Why is that despite an increase in the number of women literates over the past decades, they still struggle to find their own space?

ystems of education have undergone changes over the years but the prime advantage of being educated is the liberation from the many shackles imposed by society. In the case of women, education is a stepping stone towards economic independence and power, not to mention the greater responsibility that comes as a result of the dual role that is invariably thrust upon them. Yet one wonders, how well-laid the foundation is, and what, in fact, constitutes an empowering education? Another question that follows is — what can the management do to empower their girl students?

First, what does empowerment mean to college students? Talking to students from Ethiraj College, Chennai, we got varied inputs — “If she speaks up for herself she is empowered,” says Jayashree of first year student of BA; “She maintains her dignity in facing society” is second year MA student Pugalini Markandu’s response. They all agree that taking decisions regarding one’s career and personal life is an important marker. When asked: do you feel safe in this city? The answer is a resounding ‘No!’ “Even when travelling in public transportation, we face a lot of problems,” they say.

Speaking freely

Experts word this very differently. They feel that it is important for girls to have agency. From being able to exercise their choices in everything that they do to having the freedom to show resistance in simple ways — such as sitting outside the classroom, talking about taboo subjects and dressing loudly — freedom of expression is important.

In fact, the discussion takes a turn when talking to V. Geetha, feminist, historian and editor of Tara Publications, Chennai. She says in an email, “To empower students: develop a culture of openness so that students don't feel furtive and shameful while discussing things that bother them. Ensure that there is something in every semester — a play, or a talk or an event dealing with feminism. Rethink hostel rules — why are students eager to break them? What do we do with the all-important impulse of falling in love, of wanting sex — that is a part of growing up, instead of treating it as something terrible; examine how to set codes that are humane and open...”

Yet another angle is revealed when talking to some professors. According to Abha Dev Habib, assistant professor at Miranda House College, New Delhi, and a member of the executive council of Delhi University, “In a nation where female foeticide exists and the gender ratio is skewed, we must accept that gender discrimination is here to stay. So having only women’s institutions and women faculty is important. Students need to see role models of women working, making decisions, handling things well at work and also balancing their homes, being articulate, etc.”

Prof Habib continues, “It is also important to see that some people are divorced and knowing that they can break free.” Abha’s views are not exactly reflected by Chitra Venkatachalam, dean of students at Ethiraj College, Chennai, who feels co-education is important because when boys and girls are not allowed to interact freely — a certain degree of insecurity develops.

Moving on to another topic, she says, “We have a relaxed dress code and don’t define what they should wear, at the same time we do advise students on their own safety,” says Venkatachalam.

Ethiraj college also has an established mentoring programme. According to V. Kadambari, head of Women Studies department, “Apart from the students’ union, the dean of students and the counsellor, every faculty member is given the responsibility of mentoring 15 students.”

P.K. Thiruvikraman, professor at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad, which is a co-educational residential institution, speaks about his experience, “In my observation from teaching 10 batches, I feel that though girl students may be articulate outside the class, they still have to be prodded and encouraged to ask questions in the class. Boys are relatively forthcoming when it comes to asking questions.”

His experience may not be generally true. However, the marked asymmetry between the number of boys and girls in technology-related courses is another matter of concern.

Much has been said and done about women’s empowerment, yet from what we see, we have miles to go before we have laurels to rest upon.