Select Page

Education for Women in India

May 15, 1896 — Drawing-room meeting, National Indian Association, 15 Bruton Street, W., London England


I have been asked to give to-day my experience of work done for and by Indian women. There are a great many here whose experience would be much more worthy of a hearing, and I feel I ought hardly to speak at all. What I do say refers to the Bombay Presidency, where my own sphere of work lies.

We learn that female education does not date farther back than fifty years. The Students‘ Literary Society inaugurated the first schools in the Bombay Presidency for girls in 1849. A similar movement arose in Bengal at the same time, advocated by a member of Council.

It was said at the time, that the movement initiated by the Students’ Society in the cause of Female Education was scarcely likely to succeed, as it was not assisted by the prestige of rank and social influence; but the Literary Society considered that in the matter of female education — in which the sensitive prejudices of the people had to be encountered — it was far wiser to let the project originate with, and be carried out by, the people themselves: and the result shows the wisdom of that course of proceeding. When the founder Of the Bengal Schools left Calcutta, the cause Of female education in Bengal collapsed, while the Schools in Bombay prospered.

These schools were at first carried on entirely in the vernacular, and instruction was, for the first six months, given by voluntary teachers.

The practical working of the Schools made a strong impression on the minds Of the people, and very soon funds were forthcoming for their support. Female education has found its value, and parents are prepared to pay for it. There is no more practical demonstration of the existence Of a real demand for education than the fact, that people will make a pecuniary sacrifice to secure it.

Such was the beginning of female education nearly half a century ago, and the point to be maintained is not the advisability of education—for most see the necessity of it — but the method of carrying it out. In the present state of Indian social life, young girls have so soon to take upon themselves the duties of women that they have no girlhood at all. The sweetest part of life is denied to them; their thoughts and minds are matured, when English girls of the same age are regarded as children, and live the free and happy life they ought — contented with their dolls and fairy tales, and yet able to appreciate the hard grained muses of the cube and square.

I have had the opportunity of seeing English and Indian girls learn side by side, and of noticing the difference; and I have also had the joy of seeing how happy the latter can be when taken right away from all adverse surroundings and rightly trained. What we want to see in India is perfect childhood, perfect girlhood, leading up to perfect womanhood — as of course the last cannot be obtained without the first two.

It is not what they may become in the future, but what they are now. Why should they miss so much joy out of life by being hurried into its responsibilities? I call to mind a remark made by an Indian lady who had “an ugly child: when a friend tried to console her by saying it might grow up beautiful, she said, “Even if that were possible, could I ever forget its ugly childhood?” One cannot help regretting the missed girlhood of generations of Indian women. The remedy must come from within; the home-life must be entirely changed before better days can dawn. There is no real home-training now, and where great women have arisen it has been through their own strong individuality, and in spite of their many drawbacks. Let us hope for better things in the future.

There are numbers of schools for girls now in India’, and if parents will only allow their daughters all the advantages placed within their reach, matters must improve. We might divide the educationary work done among women into High Schools and Colleges — Primary Schools and Home Instruction. There are two classes of schools: purely Government Schools and Grant-in-Aid Schools. The first are entirely kept up by Government. The aided schools receive ‘a Government yearly grant, and teach according to Government schedules; are subject to Government inspection, but are independent in their management and upkeep.

The Training Colleges for Women are doing a great work both in Gujarat and Poona, and numbers of trained women have gone out of them into the surrounding towns and villages, where they hold responsible posts under Government, and are entitled to a pension like other Government servants. In some cases, the women earn larger salaries than their husbands, and make the more efficient teachers. Some of the aided high schools have training classes attached, but there is no regular examination for teachers of English schools, the training colleges being conducted in the vernaculars, as the women are trained for primary vernacular schools. The Kindergarten is making its way into some of the schools, and, as it spreads, the future women will be able to look back upon happier school-days. The first book ever translated for the use of Vernacular Kindergarten schools, was by Mrs. Pheroze Thomas, whom most of you know in connexion with the S.E.P.I.A.

The Primary Vernacular Schools are supported partly by Government and partly by the municipality of each town; they are mostly for the poorer classes. A goodly number are Mission Schools, and would come under the category of Grant-in-Aid Schools. The great drawback in these schools is that the school-life of girls is so short — they hardly begin to take an intelligent interest in what they learn when they have other duties to fulfill: hardly able-to control themselves, they are expected to control a house. Some few of them continue to attend the training colleges, even after their marriage, to qualify as teachers.

