Women in India: Tradition vs. Modernity
by Jean Hoffmann

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Suggested Curriculum Areas:

- Literature, Social Studies


- To provide an awareness of the construction and of gender roles and their impact on Indian culture

- To compare and contrast with gender roles and issues associated with those roles in America today

- To include literature that is written by women and includes women protagonists into a male dominated World Literature curriculum

- To provide literature choices with varying ability levels and themes

- To use literature as a means to promote social change or to expose social injustices

- To use literature as a means to explore cultural aspects

Background information for teachers:

- PowerPoint on Women's Employment

- Video: Modern Brides: Arranged Marriages in South India.
A look at two marriages in South India. One marriage is an arranged marriage; another a self-selected “love marriage.” The video touches on several issues surrounding gender roles and societal expectations. Good for classroom use as well. Available through UW-Madison Center for South Asia

- Video: Dadi and Her Family: A Rural Mother-in-law in North India.
Gender expectations are addressed in this video. Available through UW-Madison Center for South Asia

- For Nectar in a Sieve: Various online sources available.

- For Shiva’s Fire: See suzannefisherstaples.com/shivasfire

- For general background see the online journal Kolam

- Women as Subjects. Edited by Nita Kumar. University Press of Virginia; 1994. Various essays on gender covering such issues as education, politics, violence, and kinship.

- Siva and her Sisters: Gender, Caste, and Class in Rural South India. Karin Kapadia. Oxford University Press; 1996. Very informative, well-documented look at South Indian women in regards to caste issues; again education, politics, violence, and kinship are explored in great depth.

- Women in India: Two Perspectives. Doranne Jacobson and Susan S. Wadley. Manohar; 1999. Six essays on gender roles, significance of rituals, experiences, problems. An excellent resource with an extended reference list in the introduction (for those who would like to explore further).

Lesson Outline:

Preliminary Activities:

Ask students to reflect on what they know already about the traditional roles that women are expected to uphold in various societies. Ask where students think these roles have come from. Ask about American women. Do American women have more choices than women in other countries? Why or why not? In what ways are they freer? In any ways are they more restricted? How have women discarded the traditional role expectations that they have been faced with? Why do some women choose to uphold traditional roles? Ask students what they know about traditional roles of Indian women. Before assigning reading let students explore various aspects of cultural traditions in Indian society via internet searches. Ask them to specifically note the role of women in each of the following:

The Hindu religion—gods and goddesses: who holds power? How did s/he get that power? Religious leaders: who holds power? Who constructed the stories? What roles do women have in maintaining the traditions?

Marriage: Who decides who one will marry? Is marriage considered a partnership? What is dowry? How does dowry influence marriage decisions? How easy is it to get out of a bad marriage? What is bride burning? How do men get away with this practice? What is expected of a woman or what happens to her when/if her husband dies?

Working women/Women and caste: What do high caste women do? Do they work? Why or why not. What do low caste women do? Do they work? Why or why not? Are there differences in role expectations among various caste groups? How do these differences influence maintenance or rejection of traditional roles? How is this changing (or not) in light of increased educational opportunities for women?

Clothing: The sari, the salvar. Westernization of menswear while women continue to uphold traditional dress: what does this say about society? Does it impact/thwart change?

Education: Who gets to go to school? How long? Has this changed in recent years?

Social Stratification/Poverty: Why do some families choose to abort or kill their female offspring? How do grass roots efforts to educate women influence poverty? How do families change/ women’s roles change with increased affluence?

Folk Art: Bharatanatayam, Terru kuttu, and Kolam

Women Helping Other Women: NGOs, microbanking, medicinal gardening, Phoolan Devi: India’s Bandit Queen

Women in Politics: how did they get there? Is their power genuine? The 33% reserve system: what is it? How well does it work?

After researching the various topics have students report their findings in creative ways: demonstrations, videos, dance, PowerPoint presentations, skits, etc.



I recommend a literature circle approach for this unit. Present students with book options. There are many wonderful pieces of literature that would work well in this unit. A few that are readily accessible include the following. Nectar in a Sieve (Markandaya) is a wonderful book for average to advanced students. Although some teachers feel that it is old or overused, I recommend it for its timeless themes and extension opportunities, its accuracy in portraying details and struggles apparent yet in present-day rural life in India, and its literary value—in both rhetoric and depth of content. Shiva’s Fire (Staples) is useful for lower ability readers or those with less motivation. There are many opportunities in this book to make connections to various aspects of culture, especially traditional dance and the Hindu religion. The God of Small Things (Roy) and Bandit Queen of India (Devi) are recommended for advanced readers and emotionally mature students.

Divide students into reading groups based on interest and ability levels. Each group would be responsible for dividing their book into sections to follow a reading/responding schedule as set by the teacher. Groups should assign literature circle response roles to each of their members. After students read and respond to the literature have them create interesting presentations of themes, issues, character analyses, etc. to classmates to help promote inter-book dialogue and interest.

After group dissemination of materials, bring the discussion back to whole group and gender issues again. Assessment option: essays devoted to the struggles faced by the protagonists in the novels. Some questions to consider: How did gender and the expectations of society based on gender influence the options, actions, and responses to conflict of the protagonist in your chosen novel? How might those options, actions and responses have differed had the protagonist lived in America? What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of the established roles that your protagonist faced?

Amount of time:
2- weeks. Include reading days, group interaction days, video days (Two Marriages, dance video clip), discussion days, pre-presentation days).

Cross References to other themes:
· environmental issues in India (water/drought)
· industrialization/globalization
· religions in India (Hindu, Muslism, Jainism, Christianity, Sikh)

. Nectar in a Sieve, Markandaya
. Shiva’s Fire, Staples
. The God of Small Things, Roy
. Bandit Queen of India, Devi or Atlantic Monthly article "India's Bandit Queen" November, 1996 issue;

Videos available from UW-Madison Center for South Asia:
- Dance and Music documentaries
- Two Marriages
- Kolam clip
- Rock Quarry footage (women at work), CCD footage (women into microbanking and medicinal gardening), Lady Doak lectures on women in India

Cross references to other discipline areas: politics, social problems.

English Standards:

A. Reading and Literature Content Standard

Students in Wisconsin will read and respond to a wide range of writing to build an understanding of written materials, of themselves and of others.
12.1 Use effective reading strategies to achieve their purposes in reading
12.2 Read, interpret, critically analyze literature
12.3 Read and discuss literary and nonliterary texts in order to understand human experience
12.4 Read to acquire information

B. Writing Content Standard

Students in Wisconsin will write clearly and effectively to share information and knowledge, to influence and persuade, to create and entertain.
12.1 Create or produce writing to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes
12.2 Plan, revise, edit, and publish clear and effective writing

C. Oral Language

Students in Wisconsin will listen to understand and will speak clearly and effectively for diverse purposes.
12.1 Prepare and deliver oral presentations appropriate to specific purposes and audiences
12.2 Listen to, discuss, and comprehend oral communication
12.3 Participate effectively in discussion

E. Media and Technology

Students will use media and technology critically and creatively to obtain, organize, prepare and share information; to influence and persuade; to entertain and be entertained
12.1 Use computers to acquire, organize, analyze, and communicate information
12.2 Make informed judgments about media and products
12.3 Create media products appropriate to audience and purpose
12.4 Demonstrate a working knowledge of media production and distribution
12.5 Analyze and edit media work as appropriate to audience and purpose

F. Research and Inquiry

Students in Wisconsin will locate, use, and communicate information from a variety of print and nonprint resources

12.1 Conduct research and inquiry on self-selected or assigned topics, issues, or problems and use an appropriate form to communicate their findings.


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