RECENTLY, I came across some disturbing information regarding the self-censorship that is being applied to the biology curriculum in some parts of the country. I was told by reliable sources that in some provinces under the heading “the human reproductive system” only the male reproductive system is being taught, while the female reproductive system has been conveniently removed.
This brings to the forefront several questions. For instance, are the informed bodies that determine curriculum content of the opinion that exposing students to the female anatomy will lead to immoral behaviour or are they of the opinion that understanding female physiology is of no consequence to the study of science and biology?
This would imply that we will produce medical students who are permitted to study the male anatomy and therefore be able to treat male ailments, but will not be equipped to treat female patients. It would seem that as a society we have deliberately gouged out one of our eyes and like Amartya Sen said, we will continue to have “missing women” as the sex ratio in the country will decline further due to health, nutritional and economic constraints that women face. Apparently, in a country which suffers from a high maternal mortality rate, where anaemia amongst women is endemic, where the ratio of men to women in the population is regressive, where the fertility rate is growing at an untrammelled pace, we certainly don’t need to include the female reproductive system in the biology curriculum at the high school level.
To add insult to injury, some members of the Muttahida Ulema Board have also directed textbook boards to omit diagrams of the human body “without clothes”. It is important to unravel this particular mindset, as it appears on initial assessment that the attitude of conservative Muslim ulema is not only hostile but schizophrenic towards science; they are happy to reap its benefits but not willing to subscribe to the worldview it generates.
Censorship in science raises many questions.
The end result of this thinking would be that medical education should be provided without practical training. In a country where the quality of healthcare and the incidence of quackery is high, we are setting ourselves up for another disaster.
Not only that, there is a disconnect between the golden age of Islam where science and religion were compatible and the current reactionary attitude we see today amongst many religious groups towards all things scientific.
In the past, the appeal of science was mystical and was seen as a way of experiencing the beauty and expanse of creation. As Ibn Rushd the famous 13th-century anatomist is believed to have said, “Anyone who studies anatomy will increase his faith in the omnipotence and oneness of God the Almighty”.’ Many scholars have wondered when this particular connection broke down between the religion and empirical science — was it the destruction of libraries in Baghdad by Hulagu Khan, or was it the subjective patronage of arts and sciences under the Ottomans which limited the domain of scientific inquiry, or was it the onslaught of colonialism and the resulting visceral reaction to all things Western and modern across the Muslim world?
Undoubtedly, science is a way of pursuing truth in order to unmask and unravel the mysteries of nature and to address existential imperatives that confront the human civilisation. The basis of any scientific discovery is the conduct of experiments and the recording of observations. The determinant factor to prove any theory hinges on empirical evidence and hardcore facts.
Marie Curie would have never discovered radium or its source, if she had not conducted painstaking laboratory work over a period of time to separate radium and polonium. The irony about Madame Curie is that she was not allowed to study science in her home country Poland since she was a woman. If by twist of fate, she had not ended up at the Sorbonne in Paris, perhaps the story of radium and the structure of the atom would have been written differently. Not only that, the harnessing of nuclear energy to treat cancer patients may have taken a different trajectory.
There can be no confusion when it comes to teaching students about the human anatomy and using educational tools and content that will enable them to understand these basic concepts and prepare them for future learning. In fact, we need to be thinking of much bigger issues when it comes to determining the science curriculum in terms of aligning it with scientific and technological advances, such as the discovery of DNA and the development of biotechnology and the problems of climate change, overpopulation and habitat destruction.
We need to balance the curriculum to be inclusive of both the science of life and the science of living, something that has become extremely important in the wake of Covid 19. In other words, it’s best if the determination of science curriculum is left to the subject experts.
The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation.
Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2021