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How does Pakistan’s educational system influence the creation and construction of gender in society? In an upcoming talk, Gender Representation in Primary School Textbooks in Pakistan, the Mittal Institute’s Syed Babar Ali Fellow, Dr. Abdul Razaque Channa, will discuss his research on the textbooks that are taught to students between grades 1 and 5 throughout the public-school system of Sindh province. In his research, Channa is working to uncover how these textbooks contribute to the construction, inculcation, and perpetuation of gender roles in Pakistan.

Channa is a trained anthropologist, and teaches Anthropology at the University of Sindh, Jamshoro in Pakistan. During his fellowship with the Mittal Institute, he will continue his work to produce a paper on his topic of expertise to be read by the Government of Pakistan and those who are working on gender and education, such as the various NGOs in Pakistan that focus on the education system.

We sat down with Channa to learn more about his research and insights into gender representation in primary school textbooks in Sindh, Pakistan.

How would you say the textbooks taught to young students influence the creation and construction of gender in Pakistan?

Recently, I have been working with the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan on a short-term project. The project analyzes the textbooks that we teach to children between grades 1 and 5 (the age group of 5–10 years). I’m trying to understand how gender is represented in the textbooks. When I say representation, I mean how male and female children are characterized and mentioned in textbooks, what roles are given to a male child versus a female child, and often males are presented in the beginning of sentences and in powerful roles.

The purpose is to understand how the power dynamics work in the textbooks when it comes to a female Pakistani child and a male Pakistani child, because teachers use these textbooks to teach the students. Researchers around the world have suggested that the interaction of a child and a teacher with textbooks is almost 80% of their time throughout their entire schooling. So, I wanted to understand how that 80% of time is consumed by textbooks, and what these textbooks teach to male and female children.

How can these representations influence children when they see certain gender roles shown in the textbooks?

I’m particularly looking into Sindhi textbooks for this project produced since 1950-2018/9. These textbooks are taught in Sindh Province, which is made up of around 48 million people, and there are about 4 million children in 35,500 Sindhi Medium Public Schools there who use these textbooks. These textbooks teach children about Sindhi culture and Pakistani society, family structure, social organizations, and how men and women in Sindhi society perform certain roles. So, I wanted to understand Sindhi society through these textbooks, and how these textbooks inform literature about their society.

In society, both men and women are working, but in the textbooks, there are more men represented than females. But present-day in Sindh, there are many women who are in leadership positions. In the textbooks, they are missing, or shown in a very passive manner, as if they are docile bodies. They are either doing domestic chores, cleaning houses, nurturing children, cooking meals, and sitting and standing still, while the male characters are going into office, running businesses, playing sports, and working in public spaces. These are two different levels of manifestation of power, where men hold the powerful position, and females are confined in homes. This is being taught to female and male children.

Through this, about 4 million children are learning gender stereotypes, and boys are getting more powerful inspiration from the books because there are more role models represented for them. Meanwhile, girls do not have enough role models who could inspire them to further their education and become powerful role models themselves in their society. There are only a handful of lessons on women where they are introduced in relation to their father and brother, as if they don’t have their own identity or their work and contributions are not praiseworthy.  

These textbooks influence children in one way or another, since they are in their formative years. Children spend many hours in school learning from the textbooks. For example, in Sindhi primary public schools, education is not about questioning the established knowledge — rather, it is based on rote learning. The teacher writes on the blackboard, the students copy from the blackboard, and then memorize it. When the time comes for the examination, they reproduce what was said. There is no critical questioning about the gender roles, the teacher simply teaches that the leaders and heroes in Pakistan are always male, and the children write and memorize the same. They even do role-plays during the school programs. There’s no questioning, there’s no space for change where girls can have the opportunity to think they can be change agents, role models, and decisionmakers. Instead, they are being influenced by the textbooks to clean house, care for their brothers and parents, how to be a “good girl,” and so on.

Do you think this type of gender representation in textbooks should change?

When I did a content and thematic analysis of these textbooks, one of the many themes I focused on was how many times characters are depicted for males versus females. It is very surprising that 83% of characters depicted in textbook are male, whereas only 17% are females. This shows a very unequal representation of males and females. Unequal presentation of gender questions the commitments and seriousness of the policy institutions in Pakistan, because this is an obligation of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — of which the Pakistani government is a signatory. Goals 4 and 5 of the SDGs are related to quality of education and gender equality: end all forms of gender discrimination against women. Additionally, the Constitution of Pakistan clause 25 and 34 clearly states that men and women should not be discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, or sex, and women have full participation in national life.

So, when we view the textbooks, they do not represent reality or these policy documents. This is not a true depiction, and needs to change.

How does this current project fit into your overarching research?

My PhD thesis was on “Schooling Gender in Rural Pakistan.” It was a larger theme that I’ve been really interested in. This current research on textbooks is only one part of the bigger project. But textbooks are not enough to shape our hegemonic masculinity or emphasized femininity. If I am a man, it is not just because of these textbooks, there are other factors that design and manufacture my gender performance, my behavior, my way of speaking, my roles in public and private affairs. My PhD thesis deals with school and education and provides comprehensive data on how, in Pakistan’s society, cultural forces shape the gender identity of men and women and how culture influences the educational system of Pakistan, especially with reference to gender identity construction. 

Can you describe some of your visual work, and what you have explored through the lens in both photography and documentaries?

Visual anthropology has been my passion actually. When I started my PhD in anthropology, I was very much inspired by some visual works that we were introduced to during our coursework. I then started photography and took a course on photography and making short ethnographic documentaries. I produced three documentaries, which were screened in Australia, New Zealand, and Pakistan.

Recently, I along with my friends worked with Lok Virsa, a cultural institute in Pakistan, and the US Embassy in Islamabad to develop a short documentary on ‘Chang’ (Jew’s Harp) and the endangered musical instruments of Sindh. There are many musical instruments that are dying, and not many people know about them. Before that, I created one other documentary on the girl’s life. There is a very widespread misconception that women are very subjugated in Pakistan, or women don’t have the capacity to perform like men in public spaces. In the film, my argument was that when women are provided with an opportunity, they do an outstanding job, and I have shown “girl power” through the girls’ popular game, “dolls wedding.”

I have also done exhibitions on gender and education, folk culture, and climate change in various countries, and my photos are published on the front pages and calendars of various organizations. I tried to show how gender is reflected in a society through photos. For example, in primary schools we see a clear division of genders — girls sit on one side of the classroom, boys on the other. When they go out and play, there is the same separation of spaces. There is nothing natural about it in society when the girls are sitting in one part and the boys in another. My argument is that this is socially constructed, it is the teacher or father who decides where they do and do not sit, and this can be undone.

In an inclusive society, a gender-fair society, it is important to have girls and boys learn together, sit together, and explore new knowledge together. Otherwise, if you restrict girls because they are girls and shouldn’t interact with boys, they might lose some knowledge — and same for the boys. Since they are in the same classroom, they should learn together. We need to overcome these differences and create an inclusive society for a better and more progressive Pakistan.

☆ All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.