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date: 26 June 2017

Education, Women, and the Politics of Curriculum

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Please check back later for the full article.

For decades now, the discourse on women and education by states, governments, non-governmental organizations, and global development agencies has focused overwhelmingly on access. The excessive preoccupation with enrollment rates, dropout rates, and impediments and constraints on women’s access to education has led to a relative neglect of what access is and what kind of access is being provided. Is it benign, empowering, liberating, and emancipating? Or is it rather that the messages transmitted through schooling tend to serve ends other than women’s own agency and empowerment? The case for educating girls and women is often couched in an instrumental vocabulary centered on the idea that it is good for the state, nation, country, motherhood, family, community, economic growth, and development. Such utilitarian arguments overlook the idea that education is a basic human right, and the aim of women’s education should be to empower women themselves, for their own sake, instead of as a means to ends outside of themselves.

The underlying assumption in instrumental and utilitarian arguments is that what is taught in schools—the curriculum—is neutral and objective and empowers all those who are exposed to it. There is little understanding, especially among policymakers and bureaucrats, that curriculum is not neutral or impartial; rather it is a highly contested, contradictory, and conflicted space with various social groups (religious, sectarian, nationalist, ethnic, racist, or other) attempting to gain the inclusion of their own knowledge as the only legitimate one. The old questions in education—whose knowledge is legitimate knowledge, and who decides which knowledge to include from a vast universe of available knowledge—is as relevant today as it was when first posited. In other words, what a society, community, or nation decides to transmit as “the truth” and what it prefers to exclude are highly political decisions steeped in conflicts over hegemony and power.

One of the most dominant and hegemonic discourses, historically and in contemporary times, is patriarchy. The belief that men/masculinity and women/femininity are polar opposites, and that the former category is overall superior to the latter, which is subordinate to it, is a universal ideology that informs the discourses of the nation, state, family, development, and all the institutions of governments, states, and the global community. Patriarchal ideas, values, and practices enter into capitalist, neoliberal, nationalist, religious, and cultural narratives across the globe and adapt to the system in place. Feminism and Women’s Studies have unpacked patriarchal discourses by revealing masculine biases in the very construction, packaging, and distribution of knowledge. However, feminist knowledge is mostly ghettoized in Women’s Studies or Gender Studies Departments, without forming the essential core of the curriculum in all social, humanistic, and hard science disciplinary areas. Under pressure from human rights and women’s rights constituencies, some content may be added or deleted from the curricula and textbooks, but the dominant religious, nationalist, and neoliberal discourses remain devoid of the insights of feminism that have provided new ways of conceptualizing the world and transforming it into a place of greater justice and equality.