Pakistan, Sexism, education, patriarchy, Single National Curriculum
Illustrations from school textbooks that were released under the Pakistani government's new educational curriculum in August. On the left is a depiction of boys playing cricket, while on the right is one of a mother and her daughter doing household work. Photos: Rimal Farrukh

The ‘Sexist’ Textbooks That Launched a Thousand WTFs

The books are intended for 19 million children and have sparked controversy among parents, educators and feminists in Pakistan.
October 1, 2021, 11:46am

A father and son wearing Western clothes recline comfortably on a couch while poring over a book. A mother and daughter wearing a hijab and clothes that look neither Western nor Pakistani are neatly positioned on the ground with a pile of books. At a glance, the picture seems innocuous enough. But to many, it reeks of male privilege and an erasure of indigenous Pakistani feminine identity. 

The image is from a fifth-grade textbook released under the Pakistani government’s new educational curriculum. It was launched in August and is meant to end the “education apartheid” in private and public schools in the country. Critics have widely condemned the Single National Curriculum (SNC) textbooks for limited representations of women that reinforce outdated gender stereotypes. These primary school textbooks are meant to educate 19 million children in Pakistan.

For educationist Abdul Hameed Nayyar, the new curriculum is indicative of an encroaching Talibanisation of gender roles in the education system. “The people who have devised these textbooks are trying to peddle the Taliban's mentality of suppressing women and of keeping them confined,” Nayyar told VICE World News.

“Even in previous textbooks, women were portrayed as essential economic actors. That is not shown here. Where are the women who till the land, who serve as pilots, as traders, as businesswomen, as soldiers and police? Where is their representation?” he added.

The fifth grade textbook with the controversial depictions of family dynamics also states “women have always been a great support for men.” In the last few weeks, textbook pages mostly depicting women and girls with housekeeping and caregiver roles have gone viral on social media. 

But to Mariam Chughtai, the director of the National Curriculum Council, which is the national consultative body heading the development of the SNC, the criticism is misleading and unfair. 

For educationist Abdul Hameed Nayyar, the new curriculum is indicative of an encroaching Talibanisation of gender roles in the education system.

“People who have actually opened up these textbooks and seen them, realize that there is a lot of propaganda which is based on a very selective reading of textbooks,” Chughtai told VICE World News. She cited examples of women represented as pilots, lawyers, famous historical figures and personalities such as Dr. Ruth Pfau, child prodigy Arfa Karim and former Pakistani cricketer Sana Mir. 

“There is room for improvement. However, the narrative that has developed out of those very few select images is totally disproportionate,” said Chughtai. Her views were supported by many on social media who countered the critiques by highlighting select empowered and diverse representations of women and girls in the curriculum. 

VICE World News analysed gender representation in illustrations and photographs in 27 primary level textbooks across seven subjects: Math, English, General Knowledge, General Science, Social Studies, Islamic studies and Urdu. We found that from a total of 4,509 characters, 37 percent were female while 63 percent were male. 

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Out of a total of 1,680 women and girls, 12 percent were presented in domestic roles or settings while 88 percent were presented in non-domestic roles or settings. But there is a catch: the overwhelming majority in non-domestic roles and settings were children, passive bystanders, or females in assistive and socially acceptable gender roles such as students, teachers and nurses. A meagre 2 percent out of 1,680 females were presented in non-traditional roles or in positions of power that included but were not limited to scientists, lawyers, pilots, doctors and politicians. The majority of powerful positions, however, were exhibited by male counterparts.

VICE World News analysed gender representation in illustrations and photographs in 27 primary level textbooks across seven subjects. We found that from a total of 4,509 characters, 37 percent were female while 63 percent were male.

The VICE World News review also revealed that from a total of 2,829 male characters, just 8 percent were featured in domestic roles or settings while 92 percent were observed in non-domestic roles and settings. Male representation across non-domestic roles and settings showed a wide spectrum of professions and roles such as businessmen, construction workers, farmers, policemen, students, politicians, doctors, scientists, teachers, athletes, dancers and more. 

