Textbook Illustrations, Deities, and Gender Bias

Textbooks in Gujarat are replete with stereotypes, says the recent campaign started by a newspaper.

“… So while the state celebrates Gujarat-origin icons such as Sunita Williams who has stormed space, in textbooks, girls are still stuck in a time warp — sweeping floors, serving food to boys, and accompanying mothers to fetch water. Barring two images of a girl reading, the entire syllabus of Class VIII adheres to medieval conventions, but boys are shown working on computers and using cellphones…”, it writes.

By definition, stereotyping is an error. Two conditions are required for stereotyping to occur: (1) Some generalized characteristics or qualities describing a group (2) one individual who is a member of that group on the basis of one characteristic. (Example of generalizations: “All Gujjus are….”, “All marwadis are…”. Example of stereotyping: “All Gujjus are ….. X is a Gujju. Therefore X is also …..”. You see, X is a unique being and need not share all the generalized characteristics.)

In case of gender stereotyping, we have some generalized notions describing qualities of women (women like to serve, women like to be dominated, women always say no when they mean yes, …). Now one young person is a woman by gender. So, cooking, serving, cleaning, being dominated, and misrepresenting… all attributes are automatically attached to her (whether individually she has them, or wants them, or not). You will say that male stereotyping also occurs. Yes, but today I want to write about gender stereotyping in case of women. Very strong stereotypes not only dump on women what they should do, but they also stop women from doing things which are not agreeing with these stereotypes. Like, a woman not liking house-work, woman wanting to study, do business, not have children.. are unacceptable and unimaginable for many.

If we ‘correct’ all our pictures in the textbooks, will the gender stereotyping go away?

I don’t think so.

In a society where at least 70% people follow Hindu faith of religion, a child begins to see religious icons far earlier than he or she ever sets an eye on the textbook. We have to remove skewed symbolization and gender stereotyping from there and child-raising practices if we want a society that does not dump the roles on a person because of her gender, but allows the person to choose the roles that she likes.

Take an example of the Goddes Laxmi.

Picture Laxmi alone. Most of us have seen her as standing or sitting on a lotus, with one of her many hands

Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth

Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth

(symbolically representing her many abilities) as an origin of constantly flowing gold coins, or holding a pot overflowing with gold coins. Surprising is, that the goddess of such power and accomplishment is transformed when in presence of Vishnu and begins to press his feet.

Laxmi at feet of vishnu

Laxmi at feet of vishnu

Now THAT is a strong gender stereotype that jumps beyond  mythology, tradition and   shadows modern women, their    male relatives and female role models, all of those who  bow before Vishnu and Laxmi. You may be successful, you may be accomplished, but  your ‘proper’ place is at   the feet of your husband — that is the subtle, strong and un-ignorable message that everyone carries home. And then things like love, duty, and all other weights are thrown in..

So, first, all the due respect to the religion, to the mythology, the puranas and the shastras. I accept that we, Indians, are deeply religious and the icons of our Gods and Goddesses are very important for us. Now, may I have an icon of a Goddess that symbolizes a woman as the man’s peer, a complement?

The search is not painful. One has Shiv and Parvati. They have been celebrated by Kalidasa (in Raghuvansh) as:

वागर्थाविव सम्पृक्तौ वागर्थप्रतिपत्तये

जगत: पितरौ वन्दे पार्वतीपरमेश्वरौ

It broadly means: I bow before Parvati and Parameshwar – the two parents of the world, who are as inseparable as the sound of a word/language and its meaning. … Ah! Such beautiful conception! The man and woman united as a couple are as integrated or inseparable as the language or the sound of a word from its meaning – both have their entity, but each completes the other, together they constitute knowledge, always to be found together…

We don’t know for sure if Vishnu was not treating Laxmi as his peer, but the question is not what they actually did. The question is how they are depicted  and how they are symbolized for us to see everyday and get inspiration from them.

If I have to choose a symbol that would speak in wordless, subtle, yet vivid way, I would choose parvati – walking with (not behind) Shiv:

Walking WITH, not behind

Walking WITH, not behind

What’s more, each uniting in a mutually enriching way as a complementing half of the other:



… and as a beloved sitting on his left leg (right one is for one’s offspring):

Parvati on Shiv's lap

Parvati on Shiv’s lap

Who is responsible for stereotyping?

Well, I think there is no point in discussing this. The symbolism, the norms and roles, the social structure…. these are all very ancient and not a creation of a single person. Gender stereotyping is also an issue of gender politics. If the society actually leaves it to the women to choose what they like what would happen? Left to one’s own, who would like to clean and cook for others, serve others, do their dirty work, listen to their crap and be controlled thanklessly? If women have a choice, at least some of them would not take it. That means men would have to do what they previously managed to get done by women. Now that’s same as putting their own life in trouble by allowing women freedom to choose. So, at least some men would not like the women to be free to choose.

Obviously, changing it will ruffle existing arrangements. Terms of engagement might change. But women have to

... Said who? Let the woman decide.

… Said who? Let the woman decide.

take charge if they don’t want to be stereotyped. 

Reverse Stereotype: Why assume all women want to break the stereotype?

So, don’t make the same mistake as the people whom you are criticizing. All of the women may not want to be autonomous, and not all women are unhappy with their place at the feet of their men (I would say there are three categories: women who accept stereotypes, women who want to be accepted as they are, and the women who use the stereotypes to use others — the third one being the most tricky one). Many people just have reciprocal relationships of mutual service.

Whatever it is, let’s raise our young men and women to be not the victims of stereotypes, not the boxes that we cast them in, but the people they really are.

Image sources:







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s