Home instruction classes have been begun for the benefit of Indian ladies who desire to learn farther. Examinations are held and prizes offered, and a needlework competition keeps many of them interested and busy throughout the year; but there is nothing like the regularity and discipline of school-life, and those who have come to the forefront in educational matters have in most cases worked up from a school. Since the year 1887, the Bombay University has conferred degrees on women, and we are proud that our University is liberal enough to extend its honours to women. The Wilson College in Bombay is the most favoured by girls who wish to study literature, science, and art; and the Grant Medical College has produced quite a number of lady doctors.

A Women’s Medical College is greatly needed in the Bombay Presidency. I am sure it would very soon have students enough to justify its establishment.

There are three Institutions in Poona where work is done by and for Indian women. The Widows’ Home, under the able management of the celebrated Pundita Ramabai: here the little widows are learning that life is worth living even for them; and with the example of such a noble life before them as that of their founder they must rise to higher things. Then comes the City High School, where a very large number of girls and women are getting a very thorough education; and lastly, I would mention a High School that has existed about twice as long as either of the former, where the founders are able to judge of the success of their method by the number of any useful women it has produced. The secret of success lies. in the indomitable courage and energy, the untiring zeal, the kindliness and sympathy of its principal, who has devoted her whole life to the education of Indian women. The School I mean is the Victoria High School, under my mother: here the girls learn far more than mere book knowledge, and it is not only in the passing of high examinations that the advantage of their training is proved. They are taught to live up to the highest that is in them, to consider nothing too small for the exercise of their best powers, and nothing too great but that they may strive to reach it. Most of those who have passed through this school are engaged now in useful work, or have homes of their own — where the result of their training is seen in the happiness they make for others.

Now I might mention what I find most unsatisfactory among Indian women — it is the daily governess system. I know a number of ladies who have their governesses (most often very ignorant ones) for an hour or so a day; they learn English, and perhaps a little music or needlework, but everything is done in a desultory fashion, and sometimes the little lady prefers a drive or a game of cards to lessons, and gives the governess a holiday.

An enterprising lady in Poona gave riding lessons to Zenana ladies by moonlight — one would wish for perpetual moonlight nights if that would be any inducement to them to take the exercise so necessary to health, which they hardly ever get. just a few Zenana ladies have closed-in tennis and Badminton courts, and are beginning to like outdoor exercise; but most of them are too indolently inclined even if they have the opportunity of taking it. Three or four days before I sailed, I visited a Zenana where two of the three ladies I saw were crippled — just for want of exercise! Each lady had her own suite of apartments and her own attendants, and everything that comfort might suggest; but it was more than sad to see these young lives sacrificed to old customs. I was once at a ladies’ party in India where outdoor games were played, and of about fifty Indian ladies present only one of them really knew how to run, and she had, up to the age of ten, attended an English school.

The majority of Zenana ladies would, I think, prefer to remain in purdah — i.e., behind the veil — even did their people wish them to throw it off. A sweet little Mahomedan lady friend of mine said the other day, that the unhappiest and most uncomfortable drive she had ever had was once when her husband induced her to go out with an English lady in an open carriage. I do not think they ought to be forced to give it up; but I do think that a great deal can be done for them, if all those who come in contact with them felt it their duty to bring some interest into their lives.

In the large towns of India, where there are annual exhibitions and flower shows, &c., a ladies’ day gives them the opportunity of seeing the pictures and exhibits, which are explained to them by the English ladies who go there for that purpose. The High School I have referred to before — namely, the Victoria High School — has periodical entertainments, where a screened-in gallery affords purdah ladies the opportunity of seeing and hearing delightful programmes of music, recitations, and drilling by the pupils.

The better classes are most anxious for their daughters to be well educated, though quite lately some have stated that higher education unfits them for household duties; but I should say that it is the want of a thorough education that would unfit girls for any womanly duty that came in their way. The lower classes, on the contrary, do not see the need of educating their girls, and it is most difficult to keep up girls’ schools among them.

I would deprecate the cramming system in India. If you would pass examinations you must cram. There is too much adherence to text books, and too little individuality and independence of thought possible in the present system.

A new movement is now being inaugurated, which will greatly promote the cause of female education in Bombay. It is proposed to form a University settlement there. Two of the ladies are already in India, and others are going out shortly to join them and begin the work.

Of all the women in India, the Parsees, as a whole, are the least backward. At the last Census it was found that every Parsee girl knew how to read, or was under instruction of some sort.

Before closing I must not omit to say how very much the various Missionary Societies have done, and are doing, for the women of India by their schools, their house visiting, their hospitals, and other institutions. And I may add that I covet for Indian women more than intellectual and social progress: I would have them know the joy that is the outcome of the peace, which passeth all understanding.



Source: The Indian Magazine and Review, No. 306, June 1896, pp. 279-284.