By Madhu Kushwahadd

Perpetuating Patriarchy in India’s Classrooms

Like Our History and Civic Life (pictured above), many Indian textbooks, particularly Hindi and Moral Education volumes, express a fascination with war and war heroes.

Modern nation-states have long used education to control discussions of citizenship and nationality, dissent and conformity. India is no exception. Schools are among the most favored state institutions to carry forward a nationalist agenda and have become an important place where students learn about gender identities. School life experiences (curriculum, textbooks and subject choices, pedagogical practices, learning materials and school ethos) are organized to invite conformity, not confrontation, in existing societal gendered norms. That was the conclusion of Karuna Chanana after her 2007 study of female sexuality and education of Hindu girls in India.

Since nationalism itself is a masculine project, most nationalist ideologies are rooted in patriarchal social systems. The ideology of hegemonic nationalism is not complete without the ideology of hegemonic masculinity because the latter is about protecting “one’s women” whereas the former is about protecting the motherland. As the scholar Joanne Nagel has noted, the “‘microculture’ of masculinity in everyday life articulates very well with the demands of nationalism, particularly its militaristic side and terms like honor, patriotism, cowardice, bravery and duty are hard to distinguish as either nationalistic or masculinist, since they seem so thoroughly tied both to the nation and to manliness.”

Schooling is a complex process and textbooks are among the most tangible and concrete aspects of school life. Since children’s textbooks are a dominant blueprint of shared cultural values, meanings, and expectations, they contribute to how children understand what will be expected of them as women and men, and shape the way children will think about their own place in the world. Nationalist, masculine discourses get solidified in textbooks and are the battleground between the state and future generations. Examining textbooks provides an opportunity to decode—and better understand— the landscape the children will someday inhabit.

I examined 13 sixth-grade textbooks, analyzing them from a social constructivist framework. Additionally, I interviewed three students to examine their reactions to the textbooks’ messages. A number of interrelated themes emerged during my analysis of the textbooks.


War, Militant Nationalism and Patriotism

Although we live in the 21st century, textbooks, particularly Hindi and moral education volumes, have a fascination with war and war heroes. There were numerous references to war against enemies—real, mythological or symbolic. War heroes are celebrated for demonstrating their courage, both for the clan and the nation, and masculine ideals are prominent.

The second dominant theme in the textbooks was vivid, bold and direct descriptions of militant nationalism, which carried exclusively masculine overtones. Most texts were about male characters except for one poem about a female protagonist, Rani Laxmibai, a revolutionary freedom fighter of the Indian freedom movement (who was depicted as “manly” for her qualities of bravery and sacrifice for the nation). The discourse on nationalism, particularly militant nationalism, was seen as incomplete unless there were men ready to sacrifice their lives for the protection of national pride. Cynthia Enloe, who writes from a feminist perspective about international politics, has demonstrated the connection between masculinity and nationalism, observing that “nationalism has typically sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation, and masculinized hope.”

Indeed, nationalism extends man’s individual sense of honor and pride to the national level. As a consequence, patriotism legitimizes control over the nation by some men. It provides a cover for the aggressive, brutal side of masculinity, all the way from abusive behavior interpersonally to waging war.


Gendered Account of Nation

The whole discourse about Indian nationalism has been gendered. The nation is defined as women and men are defined—in the roles of custodian and protector. Analyzing textbooks revealed that the Indian nation has almost always been referred to as female—think of Mother India. The boundary between nationhood and womanhood is presented to suggest that the nation’s pride and women’s pride are interchangeable; an insult to a woman is analogous to an insult to the nation. Women’s contributions were filtered through the lens of maternity. Mothers’ roles in the nation’s identity were highlighted through autobiographical accounts of revolutionaries:

“Mother, I believe that you will patiently understand that your son has sacrificed his life for the supreme mother—Mother India—and he didn’t betray the family name and kept his promise.”

