Why a demand for free education is at the heart of feminism?!

Students taking lunch in one of the Ashram Schools in Kurkheda block of Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra

I often remember the female protagonist of the novel – Milkman by Anna Burns (Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2018). She was sexually harassed by a man when she would be walking while reading. A woman, with a book is an image that is one of the most infuriating sights to patriarchy. In that case, we can only imagine the irritation that is caused by the sight of so many women reading, writing, and expressing their views, opinions and anger; inside the classrooms and beyond.This is what patriarchy fears – educated women, because they will challenge it with their voice, with their words.

The India in which we live today is moving rapidly towards making education an accessory of the privileged; privileged by caste, class, gender, religion. It is appalling but not surprising to see how the JNU movement that supports subsidized education is being frowned upon. The core of such criticism arises from the realization or rather the fear that free or subsidised education would empower the marginalized and the vulnerable sections of our society to raise their own voices and fight back the system that has been suppressing them for centuries. The ones who have historically gained much benefits of an unequal patriarchal, casteist, elitist and racist Indian society fear that they would be stripped off their benefits and the entitlement they have acquired to oppress the one who are forced to stay at the lower rungs of this society and ‘serve’ them. In such a scenario, the neo-liberal market that believes in ‘merit’ and which has perpetually sold us the idea of education as competition is a friend that the upper caste, upper class patriarchal mind-set needs. Affordable education is not a system that is favourable for any of these privileged entities;because they will be questioned, challenged and resisted.

Women in thehierarchical societal order are burdened further more due to their gender and belonging to marginalized communities based on caste, class, religion, location etc. Even today, even when, there has existed public funded institutes and universities, the ones perceived to be out of the gender binary of heteronormativity do not find a place to receive education. They are the most invisibilsed, unacknowledged group when it comes to education. However, education that is given without any fees or minimal fees serves as a ray of hope.

‘Women in Power’ is a myth, both in the public and private sphere. Just because a woman is making decisions on what should be cooked for lunch and dinner do not put her in any empowered position although phrases such as ‘women are queens of the kitchen/home’ have been used too often to blind them towards the oppression that they suffer at the hands of patriarchy. Education has the potential to remove that blindfold. I need not mention the ‘chaos’ that removal of the blind fold would create. The kitchen no longer remains the place of solace for such women. And this makes a society steeped with patriarchal norms tremble. For instance, a Dalit woman asserting her rights to get educated and justicebroadly, is something that is unwelcomed and mostly feared.

It is sadly not unusual to come across words blaming a women’s education as the cause of her inability to get married, getting divorced, not looking after kids/in-laws, wearing ‘exposing’ clothes etc. Education begets independence and independence in women is certainly not a virtue that is preferred. Women are getting brutally raped and killed because of being independent enough to venture into an otherwise male dominated public sphere. In such a scenario can we even fool ourselves to think that the state, market, our society and families would prefer to provide education to its girls paying a huge sum of money? Of course, there are the ones who ‘buy’ education for their daughters to make them a desirable product for the marriage market that adds to their status. But for most, paying huge money for quality education is a discomforting proposition, also because paying a dowry to get their daughters married is quite an usual phenomenon in India. If not an explicit dowry, there is always a burden to get a girl married in a grand manner showering the in-laws with gifts. In a society where marriage is still perceived as the final solace for a girl, parents would rather spend on a wedding than a degree. Thus, demanding free education is a need and not a choice.Feminism calls for it.

Moreover, the stark realities of poverty, malnutrition, caste discrimination, child-labour, female foeticide and infanticide (to name a few)indicates why education for so many women is a distant dream. Free education is not the only solution to these issues but is significant if we have to protest against them. For most women who can still afford the ‘luxury’ of education, sitting with a pen and a paper to write on might seem too mundane to reflect any further. But at this very juncture when education is becoming a commodity in the hands of those who believe in ‘buying’ degrees with hefty fees, we need to remind ourselves that it is at the heart of the feminist movement that brought the pen and paper to those (especially women) whose lives would not have ever known what it means to write. Voices of women still struggle to get heard because they are considered trivial/ banal/ hyper-emotional/ irrational and thus ‘unsalable’. To overturn these very notions, we need free education – to read, learn, understand, reflect, introspect and write; and write till it is a revolution to get our freedoms.

Pooja Kalita is a PhD candidate with the Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi (India).




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