The textbooks also received backlash for prominently featuring women and young girls in hijab or headscarves (30 percent of the images). Although women wearing hijab is nothing out of the ordinary in Pakistani society, it is not indigenous to the local culture but a co-opted import from Gulf countries. Pakistani women’s clothing and appearances are diverse and subject to culture, class, ethnic and religious-based distinctions. 

The textbooks also received backlash for featuring women and young girls in hijab or headscarves. Although women wearing hijab is common in Pakistani society, it is not indigenous to the local culture but a co-opted import from Gulf countries.

“You've got all kinds of people in this country, some people wear headscarves, some people don't,” said Baela Raza Jamil, CEO of Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) Center for Education and Awareness. “Similar books have been written ever since, but in this curriculum there is much more content that encourages people to wear a headscarf.” 

Parents caught in the chaos of the curriculum crossfire are also torn–struggling to come to terms with gender depictions in the textbooks. 

Fareeha Khalid, a resident from the capital city of Islamabad fears how they will shape her daughter’s perceptions of her future capabilities.

“When I first saw the textbook images I thought it was a sick joke. You could stick these images in a museum - the way they show women as these subservient homemakers instead of strong figures in charge of their own destinies. I don’t want my daughter to believe her only options in life are as someone’s wife or mother,” Khalid told VICE World News. 

“When I first saw the textbook images I thought it was a sick joke - the way they show women as these subservient homemakers instead of strong figures in charge of their own destinies. I don’t want my daughter to believe her only options in life are as someone’s wife or mother.”

Sociology professor Nida Kirmani understands her concerns. 

 “Textbooks are a key socialising agent for children. The images they see and the messages that are conveyed make a lasting impression on young minds. If textbooks reinforce gender stereotypes, as we have seen with some of those introduced as part of the SNC this could have a long-lasting detrimental effect on students and on society in general,” Kirmani said. 

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However, not everyone feels the same. For Karachi-based parent Maha Saeed, the latest critiques of the textbooks have been largely blown out of proportion. “I don’t really see what all the fuss is about. What’s the harm in showing women as housewives completing household chores or cooking? It’s only a problem if you consider housewives as inferior to working women,” Saeed told VICE World News. 

“I don’t really see what all the fuss is about. What’s the harm in showing women as housewives completing household chores or cooking? It’s only a problem if you consider housewives as inferior to working women.”

Since its inception, the SNC has been mired in controversy. The initiative was created based on the ruling party’s manifesto of equalizing educational inequalities across socio-economic classes. The scheme aims to ensure the provision of high-quality education across the “education apartheid” that exists within Pakistan’s education system.

Pakistan has one of the highest school dropout rates in the world with nearly 22.8 million out of school children. The wide majority of children are in government schools and madrassas or Islamic seminaries where children receive religious instruction. Vast educational inequalities between children in madrassas and government schools in comparison to the country’s private school sector are endemic. 

Despite the government’s ambitions for closing the educational divide, education policy experts have criticized the SNC for design and implementation flaws that do not account for resource imbalances and ground realities across the country’s educational institutions. They have also highlighted how the SNC will superimpose uniformity across Pakistan’s diverse provinces that contain a multiplicity of regional, linguistic and religious identities.

The government also faces legal challenges for the country-wide implementation of the curriculum because of educational autonomies granted to provinces by a constitutional amendment passed in 2010. 

The curriculum has been implemented in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces along with its capital city of Islamabad. However, it has been rejected by the southeastern province of Sindh where around 7.5 million children go to schools and madrassas. 

“What message do you want to give to innocent children by putting a mother and daughter on the ground? We should instead teach our future generations that women are the crowns of our society."

Sindh provincial minister Syed Nasir Hussain Shah tweeted that the provincial government’s rejection was in part due to the latest gender-based controversy. “What message do you want to give to innocent children by putting a mother and daughter on the ground? We should instead teach our future generations that women are the crowns of our society,” he said. 

According to Chughtai, the SNC is a living document that will undergo several revisions over the years. Education experts like Jamil however are exasperated that ongoing critiques of gender depictions in past educational curriculums have not already been incorporated. 

“The sad thing is why the hell are we still talking about this? Why haven't we been able to take care of it?” said Jamil. “The gender stereotyping critique in our textbooks has been coming from the 90s. This is not the first time. By 2021, we should have settled the matter.” 

Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.