Equity & Diversity

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

By Vaishali Honawar — October 05, 2005 4 min read

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

Related Tags:


Student Well-Being Webinar Boosting Teacher and Student Motivation During the Pandemic: What It Takes
Join Alyson Klein and her expert guests for practical tips and discussion on how to keep students and teachers motivated as the pandemic drags on.
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.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children
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.
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Principals Can Support Student Well-Being During COVID
Join this webinar for tips on how to support and prioritize student health and well-being during COVID.
Content provided by Unruly Studios

EdWeek Top School Jobs

President and CEO
Alexandria, Virginia
National Association of State Boards of Education
Interdisciplinary STEAM Specialist
Smyrna, Georgia
St. Benedict's Episcopal School
Interdisciplinary STEAM Specialist
Smyrna, Georgia
St. Benedict's Episcopal School
Arizona School Data Analyst - (AZVA)
Arizona, United States
K12 Inc.

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Opinion Which of My Students Were Freezing in the Storm?
As power outages gripped the state, a Texas teacher reflected on the stark opportunity gaps some students face year-round.
Holly Chapman
3 min read
Eithan Colindres wears a winter coat inside on Feb. 15, 2021 after the apartment his family lives in lost power following an overnight snowfall in Houston. With the snow and ice clearing in Texas after the electricity was cut to millions as temperatures plunged as people struggled to stay warm in their unheated homes.
Record-breaking cold and ice brought Texas electricity grids to the breaking point. Many families, including this one in Houston, struggled to stay warm in their unheated homes.
Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP
Equity & Diversity Opinion Don't Teach Black History Without Joy
The Black experience is not one-dimensional. Why do we teach it that way?
Jania Hoover
4 min read
Joyful figures raise their hands and sparkle inside the profile of a smiling woman
Edson Ikê for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Opinion What Does Leading for Racial Justice Look Like?
On Feb. 10, A Seat at the Table focused on leading for racial justice. Our guests, Jennifer Cheatham and John Diamond, offered many impactful answers.
1 min read
Leading for Racial Justice
Equity & Diversity Suburban Schools Have Changed Drastically. Our Understanding of Them Has Not
A growing body of research has begun to document the demographic shift and inequities in suburban education, but more work remains.
2 min read
Image of a suburb.