Bias in textbooks

Published December 7, 2020

GENDER bias in textbooks is an important but overlooked problem. Content analyses of textbooks have shown that women occupy a subordinate status in society; their roles are insignificant and mostly limited to household chores. They are rarely shown contributing to society outside their home. For a balanced view of the world, it is not only necessary for girls but equally important for boys to have female role models.

As a new uniform curriculum is being designed for the whole country, it is essential to include unbiased, gender-inclusive text. It is necessary to create awareness and promote gender equality through content in the textbooks because they contribute to individual and collective identities and gender-sensitive values for future generations as students spend most of their time in classrooms reading textbooks.

According to a study conducted by Unesco, the primary years of children are the formative ones. “Textbooks represent the ‘tangible’ curriculum that is closest to students’ hearts and minds, thus the messages that textbooks deliver have a powerful impact on learners.” Numerous researchers have pointed out that textbooks can serve as an opportunity and potential vehicle to eliminate the existing gender disparity in Pakistani society.

Despite much research over the past decade indicating that Pakistani textbooks contain highly gender-biased content, gender equality in textbooks is a distant dream. If you pick up Urdu textbooks taught in government primary schools you will see that females are underrepresented and the roles assigned to them are insignificant ones. Professionally, women are only seen to fit the role of teachers, doctors or nurses whereas the options for men are endless. These stereotyped gender roles exacerbate the issue of male dominance in Pakistani society.

Gender-inclusive texts for students are necessary.

Women are seen performing their chores at home with little participation in decision-making whereas males are seen as those in power and positioned in the public domain. If you were to take a cursory look at Urdu textbooks, you will observe that in all the pictures, boys are playing some sort of sports whereas the girls are sitting and staring out of the window or serving food to male relatives. In most stories, women are presented in relation to their children or husband with no identity of their own.

The reality is that Pakistani women have climbed mountains literally and metaphorically. It is high time we include these stories so that they can inspire our younger generation. Millions of girls in Pakistan are out of school. The remaining ones who have access to education do not have any female role models they can identify with because these figures are practically non-existent in Urdu textbooks. There is hardly any portrayal of women as public speakers, pilots, computer scientists, entrepreneurs, bankers, or other professionals — when, in fact, women do occupy such positions in Pakistani society.

Existing research suggests that students develop self-esteem and a sense of themselves in society when they see their “appropriately gendered role models” in books and other educational materials. Role models should not be gender-specific and the characters can be diversified; both males and females can do household chores and have an occupation.

Textbook writers should be more sensitive to gender issues and promote a positive image of the exciting, adventurous, intelligent, generous and noble women of Pakistan who have contributed socially, economically and politically to our society. Many accomplished women can serve as role models for Pakistani youth. These include Bena­zir Bhutto, the first woman to head a democra­tic Muslim-majo­rity country, the youngest Nobel Prize winner Mal­ala Yousafzai, Dr Ruth Pfau who dedicated her life serving the poor, and Bilquis Edhi of the Edhi Foundation to name just a few eminent Pakistani women.

If the authors want to include stories about Pakistani women climbing mountains and playing sports, there is no dearth of real-life examples. Samina Baig is a young mountaineer who scaled Mount Everest. Sana Mir, the ex-captain of Pakistan’s women cricket team, has bagged two gold medals in the Asian Games in 2010 and 2014.

The problem of gender-biased textbooks can be resolved. Centuries-old traditions and cultural norms are not transformed overnight. Sweden has been working towards this goal for 40 years and the results are visible now. They have updated textbooks and curricula in order to achieve this goal. Pakistan can follow suit and bring about a change in the mindsets of the people. It is evident that women are capable of realising their dreams which are not limited to the boundaries of their home. Gender equality will help achieve a balance of power and control on the path of national progress.

The writer is a lecturer at Lahore School of Economics.

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2020

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