Tag Archive | "Gender and Education"

Picturing Change: The Power of Visibility


“Write this down.”

When I first began participant observation in India’s anganwadis –free, government run early childhood care and education centers that form the backbone of India’s Integrated Child Development Services scheme (ICDS) – this was a common refrain.  That, and, “Put this in your book,” “Make sure you tell people,” and, “You’re taking this to Delhi, right?”

These were the words of anganwadi workers, the all-female workforce recruited from India’s poorest communities to run angnawadis. Workers are often low caste and low income; many are the primary breadwinners in their extended families. They are also some of the most skilled advocates I have ever met, lobbying local councilors for space and resources, navigating families past obstinate bureaucrats and mountains of paperwork, and crusading for girls’ education by breaking up early marriages, enrolling daughters in school, and implementing schemes designed to counteract female infanticide.

And yet, the workers I observed were overwhelmed with invisibility. No one knows what we do, they told me.  No one asks our opinion. No one respects us. The extent of the problem became apparent in Bangalore, my primary research site, when workers began calling each other to say, “Mathangi madam is here. She’s writing a book. Shall I send her to you?”

Feminist scholar Mohanty (2003) argues that the invisibility of women’s work – and, in particular, the work of low-income women of color – is a byproduct of patriarchy, both because it is the result of devaluing all that is female and because invisibility allows for the perpetuation of financial male-domination.  Women’s work (defined as both the work women do and work associated with women such as cooking, cleaning, and child care) is positioned as nothing more than the daily tasks required for men to do the “real” work of capitalism.  It is easy to justify unpaid labor if you insist that it does not exist.

For anganwadi workers, invisibility is institutionalized.  The Indian government labels the women “voluntary” and pays them “honorariums” even though they work seven hours a day, five days a week, plus a half day on Saturday.  Even when the media covers issues relevant to ICDS, anganwadi workers are almost never mentioned; instead, articles invoke their colleagues (like health workers), superiors (like Ministers) or un-appointed spokespeople (like non-elected union leaders). Yet, I have not to meet anyone in India who is more intimately familiar with the realities of child poverty, or better equipped to make recommendations about its alleviation. But you cannot ask the opinions of those you cannot see.

Dismantling this invisibility, Mohanty (2003) argues, means dismantling patriarchy. She writes,

Making Third World women workers visible in this gender, race, class formation…leads to thinking about the possibilities of emancipatory action on the basis of the reconceptualization of Third World women as agents rather than victims.” (p. 143)

It was this call to action that inspired me to work with professional photographer Greeshma Patel to develop Picturing Change, an attempt to literally render anganwadi workers’ work visible. This July, using a grant from the Fulbright Foundation and funds crowdsourced on Indiegogo, Greeshma and I purchased digital cameras and began training five anganwadi workers – Geetha, Sujatha, Sumitra, Varalakshmi, and Yashoda – in photography. In the past three months, the women have produced and curated an exhibit that will be on display at Thalam gallery in Bangalore from September 28 – October 12.

Already, there have been sparks of the reconceptualization Mohanty (2003) precits. Visitors to Picturing Change’s Facebook page tell us the photos have disproved their preconceived notions that government workers are lazy, submissive, and corrupt. Senior ICDS officials who viewed the photos said they did not realize the range of activities anganwadi workers implemented in their centers, or the creativity with which they approached their jobs. A local NGO that is influential in national early childhood policy asked if the workers could speak at a community forum about reforming ICDS. Such shifts reposition women’s work as skilled, as well as important, and women workers as experts in their fields.

The participants say the project has brought them attention and respect, giving them confidence in themselves and pride in their work. At least two are planning to write personal testimonials for local presses, and all of them are interested in producing a book after the exhibit ends.

Dyrness (2008) writes that “we cannot hope to transform social structures without first transforming ourselves,” supporting feminist scholars who have argued that personal healing is a necessary first step to radicalization. While I do not dispute that transformation is a prerequisite to change, I am reminded of Chowdhury’s (2011) well founded claim that too often, NGOs, academics, and activists who settle for individual empowerment do not do enough to fight for structural change. For me, Picturing Change has been transformational, in that it has taught me the power of images to remake identities narrowly and falsely hewn by intersecting oppressions. Most importantly, it has taught me the importance of working beside women in solidarity, rather than for women in a separate, elitist space.

