Is the citizen a woman? Can the generic "woman" carry the "burden" of weighty public roles?

Consider the following lines from the Civics textbook for Class 7, recently published in Hindi, and introduced as part of the new elementary school curriculum prepared by SCERT (State Council for Educational Research and Training), Delhi:

  • "Every citizen has the right to express her thoughts, cast her vote or contest elections."
  • "In a modern democracy, a citizen has rights, through which she can participate in the formation of the government, in its smooth functioning, or in its removal."

    These lines, from the chapter on Citizenship, use the feminine as the linguistic norm. Critics are outraged. How can we accept the feminisation of the citizens of India? Or is this simply a case of poor linguistic skills?

    The answers to such questions lie, in part, in the way in which we look at the question of gender in education. Generally accepted wisdom works along two lines: First, get the girls to schools and second, remove sexist bias in textbooks. Consequently, Sarva Shiksha Abiyan's (Education for All) objective of reducing the gender gap essentially translates into bringing 35 million out-of-school girls into its ambit. While the importance of such efforts is undeniable, it is also true that access to schooling has become the most critical marker of our commitment to gender equity in education.

    There is an implicit assumption that schooling automatically empowers girls. Yet, we know well that schooling in and of itself does not necessarily create new possibilities or roles for its participants. Like other institutions, the school is a place where existing socio-cultural values are reproduced and reinforced. The high incidence of domestic violence, rape and torture of women in highly 'literate' societies is illustrative of the limitations of school education.

    A few initiatives to remove sexist bias in textbooks have also been undertaken. Books in which visuals of girls or women were absent, these were merely 'added on'. Besides, role reversal was used as a strategy to depict equality amongst the sexes. "If men can do it, so can women" - this mode was used to justify changes in content. As in showing or writing about men making tea, while women read the paper. In the same mode, women also fought great battles like men. Textbook writers in the 1990s, for instance, made the achievements of Indian women "visible" by mere transference: penning highly masculinised, militaristic accounts of women's lives, as that of Rani Lakshmi Bai or Razia Sultan.

    Those of us writing the Civics textbooks were aware that inclusion of gender concerns had to move beyond this approach. It was a tremendous challenge to represent women as women and as members belonging to different social groups. Contextualisation was the key. We weren't simply talking about women, but of poor and middle class women, Dalit and tribal women, professional women and farmers.

    For example, the chapter on migration includes a specific case study of Milani, a migrant domestic worker in Delhi. The economics of migration, its impact on her family and her place of migration is specific to her location as a person from Jharkhand, as a tribal and as a woman. Similarly, Sunita, who lives in a resettlement colony of Delhi experiences the urban character of Delhi differently from Balvinder, a boy who lives in a middle-class colony. Sunita's aspirations, the resources available to Balvinder, or the expectations of their respective families differ not only on the basis of their class, but also on the basis of their gender.

    In the new textbooks, there was also an attempt to move away from the familiar 'woman-as-victim' mode. The intention was to depict the complexity of change in the lives of women. How do we articulate women's agency while recognising the limiting role social structures play in their lives? For example in the chapter on Panchayati Raj, the protagonist is a woman called Lachi. A first-generation beneficiary of reservations for women in the panchayat, Lachi is nervous and anxious in her first Gram Sabha. Reservation (for women) has not transformed her overnight into a powerful panch, but it has given her the space and opportunity to participate in the decision-making processes in her village.

    In another example, Kesar, a young girl from a farming family in Haryana wonders why she is not allowed to plough the land even though she is perfectly accepting of the fact that her brothers are the inheritors of their land. Kesar's example indicates that socialisation is a complex, often contradictory, but always 'incomplete' process. Even 'victims' can and do raise questions on certain aspects of their lives.

    The Civics textbooks also include women as social and political critics - writers, political activists, travellers or scientists. In the chapter on Fundamental Rights, Maharashtrian Dalit writer Baby Kamble's autobiographic descriptions of the caste system (in the early 19th century) demonstrate the logic of the fundamental right to equality. And Aung Sang Su Chi figures in the chapter on Democracy.

    What can be more discomfiting than to visualise the citizen as a woman? It challenges and breaks the boundaries between the family and the State, the public and the private, the home and the world.
     •  Long and arduous road
     •  Barriers to girls education
    At the level of language, it was critical that we kept in mind the girl child as a reader of these textbooks. The he\she strategy of addressing the reader is limited; it invariably ends up using Man as synonymous with human. For the new textbooks, we decided to write certain chapters addressed directly to the female reader.

    However, the decision to write the chapter on Citizenship with the feminine as the norm, emerged from a different understanding. An Indian woman's identity is primarily governed by family, caste, religion or community. And women in India carry the responsibility of maintaining the purity and distinctiveness of these facets of their identity. They are rarely, if ever, identified as independent citizens, with entitlements and direct access to the institutions of power and decision-making.

    If a proactive link is to be made, then women need to be visibly identified as citizens. What can be more discomfiting than to visualise the citizen as a woman? It challenges and breaks the boundaries between the family and the State, the public and the private, the home and the world.

    Isn't it time our children imagined their world differently?