Saturday, August 28, 2010

Educating the Yemeni girls

Photo: Oxfam GB
With so much of ho-hulla over girls’ education where is Yemen headed? My own visits to different parts give me both optimism and causes despair. The concrete structures of the schools impress me but the fact that no special efforts are being made to motivate parents to send their daughters to schools and allow them to complete their education is disheartening. Recently, a colleague mentioned that during her meeting with education officials in a governorate, the officials grumbled that they built schools for girls but all the schools are running into a loss. What they meant was that the investment and regular cost of maintaining those schools is not matched by adequate enrollment and retention of girls in these schools. This is a clear example of schools being built without community consultations and agreements with parents. Community participation in the decision-making related to the location of the school, facilities required in the schools and the sex of the staff pay a key role in a community’s willingness to allow their daughters to get an education.

My own visits to a few schools located close to or inside villages demonstrated another side of the story. Village elders and school authorities informed that the demand for seats in schools is far higher than the capacity of these schools. They have developed an interesting strategy to deal with the problem. Every year, they enroll the older girls and reject younger ones. They believe that in this way every girl will have a chance to study, albeit late. The flipside of this strategy is that it reduces the ‘learning years’ that a girl has. Since a large number of girls are taken off the school by their parents when they reach the age of puberty, these girls have lesser number of years to pursue education.

The experience of the schools located close to or inside villages, however, demonstrates that a few simple steps can improve girls’ enrolment. If the reasons behind drop out is analyzed and remedial steps are followed in a comprehensive and integrated way alongside factors that have led to an increased demand for seats in schools, an enormous impact on girls’ retention in schools and completion of education can be ensured. Let us look at some of the steps that could be taken up.

Despite the fact that villages in Yemen are small and located far from one-another, the need to open basic and secondary school in disadvantaged and remote areas cannot be emphasized more. The above given examples show that unless schools are located within a distance that communities feel is appropriate a large number of girls in rural areas will continue to miss out education. If the government feels inadequate to build and maintain schools in all areas, it should aid and encourage nongovernmental organization to start bridge schemes, and nonformal education centres to provide quality education to small number of students in the local communities. Such education programmes should be recognized by the public and private sector so that their usefulness is not any less than qualifications acquired in government institutions.

Photo: Oxfam GB
Girls’ education, from basic to secondary level, to become a ‘viable option’ for parents, must be free. In a society, which does not regard education having any intrinsic value or does not see girls education as having any material value, any cost, whether school fees or the cost of book, stationary, uniform and transportation or hidden costs like those charged for student projects, is bound to be seen as an avoidable drain of family income and can discourage parents from sending their daughter to a school.

These two steps alone will not be sufficient unless all schools have women teachers. These teachers should be trained, motivated and supported not only in teaching but also in organizing community outreach activities so that they can induce girls into education. Often, parents are concerned about sending their daughters to a co-educational school because they fear for their safety and honour. For example, one of my colleagues after a focus group discussion with a community in Seiyun district shared that most parents in this community are reluctant to send their daughters to the school because a male teacher tried to molest a girl student. It is important, therefore, that the schools in participation with communities should put code of conduct for male teachers and students and sanctions in place to stop harassment and abuse of girls.

It would be a good idea to provide some incentives to poor families to motivate them to send their daughters to the school. The incentives could take the form of free food, stipend to pursue basic and secondary education, free transport, a fixed deposit that the girl can receive after she completes secondary education, etc.

Another important issue is that education and vocational training should not be rolled out separately. A step that is needed to convince parents about the usefulness of girls’ education is to compliment education with market-oriented vocational skills. This will help parents see immediate usefulness of educating their daughters.

Another critical step that is needed, at least, in the initial stage to give a thrust to these efforts is to give job/income generation opportunities to those women who complete their education in the formal sector. This step calls for coordination and collaboration between various agencies, both governmental and nongovernmental. It requires that the donor agencies which support basic and secondary education, vocational training and employment generation programmes should see these three as connected issues and their grant-making policies should reinforce these connections.

To sum up there is a need not only to invest more in girls’ education but also to invest effectively. This calls for high level of donor and government commitment to increase investment as well as to strategically reform education curricula and delivery systems. And this commitment must be sustained over a long term to provide free and universal access and other facilitative services, and to achieve balance between education and relevant vocational training in schools.

Article originally published at Yemen Times:

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Women and Religious Fundamentalism

A message from Bhagawad Geeta as the Thought of the Day
in front of Baitil Aman Guesthouse, Shela Village, Lamu,
owned by Sidiki Abdulrehman
WOMEN’S support to religious fundamentalism could be explained with the help of notions of women as objects and subjects of community identity, conditioned as much by patriarchal values as men, their interests so intrinsically connected to the community that thinking of individual or collective interests may amount to blasphemy. Also, making an assumption that all women would like to oppose fundamentalism implies rallying behind universal notions of women-hood and sisterhood, and romanticizing women as universal peace-seekers.