Last week, I was at Varalakshmi’s anganwadi on a day when she had invited mothers to come have their children weighed to assess whether or not they were malnourished. She balanced a camera in one hand, using the other to record weights, hold babies, and steady hanging scales.

When I asked if she wanted help, she said, “No madam, I’ll do it myself.”

So I sat, and I listened, and I watched, in solidarity, as, slowly and surely, Varalakshmi’s invisibility faded away.


Written by Dr. Mathangi Subramanian

Picturing Change will be on view in Thalam Gallery in Bangalore from September 28 – October 12. You can also follow our progress on www.facebook.com/PicturingChange.

Dr. Mathangi Subramanian is a Banglore-based writer, educator, and Fulbright Scholar.  Her writing has appeared in academic and popular publications ranging from Gender and Education to The Hindu Sunday Magazine to the seal press anthology Click!: When We Knew We Were Feminists. She is the co-editor of Us Education in a World of Migration: Implications for Policy and Practice, which is forthcoming from Routledge. Her first single authored book, Bullying: The Ultimate Teen Guide, will be published by Scarecrow Press in 2014. She can be reached at ms2763@columbia.edu.

Thanks to Greeshma Patel for allowing us to use this photo

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Because feminism DOES belong in schools

Last month the Guardian newspaper featured an article by 17 year old Jinan Younis about the sexist abuse she and her peers received after setting up a feminist society in her school.  Jinan’s story demonstrates the importance of schools as sites where feminist activism can grow and where girls and young women can safely and creatively think about and challenge sexism and gender inequality. Yet her story also, sadly, demonstrates that this space is under threat.  One of the many responses to Jinan’s brave story was the creation of a fantastic project called ‘Feminism Belongs: a collection of photo messages about why schools need to take gender empowerment seriously. GEA invited Jinan and Tanya O’Carroll (who, along with Jinan, helped create the ‘Feminism Belongs’ project) to write a guest blog about their experiences.  We hope readers enjoy their post, and are inspired to post their own photo messages!

Jinan Younis:

I am Jinan Younis and I recently wrote an article about my experiences of setting up a feminist society at my school.

I felt that my situation of girls being verbally abused, humiliated and intimidated for speaking out against sexism highlighted a very serious problem that was common in many schools like my own: there is no feminist education. There is no system or policy in place that teaches boys and girls about fundamental issues such as consent and rape, gender inequality, and body image. There is ignorance and aggression surrounding feminism and serious issues facing women. There is a huge reluctance from boys to consider issues that face women as ‘real’ issues. I was recently told that feminism is a ‘minor issue’, and one boy told me that he agreed that sexism still exists, before asking me not to tell his friends about our conversation. This apathy and hatred of feminism among young boys needs to be addressed.

As I went to an all-girls school, I have witnessed the sorts of traumas that teen girls face. There is a huge lack of self worth and self confidence among girls. I’ve had friends who were in emotionally and physically abusive relationships, and I can’t even begin to describe the pressures that face young girls concerning body image. Too many have eating disorders; too many turn that packet of crisps around to inspect the calories. Too many find their self confidence resting on whether the boy walking past checks them out. Too few are happy in their own bodies. I think schools should take an active role in creating a space where these issues are openly discussed and are dealt with. Schools should support girls in their fight against sexism, and should take a leading role in ensuring gender equality, healthy body image, and instilling much needed self worth among young girls.

The pledge ‘Schools against sexism’ aims to provide schools with a framework which will help them tackle sexism in their institutions. It states clearly the areas that need to be addressed, such as body image, respect and equality, and it allows the schools to have contact with large organisations such as End Violence Against Women. In order to gather support for this pledge, we have also set up a tumblr campaign ‘Feminism belongs in Education’. In this, people hold up a board with the words ‘Feminism belongs in schools because…’ with their own personal response. This campaign aims to acquire support from students and teachers, along with the general public, so that head teachers realise the necessity of implementing a policy of gender equality in their schools.

