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Gender and education

May 2008: Gender is a construct that owes its creation to a number of social institutions. Some of these include family, educational institutions, judiciary, religion, etc. In recent times, the media has emerged as a powerful constitutive agent of gender-related ideas and notions.

Before we look at the process of how gender is constructed let us briefly focus on the term 'gender'. Gender, unlike sex which is based on biological division and is specific in character, is more amorphous in nature and is subject to change with reference to context and time. That is why the concept of gender varies from context to context.

Gender is a political view of sex that is based on the binary division of male and female. This binary division apparently looks natural. The problem with this division, however, starts when one thing is considered inferior to the other which is regarded as superior. Meanings are assigned arbitrarily to objects and concepts.

Apart from the literal or dictionary meaning of words, each word has certain connotations or associated meanings. These are constructed by society. The dominant groups in society assign positive meanings to what they do and negative meanings to what 'others' do.

The construction of gender is largely done by dominant groups who assign roles and responsibilities and give opportunities to, and have expectations of, males and females - separately. For instance, it is society that suggests that girls should play with dolls and boys cannot and should not do so.

In this process of socialisation, education and educational institutions play a central role. For instance, stereotypes pertaining to responsibilities, roles and opportunities, to which we are initially exposed in family settings, are endorsed at educational institutions. So schools are places where the socialising process is reinforced and given legitimacy and authenticity. The social knowledge relating to gender is constructed, validated and perpetuated by schools through textbooks, pedagogy skills, assessment and the academic milieu.

A considerable amount of research has been done on textbooks that represent female characters as weak, dependent and stereotypically shy, and confined to the home whereas the male characters are shown as strong, independent, innovative, outgoing and responsible for the outer world.

The 'authenticity' of the printed word in the shape of a textbook is further enhanced when these stereotypes are backed up and legitimised by the teacher in class. The assessment system approves of certain agreed upon answers and disapproves of non-conformity with fixed stereotypes. The school milieu also plays an important role in the formation of certain gender stereotypes. Thus schools are disseminating stereotypes favouring the patriarchal system in society.

A large number of families in the subcontinent still believe that there is no need to send girls to schools. Similarly, a sizable proportion of the population believes that girls should only be exposed to primary education. The argument given in favour of this, in our society, is that since girls need to be married off there is no need to send them for higher education. This attitude is changing somewhat though and we see a growing number of girls going to school.

One problem still exists: a number of female professionals, i.e., medical doctors, engineers etc., after successful completion of their professional education do not work. One major reason is marriage which makes it difficult for them to pursue their profession. In most cases, it is because they are not allowed by their husbands to take up jobs. This goes back to our earlier discussion where women and men are viewed by society through the lens of gender where man is considered as responsible for the world outside and where the woman's role has been confined to the home.

Education, which has a strong link with power, has traditionally been a rare commodity for women. In Pakistan, we have seen long periods of silencing women and excluding them from modern education. That is why women have had to struggle hard to compete with men and create space for themselves in public life.

In some parts of the subcontinent, the exposure of girls to learning is still confined to religious education. Modern education, which is the key to economic independence, is denied to them. The control and hegemony enjoyed by men is largely linked to their role as breadwinners of the family. Economic independence is generally ensured by the acquisition of modern education.

Educational institutions have been engaged in perpetuating the existing social structures of power through the construction and legitimisation of a skewed view of women. Even female students are led to internalise gender-biased views in schools. Thus education, that is supposed to emancipate human beings, is performing the opposite function by creating a tunnel vision among students.

This tunnel vision is designed to favour the powerful and discredit marginalised groups. If we are serious about reducing the gender gap in society we need to revisit some popular stereotypes about women. For this, social institutions in general and schools in particular have to play their due role. We need to have a thorough review of textbooks, pedagogy skills, an assessment system and the school milieu, and address areas where improvement is needed.

While we strategise to reduce gender gaps in society, it is crucial to keep in view that gender is not just an idea and concept which should be dealt with only at a theoretical level. Besides being a concept, gender is a tangible factor in our behaviour. We make gender something real in our social interaction, through our attitudes and in practice. So the strategy should not be confined to theory alone, it should also be reflected in our daily life.

For instance, it is not sufficient to include concepts of gender equality in the curriculum, it is also crucial that teachers and head teachers show by example that they genuinely believe in gender equality. The fact is that a majority of educational institutions perpetuate gender-biased stereotypes. But it is these same institutions that can encourage students to challenge the stereotypes and resist the hegemonic designs of dominant groups.

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui
The writer is director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan. -Dawn

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