Reading is Power: But what happens if you are a girl?

Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
The Hindu Literary Review, May 2000

This is an adaptation of a paper presented at a regional seminar entitled Health, Power, Media and Rights: from Gender Perspectives at the Rose Garden Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, from February 15-23. Organised by the Swedish institutions CENTEK, FOJO, the Karolinska Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Instititute, and sponsored by SIDA, it brought together 40 Asian women – from Thailand, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal and India – in a practical applications workshop to identify areas in health, management, media and human rights that need the greatest attention and to exchange ideas on what actually could be done to act upon them.

          At the workshop, the paper was peppered with readings, notably from Suniti Namjoshi's Aditi and the One-Eyed Monkey and Ambai's short story Clear Sky published in a collection called One World (both published by Tulika, Chennai). Clear Sky is a culturally relevant story. It talks about caste, apart from gender, there are language specific references, and so on. Yet, the response to it from a mixed ethnic audience with little or no exposure to India and things Indian, was remarkable in terms of level of understanding, curiosity about issues, feelings of similarity, feeling for linguistic and semantic nuances – which only goes to show what a good, well-written piece of writing can do for a reader.

          There are two issues suggested by the title of this piece, one leading to the other. Let us start by assuming a few things:

1.      Literacy is a must for all people, young and old, across the board, in all countries.
2.      Many of the problems we face with respect to literacy are common to many of our
3.      Literacy means competence in reading and writing and not simply the ability to recognise 
      bus numbers and sign your name. We're talking here of reading literacy.
4.      Defined in this way, we find that literacy levels in several developed countries too are 
      cause for concern, especially in an electronic age where the printed word often battles 
      weakly against the vim and vigour of television, computers, video and other multimedia 
5.      This brings us to what I consider the most important feature: the pro-active role of reading 
      in the lives of all those who can read.

          From my experience as a journalist, writer and editor of children's books, I see how important it is to ensure that we engender a generation of reading children who will then grow up into reading adults. Only then can we can focus specifically on women and reading. The concern here, therefore, is not just 'Are children reading?' but 'What are they reading?' 

          Maybe an example from our experience with working with children will explain the difference. Some months ago, my colleague and I visited a middle-level school in Chennai to do a story reading with 10-11 year olds as part of a reading promotion programme. We asked the children what books they read, who their favourite authors were and so on. All our questions were met with silence. We thought maybe they were shy so we gently prodded them, offered suggestions – still, silence. After about 10 minutes of this, one tentative voice said something. Another echoed this. A few heads nodded. They were talking about a lesson in their English Reader, which they had managed to identify as being their favourite story. That was the extent of their reading. The English Reader only because they had to pass exams. That was it. We were shocked.

          On a visit once to villages in Tamilnadu. I met a dalit child, Vedamirtham, about 12 years old. Surprised and curious by her admission that her favourite subject was English, I managed to persuade her to read from her textbook. All that emerged was a babble of sounds.

          Now, Vedamirtham is a first generation learner and we know there are many issues in play here. But in essence, these two experiences, the urban one and the rural one, point to one thing: reading illiteracy.

          Going to a third example: an 8-year old child had to talk about the Indian flag at his school's Independence Day celebrations, a 2 or 3 minute affair. The child worked on the speech and learnt it off by heart. It was easy then to come up to the mike and talk. It sounded quite natural. But someone later asked the child if he liked to read. "Yes," he said. "It shows," she replied.

          It was actually quite simple.  Lots of children made speeches that day, and many sounded as though they had mugged up their lines without understanding any of it. This child sounded as though he understood what he was saying.

          What was it this child had that the other children did not? Not just the ability to read, but the power of reading. This intangible power is what makes a tangible difference to the lives of children and adults. Because reading empowers. The place of reading in making the world's illiterate literate cannot be overstated. We realise that it is not merely a question of going to school. There are too many who cannot read in a way that will enrich and empower them. They read, but without meaning, comprehension, discrimination.

          What is so empowering about reading anyway? Well for one, it is a fundamental right. It enables us to improve the status and quality of our lives. A person who can read has more in her grasp and this leads to a sense of well being. It also leads to social justice, especially with respect to gender discrimination. It gives a chance not only to equality but also to fight injustices and inequities. It opens up opportunities. A true reader has understanding, perspective, and the ability to examine, evaluate, weigh and judge, draw conclusions. With all these abilities, we learn how to participate actively and meaningfully in real democracy. Reading, therefore, is an important tool of political participation.