I believe that the only way that we can change the deep rooted sexism that is still such a huge part of our society is through education. Schools have the power to change the sexist attitudes of young boys, to encourage boys and girls to challenge gender stereotypes, to offer support to young girls and boys in the face of teenage pressures, and to instate a sense of self worth, self respect and mutual respect amongst teens. I think schools are currently leaving out a vital part of education for young girls and boys. Gender, rape, sexual consent, unhealthy body image, lack of respect and sexual harassment are all issues that are especially common among teens. I believe that schools have the power to change this.

Tanya O’Carroll:

Two weeks ago I read an article that touched me deeply. A young woman, Jinan Younis, had written an article in the Guardian explaining what happened when she set up a Feminist Society in her all girls school. Along with the other girls in the society Jinan became the victim of extraordinary online abuse and intimidation from boys in her wider social circle – so much so that the school asked the society to cease its feminist activities, citing concerns for the girls’ safety.

Did I find the boys’ attitudes to Jinan and her peers particularly surprising? Not really. I myself was at school less than a decade ago and the description of the boys’ behaviour was familiar. I think we got used to the idea that as teenagers we should ‘rise above’ constant sexual jokes and harassment, that the boys were just being boys, that they would grow out of it, and that it was harmless. The main difference is that none of us at school would have thought to openly call ourselves feminists. Should we have, I am convinced that, like Jinan, we would have come up against a much nastier and aggressive form of abuse.

However, while the boys behaviour in Jinan’s article didn’t surprise me, the school’s did. Actually I wouldn’t call it surprise. What I felt was extreme anger and sadness. Jinan’s words were deeply troubling:

We, a group of 16-, 17- and 18-year-old girls, have made ourselves vulnerable by talking about our experiences of sexual and gender oppression only to elicit the wrath of our male peer group…Without the support from our school, girls who had participated in the campaign were isolated, facing a great deal of verbal abuse with the full knowledge that there would be no repercussions for the perpetrators.

I felt an overwhelming urgency to let Jinan and the other girls know that they were not alone;  that there were many of us who agreed with her and who were living with the consequences of sexism going unchecked. For while I personally didn’t suffer the worst pressures of my gender at school they crept up on me. At Cambridge University I encountered a different breed of misogyny, where institutions such as the Pitt Club still exist and where old boy’s mentality dictates so many of the social rules.

I also came to notice it as I got older, when I discovered my six year old sister’s preoccupation and fascination with body image. Where I had previously ignored sexism in advertising and the media I began to notice it everywhere and saw the damage that it was doing to another generation of boys and girls.

I wanted Jinan’s school to know that they had failed her and so many of us when they did not promote and encourage their student’s feminist work. Many of us felt the same. I reached out to a few friends on Facebook and a group of us grew, as people added people, who added more people. We soon found ourselves with an active and passionate circle, including teachers and campaigners, community artists and social workers who wanted to send schools a message the Feminism is desperately needed in education.

We reached out to Jinan and worked with her to set-up the Feminism Belongs project, a collection of photo messages about why our education institutions need to take gender empowerment seriously. We were amazed at the rapid response. By the end of the week we had tons of entries, some coming from far away, including Estonia and Mexico. It seemed that both Jinan, and our message that Feminism Belongs, had touched a nerve.

It is obvious that gender oppression and sexism still pervade our society and it is hard to know where to begin to unpick them. One thing I am certain of is that feminist education is critical for young girls and boys growing up today. Not to teach gender divides but to open up conversations and safe spaces for both sexes to honestly explore the multiplicity of gender pressures that affect them. The struggle for gender equality is far from over and we will not have put it to rest until all of us – men and women, boys and girls – are proud to call ourselves feminists and understand the powerful idea of equality, choice and dignity that the word stands for.



Inspired? Want to get involved? Here’s how:

  • Take your own photos and add  them to the Feminism Belongs website: http://feminismbelongs.tumblr.com/  
  • Sign and promote the UK Feminista ‘Schools Against Sexism’ pledge – and get your school or your child’s school to sign up to: http://ukfeminista.org.uk/take-action/generation-f/schools-against-sexism-pledge/
  • Why not write a guest blog for GEA and tell us about your own experiences of setting up, running or being part of a Feminist Society in school, college or university; or tell us why you think feminism belongs in schools and how we can make sure that it stays that way.  Contact Kim Allen if you’re interested in writing for us (k.allen@mmu.ac.uk)


*These images come from the Feminism Belongs site. Thank you to Tanya and Jinan for allowing us to use these here.

