Friday, May 22, 2009

South Asian attitudes toward education for women

Here is a provocative opinion piece in Daily Dawn about gender issues in education in Pakistan (and also in India). While we are blaming the Taliban for pretty much eliminating education for women in the norther areas of Pakistan, Jawed Naqvi asks even if the Taliban are defeated, what kind of education will be waiting for women in those areas. This is an excellent way of bringing up serious problems not only with the education system, but also with the attitude of the society as a whole in dealing with women's education. Interestingly, he brings up evolution (or at least grappling with some of its basic ideas) right up front:
SUPPOSE one day, soon, the Taliban are militarily defeated and the government in Islamabad makes it mandatory for girls in Swat, as elsewhere in Pakistan, to attend schools.

What would they be taught? Going by conventional wisdom their curriculum would include a heavy dose of obscurantism, and a surfeit of gender biases. Our great grandmothers faced similar challenges across South Asia.

There are several theories and beliefs about something as basic as how human life came into existence. Let’s begin there, for the issue is at the heart of essential choices that must be made between a questioning spirit and hidebound faith. The question goes beyond the gender issue. Even in the supposedly liberated cultures straddling the United States a raging dispute exists over schoolchildren being exposed to the innocuous evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin.

Harmonising scientific theories with creationary beliefs is required. Such beliefs are not peculiar to Semitic traditions alone. Hinduism has its own version about how the world came into existence. One would have thought that the sobriquet of ‘Islamic republic’ that comes as part of the package called Pakistan makes the resolution of such imminent questions a more daunting task. The example of the United States is illustrative of the malaise being more widespread. A wider definition of Taliban is required to understand how the demons of obscurantism lurk deep in the recesses of overtly secular and liberal societies.
Now, I'm not exactly clear of what he means by "Harmonising scientific theories with creationist beliefs". I think he is referring to harmonising scientific theories with religious views - and not creation per se. But the evolution example is perhaps more complicated as evolution is indeed included in in high school biology textbooks, though human evolution is missing. See an earlier post Creationist mess in Texas and evolution in textbooks in Pakistan and also watch a lecture on this by Anila Asghar. But the point of the article is not any specific subject. Instead, he points to the general attitude of the society:
The problem is two-fold. I am aware of fairly well-meaning activists of impeccable liberal ideals in Pakistan and India who would rather leave some of the questions unaddressed on the plea that defeating the Taliban was the more urgent issue. Other (trivial?) matters should be left for a more opportune time. We are blaming the Taliban for too many things. Before the onset of Talibanisation students in many Pakistani schools were for decades taught ‘k’ for kafir, or infidel. A former Indian envoy to Islamabad noted in his memoirs how young children were indoctrinated to hate Hindus. Fighting the bigots in Swat is a worthy cause, but what about the Taliban lurking within?

Part of the enormous difficulties faced by women under Taliban rule is but a replica of what was once mainstream society. A grand aunt who migrated to Pakistan in the 1970s left behind an ancestral home with telltale signs of subtle repression. We discovered under her bed a cluster of books about girlie romance. She was not allowed to read them as a girl. Lady Wazir Hasan, mother of Sajjad Zaheer, the much-feted founding father of progressive writers in undivided India would speak only Awadhi, as did all the elderly women of Awadh of our memory.

She was asked once what prevented her from learning Urdu. Her answer holds the key to the problem that girls face, not only in Swat but all across the so-called civilised swathes of South Asia. ‘Urdu padhai ke moheypaturia banhaio ka?’ (Do you want me to learn Urdu and become a courtesan?) Women were deprived of education then, lest they began reading the Zehr-i-Ishq, Gul Bakawli and other romantic masnavis that were the preserve of men. The issues faced by the girls of Swat will continue to mock us even after the global military campaign defeats their current tormentors.
My minor quibble aside, I really liked the way he used the Taliban to bring forth the topic of blatant gender discrimination that is so prevalent in South Asia. Read the full article here.

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