Beyond formal schooling

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TRADITIONAL communities who have their roots in the soil as farmers, landless agricultural labourers and tribals, or in the coastal regions as fishers, are commonly first generation learners in standardized education. We often presume that these local communities are without knowledge. However, Paolo Freire and others have regularly drawn our attention to the need to educate ourselves about the rights and privileges of these communities, and how we must in fact learn from them.

Industrialization has meant that peasants and tribals are reduced to one category, that is cheap labour. A theory of beauty is inherent in their lives. This is part of the craft and artisanal traditions of which they are representatives. Luxury markets in India and abroad define the use of these traditional skills as essential to the goods they produce, whether in leather, shell, gems, metals, cloth or wood. Designer culture sees these as necessities, and makes good use of them. Khadi, handloom and mirror work are seen as desirable within the capitalist framework of couture culture. Let us proceed to imagine then that the brutalization of these indigenous communities happens when they are deprived of access to food and shelter.

School education is seen to be the way out of an imposed poverty. It is believed that if these communities receive a standardized education they will become better equipped to negotiate the difficulties that they face as impoverished communities.

Since smart cities cannot be built without cheap labour, clearly the state represents an industrialized world view as a total social good. However, there are many who believe that subsistence economies (those who live on the food they grow, or the fish they catch, or the pastoral and nomadic communities who live frugally in their habitats) must be supported. This is because the earth is organic and resplendent and must be protected for its multidiversity. Not surprisingly, the aspect of niche culture as being protective of the earth becomes a point of view that is seen as activist and ecologically sensitive. We are quick to presume that the genocide of the peasants and tribals through deprivation is a necessary aspect of industrialization to which the nation state has been committed since independence. However, the West, whatever its past, is today mortified by its own history, and in many parts of Europe and Asia, green movements have been more than successful.

Craft and artisan communities depend on the environment for their livelihood as well as their sense of well-being. The diminishing of state concern for agriculture, so visible to us, is a very short-sighted perspective. With climate change it is necessary to address the needs of the farmer in a different way. The farmer with a small landholding is actually investing in other crops which might survive unseasonal rainfall. While he loses his wheat, bajra, rice, peas and pulses, he might still have his sugarcane crop standing. Mushrooms too are being harvested around the year, as the temperatures can be maintained artificially.

The costs of schooling are very high for such communities, and it must be underscored that once prices for crops like cotton or ginger escalate or drop, the farmer’s fortunes fluctuate. Formal schooling comes with lots of costs, including certification for teachers and students and blackboards, textbooks and uniforms. Alternative schooling actually provides children in marginalized situations with the possibility that they can pass the Open School exam at a learning pace that is suitable to them. Open University further extends the possibility of their entering into professional occupations. Artisan communities would benefit from the ways in which the skills that they need to promote their traditional arts are rated more positively. Design schools teach weaving, pottery, block printing and up to 40 other skills for a cost which is beyond the average earnings of a middle class Indian household. If these skills are so relevant to conspicuous consumption in urban society, why should children of rural communities be made to feel that they have no place in society.

A child refused to go for a maths exam, and was severely punished by her parents. Her father tied her to his motorcycle with a rope, and was noticed by journalists visiting the village to report on some other case. The father was jailed for a night, and when interviewed he said that his child only liked to do craft, and found everything else boring. Alternative School Education is promoted by networks of activists all over the country, and it uses Montessori or Rudolf Steiner or J. Krishnamurthy methods to innovate with education, attending to each according to his or her needs. With the massive cuts in education, and the blocking of opportunities for the poor to accelerate urban development and industrialization, it won’t be surprising if there is a revolution or state repression, as these go together.

Susan Visvanathan


Stereotyping and scapegoating Indian women

IN the wake of India’s loss to Australia in the 2015 ICC World Cup semi-final, social media was abuzz with jokes such as: ‘What did Anushka Sharma tell Virat Kohli before he went out to bat today?’ ‘Virat, I want you here in five minutes.’ Or ‘Dhoni asked Kohli to spend time with Sharma. Kohli understood it as Anushka Sharma instead of Rohit Sharma.’

In addition, there was trolling on Twitter with lines such as these: ‘I request to all the people to go and throw stones at the house of Anushka Sharma who is the main reason for the defeat of India’ and requests to filmgoers to boycott Anushka Sharma’s films as it would be anti-national to watch them.

Blaming Anushka Sharma for Kohli’s dismissal and India’s loss is in line with other ways we, as a society, grant women a position of ‘responsibility’ and ‘empowerment’. If a newly-wed man behaves a little strangely, it is either due to the pernicious influence of his new wife (and never mind that he was always slightly strange), or because mothers make their grown-up sons into babies, or mothers-in-law drive men to bad behaviour, and so on. I argue that all of these ‘inverted’ narratives, most of them everyday, routine, as also the Anushka Sharma jokes, are versions of an Indian storyline that places women in an unenviable situation, wherein (i) they are granted agency; (ii) they are reduced to stereotypes and by doing so, scapegoated by their menfolk in ways sanctioned by society. I use the word ‘inverted’ to indicate how on the one hand they invert traditional stereotypes and, on the other, further entrench the women in particular, negative roles.

The granting of agency to women via such narratives is particularly interesting because it involves a sleight-of-hand that inverts traditional gender stereotypes – roles established by patriarchy itself. If gender stereotypes include those wherein the male is more rational, less emotional, and possesses more agency, then in these narratives it is the woman who is able to act upon the man. The woman’s agency robs the man of his: he becomes more acted upon than acting in his own right. Thus Kohli was obeying Anushka Sharma when he lost his wicket, because she had asked him to return in five minutes; the strange behaviour of the newly-wed man is because his wife has taught him to behave in a certain ‘strange’ way; the mother acts upon and transforms the man into a baby, the epitome of a being which lacks agency and will, and so on. Men are also seen as more sentimental in these narratives, ready to do whatever it takes to keep their women happy.

