Second to None: The Role of Women in their Own Education


This is an extract of a paper I wrote in 2015 for my ‘History of Education’ assignment which is a part of my MA in Education course. I found it fascinating that women in India, as early 300 years ago, were so committed to learning to read and write. Not because they sought independence of any kind, or because they could have great careers. Such things did not exist at that time. Learning to read and write, in harsh conditions, against  all odds, simply because they wanted to, because they saw themselves as capable to learn and because they wanted to ‘see’ the world outside through books. This article chronicles the role of women’s own agency in educating themselves against all odds and opposition around early to late 20th century! I hope it leaves you inspired!


Azizunisa Begum was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s mother. Born in 1780, she was able to read difficult religious texts in Arabic and Persian through the strict confines of the purdah. (Basu, 2005). Moving up on the timeline, you find Rashundari Devi, born in 1809 in Bengal. She taught herself to read amidst stiff opposition and obstacles. (Basu, 2005). Moving further up the timeline, there was Parvatikunvar, born in 1828 in Gujarat, who was taught to read and write by her mother. (Basu, 2005). And Tarabai Shinde, born in Maharashtra in 1850, learnt to read and write at home from her father. (Sarkar, 1999).

These are but a few images, from the larger picture of women’s education in colonial India. Scattered and disparate as they may seem, these examples have in common the operative agency of women that was unwilling and unbending against the strictures of caste and gender that were dominant at that time. These and several other examples are signposts of a time that was replete with stories of women who defied norms and sought whatever means available to alter their pitiable state of bondage. Education was seen by many – women and men both, as one of the means to break free from oppressive practices and put an end to the ignominious state of affairs.

Whether through their own grit, or assistance from the educated, progressive and reformist gentry, women acquired the means to educate themselves and others in the wake of strong superstition and the imposed subservient positions.


Pre-colonial records of eighteenth century paint a bleak picture of women’s education. One may come across a reference of a learned woman in a vast span of time in history; like Gul-Badan Begum, daughter of Emperor Babur or Jehanara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan, (Acharya, 1978) or Hati Vidyalankar, a child widow of Kulin Brahmana family from Rarh who was proficient in Sanskrit literature, philosophy and law ran a chatuspathi (center of Sanskrit learning) in Banaras. (Chakrabarti & Chakrabarti, 2013). The idea that women’s education was alien and unheard of.

In Bengal, most Brahmin women and those from lower castes were denied all forms of education except that one type which was closely associated with that of domesticity – vratas or bratas. (Acharya, 1978). Often cast as playful, socio-religious rituals, it involved rote learning of epics and ritual text that ‘taught’ women to undergo penance in the form of fasting and praying for the well-being and longevity of their family, specifically their husbands and sons. The bratas were often enjoyably performed by little girls who were thus ready to be betrothed at an early age between five or ten years.

These instances are more exceptional in that they serve to prove the proposition that learning for women was severely restricted and if available it was reserved for women of nobility or elite class like that of rulers or Brahmins, usually at home under strict seclusion.

Women, however, were neither ignorant nor without knowledge. Women, more than men were responsible for the oral transmission of knowledge which usually came in the form of smriti literature, music, ballads and folklore. Women’s learning and their role in generational transmission was more crucial to cultural survival than maintenance of Vedic tradition by men.  (Sen, 2002). In that sense, writes Samita Sen, when colonial education spread across India, the shift was much bigger for women in terms of nature of learning, content and method. (Sen, 2002).


A review of the reasons for lack of education for women is appalling. It was believed that a woman who can read and write could ‘make secret assignations of illicit nature’. (Sen, 2002). Such a woman, who forgot her domestic place would invite the wrath of gods, which would eventually lead to her being a widow. Even if the gods would spare her husband, her own immorality would lead to her husband’s death. Superstitions like these resulted in educated or literate women being labelled as immoral. (Sen, 2002).

It was in social contexts as harsh as these that women needed to exercise their agency.


It was Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who in 1818 questioned some of the norms based on which education was denied to women. He rejected the idea that women were incapable of learning, hence denigrated to their life of domestic chores. He reversed the idea to say that because they were denied education, they were not learned and hence perceived as incapable of any intellectual or useful activities. This idea found affirmation when Mary Wollstonecraft, an advocate of women’s rights, wrote about the reversal of cause and effect with regard to women’s education and empowerment. (Sarkar, 1999).

