By M Niaz Asadullah, Samia Huq, Kazi Mukitul Islam and Zaki Wahhaj*
Education is widely considered an effective means to address the socioeconomic challenges that women face around the world and a key Sustainable Development target. Yet girls systematically lag behind boys in many parts of the world. One country where girls’ schooling has risen sharply despite mass poverty is Bangladesh. The government implemented programmes to encourage girls’ education at all levels. The response was overwhelming. Gender differences in enrolment at primary and secondary level disappeared nearly two decades ago. Other indicators relating to gender parity have also improved.
Yet, perceptions of appropriate gender roles in rural Bangladeshi society today still accord largely with traditional stereotypes. Three years ago we conducted a nationally representative survey of women aged between 20 and 39 years in which respondents were asked about whether or not they agreed with statements consistent with traditional gender stereotypes. Two-thirds of the respondents believed that a woman should not earn more than her husband as this can lead to tensions within the home. Two in five believed that boys need more nutrition than girls to be strong and healthy and that the husband should have final say in all important family matters.
Why have traditional gender stereotypes persisted in spite of significant increases in the schooling of girls? According to the GEM Report, the answer may lie in the school curriculum. Student attitudes towards gender roles are strongly shaped by the characters and roles they encounter in the textbook pages. But gender bias remains rife in textbooks.
Recent changes in primary school textbooks in Bangladesh apparently occurred in response to pressure from leaders of Madrasah (i.e. Islamic) schools. But how serious is this problem at the secondary school level? Do gender contents vary across schools and Madrasa textbooks?
To answer these questions, we looked at the content of Bengali and English language secondary school textbooks – in secular schools, recognized madrasahs as well as unrecognized madrasahs. These books were in use before the introduction of the new curriculum earlier this year. To detect any trends over time, contents of older textbooks published in the 1990s were contrasted with revised editions that were printed in 2012 following recommendations of the new national educational policy 2010. We scrutinized 1,507 pages of 6 government approved textbooks and 2 unrecognized textbooks that belong to Befakul Madarisil Araiba, the largest Quami madrasah board in Bangladesh.
We examined gender stereotypes in the terms of exclusion and misrepresentation of a particular gender throughout the textbook. Since this can take various forms such as linguistic sexism, visual exclusion and misrepresentation, we considered multiple indicators to quantify the extent of gender bias in textbooks following the content analysis technique. The results are striking.
The textbooks were authored almost exclusively by men. The gender division of labour portrayed within the textbooks reveal a strong prevalence of female stereotypes. Women appear in a narrow range of occupational roles – primarily engaged in domestic chores – while male occupational roles are associated with power, prestige and wealth (e.g. king, prophet, caliph, professor, landlord). Women rarely appear as a leading character.
Textbooks used in unrecognized madrasahs have the lowest female presence (only 15% of all characters). But, even in the secular school textbooks, nearly two thirds of the characters are male. Thus, all Bangladeshi school textbooks – whether based on a secular or religious curriculum – suffered from a pro-male bias. Moreover, among government-approved textbooks, there is almost no difference between old curriculum textbooks (from the 1990s) and new curriculum textbooks (published in 2012) in terms of female presence – 30% and 31% respectively.
Nevertheless, there are important differences across subjects, which highlights the potential for change. In English language textbooks, used in both the secular and religious curriculum, women play a variety of roles, including active roles in the professional workforce. In a chapter in the secular stream, we found reversals of traditional roles where a son helps his mother do groceries for the house and a husband has a designated day to cook for his family in order to make the burden of domesticity lighter for his wife.
During the last two decades, the development partners, governments and educators have achieved great success in bringing girls to schools. But, the schooling experience as well as post school opportunities and outcomes receive limited attention. Gender bias in textbooks remains a concern in countries like Bangladesh that achieved gender parity in access to schooling. Globally, reforms targeting school textbooks have been lethargic and often absent in policy discussions. According to the GMR 2015, the pace of textbook reform receives very low political priority and public support in developing countries. Therefore, in keeping with the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, ‘Be Bold for Change’, gender bias in textbooks demands immediate and bold action.
* M Niaz Asadullah is Professor of Development Economics at the University of Malaya, Malaysia. Samia Huq is an Anthropologist and Associate Professor at the Department of Economics and Social Sciences at Brac University, Bangladesh. Kazi Islam is Khazanah Asia scholar at the University of Malaya. Zaki Wahhaj is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Kent, UK.