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Universal Girls’ Education? The Malala Movement

GEA Policy Report – July 2013

Malala Day, July 12, 2013, was a week ago, as it was Malala Yousafrai’s 16th birthday. To celebrate she was invited to speak at the United Nations in New York about her campaigns for universal and free education for all (EFA) and the speech she gave was broadcast to schoolchildren worldwide. She argued that ‘I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. If he stood in front of me, I would not shoot him…The[y] are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them…’

Readers will recall that Malala was the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the face on her way home from school by a Taliban gunman in the Swat valley on October 12th 2012. She was severely injured and flown to England for surgery in Birmingham at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. She has made a miraculous recovery and is now attending secondary school in Birmingham. Her family has moved to Birmingham to be with her.

Malala had begun her campaigning for girls’ education in 2009, under a pseudonym, writing a blog for the BBC world service. Her father was a headteacher in the area and encouraged her education. According to The Guardian (28 March 2013, p.6) her real identity became known and she frequently appeared in Pakistan and international media advocating for the right of girls to go to school. In October 2011, Archbishop Desmond Tutu nominated her for the International Children’s Peace prize and in December 2011, aged 14, she was awarded Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize. It was this that eventually brought her to the attention of the Taliban in the region, given their wishes to reinforce women’s subordinate role as housewives and mothers befitting their version of Islamic texts.  

Malala’s cause has been taken up by several international celebrities, for instance the film star Angelina Jolie, who has been campaigning for women’s rights and especially health questions such as breast cancer, given her own diagnosis.

Malala has also been contracted to write a book entitled I am Malala about her life. It will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in the UK and Commonwealth and by Little, Brown in the rest of the world.  She argued then that ‘I hope this book will reach people around the world, so they realize how difficult it is for some children to get access to education. I want to tell my story, but it will also be the story of 61 million children who can’t get education. I want to be part of the campaign to give every boy and girl the right to go to school.’

International politicians have also jumped on the bandwagon and tried to transform this campaign into a wider political issue. For example, the incoming Secretary of State for the US, John Kerry, replacing Hillary Clinton, argued that he would continue her fight for women. In an article entitled Malala’s vital lesson for US foreign policy published in London’s Evening Standard on international women’s day (March 8, 2013, p.14) he argued that the world should tackle ‘gender-based violence. As the father of two daughters, I cannot imagine the pain suffered by the parents of the young woman known as ‘Nirbhaya’ the 23 year old medical student murdered on a New Dehli bus simply for being a woman, or the anguish felt by the parents of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl shot by extremists as she too rode on a bus, simply for wanting to go to school’. He then went on that ‘No country can ahead if it leaves half its people behind…That is why the United States believes gender equality is critical to our shared goals of prosperity, stability and peace, and why investing in women and girls worldwide is critical to advancing US foreign policy.’

Similarly, the former British prime minister and now UN education envoy, Gordon Brown, and his wife Sarah Brown have taken up her cause. They were involved with organizing Malala Day both at the UN, and through the children’s charity Plan UK, A World at School. Since Malala’s attack, the Pakistani government has passed a law making primary school education mandatory for all children. This was originally part of the UNESCO’s Millennium Development goals of 2000, to be implemented by 2010!

The goals of universal girls’ education and education for all are clearly vitally important in the world and the GEA supports both wholeheartedly. The two goals, however, confuse rather than clarify gender relations. Gender-related violence is not confined to the developing regions of the world, although it is clear that it remains a serious problem for the implementation of EFA.

A senior member of the Pakistani Taliban has written an open letter to Malala ‘expressing regret that he didn’t warn her before the attack, but claiming that she was targeted for maligning the insurgents…and ‘smearing’ them rather than for her campaign for girls’ education.’ (The Guardian, 18 July 2013, p. 3). In other words, he argued that the use of the gun was legitimate in the battle for a ‘proper’ form of Islam in the region. Thus violence, and gender-based violence in particular remain legitimate.

It is also the case that the campaigns for education ignore gender-based violence which are still rife in the UK and USA and elsewhere. We must continue to argue for a more appropriate form of education for all that tackles issues of gender, gender based sexual abuse, as part of child sexual abuse as well as including violence against women (VAW) as part of a proper education for all.


