Somaye Sarvarzade would never have imagined that the textbooks her mother grew up with in Afghanistan in the late 1970s would reflect a more modern mindset than the ones issued today.
But when it comes to their portrayal of women and girls, her mother’s old primers were more advanced than they’ve been in the decades since.
“In almost all other nations, if you look at gender representation in textbooks, the trend is progressive,” said Sarvarzade, who earned a master’s degree in international educational administration and policy analysis from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) in 2015. “In Muslim countries, in post-conflict countries, in Europe, in the United States—everywhere, it’s progressing. But in Afghanistan, it’s different.”
A new study by Sarvarzade and GSE Associate Professor Christine Min Wotipka, which examined Afghan schoolbooks from 1980 to 2010, found that the portrayal of women and girls varied dramatically from one decade to the next, and not on a trajectory many would expect. Female roles fluctuated sharply—from egalitarian to nearly nonexistent to largely traditional—depending on the regime in power.
Their study appears in the November 2017 issue of Comparative Education.
The findings are noteworthy, said Wotipka, in that they demonstrate how primary school textbooks are being used by a nation to sway its youngest students toward a particular view of women’s place in society.
“These were language arts textbooks for pretty young kids,” she said. “It really shows the value of textbooks to influence the minds and hearts of children—not just about what it means to be an Afghan citizen, but about what they think is proper behavior for girls and women.”
Reading, writing and representation
For their study, Sarvarzade and Wotipka looked at textbooks used in first and second grade to teach Dari, one of two national languages in Afghanistan. The books’ aim was to teach basic literacy, not history—so they could feature stories and examples with characters of any gender, in any scenario.
Both girls and boys used the textbooks, though historically girls’ access to education has been heavily restricted. While girls were almost completely banned from attending school during the Taliban regime, in recent years they have come to comprise nearly 40 percent of Afghan schoolchildren, according to the nation’s Ministry of Education. (Access and cultural barriers are still a problem, especially in rural areas, largely due to a shortage of female teachers and girls’ schools—many Afghan families won’t allow their adolescent daughters to attend classes with male students or teachers. It’s also common for girls to marry young and drop out of school.)
To uncover the messages primary school textbooks were sending about female roles in social and working life, the researchers analyzed the nature and frequency of girls’ and women’s presence in the books. Were they depicted as often as boys and men? Did they play central, non-stereotypical roles that extended beyond supporting male characters? Did they participate in activities like those of their male counterparts, especially in the workforce?
The first textbooks Sarvarzade and Wotipka studied were published in 1980, when Afghanistan was under communist rule. Here, female characters reflected progressive ideals: Women were portrayed as professionals and skilled laborers; girls demonstrated ambitions to advance their education and enter the workforce. Male and female characters appeared in equal measure, both inside and outside the home. Notably, younger women were pictured in nontraditional dress and mostly without hijab (head scarves).
“For good or bad, women were more equal in that system,” said Wotipka. “Women could be doctors; they could be engineers. The way they were presented in the textbooks was a way to show support for women in these roles.”
In the early 1990s, anti-communist Muslim guerillas pushed out the country’s Soviet leadership and, in 1996, the Taliban rose to power. The textbooks used under these two regimes—in stark contrast to those of the Soviet era—eliminated nearly all depiction of women and girls.
These books, which were developed in large part with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), reflected a militant ideology that devalued women and girls, the researchers found. In the very rare instances where female characters appeared, they were relegated to domestic settings, doing chores and staying home while male characters went to school or to war.
After the Taliban regime collapsed in 2001, women and girls reappeared in new textbooks issued under a democratically elected administration. But with the continued threat of Taliban forces looming over the nation, female characters are far more passive and less ubiquitous than they were in the Soviet-era textbooks. While men are seen in a variety of professions, female workers are shown only as teachers. Conforming to the practice of conventional Islam, most girls are depicted in hijab.
“There’s a more modern perspective now among people who live in the cities, but they know the Taliban are still in the country and don’t want to upset these conservative forces,” said Wotipka, who has studied gender and other narratives in textbooks over time around the world. “At this stage, the textbooks represent an effort to balance out the different values in the country.”
Research inspired by life
The study reflects both Wotipka’s longtime research interests and Sarvarzade’s own experience as a woman born in Afghanistan. Sarvarzade was 10 years old in 1996 when the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, though she and her family were living in Iran as refugees at the time.
Growing up with five brothers, she pushed against cultural expectations for girls at home and at school. Many of her female cousins and classmates left school and married young, but Sarvarzade went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering.
She was awarded a Fulbright scholarship that brought her to Stanford GSE. “I felt empowered because of my education,” she said. “I saw that education was something that could empower a whole community, a whole country.”
Intrigued by Wotipka’s past research on textbook narratives, Sarvarzade tapped her connections in Afghanistan to secure schoolbooks from different regimes over the decades. She collaborated with Wotipka, who directs the International Comparative Education (ICE) and International Education Policy Analysis (IEPA) programs at GSE, to expand her master’s paper into the study that will be published next month.
Two years ago, after earning her master’s, Sarvarzade returned to her hometown in Afghanistan, where she works as an education officer for UNICEF. In that role she helps establish classrooms, train teachers and ensure basic supplies for children in Afghan communities without government-funded schools.
In regions like these, Wotipka noted, textbooks can be one of the only means for sharing information and values. “These places are not going to have access to resources like computers and videos,” she said. “But every classroom in the world is going to have at least one set of textbooks. They still play a very important role in how most kids are getting educated around the world, especially at younger ages.”