          The Zimbabwean writer Chiedza Musengezi said to me once, "People don't mind buying beautiful clothes for their children but will not spare a thought to buy books. It's time people worried about their children's intellect. Because reading puts words at the command of children."

          Words at our command. Such a powerful tool. The positive reinforcement it promises can be had only if we take the trouble to read and enable others to read too. As Chiedza went on to say, "Reading makes for better citizens because it makes it difficult to manipulate them."    

          Citizenship, then, needs readers and good citizenship, good readers, a point made with great force by writer/critic Victor Watson: "The connection between reading and citizenship does not often press itself on our attention. A nation can for years delude itself with the idea that fiction is an entrepreneurial sideshow of the publishing industry; then a single work unexpectedly assumes an international significance and reminds us of the powers of fiction to win allegiance or influence hatred, to set racial or religious communities against one another, and provoke street demonstrations, book burning and threats of violence." This is the power we are talking about. And it happens because reading is an intense, private exercise. It cannot be dictated because it happens in your own mind. What you read may be monitored but not how you read. That is the source of our empowerment.

          Reading helps break down barriers and stereotypes because it helps us imagine the lives of others. We see people through books as individuals, with flaws and idiosyncrasies, so much like ourselves, and once we do this we reach beyond stereotypes and are in a position to break down barriers. Reading connects us and helps us know each other.

          One question we might ask is: aren't literacy programmes run by governments and non-government organisations already doing this? Yes and no, because their programmes are simply too huge to negotiate the intangible thing we are talking about. It is for people like us, through books and writing about books and reading, to shoulder that responsibility. 

          With that thought, to get on to the second question: What happens if you are a girl? Have you noticed how when a boy or a man is reading, the elders in the house make out like he's doing something of great consequence? But if a girl or a woman is reading, she is wasting her time. Have you noticed? This is the theme of a poem by feminist/activist Kamla Bhasin called, You're a Girl: Why Must You Read? (translated from the original Hindi):

Father to Daughter: Read? You? What do you want to read for?
It's enough if my sons read, why on earth must you, a girl?
Daughter to Father: Well, since you ask, listen.
Because I am a girl
I must read
Because I am not allowed to, I must read
I feel, so I must read
My dreams stretch out to me, so I must read
Because I am a girl
I must read
I must not lose my way wandering, so I must read
I must stand on my feet, so I must read
I must fight my fears, so I must read
Because I am a girl
I must read
I must oppose exploitation, so I must read
Change laws, make new religions
Turn everything around
Because I am a girl
I must read
Learn from the wise
Sing the songs of Mira
Write my own melodies
This is not the age of the illiterate, the unlettered
Because I am a girl
I must read

          So then, what happens if you are a girl? The bicycle revolution of Pudukottai would set things in perspective. More than 85 per cent of those who lived in Pudukottai district, chronically drought-prone, were abysmally poor. Stone quarrying was the main source of livelihood and mostly women work dreadful hours and worse conditions in the 450 quarries there. A total literacy campaign covering nearly 2 lakh women in the district was launched there a few years ago. In 1991, when contractors did not bid above the minimum price set by the government to quarry there, the district collector decided to lease the quarries to over 4000 women. They rose to the challenge because the literacy programme had not only helped them acquire basic educational skills, they had also in the process come to grips with leadership, decision making, management and business organisation. As a symbol of their 'liberation', they learned to ride bicycles. It made a wonderful picture in the newspapers, these women in their saris riding their bicycles because they had found a way to break free of exploitation. And yes, the district collector was a woman.

          Over the years, what have women and girls seen of themselves in the stories they have heard? Take the Panchatantra, the oldest extant body of literature for children and which is believed to have travelled to many parts of the globe. Still invigorating, still popular: yet, talking of the Panchatantra in an article published in the newsletter of the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC), writer Swapna Dutta says, "The Panchatantra and Hitopadesa give an extremely unfair, prejudiced, unbalanced and lopsided portrayal of women. Whenever and wherever women are mentioned, they are either betrayers, cheats, untruthful, unscrupulous, blindly passionate and in the arms of someone they shouldn't be. Wherever there are men and women, it is always lust, liaison and betrayal and that too by women. When a woman is mentioned singly, she is described as one who has no right to exist on her own and who lives just for a man's pleasure. That she should be under her father when young, under her husband thereafter and finally under her son because she is incapable of existing on her own."

