Women's Education

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WOMEN'S EDUCATION It is ironic that although Indians have deified knowledge as the goddess Sarasvatī, Indian women have been relegated to educational subservience throughout India's long history. Education means power, which in India remains largely in male hands. The earliest British educational surveys in Madras presidency in 1822 brought to official attention the relative absence of girls in formal schools. In 1881 the Hunter Educational Commission noted that a mere .2 percent of the women in British India were literate, although as in all early colonial surveys, investigators focused solely on school enrollment and failed to count the girls taught informally at home. On the eve of independence in 1947, literacy rates for both genders were abysmally low at 6 percent (female) and 22.6 percent (male). Since then, they have plodded forward slowly but surely, and there has been a noticeable improvement since the 1980s. Thus, in 1961 the literacy rates were 15.3 percent (female) and 40.4 percent (male); in 1981 they rose to 28.5 percent (female) and 53.5 percent (male); and in 2001 they had risen to 54.3 percent (female) and 76 percent (male). However, women's education still shuffles far behind that of men, with the disparities greater in a state like Bihar, where rates are 33.6 percent (female) and 60.3 percent (male), than in Kerala, where they are 87.9 percent (female) and 94.2 percent (male). The last century's goal for women was to educate better mothers and wives for the nation. However, some of the urban literate classes have begun to acknowledge that women are a national resource that India cannot squander away in this competitive era of globalization and computer technology.

Education in Early India

For much of Indian history, education involved the oral and written transmission of sacred texts, and the acquisition of survival and craft skills. Among some adivasis (aboriginals) like the Birhor of Jharkhand, for example, there was greater gender parity in learning the skill of toolmaking. However, Sanskritization and Westernization as "civilizing" agents have today marginalized women's vestigial rights among many tribal communities, which have been integrated into the mainstream society and economy. Artifacts from the literate Indus Civilization (6000–1650 b.c.) include icons of goddesses and the female genitalia (yōni), while some seals suggest that there may have been priestesses in an arboreal religion. The inhabitants clearly revered the female in nature, a vision of divinity that persists across India today. However, male power was also venerated, and no evidence exists of a matrilineal society. The absence of gendered spaces in the houses and public buildings do indicate that women had freedom of movement, but we have no information yet as to how and where education took place.

The arrival of patriarchal Aryan groups in the early second millennium b.c. profoundly shaped Indian notions of gender equity. Their most revered skill was the oral transmission of the Vedas (Books of knowledge) to propitiate the gods. Known as shruti (revelations that are heard), this form of oral learning became central to the acquisition of knowledge, although these Sanskrit hymns were later also written in the Devanāgari script. At first, some women initiates, who wore the sacred thread of the twice-born upper castes, recited the Vedas. The Rig Veda (1500–100 b.c.) attests to some brahmavādinis (women bard-poets) like Lōpamudra and Ghōsha. Even as late as 800 b.c., there were spirited female savants like Gārgi and Maitreyi in the Brahadaranyka Upanishad, and Sāvitri in the Mahābhārata.

From this point, due to geopolitical reasons leading to patriarchal ascendency, the Vedas became the exclusive preserve of male Brahman caste priests, and women's learning became subsidiary to that of men. However, women were permitted to know the "remembered" secondary scriptures (smriti), including the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa epics, and later texts like the Dharma Shāstras (law books) and Purāṇas (Ancient tales), the latter containing myths about Hindu deities. Boys were taught in open air classes around a tree, or on the open verandas (pyāls) of buildings. Meanwhile, higher caste girls often sat away from the public eye, in rooms adjacent to the pyals, where they studied the smriti and nonreligious subjects like arithmetic.

Thus, around 525 b.c., we hear of learned women such as Queen Mahāgotāmi, the Buddha's foster mother, who struggled to establish the first order of nuns. Learned female ascetics like Mitta and Patacāra composed the Thērigātha, a revered hymnal section of the Buddhist Pali canon. Jainism's followers also revere an early female tirthankara (fjord crosser) or teacher, and Jainism encouraged women ascetics. However, over time, misogyny crept into texts, which scorned female sexuality and downgraded women's intellect. South Indian Dravidian society appears to have respected accomplished women during the Tamil Sangam era (200 b.c.–a.d. 500). Sangam poetry was composed by some 470 poets, including 154 women sages like Auvaiyār. Moreover, despite male dominance, women's power is seen in three of the five Tamil epics, which revolve around learned women.

