Growing up in the capital of India, New Delhi, I was acutely aware of the gender ‘norms’ that existed in my country, especially in the northern part of India. Women had to wear ‘appropriate’ clothes in public so as to not attract lewd comments and attention from the opposite sex, there was little point in educating a girl as she was ‘paraya dhan’ – akin to wealth that would not stay within the family as she would get married, men were the breadwinners whereas the women had to take care of the household.
This understanding of the phenomenon that is patriarchy isn’t novel, nor are the instances put forth. It is unsurprising that such tenets form the basis of our cultural dogmas and are as common and widespread as our belief in the existence of an ideological deity. Having said that, what is indeed surprising and unanticipated is, the ubiquity and extent to which such constructs are reinforced in every aspect of life in India’s villages.
Working with government primary schools in rural Rajasthan, northern India, I started to notice patriarchy and gender inequality in every aspect of village life. I saw veiled women and young school-age girls busy with household chores while men and teenage boys ambled about or played cards. Arriving at the government school, I observed that the girls and boys sat in separate rows with absolutely no interaction. The girls lacked confidence and refused to speak up while the boys dominated the discussions. In the higher grades, I noticed that some of the young girls were wearing bangles, sindoor(vermillion) on their forehead and toe rings – all markers of married women. These girls at the tender age of 13 and 14 were victims of child marriage.
As I frequented the villages, I realized the intent of all the actions -women were to have no agency of their own and all decisions were to be dictated by the men of the household. This was evident from the diktat for women.Married women were always veiled in front of family elders, they were not allowed to speak in front of men. They were to always sit on a level lower than them and were not allowed to leave the village on their own. More often than not they were made to drop out of school after the 8thgrade to get married.
Unfortunately, young impressionable minds grow up observing and learning these norms and unquestioningly adopt them. I remember an incident where 6-year-old school girls refused to hold the hands of boys, as a part of an activity, as they had been instructed against it by their parents. It seemed bizarre that these children, who had no idea of gender or sex, were taught that touching a person of the opposite sex was wrong. On relaying this incident to teachers, they told me to refrain from conducting such activities as it would only enrage parents. Unfortunately, government school teachers don’t have the time, ability or will to break these norms and encourage critical thinking. They would rather respect the wishes of the community and be silent spectators to patriarchy than create a storm in trying to change gender norms, which may put their jobs in peril.
While there is no doubt that education is an essential medium through which such norms can be uprooted, there is also a need to increase awareness among the communities to support such an education. Community members believe patriarchy to be a part of their culture, which ‘western’ minds, such as mine, were trying to corrode. Unfortunately, it’s not just the men who hold this belief, it’s the women as well. As a part of my project, I worked on a construction site in order to understand the difficulties that labourers face in villages. At the end of just 2 hours, I had received calls from every important person in the community to not ‘disrespect’ the norms of the village by performing such an ‘unwomanly’ task. Oddly enough, the people who reprimanded me for my actions were women while the labourers at the construction site treated me as their equal.
While I came face-to-face with such extreme inequality, there were bright spots too. I stayed with Sunitaji who educated her 3 daughters against all odds and started her own sewing businesses. I also interacted with Khan sahab, who had ensured that his 2 daughters obtained their master’s degree against the wishes of his family. These stories make me believe that the village mindset will change but such examples alone will not be enough. Providing children the space to question societal norms is, without doubt, imperative to uproot gender inequality and I believe that quality education in government schools is going to be the game-changer.
About the Author:
Shruti Sriram is a first year MPA student at SIPA, Columbia University. Prior to joining, she was a Gandhi Fellow in Churu, Rajasthan (India) where she worked with upper primary government schools to improve student learning outcomes. Her experience with the education bureaucracy led to her interest in policy and public administration. She is interested in exploring how behavioural insights can inform development interventions, particularly on how it can be used in the area of bureaucratic reform.