Here, I would like to explore women’s identities, interests and values as complex interactive elements in the multitude of intersections and over-lapping themes of fundamentalism. I will attempt to analyze a few key intersections of religion, nationalism, caste, class, gender and community identity in India with a special focus on current trends in Hinduism to understand the layers of women’s support to religious fundamentalism. I will also attempt to link the growth of religious fundamentalism with increasing attempts to control women.

While approaching religio-spirituality, we should make a distinction between the values of the religio-spiritual realm and their practice. The growth of values is associated more with metaphysical aspects of the religion and is seen as the preserve of enlightened and unattached spiritual persons who could devote themselves fully to emancipate the soul. The practice of these values is considered to be closer to ordinary mortals. The intricate world of attachments in which women live makes them ‘incompatible’ to the demands of a spiritual world which is highly valued, powerful, and a typically male domain. Some women may strategize an escape from attachments and create a religio-spiritual space for themselves by renouncing their sexuality and sex roles through sanyas (renunciation of attachments) (Babb 1988, p. 280-285) and affiliations with religious movements and organizations looking for women in their fold to gain broader legitimacy.

To use Gaitskell’s analysis of South African women’s conversion to Christianity through the Christian Mission Stations (Gaitskell 1990, p. 253), these organizations provide women an alternative set of protectors and economic base which makes escape from the drudgery of life as a daughter, sister, wife or widow possible (Basu 1999, p. 200). In India, right wing organizations like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and others, which frequently invoke the goddesses and female spiritual gurus of the past and use women in liturgy have attracted many Hindu sanyasins (female religious mendicants/proponents/ascetics) like Ritambhara or Uma Bharati. The invocations are not only a bait for women but also a reminder to the women affiliates to see the scope for their philosophy and activity in supporting everything that these organizations are doing, including promoting hostility towards faiths and people perceived to be damaging Hinduism.

Talking of the Sangh Parivar, Arundhati Roy says, ‘its utter genius lies in its apparent ability to be all things to all people at all times’ (Roy 1999, p. 181). A broad understanding of ‘violence’ beyond the direct physical and mental abuse and as produced in people’s perceptions may help us in seeing the image of the Sangh Parivar as it exists in the minds of middle class, poor and home-bound women. This perception of violence is linked to the notions of religious domination and subordination, which subvert the chances of survival of another value system. For example, beef eating, spread of non-Hindu values, unemployment, religious conversion, inter-religious marriages, adoption of a Hindu child, etc. may be taken as attempts to denigrate the status and spoil the purity of Hindu religion. Therefore, these may be perceived as socio-economic and cultural violence against the ‘Hindu’.

The Sangh Parivar has articulated a feminist politics that reflects upon such perceptions and created ‘a space for personal accomplishment to which unskilled working class women and frustrated middle class women [across caste, particular religious community and region] might be attracted’ (Sahgal and Davis 1992, p. 9, text in brackets mine). While taking on the persona of a religious saviour, the Sangh seeks to mobilize women against the ‘perceived perpetrators of the violence’. The counter violence or support to fundamentalist organizations is seen by these women as an issue of religio-political identity and collective empowerment to oppose ‘occupation of minds and cultures’.

Kandiyoti in her paper ‘Islam and Patriarchy’, talks about women resisting the old normative order slipping away without any empowering alternatives and women pressurize men to live up to their obligations to provide protection in exchange of submissiveness and propriety as part of patriarchal bargain (Kandiyoti 1992, p. 36). The exchange of submissiveness and propriety for protection brings forth the issue of women’s bodies being treated as sites of community identity in a patriarchal society (Kannabiran 1996, p. 32-33). Submissiveness and propriety by these bodies is essential for patriarchal honour.

In India, for example, Ritambhara’s speeches, marked by incitements to reclaim male honour, remind men to live up to their part of the bargain. Similarly, when Uma Bharati asks women to play a political role without compromising their ‘basic nature’ (Llewellyn 2001), she is reminding that impropriety by female bodies would damage the Hindu honour which corresponds to male honour. The Sangh Parivar seeks to secure women’s support by playing on the tensions between ‘deeply ingrained images and expectations of male-female roles and changing realities of everyday life’ (Kandiyoti 1992, p. 36), which put a demand on women to step in the public space. By using the lack of alternatives before women, it attempts to consensualize women’s investment in patriarchal values and simultaneously puts conditions on her public engagement.

The offer of male protection comes with (i) the condition that women will have to become consenting custodians of patriarchal values, and (ii) an implicit guarantee that they will get the residual power and benefits that would accrue from their support to the Hindu male communal coercion (Sangari 1999, p. 398-408). The perceived notions of danger and security and the chance to exercise residual power through patriarchal bargains may make this offer lucrative for many women (Jeffery 1998, p. 223).

According to Moghissi, fundamentalism is ‘an attitude towards time’. It proposes ‘an ideal past, initial conditions’ or ‘golden age’ which contrasts to the present and can be retrieved…’ (Moghissi 1999, p. 69). All may not view the fundamentalist form of return to the golden age as conservative or retrogressive. For example, by linking fundamentalist space with religion and women’s welfare, the Sangh Parivar makes it possible for a woman to occupy public space and for her family to explain their daughter’s feminism as a form of sewa (Sahgal 2000, p. 198). This may appear as liberal to many.

