Across the globe, debates about “proper” roles for women are a focus of public debate. From violently enforced Taliban restrictions on girls’ education, to mandated female political representation in Kenya’s new constitution, to U.S. debates about how to deal with sexual assault in the military as women take on more combat roles, ideas about women’s “proper” places in society are in flux.
These debates have taken center-stage in India, as the nation attempts to cope with an epidemic of gender-based violence. In this lesson, students will watch a segment of the film The World Before Her and then compare and contrast the very different visions of “true womanhood” endorsed by the film’s two protagonists.
As a point of reference, students will look at the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which both India and the United States have signed. Students will assess the potential for each of the protagonists to fulfill the mandates of the convention through her choices, taking into account India’s colonial heritage, its pathway to modernization and conflicts between Westernization and religious fundamentalism.
By the end of this lesson, students will:
- Increase their understanding of: modernization, Westernization, feminism, sexism and fundamentalism
- Be familiar with the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and what it requires signatory nations to do
- Gain an appreciation for diverse points of view
- Practice reading and analyzing informational materials, including a formal U.N. document, a written opinion piece and a film
- Communicate their analyses and opinions
Global studies (India, South Asia)
English Language Arts
- Internet access for students to watch the film clip
- Internet access and class online forum, such as a wiki or website, so that every student can participate in online class discussions
- Access to the text of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, either in print or online and to the Eagle Forum’s 2007 response, ERA Enforced by the United Nations?”
ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED
One 50-minute class period, plus homework
The video clips provided with this lesson are from The World Before Her.
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“Contrasting Lives and Visions” (Length: 17 min.)
This clip includes the first 17 minutes of The World Before Her, from the opening credits until the time when Prachi’s father says, “Leave it to the future.”
1. As homework, assign students to read both the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the response on the Eagle Forum website. Note that the United States is a signatory to CEDAW. Invite students to think about which tenets of each document best align with their own views and the views of their families or the communities in which they grew up. Using an online class forum, invite students to comment on the assumptions about “proper” womanhood in each of the documents, including which tenets they think are best reflected in current law and custom, and which they think are most important to translate into action.
2. In class, briefly review the online discussion, making sure that students understand the two documents. Let the class know that they are going to use CEDAW as a reference to examine the life choices of two young women from India. They’ll be introduced to Ruhi and Prachi via a clip from the film The World Before Her. After they see the clip, they’ll be asked to evaluate the pathways endorsed by each of the women, then choose one of the women and write an opinion piece about whether her pathway would be likely to contribute to meeting the requirements of CEDAW (to which India is also a signatory) and why.
3. Before showing the film clip, provide basic background on India as needed. For example, it is important for students to know that India was a British colony and that under colonial rule, traditional Indian culture and religion were denigrated and devalued. When India declared independence, it became common to reclaim traditional Indian values and religion as an expression of nationalism. It might also be important for students to know that India, unlike the United States, has been governed in modern times by a female head of state.
4. Show the clip from The World Before Her. Ask students to be prepared to assess the choices of Ruhi (the beauty pageant contestant) and Prachi (the Hindu fundamentalist) in light of how well those choices align with the letter and spirit of CEDAW. Note: Students are using only CEDAW for this step because India has no official obligation to abide by the Eagle Forum’s position, but the nation is a signatory to CEDAW. However, the Eagle Forum argument is an important reference to help students avoid a U.S.-is-the-gold-standard-for-women versus India-is-behind-the-times approach. Guide students to a more nuanced analysis, acknowledging that there is a wide range of views in both countries.
5. After students have had a chance to watch the film, invite brief comments. If time is short, comments could continue on the class’s online forum.
6. As an assessment, ask students to choose one of the women from the film and create a response to the question: “In what ways would or wouldn’t she help India meet its obligations under CEDAW?” If needed, review the necessary components of a strong argument and any requirements you have for documentation (e.g., citation style).
You can choose the target audience and then allow students to select the form of communication they think would be most appropriate for that audience, or you can assign a media form according to your curriculum needs (e.g., a persuasive writing piece, a multimedia presentation, a speech). Invite students to post their finished work to a class wiki, to VoiceThread or to another online sharing venue.
1. Look at other documents that deal with notions of womanhood and compare them to the underlying philosophies of womanhood in the film. Potential texts include historical documents, such as Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, and expressions from pop culture, such as an episode of MTV’s Girl Code or the 1971 song “A Natural Woman.”
2. Invite students to watch the entire film with an eye toward a current issue that is important to them (e.g., environmental sustainability, women’s equality, gay rights). Assign them to make the case for which of the film’s women would be most likely to support their issue and why.
3. The film mentions skin lightening cream. Have students research the use of this type of cosmetic, both currently and historically. Look at who benefits and who is harmed by the promotion of this type of product. Also look at how the product is both similar to and different from other products designed to change the body (e.g., make-up, plastic surgery, foot-binding).
4. Discuss the feminist critique of beauty pageants.
5. Compare current Hindu fundamentalism to Islamist, Haredi Jewish and radical Christian fundamentalisms.
6. As a class, read critiques of both Westernization and fundamentalism by Indian authors like Arundhati Roy and Vandana Shiva. Ask students to hypothesize what the authors’ reactions would be to the choices made by Ruhi and Prachi.
Articles from this online news organization provide an overview of daily issues confronting women in India.
Miss India Pageant
The official website of the pageant featured in the film includes contest rules and news coverage, along with contestant interviews and diaries.
POV: Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films
This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions.
This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries. For film-specific questions, see the discussion guide for The World Before Her.
United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality
This website is a one-stop shop for U.N. programs, treaties and statements related to gender equality. Search “India” for country-specific documents.
Vishva Hindu Parishad
The official website of the Hindu nationalist group featured in the film explains the movement’s philosophy, activities and goals.
SL.9-10.1, 11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9-10 topics, texts and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
SL.9-10.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source.
11-12.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.
W.9-10.1, 11-12.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
W.9-10.4, 11-12.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.
W.9-10.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.
W.11-12.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update
individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.
Content Knowledge: A compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning). All standards listed here refer to Level IV (9-12).
World History, Era 9, Standard 45: Understands major global trends since World War II.
Language Arts, Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
Language Arts, Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing.
Language Arts, Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.
Language Arts, Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.
Life Skills, Thinking and Reasoning, Standard 1: Understands and applies the basic principles of presenting an argument.
Life Skills, Thinking and Reasoning, Standard 2: Understands and applies basic principles of logic and reasoning.
Life Skills, Thinking and Reasoning, Standard 3: Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Faith Rogow, Ph.D., is the co-author of The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World (Corwin, 2012) and past president of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. She has written discussion guides and lesson plans for more than 150 independent films.