Translated by J Devika
[this is an earlier version of a translation that appeared in my book Her-Self, from Stree/Samya, Kolkata, 2005. For a fuller, annotated version, please refer the book]
[ ‘Streevidyabhyasa Doshanishedham’, Vidyavinodini 8 (11) M.E. 1073 Chingam (August- September 1897-88): 427-31]
Readers of the Vidyavinodini have probably read the article titled ‘Streevidyabhyasam’ (Female Education) written by a respectable gentleman in the Vrishchikam (November-December) issue. In my perception and faith, there are very few of us who cannot read and write. So also, many women and men still possess considerable skill in both poetry and prose; but no one has responded to that article. I wish to offer a few words, deeply grieved and surprised by such neglect.
- The first point made (in that article) is that “knowledge by means of letters is of little use to women”. A scholar has remarked that “a man without learning may be taken to be but some sort of beast”. Our experience shows that this is indeed true. All education requires the knowledge of the letters in a crucial way. It is doubtful whether any other form of education is as useful. With appropriate training, all the necessary human qualities are acquired in such education. The truth of this contention is well illustrated by the life histories of figures such as Melpattur Narayana Bhattatiri, the author of Narayaneeyam. In his youth, Bhattatiri was an ignorant oaf. It was his education in letters that made him world-renowned later in life. Thus it is evident that learning through letters is indeed crucial in elevating the feeble-minded into highly intelligent and distinguished personages. The greatness of a literate education is truly beyond words. Therefore it must never be argued that a literate education, which holds manifold advantages, is necessary for some, but not for others.
- “Literacy is useful only in managing political affairs” is the next point. This is wholly erroneous. Most people in our lands are literate. At least one-half of them have nothing to do with politics in living their lives. To this day, literacy is regarded to be useful to a person, to others, in this world, and in the next. Perhaps it is his ignorance of women who have ruled the world then and now, like Queen Elizabeth, that prompts this man to recommend that “women must never be entrusted with political affairs”. It is quite well known that few kings have rivalled Elizabeth and Queen Victoria as rulers of England. Nevertheless, if men have indeed acquired the birthright to run political affairs, as this gentleman has decided, let it be so. Are women allowed to manage at least domestic affairs? The appellation Grihini applies to the woman who runs the home. To run domestic affairs, a certain level of intelligence and education are necessary. The good and evil of humankind arise from the ways in which homes are managed. Good and bad qualities take root in young children while they are under the care of their mother.
‘The habits of a tender age, will they be forgotten, ever’ – true, indeed. Therefore, women need literacy even to run domestic matters. A third argument put forth is that “because some amount of their blood flows out uncontrollably, women are weak”. The blood that flows out thus is impure; according to the science of the body, many diseases will follow if such discharge does not take place. Indeed, such regular discharge makes the body healthy, and enlarges the mind. “With education, women will lose the modesty that is their ornament, and get obsessed with adultery and other evils”, indeed! If education creates evils like adultery, though the lack of modesty may not generate any evil (in men), does that mean that adultery and other vices are beneficial to men (for whom the letters seem appropriate)? If someone commits an evil deed, people call him unenlightened. Education is necessary to remove such ignorance. Therefore, there can be no link between education and adultery and other such lechery. My knowledge is that education eradicates such evil. The aforementioned author draws evidence from the Sakuntalam to prove that ancient women like Sakunatala were illiterate: he claims that her words in the Third Act of the Sakuntalam were merely inserted to perfect the narrative, and that in the Fourth Act, Kanva advises Sakuntala not through writing, but through speech. How can this be correct? In the First Act, when Sakuntala and her companions speak with the King, he notices their astonished glances at seeing the letters carved in the royal seal on his ring. He assures them that it was indeed received from the king. This proves that not only Sakuntala but also her companions were literate. Kanva gives her verbal advice not because she was illiterate, or knew nothing of Chaste Wifehood. When a person climbs a tree, another person standing beneath may caution him to hold on fast. However, this is not because the climber is unaware of the need to grip well. It is normal practice to offer such caution. Kanva’s advice, too, was in that spirit. Besides, can it be not the case that Kanva’s words were inserted for perfecting the narrative, in the same way as it is being argued regarding Sakuntala’s words?
A woman scholar made it possible for the author of Sakuntalam to assume the name of ‘Kalidasa’. She had vowed to marry only a scholar who could defeat her in debate; resentful scholars who had failed the test manipulated her into marrying an ignorant goatherd. Everyone knows the rest of the story according to which this lady sent him off with sound advice to the temple of Goddess Kali, and at the end of which he became a great scholar, and remains, to this day, the crown-jewel of scholars. Therefore it is proven that there were women scholars in ancient times. It is said that in ancient Aryavarta, women could read and write; that four hundred years before the Age of the Epics, women held positions of dignity; that they were not prohibited from walking in the main roads, attending large meetings, and participating in political affairs. In Uttararamacharita, Atreyi tells the Goddess of the Forest about her study of the Upanishads with Valmiki. From this it seems clear that women of these those times did persevere in such endeavours. Many more examples can be cited. That can be reserved for another occasion.
I do not forget that the impartial authors of articles titled ‘Vyabhicharasamanyam’, ‘Malayala Streekal’, and ‘Swabhavavum Dharanasaktiyum’, which appeared in Vidyavinodini in the years 1068 (1892-93), 1069 (1893-94) and 1070 (1894-95) have sufficiently described Womanly virtues, and included literacy among them. Though God has differentiated women and men into two distinct groups, they have been granted equal levels of intelligence. Education is unavoidable if that intelligence is to evolve. An education that seeks to broaden the mind cannot do without literacy. The benefits to be reaped through the acquisition of literacy by all women and men are wonderful. Literacy serves us in this world and the next, in worldly concerns and in spiritual salvation. Much more may be written about knowledge, but the limitation of space impels me to close my words.