          To sample something of what she is talking about, here are a couple of examples from from Arthur W Ryder's translations.

From the story Merchant Strong Tooth:
The logs will glut the hungry fire
The rivers glut the sea's desire
And death with life be glutted, when
The flirt has had enough of men.
No chance, no corner dark
No man to woo
Then, holy sage, you find
A woman true.

          In another story called The Weaver's Wife, the lines go like this:

Behold the faults with woman born
Impurity, and heartless scorn
Untruth, and folly, reckless heat
Excessive greediness, deceit.
Be not enslaved by women's charm
Nor wish them growth in power to harm
Their slaves, of manly feeling stripped
Are tame, pet crows whose wings are clipped.
Honey in a woman's words
Poison in her breast
So although you taste her lip
Drub her in the chest.

          Usually these kinds of stories are left out of Panchatantra anthologies for children. It was a shock, therefore, to find a rather objectionable tale, typically, of a woman who thinks she has "cuckolded" her "brahmin" husband, in a recently published illustrated anthology. The story ends with the lines:."The clever brahmin caught hold of the lover, gave him a good thrashing and kicked out his unfaithful wife." Even if the story the story was included "by mistake", there is no excuse for its sexist, stereotypical, cliche-ridden, politically completely incorrect thrust.

          What stories like these show is that if you are a girl you lie outside the experience of reading. It is almost as if women simply do not exist and therefore it does not matter what you say about them. If we believe that we read books in order to find ourselves (or we find ourselves in the books we read, whichever is more appropriate) and since we don't exist in the Panchatantra-type tales, where else can a girl look to find her voice? In school textbooks? And what does she find there? 

          It is generally accepted that gender stereotyping is, in principle, to be avoided. The reality is often inconsistent with this ruling. In a study quoted by the Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE) Oxford University Press (OUP), 1999 report, a class three Hindi textbook, for instance, had 49 pictures of men or boys doing things like being a scientist, a soldier, a doctor, a teacher, a king, a poet. In contrast there were 14 girls, invariably doing standard female roles such as tying  a rakhi to her brother, fanning a king and so on.

         What happens in the folktales? In male-centred tales, women are no more than pawns or prizes or helpers in a man's life. Women-centred tales generally have women saving, rescuing, or reviving a man, often solving riddles on his behalf. Often in retellings, the patriarchal approach takes over and the intrinsic strength or integrity of the women characters is watered down. Thai researcher Boonsri Cheevakumjorn, writing in the international children's journal, Bookbird, talked about a study she had done of Thai books for children. She found that gender-specific roles were typical of Thai folktales. Female figures were often more inclined to compromise than male characters. They forgave their rivals or asked forgiveness to save the villains' lives. They were also far less inclined toward confrontation. Females were under-represented in incidents involving pro-social behaviour.

          Just look at collections of folktales and the argument will become clear. See how women are depicted. Watch out for how stories are resolved. 

          Much of the literature for children being published in our part of the world comprises moral stories, textbooks, stories from the oral tradition, and folktales. We have seen what is on offer for a girl who wants to read and none of it is particularly promising or inspiring. Of course, given a good storyteller, these same themes can be transformed to reflect the times and subvert old, outdated, offensive mindsets. There are ways in which this can be done but, unfortunately, it is the exception rather than the rule.

          Yet, because the stories we read can transform us by helping us imagine beyond ourselves, we have to continue to search for good stories and storytellers and pass them on to our readers. For instance, in a Tulika book called Aditi and the One-Eyed Monkey, author Suniti Namjoshi shows how a young girl quite naturally sets out on a perilous journey to find and slay a dragon. Her friends on this journey are an elephant, a monkey and an ant (the only male in the group). Nothing in the story is overstated – not the plot, not the characterisation, not the gender roles. It is a thrilling adventure tale, equally for girls and boys, women and men. 

          These are the books in which girls find their own voices, their own images. It is not what stories say but how they make you feel that makes the difference. Once we discover ourselves in the books we read, we will go on to find ourselves in our literature, our poetry, our history, our struggles and our songs. And then we will write our own literature, our own poetry, our own history, our own struggles and our own songs. That is what reading does.