How textbooks portray men and women

I recall reviewing Bangla, English and Science textbooks of Class One to Five produced by National Curriculum and Textbook Board under gender lenses in 2019, which were published as a series in Prothom Alo.

We know that the curriculum from pre-primary to higher-secondary level has been reviewed and the new textbooks are being produced based on the new curriculum.

Although new textbooks were experimentally introduced in Class Six of only some schools last year, new textbooks written based on the new curriculum have been delivered to students of Class Six and Seven only in this year.

I had been waiting eagerly to see what’s in the new books. To understand if there has been any change to the previous stand of portraying women and men and people of different sexual orientation, I opened the Bangla, English and Mathematics textbooks of Class One.

Compared to books of other classes, Class One’s textbooks were quite gender sensitive even before. This year, there has been another layer of improvement in this sector, which undoubtedly deserves to be commended.

Efforts to ensure equal representation of the boy and girl child in the pictures on almost every page are visible from the beginning to the end of the Bangla book.

Children are seen playing, reading, going to school, chatting together. Children with physical disabilities or special needs have also appeared in the text and images of the book.

However, it hasn’t been possible to break away entirely from the conventional portraying of male and female roles. While men have been seen assuming the roles cowherds, folk singers, farmers, boatmen, pedestrians, drivers etc, women appear as new brides or housewives.

The only representative of an empowered woman was a class teacher named ‘Khushi Apa’. Women have repeatedly stepped in teacher’s roles in all three books of Class One.

While female teachers’ appear on almost every pages of the English book, male teachers appear just twice.

It has always been noticed that those creating the books prefer to highlight teaching when it comes to choosing a woman’s profession in textbooks.

It’s hard to say whether it’s due to the reality of female teachers participating more in primary education, or the long standing norm of women’s social acceptance in the teaching profession.

On the other hand, although Bangladesh women's football team is being cheered all around, it’s men's football team’s photo that’s made it into the book to make children familiar with the number 11.

In Lesson 45 of the Bangla book about the seven days of the week, a boy named Rafi is involved in many types of work except household chores.

This could have created a context of challenging men and women’s traditional roles in children’s minds through boys’ participation in these sorts of work. Such opportunities can be utilised.

Such discrimination is so acutely rooted in us, that our accustomed eyes often fail to identify them and we unconsciously acknowledge them in the pages of books as well.

Children have found Sufia Kamal as the sole female poet in Class One’s Bangla textbook. She is well outnumbered by the make poets Shamsur Rahman, Jasimuddin and Kazi Nazrul Islam.

In Lesson 51, ‘Muktijuddho o Bijoy’, students have found father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as well.

While an attempt to show men and women equally in the illustration of Class One’s English book, it has been noticed, men’s participation as the leaders in any task was visibly apparent.

Although, girls and boys have been seen to play together, men were active in taking control of the football, holding the cricket bat or ball in their hands. Women were in assisting roles to men in sports and in professions.

Men have been noticed in different wage earning roles. But, women have been found in household chores only. On page 45 of the English book, while a girl child was seen feeding poultry, cattle and pets in the yard, no attempt to motivate a boy child to do household chores has been noticed.

There were no endevour in case of including children with physical disabilities or special needs either, which is quite clear in the Bangla book.

The illustration of the English books seemed modern and lucid enough. However, sometimes the images felt alien and irrelevant for the modernistic approach.  

For instance, the coexistence of cows and camels in the picture on page 48 seemed completely incongruous in reality of Bangladesh.

Finally, the inclusion of National Helpline numbers 109 and 333 at the back of the book, which were there in previous years as well, is quite commendable.  

However, experience has shown that these emergency numbers are often hidden when the children add extra covers to their books. So the purpose of adding these numbers in the back of the book fails in many cases.

Many allege that while carrying out gender analysis, analysts forcefully tend to forcefully highlight inequality between men and women.

With due respect to such comments, I would like to say that such discrimination is so deeply rooted in ourselves that our accustomed eyes often fail to identify them and we unconsciously acknowledge them in the pages of books as well.

So talking about these things may seems like overdoing it, but to be honest, in many cases we either don't notice these issues or even if we do notice, we avoid them. But its effect doesn’t wear off from a child's mind.

Whether we admit it or not, the truth is that children are the greatest observers. So, even the slightest indifference of textbooks in this struggle for equality teaches the innocent child-mind to think that men and women are not equal; their ability and intelligence are not the same.

Therefore, I make a strong demand that books which are in the process of reaching children in the future, be finalised through analysis so that they become even more gender sensitive.

Apart from that, it is necessary to be sensitive and attentive to the fact that children should find people with different sexual orientation in the pages of books and respect them.

* Nishat Sultana is a writer and development activist, she can be found at [email protected]