Equity & Diversity

Marriage Still Chief Expectation for Indian Women, But Educational Options Expand

By Vaishali Honawar — October 05, 2005 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The middle-class families of Chennai, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, believe strongly in women’s education. At age 3, every girl is enrolled in school, and most make it all the way to an undergraduate degree.

But that is no reflection on the status of women here.

Parents usher daughters into arranged marriages as soon as they reach 21, the legal age for marriage here, and usually the age when they earn an undergraduate degree.

Dowry, a system in which the family of the groom demands a fortune from the parents of the bride and which has long been banned by the Indian government, is rampant. It is not unusual for families to mortgage their homes to pay a daughter’s dowry, and even educated brides accept the system without question.

Engineering Education

The dowry system has led to a high rate of female infanticide, especially among poorer families, so much so that a few years ago the state’s chief minister, a woman, asked hospitals to leave cradles into which women could deposit unwanted baby girls instead of killing them.

Until recently, women in Chennai, not unlike in most of India, had little hope of getting into professional courses like engineering because parents believed it a “waste.”

But today, that could be changing, thanks to a new atmosphere that has charged this teeming city of millions.

Over the past few years, a growing number of engineering colleges have started up across the city, giving new hope to students who failed to meet the high admission standards set by elite engineering institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology. All offer computer science as one of the majors, spurred by the success of Indians in the field both here and abroad, and especially in the United States.

More women are now taking computer-science engineering, and families, enticed by visions of riches and success in foreign lands, feel more comfortable letting their daughters pursue such courses.

Priya Karunanidhi, a 17-year-old with long, black hair oiled and combed into a severe braid, is a student of computer science at one of the city’s new computer colleges.

I met her at the home of one of her neighbors, a young man, Nirmal Kumar, whom I was interviewing and who plans to go to engineering college next year. She sat quietly through the interview during which Nirmal’s father told me that he would have “never” allowed a daughter to take up engineering because marriage was more important for a woman. Priya does not agree, but like all Indians, she has been taught not to speak out against elders, especially a man.

Later, in her quiet voice, she told me about herself.

Priya is not just the first woman in her family to make it to college; no one in her family has made it to college before.

Priya Karunanidhi, a 17-year-old computer-engineering student, is the first person in her family to attend college.

Her family lives in a modest, one-story home in Pammal, one of Chennai’s densely populated suburbs where more than 20 houses are crammed on each acre of land. Cows amble lazily around the streets, and stores the size of large phone booths that sell everything from candy to soap stay open past midnight, the storekeepers eager to earn every last rupee.

Priya’s father works for the city’s police department where he writes down statements on crimes and complaints. He completed high school, but didn’t make it into college. Her mother, a housewife, was educated up to the 5th grade. Neither speaks English, leaving Priya with little support at home when it comes to her studies. But with help from teachers and a special tuition class she attended in 12th grade, she managed to make scores high enough to earn admission to an engineering college. Last year, to help their daughter, her father bought her a computer that she treasures, the keyboard covered in a plastic sheet to guard it from dust.

But getting into engineering college was the smallest part of the struggle. To stay there, Priya’s family has to cough up 51,000 rupees ($1,200), a large sum by any standard in India and particularly for someone from the lower-middle class.

‘I Like Her Boldness’

There have been additional setbacks. Priya’s younger brother, Murugan, had a motorcycle accident last year in which he was badly hurt, and medical treatment cost more than 50,000 rupees. Her mother, Vembu Karunanidhi, says that while they might still be able to meet Priya’s education costs, they would have to take a loan when Murugan goes to college next year.

Priya’s mother, speaking through a translator, agrees that education is important for a woman, but points out that she has no say in the matter—it is up to her husband who, for now, wants to let his daughter have her way.

She says she is proud of her daughter, but, she adds, marriage is more important for a woman than education.

Priya doesn’t contradict her mother either, but later tells me that the women she looks up to are independent, like a character on a television series she loves who is divorced but assertive and has taken control of her own life. “I like her boldness,” she says. “I am not that way now, but I would like to be.”

Editor’s Note:Education Week staff writer Vaishali Honawar is on assignment in India to report on the country’s education system. During her visit, she is also filing occasional reports for edweek.org

Events

Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Q&A A Formula for Creating More Equitable Gifted and Talented Programs
Anthony Vargas in Manassas, Va., has nearly doubled the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the district's gifted program.
4 min read
Anthony Vargas, the supervisor of gifted and talented and advanced programs, judges and advises 6th grade student projects prepared for the National History Day contest at Baldwin Intermediate School in Manassas, Va., on December 6, 2022.
Anthony Vargas, the supervisor of gifted and talented and advanced programs, judges presentations by 6th graders at Baldwin Intermediate School in Manassas, Va. The students, in the gifted education program, were preparing for a National History Day contest.
Valerie Plesch for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Leader To Learn From A Leader Who's Busting Down Barriers to Gifted Education
Anthony Vargas has nearly doubled the share of poor and Hispanic students in gifted education in Manassas, Va.
8 min read
Anthony Vargas judges projects presented by 5th grade students at Baldwin Intermediate School in Manassas, Va., on Dec. 6, 2022.
Anthony Vargas judges projects presented by 5th grade students at Baldwin Intermediate School in Manassas, Va.
Valerie Plesch for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Opinion Educators, We Must Defend AP African American Studies
In an open letter to colleagues, a former Florida educator urges teachers to speak out. "No one will save us."
Monika Williams Shealey
5 min read
Illustration of many hands are raised against a giant hand stopping them
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + Getty Images
Equity & Diversity The Ongoing Challenges, and Possible Solutions, to Improving Educational Equity
Schools across the country were facing major equity challenges before the pandemic, but its disruptions exacerbated them.
4 min read
v42 16 sr equity cover intro 112322
Illustration by Chris Whetzel for Education Week