A messy corner of India’s modernity

A school principal in Melur in Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, is reported to have denied admission to two girls whose parents had married them off after they completed Class X ( The Hindu, June 23). Prima facie, it seems the principal is wrongly applying her authority. Also, in the broader social context, it seems strange and unacceptable that the benefits of education should be denied to a girl just because she is now a married woman. There are other ways to look at this story. When I read it, I wished Leela Dube, the sociologist who died last month, were alive and I could phone her to find out what she thought about it. Her view of such matters derived its perspective from a deeper commitment — to social reality, rather than to activism or political correctness. Before I speculate on how she might have responded to the Melur principal’s decision, let me recall my pedagogic experience with one of her writings.

Do girls have a childhood?

Gender is now a common topic in courses on education and teaching. Everyone knows that discrimination on the basis of gender is a major problem in schools. Equally clearly, everyone has figured out how to talk about this problem. Political correctness on this topic has seeped in, all the way to the district and block-level institutions of teacher training. Resource persons are now readily available in all parts of the country who can wax eloquent about gender parity and how it can be sustained in the classroom. Officers at all levels have equipped themselves with power point presentations that will show how fast the gender gap is shrinking in enrolment, retention and outcomes. The same ease and excitement pervade the media when the CBSE and other boards declare their Class X and XII results. “Girls outshine boys” says the banner headline year after year. An ethos pointing to a nice social revolution envelopes us. In a happy environment of this kind, how do you ask students to notice the social world stretched right across their daily vision but tightly wrapped up under the pleasant discourse of change shared by the state and the social activist? Faced with this problem, I ask my students to read Leela Dube’s paper tersely titled, “On the construction of gender: socialisation of Hindu girls in patrilineal India.” Once they read it, they stop being glib, which is no small matter in this age of readiness to recommend.

In this paper, first published in 1988, Leela Dube portrays the cultural imprinting that turns girls into socially acceptable women. The portrait is laboriously drawn, with data and insights acquired from diverse sources and regions. The style is marked by a concern for accuracy and detail, and the reader is nowhere treated as either a concerned citizen or a social reformer. Throughout its 40 pages, Leela Dube sticks to her role as a scholar whose primary job is to examine human behaviour and the institutions that shape it. In this case, the institutions are family and kinship. Their joint venture ensures that a little girl starts to learn, from infancy onwards, that it is her destiny to leave her natal home for an uncertain future in a family to which she will belong after marriage. This destiny is cast in the rock of cultural practices, ranging from religious rituals to everyday language of lullabies, songs, idioms and metaphors. For the single-minded pursuit of matrimony, the girl’s appearance, body movements, habits and dispositions are to be honed into the approved model of beauty, self-restraint and self-abnegation. Space and time are supposed to shrink into increasingly narrow corridors of activity, and the natural desire for freedom a girl might have felt as a baby must be dissolved into a regime of responsibility and self-denial.

The essay leaves you wondering whether girls have a childhood at all, or whether they move straight from infancy into adulthood. Secondly, it sets up an explicit conflict between the aims of girls’ socialisation at home and their education at school. Tradition and customs require girls to learn during childhood that they must submit to male authority in all aspects of their life. The core of this learning lies in giving up any claim to intellectual autonomy and individual uniqueness. With the full force that religious and caste beliefs, and their representations in mythology, might be expected to carry for the young mind, girls are made to internalise the all-encompassing social value of their bodies for reproduction. Restrictions on physical movement and posture, and on the use of time and space begin much before puberty, but after menarche these restrictions acquire comprehensive rigour. If we add to these the chronic anxiety about the inescapability of leaving one’s parents’ home, we can somewhat appreciate how incompatible are the norms of girlhood in India with the basic principles of education. These principles revolve around the child’s agency and freedom. Progressive pedagogy is supposed to enhance the child’s confidence and courage to develop her identity as an individual. Both in terms of its emotional content and the reasoning on which it is based, the agenda of cultural imprinting of girls’ minds contradicts the objectives of child-centred education.

Peripheral to society

Leela Dube does not hesitate to articulate this conflict. “Can we really think of reforming the education system to bring about a more ‘enlightened’ relationship between the sexes as long as the larger structures which provide the context for the education system continue to reproduce gender-based relationships of domination and subordination?” Let us make an attempt to use this perspective to make sense of the news from the government school at Melur. Both girls who are being denied admission to Class XI have studied at this school till Class X. The school and its principal were apparently not taken into account by the parents who arranged their marriage, nor by the larger community which participated in the ceremony. In matters of this kind, we tend to ignore how peripheral the school is to society. It is a place where people send their children to enable them to seek certified qualifications. The school neither forms a point of reference for making decisions, nor does its curriculum carry relevance to everyday living. Its principal and teachers are perceived as petty functionaries of the government.

In her denial of admission to the two girls who have now become married women, the principal is conveying her inconsequential anger. If we blame her for misusing her authority and compel her to admit these girls — as the Tamil Nadu government will surely do quite soon — we miss the opportunity to listen to a voice we have institutionally muzzled. This is the voice of teachers who are supposed to carry on their lean shoulders the full burden of the rhetoric of national development and social transformation. The enormity of challenges teachers face in their daily professional routine is trivialised by us when we expect them to act like pedagogues and social reformers rolled in one. This latter role constitutes a grand illusion as they can expect to receive no cooperation from the larger society when they try to go against established norms. Curricular policies reduce their intellectual struggle to a ritual, to be observed for the sake of examination success and certification. Indeed, their training as teachers lacks professional rigour and length precisely because both the state and society treat them — whatever the rhetoric may be — as minor cogs in the system’s wheel. The Melur principal has made the mistake of conveying this a bit too explicitly. 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.

True, such a step will form an oxymoron. The state cannot acknowledge a child bride as an adult citizen with constitutionally endowed rights. She is an ambiguous entity, a progeny of contradiction between the state and society. She inhabits a messy, forgotten corner of India’s modernity. We tend to look at her, when we must, with emotion and studied surprise. What distinguished Leela Dube as a social scientist was that she had the courage to stare unemotionally at such dim-lit corners of Indian modernity. About child labour too, she wrote in a similar vein, arguing that it is embedded in the deeper structures of society, not all of which have a purely economic character. When we ignore these structures and act like impatient activists, we inadvertently place ourselves at the disposal of strategists whose interests are narrow and short-term. As a major scholar of our times, Leela Dube teaches us how to register the present moment in the long story of women’s subordination.

(The writer is Professor of Education at Delhi University and a former Director of NCERT.)

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