Even though women’s education was deemed as un-necessary, it was found that it did find its uses acceptably in certain situations. In the case of widowhood, they were expected to manage family properties, know how to read land agreements and books of accounts. Rashundari Devi put her education to practical use by writing a plea in her husband’s absence. The low-caste boshtomis, a devotional sect, were literate and integral to women’s education in that they were assigned as teachers for upper caste households. (Sarkar, 1999)


The subject of women’s education, though largely subsumed under the nationalist discourse, was at the helm of the social enlightenment so desired by reformists. From a life behind the veil to being de rigueur, women’s educational journey marshalled support from various sections within society – mainly Missionaries, empathetic government establishments and national reformists looking at societal transformation. The biggest impetus however came from women their own agency.

Here are a few examples.

Rashundari Devi, born in 1809 in Calcutta, taught herself to read and write by scratching letters of the alphabet onto a corner of a blackened wall in the kitchen. She had the support of her mother-in-law which by itself is commendable given the popular myth of impending widowhood that awaited women who tried to study. She used her literacy to pen her autobiography in Bengali – ‘Amar Jiban’. Credited as the first Indian autobiography, the book chronicled her life of drudgery and monotony in great detail. It was praised immensely during those times for its crisp and beautiful, descriptive prose. Portraying things as they were, her book epitomizes the strength and determination shown by her in view of the times she lived in. (Tharu & Lalita, 1991)

Pandita Ramabai was a prolific social activist and educator and served as an inspiration for generations of women ahead of her. She was born in 1858 in the state of Karnataka. Her father taught her to read and write Sanskrit and interpret Vedic texts. She became a widow within two years of her marriage. In living up to her late husband’s desire to educate young widows, she founded the Arya Mahila Samaj in Pune. She strived for the cause of women’s education and deliverance from the oppression of child marriage. In the years that followed she went on to establish many institutions like Mukti Sadan, Mukti Mission and wrote and translated several books including the Bible. One of her most important books was ‘The High Caste Hindu Woman’ in which she revealed the darkest aspects of the life of Hindu women.  (“Pandita Ramabai” 2015)

Swarnakumari Debi was born in 1855 and was among the first women writers in Bengal to gain prominence. She taught herself to read and write at home and participated creatively in the literary efforts of the household. She started the first all India Women’s Association that brought into focus women’s issues. (“Swarnakumari Debi” 2015)

Ramabai Ranade was born in Maharashtra, in 1863. Ramabai was a women’s rights activist and an educator. Married to Mahadev Govind Ranade, she soon started learning to read and write. She started the Hindu Ladies Social Club in Mumbai to develop public speaking skills amongst women. Distraught and desolate after her husband’s death she continued her work by establishing Seva Sadans and organizing the Bharat Mahila Parishad to educate and awaken women. (“Ramabai Ranade” 2015)

Lady Abala Bose, born in 1864 in Calcutta, was a social activist and educator known for her work in the betterment of the conditions and the upliftment of widows. She was also a feminist who wrote passionately about the status of women as ‘being a mind first and a physical body after’. She set up the Nari Shiksha Samiti in 1915 through which she established primary schools, prepare suitable textbooks and open child welfare centers. (“Lady Abala Bose” 2015)

Sarala Devi Chaudhrani was born in Calcutta in 1872. She studied at Calcutta University and completed her B.A., receiving a gold medal in English Literature.  She was the founder of the first women’s organization in India, the Bharat Stree Mahamandal in Allahabad. Promoting education among women was its primary goal. This organization went on to open several branches in Northern regions of India. (“Sarla Devi Chaudhrani” 2015)

Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was a remarkable Mulsim educationist. Born in 1880 in Calcutta, she strived for gender equality and other social issues. She set up a school for Muslim girls in 1911 in Calcutta. In addition to writing short novels, Sultana’s Dreams and Padmarag, she also founded Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam which was an organization that served as a prominent voice in issues related to women and their issues.

In 1893 in Calcutta, Mataji Tapaswini, a Sanskrit scholar, established the Mahakali Pathshala. The school educated young women from conservative families. To satisfy the conservatives, they developed a curricula dominated by home science and religious lore. She also set out to systematize traditional education girls received at home.  Her school flourished until the 1920s. (Sen 2002)

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy was born in 1886 in Madras. Her life is memorable for that she aspired to be different from other women in her times. She studied till matriculation securing several gold medals. She continued her studies from home after being denied school when she turned older. Much against the wish of her father she went on to become a doctor and is credited today as being the first woman house surgeon in a government hospital. She was also the first woman legislator in India. (“Muthulakshmi Reddy” 2015)

