Sunday, October 18, 2015

Primary textbooks reinforce gender stereotypes

‘Why should boys have all the fun?’ – goes the tag line of a commercial. The text books of my primary level kids may well be asked this question. The Social Studies  class 4 book of my son, in its chapter ‘Seasons’, has five different pictures on seasons- each depicting a child enjoying itself, and not one is of a girl-child; the chapter, ‘Natural Resources’, has a picture of children enjoying themselves in a pond and, all of them are boys. It’s not only about play, but also about work. The pictures in the chapter ‘Organizations that help us’, depict only men doing all the important jobs. There are five different pictures of various professionals- the police, doctor, army personnel, workers in a post office- and none of them has a woman. Interestingly however, one chapter, ‘Our Heritage’ has women in all its pictures- the pictures being of various dances in our country. Similarly, the Class 2 book  of my younger son, Environmental Studies, has pictures of 12 professionals in the chapter, ‘We Need Them’, and none of them is of a woman while, again interestingly, in the same chapter, the sub section ‘People who entertain us’ has the only  picture of a woman and , it is of a dancer !
            The outdoors being for boys and girls both, is not the only issue regarding the subtle bias in gender representation in our children’s books. An example from the NCERT Hindi book of class 3 Rimjhim, shows how finely the dominating maleness is interwoven in the tone and tenor of the text and the image. The stage directions for  a skit of the famous parable of a monkey eating the whole bread being fought over by two cats are worded thus- ‘7-8 baras ka ladka bandar ban sakta hai aur 5-6 baras ki ladkiyaan billi ban sakti hain.’ (a boy of 7-8 years of age can become the monkey and girls of 5-6 years can play the parts of the cats). A dialogue by the monkey goes so- “roti kiski? Mai iska faisala karoonga. Chalo kachehry, mere peechhe peechhe aao.” (Whose bread? I will decide it. Come to the court, come behind me), followed by the directions-‘bandar dono se chheenkar roti apne haath mei lekar chalta hai, dono billiyaan peechhe-peechhe aati hain’ (The monkey snatches the bread from both of them and walks away with it while the two cats follow). The play ends with the words- “aapas mein jhagdaa kar baithin, buddhi apni khoti…” (we fought among ourselves as our minds are weak)

The stage directions specifying the gender of the actors for the role of the monkey and the cats sets the gendered tenor of the skit. The tone of the dialogues along with the illustration-  the monkey sitting on a pedestal as the cribbing cats literally look up to him for justice- underpin the notions of requirement of aggressive masculinity for decision making and, of females given to stupidly fighting over small things.
My experiences as a teacher-trainer are that people fail to realize the gendered undertones of a text/image in our books unless strongly hinted. This is because all of us have been brought up in the same gender-construct milieu. A text book shapes the belief system of the coming generations and, the content as above, only go on to reinforce, unknowingly, our impressionable minds with the gender stereotypes. A rethink is required on our definitions, language and concepts to create gender non-discriminatory knowledge for our children. For instance, physical stamina, thresholds of pain and, longevity can also be taken to be indicators of ‘strength’ along with its usual measurement in terms of running faster, jumping higher, etc., as  The Position Paper of the National Focus Group on Gender Issues in Education (NCERT), suggested almost a decade back. Incidentally, a picture of three children playing basketball, in NCERT’s class 5 English Book, shows the lone girl’s feet on the ground while the two boys are high up in the air.
It is important that the material presented before children is such which is empowering for girls in the sense of making them realize their potential, frees the boys from the bondage of stereotype male-hood of aggressiveness and curbing of emotions, and thus, raise a generation that is capable of contributing to the making of a just and compassionate society. 

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