By the first century a.d., as society absorbed new immigrants across racial lines, Brahmans reinforced gender and caste hierarchies in texts like the Mānava Dharmashāstras (Laws of Manu). This work praised women's domestic duties and denounced their sexual proclivities. Artisan groups transmitted craft skills, and both working and elite castes transmitted their oral traditions across generations. However, the lowest castes were excluded from literacy, while women's education became largely informal and haphazard. After the sixth century, in the medieval climate of invasions, wars, and feudalism, elite women retreated further into the domestic arena, instructed informally at home until the nineteenth century.

Medieval Women's Education

Despite such patriarchal norms and prejudice, there were still scores of women poet-saints and writers in the medieval centuries. Thus, Āndāl, Kāraikkal Ammaiyār, Akkamahādēvi, Gangāsati, Lallā, and Mīra have left a legacy of devotional (bhakti) compositions in the regional languages. Moreover, one class of educated South Indian women attended schools in public with boys. They were the lower caste temple dancers (dēvadāsis) who were rarely Brahman women. Dēvadāsis were ritually married to the shrine's deity in South India during the first millennium a.d., and they were the repositories of Indian traditions of dance and music. By the seventeenth century, however, many became court dancers and courtesans outside the norms of female domesticity. Governor Munro's survey of schools in South India in 1822 revealed that, except for the dēvadāsis, no other girls studied on the pyals in the company of boys.

The prophet Muhammad's wife and daughter were literate and powerful, but despite this and the Islamic belief in salvation through the written Qurʾan, Muslim women's educational lot in India was not substantially different. Islam was introduced into the subcontinent by patriarchal groups who kept their women in domestic seclusion within female quarters (zenānā). If women ventured outside, they wore a veil (purdah). Those women who defied the purdah were prevented from rising to power. Thus, Sultana Raziya (thirteenth century a.d.), the sole Muslim queen in India, was deposed quickly by men. Aristocratic women were often instructed by female teachers (ustād bis) in the zenānā, and some have left records, like the Mughal princess Gulbadan (sixteenth century), who wrote an elegant royal biography in Persian. Like Hindu dēvadāsis, Muslim courtesans (tawaif ) were taught to read and write. The tawaif Mahlaqa Bai Chanda (eighteenth century) wrote lyrical Urdu songs. Ordinary Muslim boys and girls studied the Qurʾan at mosque schools (madrassas), but often this consisted of rote chanting of the sacred verses. In this era, conservative Muslim and Hindu patriarchs often feared that a literate girl would write love letters and become promiscuous.

In North India, Muslim and Hindu women wore the restrictive purdah. In South India, elite Muslim women wore purdah, while Hindu women lived in domestic seclusion but enjoyed greater freedom of movement. As an important deterrent to female attendance in formal schools, purdah became the subject of discussion among elite women reformers in the twentieth century. The other major obstacle to girls' education was the custom of early marriage among Hindus and Muslims. Muslim women reformers were divided on purdah and the extent to which it should be practiced. Shareefa Hamid Ali and Dr. Rahamatunnissa Begum felt that it injured girls' health and prevented their attendance in schools. Nazar Sajjad Hyder initially argued that parents would more readily send their veiled daughters to school, but she later opposed purdah. In 1914 the Begum of Bhopal convened a Muslim Women's Educational Conference in Allahabad, and philanthropists began schools for girls, raising the female literacy rate.