Sister Subbulakshmi was born in 1886 in Madras. As was the practice then, she was married at the age of nine even though she had secured a first rank in the public examination of the Chingleput district in the Madras Presidency. Widowed at a young age she went on to become the first woman graduate in Madras Presidency with first class honors in 1911. She worked toward rehabilitating child widows and educating them. She started the Sarada Vidyalaya and was the principal of Lady Willingdon Training College and Practice School. She established several other associations for women and children. (“Sister Subbulakshmi” 2015)

Vidyagauri Nilakanth was born in Ahmedabad, and worked for women’s welfare. She started tailoring schools for women, edited a magazine on education with her husband. She conducted literacy classes for women and was awarded the MBE (Member of British Empire) and Star of India.

Sister Nivedita’s school in Calcutta was for girls from poor families. Inspired by Vivekananda to attempt the best in Eastern and Western literature, she sought to provide modern education in the context of Indian culture without making it academic.

Worth mentioning here, in addition to the above, are the multitude of associations and organizations founded by women who shared a vision about the common future of their gender. The three major associations that emerged after the end of the First World War are Women’s India Association, the Women’s India Association, the National Council of Women and the All India Women’s Conference.

These are but a few examples that underline the rise of women’s education in colonial India.Of the many who make it possible for us to read and write and learn whatever we want, let us also wave a thank you to them all today.


The Books I Ate for the Main Course

An ID related question that I don’t particularly enjoy answering is: ‘Can you recommend some good ID books?’

This question overwhelms me. In my mind, there is no simple answer. It usually has me looking for ways to divert or deflect or duck the question. Here’s why. First, I don’t know of a simple, ID-for-beginners type of a book. Given that this knowledge seeker could be an L&D professional or a K-12 teacher or someone who wants to get started on elearning just complicates matters further. Second, even if I did find such a book through a Google search, how could I possibly recommend it without reading it? So then, divert or deflect or duck.

In the last few months, I started facing this question far too many times for guilt-free ducking. So I decided to trace my own ID learning path, to recall the books that build my foundations of ID. I thought, maybe some of you may find this path useful. So here they are: the books I ate for the main course.


The books I ate for the main ‘course’

In this post, I will share the titles of books I have read. These are not some books that I have read. These books built my professional foundation. Let me shout out a piece of caution here. I like theory. In fact I find it irresistible.  Understandably, this love for theory reflects in my selection and choice of good ID books.

I am also tempted to add here that reading books, good books, is a form of self-learning where perhaps you also learn to deal with unknown concepts, which are explained using more unknown concepts. It can get maze-like. Which means you can get lost, confused and overwhelmed. For me, finding my way out of this maze presents the joy of a self-learning exercise that one should not shy away from or be afraid of.

So, here goes, in no particular order.

Instructional Design Theories and Models Volume I: The book, lovingly called the ‘Green Book’ by many who tried to read it, was my first exposure to ID. It was like someone had thrown me in the Marianna trench without any life support tools. I survived with the following learnings:

  • I understood the exact and precise meaning of the term ‘ID theory’. This knowledge helped understand the difference between theories and models. For example, Bloom’s Taxonomy is a model and not an ID theory, while Gagne’s 9 events of learning is only a part of an ID theory proposed by Gagne.
  • I learned that ID is a ‘descriptive’ and not a ‘prescriptive’ science.

This sort of knowledge is just that; ‘knowledge’. It has no immediate practical applications as such.

Rate this book for its theoretical content: 4 stars

Rate this book applicable content: 1.5 stars

Should you buy this book? Not really, plus it is out of print.

Instructional Design Theories and Models Volume II: I must have secretly liked the Marianna trench experience which Volume I provided. Why else would I immediately grab Volume II as soon as it was released? I have not regretted this purchase and I still use it a lot. Far more structured and application oriented, this book edited by Charles Reigeluth is truly a great compendium of insightful ID. For me the list of take-aways is quite long, but here are some of the more shiny ones:

  • A powerhouse of information, theory and practical applications on the affective domain – both for corporate learning and K-12 (with a special focus on troubled teenagers).
  • A precise, readable and application-enabling introduction of all ID theories

green book

Rate this book for its theoretical content: 4.5 stars

Rate this book applicable content: 4 stars

Should you buy this book? Yes, only if you are looking at ID seriously as a part of your professional journey.