“The way I embrace death by going to the gallows (and sacrifice my life for the nation), would inspire Indian mothers to have children (sons) like Bhagat Singh (the Indian freedom fighter).”

Texts like these sent clear messages to boys and girls regarding what is expected from them as citizens of the nation. India belongs to men; they are its owner and protector. Women are incorporated into the nation in different capacities, including as the symbolic mother nation and sometimes as actual producers of future citizens (virile men).


 The back cover of this textbook in English features an ad inviting students to join the Indian army. Indian textbooks offer bold and vivid descriptions of militant nationalism with distinctly masculine overtones.

The back cover of this textbook in English features an ad inviting students to join the Indian army. Indian textbooks offer bold and vivid descriptions of militant nationalism with distinctly masculine overtones.

Positive Masculinity

Usually, men and hegemonic masculinity were shown in the context of nationalistic patriotism, in war, or other conflicts. But when men were not represented in those areas, bravery was still a basic quality of manhood. Bravery, benevolence, kindness, adventure, and reason were some of the qualities attached to nearly all male figures represented in textbooks. There were no accounts of men facing dilemmas, and no expressions of weakness (moral or physical). Contempt for weakness was prevalent.

Very high moral standards were set both in Hindi texts and those addressing moral education. It seemed at times, the textbooks were meant more for adults than children, not surprising because children were so central to advancing the nationalist project of the Indian state. The analysis of the textbooks also revealed that most of the masculine ideals expressed reflected the values of the upper, ruling class. Women were underrepresented in all but three of the 13 textbooks examined.


Student Reactions

In order to understand how children receive textbook messages about masculinity, the researcher individually interviewed three sixth-grade students, two male and one female. Each student was given texts to read before engaging in an informal talk about their perceptions and feelings.

Nationalist discourses had a powerful influence on the students. One said he liked most the chapter about Jhansi ki Rani, the mid-19thcentury Indian queen and warrior who was a symbol of resistance to the rule of the British. He liked her because she fought for the nation’s freedom, one boy said; “Everybody should be a patriot and should fight for the mother nation.” To the question who can fight for the nation, all the students responded only male soldiers. The researcher asked whether women could be patriots. After a long pause, each said, “Yes.” Pressed to describe how, two students said that they didn’t know and one male said women could show their patriotism by buying only Indian goods. At the end of the interview the same student said that women could nurse wounded soldiers on the battlefield. One student said that soldiers have more respect than others in Indian society but said he would not become a soldier. The girl student said that it was men’s military duty to protect the nation.

Of the texts she’d read, she reported appreciating two stories with moral lessons about “care and sacrifice for mother,” stories that never addressed violence or war. Unlike the boys, the girl student liked the stories that had themes of care and sacrifice rather than patriotism and violence.

Why do people refer to the nation as “Mother India?” the students were asked. One of the males said that it is because it is written in the textbooks. All of them said that they didn’t completely understand the meaning of the country’s national anthem. One male student said that though he couldn’t understand it, the anthem filled him with enthusiasm.

Analyzing the students’ interview suggests that at the sixth-grade level students generally accepted a gendered account of the nation. They have clear ideas about what was expected from males, but weren’t sure what women could do for “Mother India” (although one of the boys suggested supportive roles—as nurses).

Students should not be seen as passive recipients of patriarchal messages presented in their textbooks. They read, interpret and construct meaning out of these messages. They have agency in terms of how they respond to the texts. Their agency is limited by textbook narratives advancing an outmoded expression of masculinity. That limitation is reinforced through other children’s literature, popular culture, and the mass media.

In the 13 textbooks examined, nationalism and masculinity were intertwined. As fertile ground for indoctrinating students with an aggressive brand of hegemonic masculinity, students are being duped with texts that disguise, under the cover of patriotism and nationalism, patriarchal notions of India that must not just be challenged but dismantled.


Madhu Kushwaha Madhu Kushwaha is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at Banaras Hindu University, in Varanasi, U.P., India. She can be reached at