Colonial Era

European conquest led to the political decline of Indian states, and indigenous schools decayed. Catholic missionaries began schools to teach Christianity in Goa and elsewhere from the sixteenth century, while Protestant evangelicals founded schools in southern, eastern, and western India beginning in the eighteenth century, notable for their attempt to bring girls to school without caste distinctions. The early colonial state's interest in education was cursory, but it supported missionary endeavors, and British officials gauged educational competence through literacy and school enrollment. Henceforth, oral and informal learning became less significant. When the British Parliament gave the East India Company a large grant in 1813 to promote education in India, evangelicals arrived in droves to proselytize in schools. Women missionaries assiduously began elementary classes for girls, who learned English through the Bible and converted to Christianity. Indian rulers like the Rānis Lakshmibai and Parvatibai of Travancore gave financial support to missionaries for their educational work. In 1849 the government subsidized a Calcutta (Kolkata) girls' school, founded by J. E. D. Bethune, Ram Gopal Ghosh, and Jaikissen Mookherjee. In 1854 Charles Wood's Despatch on Education launched a new policy of granting aid to private schools. Promptly, Gopal Kistnah Pillai asked for a grant for his girls' school in Madras (Chennai). However, the first major breakthrough for girls' secular and high school education occurred in 1877. Mary Carpenter, the eminent educator, advised the government to establish secular teacher training centers in the presidency capitals of Calcutta, Bombay (Mumbai), and Madras. She used the guidelines of a similar school started in Madras by the Maharaja of Vijayanagaram.

Child marriages were a major impediment to girls' education. Among the higher Hindu castes, girls were married before puberty, until which time they might attend municipal or mission schools. After their nuptials, at the age of eleven or twelve, girls no longer attended public classes; if lucky, they were taught at home. Until the 1930 Sarda Act raised the age of marriage for girls to fourteen years, female literacy did not substantially improve. Christian converts educated their daughters, however, so their literacy rates were higher. This goaded Hindu reformers, whose daughters had not studied at mission schools, and they sent their daughters to schools with a secular curriculum. In 1904 Annie Besant wrote The Education of Indian Girls, which laid the curricular foundation for girls' schools. Reform organizations like the Prārthanā Samāj, Ārya Samāj, Rāmakrishnā Society, and the Theosophical Society started schools that taught Indian culture as well as Western subjects like geography and hygiene.

Indian nationalists worked to legalize compulsory education and to increase government funding for schools. The paucity of women teachers and doctors led to the establishment of teachers' training institutes and colleges such as the Lady Hardinge Medical College for Women in Delhi in 1916 and Queen Mary's College in Madras in 1914. Besant also worked to start a Women's University at Adyar in 1916, while women reformers started occupational training institutions for working-class women.

Independence Era

Since 1947 the Indian government has tried to provide incentives for girls' school attendance through programs for midday meals, free books, and uniforms. This welfare thrust raised primary enrollment between 1951 and 1981. In 1986 the National Policy on Education decided to restructure education in tune with the social framework of each state, and with larger national goals. It emphasized that education was necessary for democracy, and central to the improvement of women's condition. The new policy aimed at social change through revised texts, curricula, increased funding for schools, expansion in the numbers of schools, and policy improvements. Emphasis was placed on expanding girls' occupational centers and primary education; secondary and higher education; and rural and urban institutions. The report tried to connect problems like low school attendance with poverty, and the dependence on girls for housework and sibling day care. The National Literacy Mission also worked through female tutors in villages. Although the minimum marriage age is now eighteen for girls, many continue to be married much earlier. Therefore, at the secondary level, female dropout rates are high.

Indian women's education has, however, certainly improved since independence. Many urban women are highly educated in the sciences, medicine, computer technology, and the social sciences. India now has missions of female doctors, nurses, teachers, and social workers. Yet, in most important fields, girl students are outnumbered, and women professionals do not often receive equal pay, even though Indian women scientists, for example, are among the world's most talented. Such gender disparities in education will continue until girls are valued as highly as boys; until patriarchy and sexual predation are reduced; and until female feticide and infanticide, reflected in the sex disproportion of India's population, disappear.

Sita Anantha Raman

See alsoFeminism and Indian Nationalists ; Subbalakshmi Ammal, R. S. ; Theosophical Society ; Women's Indian Association


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