Should we simply accept “bad karma”?

Women rolling beedis and hoping to make enough money to send their children to school.

Women rolling beedis and hoping to make enough money to send their children to school.

I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.

B. R. Ambedkar

In preparation for a forthcoming visit to Bangalore to teach on the University of Northampton MA programme, I have been trying to catch up on the education news and articles that I missed whilst away on holiday. With a focus upon educational and social inclusion, it is essential that when working with students in India tutors have a reasonable level of awareness of the issues faced by teachers and children in the locality. I have therefore been ploughing my way steadily through media reports, newspaper articles and recently published research, that have a bearing upon the challenges which education professionals are attempting to address in a diverse and often disparate country.

Many of the themes that emerge from the Indian press are those that have been debated for many years; in some cases for centuries. It was therefore with little surprise that I read an article written by Akhileshwari Ramagoud in the magazine India Together (4th August 2014), which describes the plight of women from a lower caste community and their difficulties in obtaining an adequate education for their children. The women live in what was traditionally a community where the men worked as barbers or ‘mangali’ as they are often called. The community nowadays is generally referred to as ‘Nayibrahmin.’ As with many such people living in poverty, those in the Nayibrahmin comprise mainly individuals described as being from a “backward caste,” a grossly offensive term it always seems to me, that implies that members of a community are inferior to those from so called “higher castes”.

The article describes how, in what has been a traditionally male dominated society, and indeed one in which men continue to be in authoritative roles, there has been a significant shift in life styles based upon changes in employment opportunities. Fewer men can now make a living through their skills as barbers as the availability of modern shaving equipment and a desire to be seen to attend fashionable hair salons has depleted their trade. This means that many men have moved away to other districts, or even out of the country, usually to the Middle East, in order to seek employment. It is suggested that men continue to play the dominant family role and are seen as the bread winners for their families. However, the lack of employment opportunities means that many more women from the Nayibrahmin community are having to seek work. A significant number of these women find employment rolling beedis in Nizamabad city. (Beedis are thin cheap, and often in my experience as a non-smoker, foul smelling cigarettes). If they are fortunate, women rolling beedis can earn up to 1,000 rupees per month (approximately £10 UK or $17 US). In some instances this is the only income coming in to the family. However, where possible men continue to be seen as the primary earners with a responsibility to care and provide for their families.

It is this difference in the roles of men and women in the Nayibrahmin community, and reflected elsewhere in India, that gives much food for thought to those of us working in western countries who are trying to understand this context. A similar situation pertained here in England in the earlier years of the twentieth century when women played a traditional “home maker” role and men went out to work. However, this situation has now changed with many women seeking career opportunities and becoming the major earner in the family.

The women who roll beedis reflect upon their situation and see education as a key factor in improving their quality of life. As one woman reported in the article states:-

“I wish I were educated. I would have climbed mountains. But what to do? My karma is bad. My destiny is no good,”

It is not unusual for people from the poorest sections of society to recognise that education can be one of the most influential elements of moving out of poverty. However, this is a more complex issue than many would have us believe and the fatalistic statement made by the woman above is not difficult to comprehend. The women from the Nayibrahmin community quoted in the India Together article emphasise that despite the lack of employment opportunities for men, and the fact that women are often now the main providers of family income, their husbands continue to be expected to fulfil a role as the main financial support for their families. As a result of this expectation the priority for education remains focused upon their sons. Akhileshwari Ramagoud reports that interviewing mothers revealed that:-

“Almost every male child was in a private English-medium school, while the girl children were sent to government schools, if at all.”

One of the mothers pointed out that they pay fees of around 700 rupees per year to send their daughters even to a poorly resourced government school, whereas the fees for their sons at private schools are around 6,000 rupees per year.

The commitment to provide their children with a good education in order that their life experiences and opportunities will improve, is apparent throughout the interviews with women from this community. The inequalities that persist suggest that moving out of poverty remains a distant dream for many living here. The importance attached to the education of boys in preference to their sisters is brought into stark reality when considering some of the stories that Akhileshwari Ramagoud reports in her article

“The women, however, admitted that they were in fact harassed if baby girls were born to them. A woman, who had a girl for her first born, was told that she would have to leave the house if she did not bear her husband a son the second time round. When she got a son after 10 years, “he allowed me to stay,” she said.”

As I consider the nature of inclusion during sessions with students in a few weeks’ time, it will be essential to recognise that many of the socio-economic and cultural factors that inhibit progress in achieving an equitable education system, continue to provide impediments way beyond the classroom. It is quite evident that I have as much to learn and to try to understand as the students with whom I will be working