Miriam David,

GEA Policy Officer

July 19th 2013


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Expanding the Feminist Classroom?

Matters of gender and sexuality have already made headlines in 2013 and it seems hope is on the horizon for understanding and re-framing gender and sexuality as implicating all,  whereby the phrasing of its ‘socially constructed’ categorisation can  break out of academic sociology and enjoy a more public airing. From the continuation of last year’s backlash against ‘gendered’ products, to parliamentary time and space finally being given to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, from the mainstreaming of distaste for Page 3 to the recent outrage at the Sun’s depiction of the deceased law graduate and successful model Reeva Steenkamp, we see expansions of, in, beyond ‘the feminist classroom’. 

Recently, Yvette Taylor gave a talk at the Guildhall as part of the Brave New World, LGBT conference, collectively inspired to feel an ‘arrival’ in place as delegates remarked on entering the corridors of power. At last…Shifting cultural (mis)representations, legal (im)possibilities and movements between margins and mainstreams, force questions about the place of feminisms, its ‘publics’, policies and practices: in other words, who is feminism for and where does it reside? Who might be excluded still from those corridors and classrooms? Read the full story

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Gender and UK Higher Education Policy: Review of The Pinch by David Willetts

Given the huge furore when David Willetts, the UK Government Minister for Universities and Science, stated in a public speech in April 2011 that ‘feminism had trumped egalitarianism’ and university-educated women were to blame for taking working class men’s jobs in January 2012, I went in search of his book The Pinch. Read the full story

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Boffins and geeks: geek or chic?

The labels swot, ear ’ole, boffin, keeno, geek and nerd resonate meaningfully across generations of school-goers and echo through the terrains of popular culture. Our Gender and Education viewpoint started life as a conversation about our own research into how such identities are imagined and lived. We wondered: Has ‘the rise of the nerd’ meant that being a ‘boffin’ at school has lost its stigma? Read the full story

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Female Paths to Adulthood in a Country of ‘Genderless Gender’

As a researcher, there are situations when some discussions with interviewees or colleagues start to tickle our brains and cry out for getting analysed and reanalysed. Read the full story

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Gender representation and social justice: Ideology, methodology and smoke-screens

This article in Gender and Education 27.3 was born out of a commitment to contribute to the United Nations Millennium Goals related to gender equality. The commitment was not only mine as author, but also that of the organisations which sponsored and supported the research. The South African President of the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Matthew Goniwe School of Leadership and Governance in Johannesburg, the international network, Women Leading Education, and the University of Southampton all offered support. The number and range of organisations that helped evidences a fund of willingness to try to improve gender equality. I led the team from South Africa and the UK which undertook research in South Africa into how women became headteachers and how they lead their schools when appointed. The aim was to pilot a method of comparative research into women headteachers’ experience that could be used in other locations across the world. Read the full story

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Catholic Daughters: the Mother Daughter Nexus

For my PhD research on the Catholic mother-daughter relationship I decided to  turn the analytical lens on myself.  I discussed the idea with a friend, who suggested examining the mother-daughter relationship. I phoned my mother and asked her what she thought. Her reply was, “Wouldn’t you rather get married instead?”  This reply cemented the idea as it said so much about the life trajectory my mother wanted for me. Read the full story

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Shaping Futures and Feminisms: The Qur’anic School in the West African Francophone Novel

Following the intense scrutiny to which Islamic societies and cultures have been subjected in the recent past, I was intrigued by the excessive emphasis on the nexus between terrorism and Islam. In particular, I noticed the suggestion in the media on Islamic schools or madrasas as breeding grounds for terrorism, terrorist thought and ideology. What I found disturbing was the insinuation that Muslim children were indoctrinated with hatred for others, and consequently grew up to become terrorists. Two things piqued my curiosity— do Muslim girls not frequent these schools? and why haven’t there been as many cases of Muslim female terrorists if they, too, were being indoctrinated with hatred in these schools? I always suspected that something was amiss and it led me to wonder if these schools were open only to boys—was there any place for girls in Islamic education? Furthermore, why weren’t regions that don’t typically fall under the radar of scholarship or media attention vis-à- vis Islam such as Africa being examined to provide a holistic view of Islamic culture and practice? Read the full story

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Gender and Education Association

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