The Systematic Design of Instruction by Walter Dick and Lou Carrey: This book covers every inch, nook and corner of the ISD model. It is the most important text for a student of ID studying at a graduate or post-graduate level. However, the ISD model itself, in its present form is outdated and even irrelevant in many industries. So says SAM. I do believe that some verticals like manufacturing or even defense may still benefit from the rigour of this model. This book has been my go to book for many years when ID was not as popular as it is today. I refer to it occasionally even today to get some of my concepts clear when I face a tough project.

Rate this book for its theoretical content: 2.5 stars

Rate this book applicable content: 3 stars

Should you buy this book? Yes if you are serious about ID. Get the latest edition. No if ID is just 5% (or less) of your annual KRAs.

A Survey of Instructional Development Models by Kent L Gustafson and Robert Maribe Branch: This thin little book is a powerhouse of information. I bought it with much reservation given its size. But I am really glad I did. It is a fantastic compilation of ID models and how they are classified as classroom-based, product-based and systems-based. The learnings from this book I cherish are:

  • That ADDIE is indeed a cyclic model and not linear as many ADDIE-bashers would have us believe id models
  • That ADDIE is the underlying framework for more than 15 ID models including ISD
  • That there are models better suited than ISD for dealing with media rich learning programs
  • That life need not begin and end with the rigour-based ISD

Rate this book for its theoretical content: 2 stars

Rate this book applicable content: 4 stars

Should you buy this book? Yes. Look for latest editions.

Instructional Design by Patricia L. Smith and Tillman J. Ragan: But for an uninspiring title, this book has been my all-time favorite. I read this book more than a decade ago. Some of the core concepts covered in this book are now becoming significant talking points. I was lucky to have had this book way back then. This is one book that a K-12 teacher and a corporate L&D professional can find useful. Some of the key learnings of this book are:

  • The mapping and appropriate allocation of terms like education, training, teaching and learning
  • A learner analysis framework that talks of static and dynamic learner characteristics – what an amazing insight
  • A simple and easy to understand look at the affective domain
  • And above all – the emphasis this book has on the ‘Design’ in Instructional Design.

Rate this book for its theoretical content: 4 stars

Rate this book applicable content: 4.5 stars

Should you buy this book? Yes. Look for latest editions.


A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl: Of course we all know THE taxonomy. But we also know that relying on free Internet resources for something as critical as Bloom’s taxonomy is not safe. For something as important as the taxonomy of Cognitive learning, you need to go to the most credible source – the authors of this taxonomy.

Rate this book for its theoretical content: 4 stars

Rate this book applicable content: 4.5 stars

Should you buy this book? Yes. Look for latest editions.

trends and issues

Trends and Issues in Instructional Design by Robert A Reiser and John V Dempsey:  I thought a lot before adding this book to this list. This book provides an overview of ID and technology in different spheres like Pharma, Military, Higher Education and K-12. It also covers briefly myriad topics like evaluation of learning, motivating learners and how ID is linked to workplace performance.  A great book for both beginners and advanced users of ID.

Rate this book for its theoretical content: 3 stars

Rate this book applicable content: 4 stars

Should you buy this book? Yes. Look for latest editions.

hpt handbook

Handbook of Human Performance and Technology: If learning content creation is not your main goal of using ID then this book is for you. If you are a manager of the learning function where your main role is the identifying, servicing and evaluation of learning and performance needs, then this book is a must-have on your shelf. From this book, I learned how to look at an organization through a ‘systems’ lens and link ID effort to workplace performance.

Rate this book for its theoretical content: 3 stars

Rate this book applicable content: 4.75 stars

Should you buy this book? Yes.

Handbook of Improving Performance in the Workplace – Volume I, II and III: These volumes are an expansive (not hpt 123expensive) edition of the Handbook of HPT described above. A must-have for everyone in corporate L&D. Experienced IDs may find these books a bit repetitive. I would still go with having them rather than not.

Rate this book for its theoretical content: 3 stars

Rate this book applicable content: 4 stars

Should you buy this book? Yes. Look for latest editions.

elearningeLearning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E Mayer: I could not possibly end this list without putting one of my favorite authors in here. An original thinker, her books and published papers clearly map the role of cognition in learning and to me the science is important. Hence I recommend this book and any others written by her with both thumbs up.

Rate this book for its theoretical content: 4 stars

Rate this book applicable content: 4.5 stars

Should you buy this book? Yes. Look for latest editions.

In my next post, I will bring you the books I ate for dessert. Books, not from the field of ID which have made this domain interesting and irresistible for me. Here’s my parting shot – that lets you out of the maze.The Dictionary of Psychology. And hopefully I will be forgiven deflecting or diverting or ducking.psycho dict

ID: The Discipline and its Practitioner

This is a fond memory of more than 15 years ago when I worked for a large and on-the-rise eLearning organization.

