency surgery is usually performed to make your body fit one of these definitions.
However, gender is much more than that. Gender is a social category. It contains the roles, dress, behaviour, and expression expected of a person based on an arbitrary category given to them at birth. For example, the idea that women are nurturing and compassionate, whereas men are stoic and unemotional.
When we think of gender and sex, we normally think of sex as purely biological and gender as something that’s social, but even when you look at biological sex it’s not necessarily something that’s natural or essentialist. Physical characteristics like genitalia and chromosomes exist, but sex as a category is a social construction.
For example, the ancient Greeks only had a one-sex system. They viewed women as inside-out men. Flash forward to today, where doctors are slowly beginning to change their views about sex and gender and they’re starting to view intersex as a third category of classification. Because why should we force an unnecessary and irreversible surgery on intersex babies to make them conform to an inaccurate two-sex system when we can just let them figure it out as they grow up?
Also, for a system that is supposedly based on biology, it only takes a very surface level view of sex. Most of the doctors will just be like, “Hey, you have a penis. You must be a boy,” instead of taking a deeper look at chromosomal makeup. There are a lot of sex chromosome disorders that can happen that might not even be readily apparent by just looking at physical characteristics of someone’s body.
How is all this information relevant to school teachers? When will they teach their own subject if they spend time unravelling these complex ideas with students? Despite caricatures in popular culture of teachers as uninspired, burnt-out creatures who care only about passing or failing a student, I like to think that most teachers do want all their students, regardless of their sexual or gender identity, to feel safe and valued. If they see a relationship between approaching textbooks in a gender-sensitive manner and combating gender-based violence, I think they will gradually become open to interrogating and transforming their classroom practices.
Look at the Report of the Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law constituted on December 23, 2012, shortly after the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape case in Delhi, to “look into possible amendments of the criminal law to provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for criminals committing sexual assault of extreme nature against women.” The report submitted by Justice J.S. Verma, Justice Leila Seth and Gopal Subramanium in December 2013, has a chapter titled ‘Education and Perception Reform’, which recommends “stripping out the language of sexism from books/materials, eliminating different lessons for girls and boys (i.e. sewing v/s sports).”
It also talks about school as “an important area where ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ is attributed,”and also “where violence is perpetrated on boys who do not conform to dominant forms of masculinity and on girls who are not sufficiently modest and retiring in their feminine demeanour.” This articulation seems more perceptive, inclusive and nuanced than the NCERT evaluation tool as well as the CBSE checklist. It goes on to argue for the need “to promote alternate forms of masculine expression and encourage expression and engagement with emotions of anger, frustration and other intense feelings,” and for “constructing tenderness and caring as legitimate emotions across all sectors of society.”
In countries like India, where the textbook occupies a central place in the classroom, it is imperative that we put more thought and care into developing them. If we do not have a say in creating them, we can use our agency in the classroom to build critical awareness towards biases in these texts, and to fill in gaps using supplementary material. A publication that can serve as an effective guide for textbook writers creating new material and teachers using/adapting existing material is Promoting Gender Equality Through Textbooks: A methodological guide published by UNESCO in 2014. It draws on research conducted in Cameroon, Togo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, within the framework of the International Network for Research into Gendered Representations in Textbooks.
In this UNESCO guide, authors Carole Brugeilles and Sylvie Cromer write, “Under a quality education policy, the textbook is understood as an educational tool of prime importance, being instrumental to culture, to educational attainment and to in-service teacher training.” They also refer to the textbook as “a tool for social change because it disseminates universal values,” and make a case for textbooks “to be covered by policies which respect and include the rights of girls and women for their full enjoyment of a good-quality education.” After celebrating 70 years of freedom, this is something India should certainly aspire for and work towards.
Note: The Writing Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides a few examples of how one can gradually learn to replace gendered language with gender-inclusive and gender-neutral language.