The seat of gender equity

Subha Das Mollick

I distinctly remember my home science classes in Lady Irwin School, New Delhi, in the years 1969-70. In classes VII and VIII, we had home science classes once a week. We went to the home science laboratory and learnt to make sandwiches and frothy coffee. For the first time, I learnt to hold a tray with steady hands and serve coffee and sandwiches to the principal and vice principal. In many ways, home science classes were fun because we applied many things learned in physics and chemistry classes. How to remove ink stains and turmeric stains, why pieces of lemon are given in finger bowls, why a thermos flask or a teapot should be rinsed with warm water before pouring tea into it, why clothes should be sprinkled with water before ironing them – all these day-to-day practices had their roots in basic sciences.


Lady Irwin School is an all girls’ school. I often wondered what the boys in boys’ schools did while we had fun in home science classes. Did they learn the art of motorcycle maintenance or did they learn the science of making transistor radios at home? In all probability, it was neither of the two. Perhaps they just spent some extra time in the playground and kicked the football around. Afterall, as the saying goes, ‘The battle of Waterloo was won in the playfields of Eton’.


Back in 1969-70, a woman was at the helm of India’s affairs. Indian women had proved their mettle in the fields of medicine, engineering, archaeology, architecture, literature, art and politics. Yet, educationists and other guardians of society perceived that all women needed a fundamental training of running a home. That was central to their womanhood. The advertisements in newspapers and magazines showed women serving tea to men sitting on easy chairs and reading newspapers or mothers cleaning up the mud stains from their sons’ shirts with the help of a super efficient detergent bar. The mainstream movies valorized women who sacrificed everything for the good of their family or sacrificed their sons for the good of the community and the country. Women were expected to be ambidextrous in managing their homes and their professional life. Those women who shone in their profession after negotiating all domestic challenges, were simply superhuman. The weekly home science classes groomed ‘little women’ for their womanhood. For the woman who wanted to make a career in home science, there was Lady Irwin College for Women, offering graduate and post graduate courses in home science.


But then, the perceptions of educationists and guardians of society slowly began to change. Through the 70s and 80s, the world was swept by the second wave of feminism. Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex, written in 1948, became a bestseller in 1968. Women realized that there is nothing ‘natural’ about their assigned role in society. All women were not necessarily born to be homemakers. Gender stereotypes were created by age-old social traditions and a lot of conditioning in the growing-up years. As Simone de Beauvoir argued in her book, girls were brought up to emulate their mothers and boys were asked to surpass the achievement of their fathers. The Second Sex urged women to rethink their assigned destinies. Women began to express their autonomy and agency in many a bold and unconventional way. They began to demand more control over their own lives and destinies. They fought for equitable wages and came out in the open with their birth control practises. In 1971, in France, 343 women made a written declaration that they had taken recourse to abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancy. In the eyes of the law, abortion was illegal. But the wide public support garnered by the declaration of the 343 women eventually resulted in legalization of abortion under the Veil Law in 1975.


The wave of feminism transformed the education sector in many ways. At the university level, Women’s Studies departments were opened. Funds were allocated for research in representation of women in popular culture. Some of the research was directed towards fine combing school textbooks and identifying gender stereotypes in texts and images. As some of the textbooks were modified and new texts inserted, there was a drive to educate the girl child. In some states of India, the girl child’s tuition fees were waived. In Maharashtra, for example, the scheme of giving free education to girls from Std I to Std XII, was implemented from June 1, 1985.


While there were big changes at the policy level, significant developments were observed at the micro level too. Conscientious teachers tried to change the mindset of students through film screenings, debates and freewheeling discussions on gender roles at home and work. Yet, differences persisted – not only in India, but all over the world.


The United Nations Human Development Report 2004 estimated that when paid employment and unpaid household tasks are accounted for, on an average, women work more than men. In rural areas of select developing countries, women performed an average of 20 percent more work than men.


According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women, “Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, produce 50 percent of the food, but earn 10 percent of the income and own 1 percent of the property.”


One way to initiate gender equality and equitable distribution of work, at least on the home front, is to throw open a subject like home science to both boys and girls. Parents did not seem averse to the idea.


“Why should boys shy away from learning what it takes to run a home?” asked one parent at a parent teachers’ meeting. Mothers, specially working mothers, appreciated the small efforts made by schools and individual teachers to expose boys and girls to skills required for running a home efficiently.


Recent discussions with some primary school teachers of Kolkata reveal a paradigm shift. Jayanthi Srikant, a veteran teacher in the primary sections of an all boys’ school of Kolkata, informs that the junior school has a “Bits and Bites Club”, where the boys bring recipes of their favourite dishes from home, exchange recipes and put together some exotic dishes that do not require cooking on an open flame. Occasionally, cooking activities are also integrated into the academic curriculum. In the class IV English syllabus there is a story called Mishka’s Porridge. In this story, a young boy Mishka attempts to cook porridge and ends up cooking burnt, bitter porridge. As an activity following the lesson, students were asked to do some research on porridge recipes, share the recipes with their mothers and cook the porridge with their mothers’ help. The next day, each boy shared his signature dish with the rest of the class.

Online classes have opened up the possibilities of involving the parents directly in the learning experience of the child. On the 15th of May, at Jayanthi Srikant’s school, Family Day was celebrated in a unique way. The entire family came together and cooked an item during the online meet. Fathers, mothers, siblings and even extended family members like grandparents and cousins joined in. On Mother’s Day, the boys were encouraged to give their mothers a surprise by doing some of the chores done by their mothers everyday. In the process of stepping into their mothers’ shoes, the boys not only entered into feminine territory, they also appreciated their mothers’ role in holding the family together. Jayanthi informs that on the days of festivals, mother-son duo together decorate thalis or do rangolis or even clean up the home and report their achievement to teachers. For years, Jayanthi has been designing gender sensitization modules for her young students. But the pandemic has taken the classroom right into her students’ homes. She has taken this opportunity to break the exclusivity of home science as a girls’ only subject by turning many a home activity into an exciting learning experience.


Amanpreet Kaur teaches pre-primary students in a co-educational school in Kolkata. For her students, the entire learning takes place through activities. Some of the activities include non-thermal cooking of simple, healthy, colourful dishes. Amanpreet has observed that the boys take greater interest in these cooking activities because in these activities they get to play with kitchen utensils that are normally kept away from them. Girls often get miniature cookery sets and dolls’ tea sets as gifts. Nobody would dream of gifting these items to boys. So when the boys are told by their teacher to tinker with kitchen items as a part of class activity, their joy knows no bounds. Amanpreet plans to end the semester on a sweet note. All her pre-primary students will make ‘jar dessert’ as the last activity of the academic year. She has sent out the list of ingredients to all the mothers. Boys and girls will learn to make a mouth-watering dish that will bring a smile to the face of every member of the family. If little boys and girls master the secret of keeping their families pleased, later in life they would know how to keep their colleagues, collaborators and competitors happy and smiling.


In Amanpreet’s school, even in higher classes, boys are trained to be self-reliant instead of depending on their mothers for everything. At parent-teacher meetings, mothers are asked to entrust boys with chores of responsibility at home, instead of pampering them. Well adjusted boys who grow up working shoulder to shoulder with their mothers and sisters, would not require gender sensitization programmes when they enter a professional world.

The author is a teacher, writer and filmmaker, living and working in Kolkata. She may be reached at [email protected].

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