By neatly inverting traditional roles women are then spotlighted in these narratives as the ones in control, not only of their own futures but also of the futures of the men associated with them. The men themselves are meekly submissive, falling in line with what is asked of them by their women. The sleight-of-hand or inversion rests in the fact that the determiners of meaning are the men themselves as they confer meaning on the actions of the women and then respond in ways they deem appropriate. In the process of being ‘submissive’ and ‘obedient’, men supposedly are no longer employing their rationality or their agency; they have handed over control of their ‘selves’ to their women. That this version of women’s control over their men only leads to pain, misery and grief for the said women is, of course, one of those gaps in the narrative. In addition, even as it appears to turn stereotypes around, invert them, it also plays into another set of stereotypes for both men and women. The formula for this sleight-of-hand might be summarized thus. First, men set up the meaning of women-in-control. Second, this automatically comes to imply that men lose their agency. Three, the woman-in-control narrative does not lead to true agency for women, but traps them in yet another stereotype, of the dominant woman. The inversion of stereotypes is really a further entrenchment of gender roles because the meaning of agency is here defined by men in jokes such as the ones listed above.

Stereotypes are ways of thinking about people that fixes them in certain roles and patterns of behaviour which eventually become ‘common knowledge’ and are self-perpetuating. Stereotypes ‘also act as a means of validating elements of an existing social order or cultural hierarchy.’1 The Anushka Sharma jokes work with prevalent stereotypes about women, showing the woman to be both clingy and controlling, popular stereotypes about women disseminated in and through popular culture. Emotionally dependent on the men in their lives they intrude into their working lives, their professional worlds and then manipulate them by being needy. In the Anushka Sharma jokes one prominent thread is that she wanted him at her side rather than at the crease, batting for India. This works with yet another stereotypical notion regarding women, that they place their personal and familial concerns above ‘larger’ interests, in this case the national interest. Women are absorbed in the personal realm. The public realm is not something that concerns them and thus they willingly sacrifice the latter for the former. These narratives also endorse popular roles and stereotypes associated with men, casting men in one of several readily available roles: men trying to placate their emotional partners; men swayed by sentiment, and thus behaving in ways that are seen as more feminine; men being dutiful sons; men asserting themselves in the face of their dominant mother-in-law, and so on. Drawing upon both prescriptive and proscriptive gender stereotypes these jokes and storylines authorize and confirm an already known and structured social order.

By inverting agential roles and by drawing upon accepted and traditional gender stereotypes and biases, what is achieved is the scapegoating of women. Scapegoating, according to Evans Mandes, is ‘the process of unjustly accusing or blaming an individual or a group for the actions of others not of their own doing.’ Mandes goes on to say that people who are scapegoated ‘are often perceived as "safe" targets because they are victimized and often powerless to fight back. They are frequently vilified, criticized, and rejected.’2 Women in the narratives I have described are posited as being more powerful within these personal, familial relationships and, following from this, they are seen as having instigated the problem. In the process they are depicted as selfish, self-centred, uncaring of larger interests and identities and responsible for the failure of the male. The male on the other hand is absolved of all, or most of, the blame, his responsibility for the situation remains minimal while she is belittled and slandered, often pilloried and held up to the gaze of the disapproving millions. This becomes one more instance of what I call an inverted narrative. The woman-in-control or woman with agency stereotype that emerges from these inverted narratives eventually ends up pushing the woman further into the ‘blameworthy’ category. There is not agency but yet another degree of entrapment for the women.

If we accept the truth of the above we also recognize that this is not just in cases such as the Anushka Sharma-Virat Kohli stories but also other cases and stories that we are used to hearing about, particularly since December 2012. The magnitude is along a continuum, wherein the everyday fault-finding, often jocular, about possessive girlfriends and wives, mothers and mothers-in-law and even colleagues is at one end, and at the other end is the well known and oft-used line that women invite sexual assault by dressing inappropriately, by being in spaces where they shouldn’t have been, by having friends who are boys and boyfriends. Of course, the girl fighting back against her rapists made them brutalize her, because she fought back. This last is attested to by Mukesh Singh in the controversial documentary India’s Daughter wherein he goes on to say that otherwise they would have ‘simply’ raped her and let her go/live. The gang rape and brutalizing was a direct result of her own activities: she caused her own death. Indian society has routinely scapegoated the woman, and it is only in the magnitude of what happens to her that the details differ, the process remains the same.

What is worrying is not the Anushka Sharma jokes in and of themselves, though that is bad enough. The larger question is what those jokes are symptomatic of: that after decades of feminist battles for rights, dignity and equality, the cultural representations remain unchanged. In the guise of granting equal agency to the woman in the form of the stereotypes discussed above, these narratives fuel further resentment against an already beleaguered Indian womanhood. That this resentment might result in anything from stoning Sharma’s house (as the Twitter exhortation said) to rape is something we need to worry about, because these narratives continue to circulate through our cultural discourses. And minds.

Anna Kurian



1. Michael Pickering, ‘Stereotyping and Stereotypes’, in George Ritzer (ed.), ibid., pp. 4781-4786.

2. Evans Mandes, ‘Scapegoating’, in George Ritzer (ed.), The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2007, pp. 4020-4022.