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R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Representing Women in California Textbooks

Sacramento, California, Mar 08, 2006Representatives of women’s groups and gender studies faculty held a press conference this afternoon at the State Board of Education (SBE) to commemorate International Women’s Day and to urge the Board to adopt textbooks that accurately depict the history of women’s struggle against oppression.

International Women’s Day was first celebrated on March 19, 1911, in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland by over a million women and men who rallied for women’s suffrage, women’s right to hold office, work and vocational training, and equal workplace treatment. In response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire shortly thereafter, in which many young Jewish and Italian immigrant women lost their lives, American observances of this day have often emphasized women’s labor conditions. To these concerns, Russian women added a commitment to peace and international solidarity by marking International Women’s Day on the eve of World War I with anti-war demonstrations. Over the following century, women continued to agitate for gender equality, peaceful coexistence among nations, and the creation of international standards and programs to improve the status of girls and women globally. International Women’s Day continues to be an important event in many parts of the world.

Press Conference at SBE, Mar 8, 2006
[The press conference at the State Board of Education, Mar 8, 2006]

Anu Mandavilli, a member of Friends of South Asia (FOSA), noted, “Women have often taken to the streets to demand political representation, economic justice, and social equality. But we have also had to fight for the right to have these struggles represented in history. I am pleased to join representatives of women’s groups and faculty in demanding that history textbooks present truthful information about the status of women in ancient India.” Mandavilli was alluding to an ongoing controversy over the recertification of sixth-grade history textbooks. Two Hindu Nationalist Indian American groups, the Vedic Foundation (VF) and the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), tried to alter the contents of textbooks and have been accused by South Asian community groups of pushing sectarian agendas. The VF and HEF claim that the textbooks portray Hinduism stereotypically and, thus, will damage the self-esteem of Hindu children. Among their recommendations to give a rosier view of Hinduism, the VF and HEF advocated downplaying the oppression of women in ancient India, along with deleting references to “Dalits” (formerly known as “untouchable groups”) in the texts.

California legislators voiced their concerns over the edits suggested by the HEF and VF, particularly those regarding gender and caste. Seventeen legislators, including members of the Assembly and Senate Committees on Education, the Women’s Caucus, and the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, sent a letter to the SBE expressing their dismay at the recommendation to alter the wording of a passage on women’s rights. The original passage read, “Men had many more rights than women. Unless there were no sons in a family, only a man could inherit property. Only men could go to school or become priests.” The proposed edit would substitute the following one: “Men had different rights and duties than women. Women’s education was mostly done at home.” Commenting on this passage, the legislators warned against the dangers of revisionist history: “These proposed edits stray from academic facts in order to sanitize and oversimplify caste and gender inequalities in ancient and present-day India.” The legislators asked the SBE to “reject curriculum modifications that are not based on historically accurate and objective scholarship, and that are not religiously neutral.” Signatories to the letter included Assembly members Sally Lieber, Lori Saldana, Loni Hancock, Carol Liu, Wilma Chan, Karen Bass, Noreen Evans, Cindy Montenez, Barbara Matthews, Alberto Torrico, and Senators Elaine Alquist, Sheila Kuehl, and Jackie Speier. They were joined by the Co-Chairs of the API Caucus, Judy Chu and Leland Yee, Vice-Chair of the Women’s Caucus, Patty Berg, and Senate Majority Leader, Gloria Romero.

The legislators’ concerns over this edit have also been echoed by faculty members who specialize in women’s studies. As Kasturi Ray, a faculty member in the Gender and Women’s studies program at UC, Berkeley, noted in her letter to the SBE, “This sentence also equates difference with what were actually systematically-denied duties and rights based on gender. With this sentence, we lose the opportunity to understand what women really had to do (and continue to do) to win equal duties and rights.” Angana Chatterji, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, elaborated on the dangers of such changes in a letter to the Board. “These revisions justify patriarchal dominance and cultural nationalism in Indian history. Hindu sectarian groups in present-day India construct a revisionist and supremacist history that condones and glorifies a militant and misogynistic society. They dismiss the deep social, economic, and political disenfranchisement of women, Dalits, adivasis, and religious minorities, along with the ongoing struggles for justice and self-determination of these communities.” Similar reservations have been shared with the SBE in letters by women’s studies faculty from several other states. Rupal Oza, the Director of the Women’s Studies Program at CUNY, observed, “It is important that school children learn about imbalances in power among men and women if we are to understand today’s society as well as to learn how much women have gained rights through conscious and continuous struggle.” 

In addition to faculty members, approximately fifteen other women attended, representing groups such as FOSA, Coalition Against Communalism, and the Global Fund for Women. Anjali Asrani, a member of the Global Fund for Women, underscored the negative impact that the proposed edits would have on children’s ability to comprehend the present status of women. “The revisions make it difficult to understand ongoing human rights violations against women based on gender, caste, class, religion, and sexuality,” she explained. “Allowing a sanitized version of women’s experience to masquerade as truth is an injustice to schoolchildren and to those who continue to be oppressed by the Hindutva movement.” Asrani concluded, “The HEF’s and VF’s demands to sugarcoat women’s oppression make a travesty out of International Women’s Day.”

The SBE is slated to make its final decisions regarding textbook adoption at its meeting later this afternoon.

The coalition issuing this press-release includes Friends of South Asia (FOSA), an organization working toward a multicultural, pluralistic, and hate-free South Asia, and Coalition Against Communalism (CAC), an Indian American organization which promotes religious tolerance in the Indian diaspora.

For further information on this press release, please contact mail[at]friendsofsouthasia.org
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