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.
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.
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