Similarly, in the context of Muslims, ‘attempts by disadvantaged groups to rise in ritual status by strict adherence to "tradition" or the Shariat are not seen by them as a return to medievalism but in fact as symbols of achievement’ (Pandey in Chhachhi 1988, p. 23). So, acceptance in a social group closed so far or the move upwards in the social ladder may appear progressive and create an incentive for both poor men and women to support fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism also has a unique feature of constructing its own version of the ‘true identity’. In India, this is evident from the Sangh’s move to homogenize identity by disregarding the variety of ‘Hindu religions’, which have existed within the concept of Hinduism (Romila Thapar 1989). An interrogation of gender, class and caste in India reveal that the Sangh is promoting a uniformly brahminized, class-based, transregional modernity and a principle of formal gender equality located in a dichotomous upper caste practice.

The impact is visible in the spread of practices like dowry in states like Tamil Nadu (Kapadia 2002), wearing of sindur and mangalsutra and practice of karwa chauth by Hindu women irrespective of the region and culture. In the homogenization process, women’s space as well as capacity to bargain is being curtailed further by emphasizing brahminized feminine constructs and collective identity (Basu 1998, p. 175-76). Traits like self-sacrificing motherhood and devoted wife are now also being channelized towards building and nurturing a Hinduised social cohesion. In this brahminized, class-based, trans-regional modernization process, women may not have the space to think of separating their identities from the image of the ‘homogenized community’.

The Indian national movement, beginning in the 19th century, was imbued with simultaneous processes of socio-religious reform, specifically attempts to improve women’s condition within Hinduism. These attempts could be attributed to (i) initially, a desire to emulate what the reformers considered modern, i.e., the models of womanhood and conjugality of the colonizers, and (ii) later, the need to engage the wider masses in protesting against the colonizers. It would not have been possible to engage women in the protest without raising the issues which restrict their participation. During this period activists like Pandita Ramabai, Anandibai Joshi, Kailashbashini Debi, Tarabai Shinde, Haimavati Sen, Saraladevi, among others, challenged the patriarchal system by identifying the power dynamics which make man-woman relationships unequal (Chakravarti 1998, Sen 2000, Sarkar 1997, Omvedt 1980). Though dalit leaders started talking about caste, cultural, regional and class differences, but on the whole women were treated as a homogeneous entity.

The national movement identified the humiliated and colonized land with the image of a subjugated Hindu woman’s body – her body, sari and adornment encompassing present India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Afghanistan and Myanmar. The image stays even after 56 years of Partition. It also plays an important role in the projects of Hindu nationalism. The image of the motherland has been used to exhort proliferation of female deity or Shakti cult among women who find the concept of shakti empowering. The Sangh Parivar sees partition as a mutilation of the sacred body of the mother and holds Muslims responsible for this act of ‘desecration’ (Sarkar, p. 163-190 and 268-288). By laying claim to Hindu nationalist feminine icons and linking them to female power, patriotism, partition and a dream of Akhand Bharat the Sangh has successfully managed to mobilize Hindu women to support the cause of avenging partition.

Women’s support to the communalized politics of the Sangh Parivar also needs to be looked at from vantage point of individual women’s politics to benefit from the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution as well as BJP attempts to enlarge its vote constituencies. The BJP has much to gain by keeping women’s collective political empowerment within the bounds of socio-historically gendered subjectivities. However, any such analysis must also keep in purview the socio-historical factors.

Women in India have long been active in various types of social and political movements – at national, regional and local levels. They were engaged in grassroots caste-based politics during the Nehruvian period when political power was mainly with the upper castes.

The emergence of ‘backward castes’ and farmers’ parties brought in many other groups of women in politics. Throughout, mainstream politics neither allowed an orientation towards gender issues, nor allowed women to use their agency in collaboration with women’s activists to actively raise and interrogate issues of gender inequalities. If anything the incorporation of gender issues has been considered divisive in the mass nationalist/caste/community building processes and movements. The controlled participation did help some individual women to ameliorate their own situation but systemic gender inequalities have remained unaddressed (Jeffery 1998, p. 222) and women’s orientation towards collaborative agency has been constrained.

Women’s support to religious fundamentalism reflects a situation where women are caught between emancipatory aspirations and inherited notions of ideal womanhood. Notwithstanding multiple factors influencing women’s support to fundamentalism and the impossibility of talking about a common protest against religious fundamentalism, it is possible to turn this ‘situation of being caught’ into a ‘situation of struggle’. Not by ascription to the universal notions of womenhood and sisterhood but by recognizing women’s multiple realities of and exploring questions such as, ‘is there a dissatisfaction with the nation building processes because they have not addressed the issues of gender, ideology, power and identity’, ‘are the modernization processes being seen by women as socio-cultural and economic devaluation of women’, and so on. The contested relationships between women, religion, society, state, culture, nationalism need to be theorized afresh in the public space and ‘discursive and related historical frameworks alike need to be (re)addressed’ (Rouse 1998, p. 69).

Article originally published in Seminar #537, May 2004, India Shining at

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