Of the many things that emerged out of the churning around the December 16, 2012 Delhi gang rape was a renewed concern about education, particularly about lessons in school textbooks. What this led to was the first audit of primary school textbooks of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, an exercise that has not been too disappointing. The gender analysis report of 18 books says that they are largely gender-inclusive and sensitive, although certain stereotypes still persist. These are familiar: first, women are most often sisters, daughters, mothers or wives, seldom empowered persons in their own right, and second, they are mostly seen in the professions of teaching, cooking, nursing or medicine, which are all extensions of the carer’s role. It is the men who can be anything from newspaper seller to astronaut. The improvement lies in the presentation of stories of women role models, and of images of men helping in household chores or looking after the children. Presumably, there is no complementary image —that of a woman changing a light bulb, say, or filling a car at a petrol pump.
Certainly, the balance must be corrected even when it is evident that much has been done. Examining textbooks for gender insensitivity must be acknowledged as a firm and right step. But this exercise, too, must be more inclusive. All text books must be examined, not just those of the primary classes, and not just NCERT ones. Regional language textbooks must be studied with particular care. Teachers should be specially trained as well, in detecting the hidden traps of gender inequality to be able to address them in class. The question is, how far will this go? After all, this was one of the prescriptions evolved after a horrific gang rape. The suggestion in the report, for example, that a policeman or milkman be called police-person or milk-person (the last a very unfortunate term), is pushing things towards absurdity. Language has a life of its own; if it embeds practices and expectations of certain times, it will change by itself to accommodate new ways of life and living. Far more effective than forcing words into new moulds would be the training of equality and freedom at home to support the lessons given in school. Books will help, but only up to a point. Children will grow up with fresh values only if their parents change too.