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Women's education and the Nationalist project

By       Message Salomé DAHAN       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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opednews.com Headlined to H4 10/24/14

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WHO does education serve? The student or the teacher? In a way, education is the means through which the nation raises its citizens and ensures that they adhere to its agenda by elaborating a tight and regulated program. And at the beginning of the 20th century, through educating their women, Indian nationalists transformed them into the perfect little vehicles of their ideals.

In 1915, Sarojini Naidu proposed a resolution, asserting that women's education was the most important aspect of the nationalist project, and the vital way through which the nation would strengthen. As good as this sounded, Naidu's claim was veiled under a thick layer of hypocrisy. Indeed, as a middle-class, educated abroad women, Naidu blended all individual differences by putting all women in the same essential category, thus denying differential opportunities, advantages and obstacles that influence each woman's life.

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She might be considered a great advocate of women's education but her speaking for all the "sisterhood" was extremely presumptuous and limiting. Because all women were put in the same basket, they all shared a common responsibility, and this responsibility was the precise location wherein the nationalist agenda operated. Indeed, women education would serve the nation in general and her family in particular because as she teaches her children, she teaches the citizen of tomorrow.

As we look at the content of knowledge directed at women, described by Chatterjee, we understand that the principal goal of women's education was to maintain their sense of morality and decency, and thus keeping the traditional status quo. Indeed, it consisted of good housework and proper raising of children, and the values they ought to acquire ranged from self-sacrifice to submission. Because women represented the essence and spirit of the nation, their propriety had to be kept intact and their education ensured that. Just like a daughter represents the morality of her family, women as a whole were the symbol of the nation's worth. Far from being empowering and beneficial, this idealization was alienating because it kept women in the realm of the "home", the "last citadel of traditional values", as put by Chatterjee, which seriously limited the availability of roles they could adopt.

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In a way, the woman's question was at the heart of the nationalist agenda, but was it as resolved as Chatterjee claims? If we look at middle class women, where Naidu proudly stands, then indeed, their lives dramatically changed and their situation was much better than the preceding generations. But not only do they represent a tiny fraction of what constitutes womanhood, this supposed resolution was not concerned with women's best interest, but with the nationalist emphasis on keeping India's cultural and moral superiority and maintaining it off the West's modern grip. And what better place to keep traditions alive than women's ___.

This makes me wonder where are we at today. Although great efforts are put in place to systematize formal education of young girls and women, and especially, those of lower castes, a look at the disparity between women reaching the higher levels of academia versus men, as well as the predominance of men in fields deemed as successful (i.e. science, IT, engineering etc.) indicates that women remain mostly in the realm of the "home". Progress, emancipation and academic achievement is a possibility for a very small proportion of women, who benefit from the advantages of their middle to upper class status, while these opportunities are completely denied for the rest of the female population. However, is the instructed knowledge still as circumscribed as it was a century ago?

A true change would therefore not mean educating young girls of India, recognizing that their education is a vital drive for progress, but allowing them to access the very knowledge that would enable them to leave the "home" and enter the "world", not in the vein of a man, but as a woman.

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I am an undergrad student at McGill University (Montreal), studying psychology, sexual diversity and women's studies. I am particularly interested in topics of gender, power relations, and sexual diversity.

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Women's education and the Nationalist project