I was assigned as Instructional Designer for a prestigious project. A couple of days later, a colleague came over to my desk and pointed toward the large conference table on the other side of the huge open-plan office. I saw the entire project team (of ‘my’ project) in the midst of what seemed to be an intense discussion which lasted for over two hours.

After the meeting was over, I went up to the Project Manager and asked him whether he knew that I was the assigned Instructional Designer and why I was not invited for that meeting. He replied quite matter-of-factly “Oh! You were not needed. We were conceptualizing and designing. Doesn’t your work begin after the product is ready?”.

“No” I said.

He reacted “So then aren’t you going to spell check and review language inconsistencies?”

The discipline of ID first made its presence felt in the eLearning space in India almost 20 years back and not everyone understood it very well. At that time, most folks thought that the role of an Instructional Designer was primarily to proof-read and weed out grammar errors, punctuation errors and language inconsistencies. They would at best be required to rewrite the verbs on the Learning Objectives screen, after the screens were ready.

Thankfully, today this is no more than a fond memory.

This post briefly looks at the evolution of Instructional Design and its emergence in Indian organizations with the objective of understanding the discipline and the role of its practitioner as it is today.

It was in the early 90s, when present-day eLearning companies (called Multimedia companies at that time) hit upon a realization. In a team of Programmers, Visual Designers, Graphics Artists and Project Managers and Writers, whose job is it to look after learning? Who would be that person who ‘knew something about learning’? This role would have to be filled in by a perhaps a Teacher, a Trainer or someone who would be able to facilitate learning in absentia. And here began the story of the Instructional Designer.

To fulfil the need of a resource who ‘knew something about learning’, eLearning organizations hired smart people from different academic and professional backgrounds – Engineering, Management, IT, Science and Literature Graduates as Instructional Designers. They were trained internally, mainly on-the-project, by other senior team members well-versed with ID and in some cases even by clients.

Two factors helped the growth of Instructional Design in India eLearning organizations tremendously. The first one being that the presence of an Instructional Designer on a project was a key client requirement. Organizations had to showcase ID capability in order to win projects. They provided direction and focus to internal ID training for the role holders.

The second factor that helped the growth of Instructional Design was the sheer zeal with which aspiring Instructional Designers learned the craft on the job. Unfazed by the lack of formal or even systematic structured training, Instructional Designers picked up the practice of ID pretty much on the job.

A new profession was born in the training rooms of these organizations.  And it would be no exaggeration to say that in India, as well as globally, ID is one such profession that has more self-taught practitioners than qualified professionals.

Now here’s the interesting bit. The lack of a defined ID curriculum or course made this an open field. Instructional Designers learned everything from understanding the pieces of Cognitive Science to Bloom’s Taxonomy. They stepped into projects to give learning design inputs and along the way they wrote eLearning storyboards and scripts, understood Visual and Communication Design, mastered the strengths and limitations of the online medium, dabbled in Project Management and at times even managed clients. With panache.

The role of Instructional Designers has evolved today be like that of a movie director who needs to understand all aspects of film-making in addition to directorial skills. Instructional designers can, if required, hold together the Instructional, Creative, Process-related and Technical reins of learning, and not just eLearning. They have become the go-to people for performance gaps that can be traced to a learning need. They apply principles of cognition, and use their understanding of media and technology to create learning interventions that solve performance problems. And this is just a macro-level view of the skills Instructional Designers  demonstrate.

At the micro-level, an Instructional Designer adds tremendous value to the content being taught. To craft a sound instructional strategy, Instructional Designers first need to understand the subject matter to a large extent possible.  An Instructional Designer must also do the following: chunk content into topics, name them in in a logical and appealing way, layer the content, come up with creative ways of teaching the subject using constructs like Games and Stories, ensure that the written word is culturally and technically accurate.

The skill list does not end here. In addition to all of the above, most Instructional Designers have a keen sense of their clients business, have excellent verbal and written communication and research skills, discuss usability standards with flair, can tell a good animation from a bad one and sometimes make small code corrections.

Today almost 20 years on, there is no ambiguity about the field of ID its practitioner. It is fascinating when you think about it. All of these skills – learned on the job, pretty much on their own.

In keeping with the spirit of self-learning that has defines the discipline of ID and its practitioner, this blog will bring a bit of knowledge, a few resources and mainly a host of insights gained in the practice of this amazing profession.