The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 21, 2001

A different "class" struggle by women
Review by S.P. Dhawan

Women Education through the Ages
by N.L. Gupta. Concept Publishing. New Delhi. Pages 248. Rs 350.

THE question of imparting quality education to women assumes significance when viewed in the perspective of their emancipation, enlightenment, development and empowerment in a male-dominated society. As in the western hemisphere, women studies in this part of the world are gathering momentum and a realisation is dawning on everyone that education of women can play a role in removing inequality and exploitation as also in motivating and equipping them to fully participate in all socio-economic-political activities.

Dr N.L. Gupta, Assistance Commissioner, Kendriya Vidyala Sangathan, Bhopal, has written extensively on the various aspects of academic life in the country and in this particular work, as the title indicates, he has concentrated on education of women in India through the ages, beginning with the vedic period and up to the present phase through 11 chapters followed by three appendices. Dr Gupta seeks to study and analyse the factors and social and historical forces which have traditionally worked for or against the cause of educating women.


It is noteworthy that both the UN Charter Declaration and the Constitution of India guarantee equal opportunity and rights to men and women and from this follows the fundamental right of women to receive the benefits of education on equal footing with man. Their education will not only refine and enrich their own lives, but also the lives of their families and consequently society and the nation will be immensely benefited. To quote Rene Maheu, a former Director-General of UNESCO, No country can afford to leave half of its population in relative ignorance which makes them a brake on development instead of a motive force in it.

That is why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a right to education. In November, 1967, the UN General Assembly adopted a declaration on discrimination against women and later called the years 1975-85 as the Women s Development Decade. In India, too, the women decade was observed, during which women raised their voice to get rid of gender-discrimination and exploitation.

As a result, several committees and commissions came into existence to look into the problems of unjust social order unfavourable to women. These bodies chalked out a number of schemes aimed at universalisation of education, particularly of girls belonging to the poor and backward strata of society.

To achieve this objective, recommendations for generous assistance in the form of stipend, scholarship, stationery, textbooks, midday meal, free or subsidised transport, etc. were made. The involvement of NGOs, wealthy individuals, local bodies and grass-root workers were also sought to be encouraged. Almost all five year Plans have also laid emphasis on the removal of disparities in educational opportunities for women. Various documents on the national policy of education, framed from time to time, gave priority to the removal of women illiteracy and sex stereotyping.

A clear ambivalence has traditionally marked the attitude of the male-controlled Indian society towards women and their education. On the one hand, they have been adored as paragons of beauty, grace, virtue, energy, compassion, tolerance, selfless service, sacrifice, etc. while, on the other, they have been depicted as mere sex objects, only to serve, please and entertain the male of the species. There are goddesses like Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Usha and Aditi, virtuous women like Sita, Urmila, Savitri, and Damayanti; yet on the whole women have suffered discrimination, injustice and exploitation at the hands of men at all levels.

In the vedic period only women belonging to royal and aristocratic families received education in theology, philosophy, etc. while common women were doomed to illiteracy.

In the period of post-vedic epics suchh as the Ramayana and the Mahabharta the situation continued. Buddhism and Jainism, which came into existence as a revolt against Brahminism, tried to assign a honourable place to women in society, but in actual practice, nuns were usually subordinate to the supreme authority of monks, and female education in general remained sadly neglected.

Though the Muslim rulers established a number of educational institutions known as madrasas, it was not considered desirable and necessary to open their portals for women. Of course the girls of the well-to-do and royal families received some kind of education in their houses, and this is evidenced by the achievements of Razia Sultan, Chand Bibi, Nurjahan, etc. During the period between the invasion of Mohammad Ghauri and the advent of British rule, the position of women deteriorated further as they became the victims of the purdah system, female infanticide, child marriage, sati, etc. It may be called the darkest period so far as education of women is concerned.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Annie Besant and other reformist leaders, with the help of enlightened British rulers and sChristian missionaries made efforts to free women from barbaric victimisation and also to give them education. Consequently, several schools, exclusively for women, came up in Bengal, Madras and Bombay provinces. Gradually, the doors of the institutions of higher learning were also opened for them. The Lady Harding Medical College, Delhi, and Women s University were established in 1916.

In post-independence India, women have gained acceptance in all studies arts, commerce and science. They are brilliant and often excel boys in bagging ranks, prizes and medals. They have made their mark as illustrious professors, doctors, engineers, scientists, judges, lawyers and IAS/IPS/Allied services/PCS officers, etc. This is a tribute as much to their efficiency as to the wisdom of those in charge of planning and implementing proper educational openings for them.

The benefits of the measures can be seen by anybody interested in the cause of female literacy. An educated woman is an asset to her family as well as to the nation. She emerges as a more enlightened individual, house manager, mother and political worker.

The importance of a book like this cannot be over-emphasised. It would have been better if it were free of linguistic faults. On page 105 Among the many Muslim colleges, which rose to prominence from time to time it is difficult to make a selection for special description. But it is difficult to make a choice for special description.

The book also suffers from a number of jarring repetitions - pages 79, 80 and 82 have duplication regarding Jainism and Buddhism; pages 22 and 97 regarding the Islamic system. Yet another irritant is the superfluous material on many pages. The detailed description of the birth, marriage and the suffering of Sita is one example.

Such stories may have a lot of religious interest, but strictly in terms of women s education, the main topic of this study, they only divert attention and hence lesson the impact of the work.