Gender and Higher Education in Contemporary Bhutan


A review of “Girls Should Come Up”: Gender and Schooling in Contemporary Bhutan, by Dolma Choden Roder.

Dolma Choden Roder’s dissertation provides a fascinating glimpse into the education system of Bhutan and teases out the subtle ways gender, class and other markers of social difference influence the experience of tertiary education. Her research site is a well-respected, secular liberal arts institution in Eastern Bhutan. Drawing on 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork at the college, in which the author worked as an instructor, the dissertation provides a compelling outsider/insider interpretation of the field site.

Roder’s introduction starts with a description of popular discourses in Bhutan: Bhutan has relative gender equity compared to other South Asian Countries; education in Bhutan is a gender neutral resource providing citizens equal opportunity for advancement; women have less leadership roles in Bhutan because of personal choice rather than institutionalized discrimination. Through the course of the dissertation, Roder’s intent is to show the reader that these commonly held notions belie the existence of a number of factors that inhibit women’s equal participation and success in higher education settings and beyond.

In addition, the dissertation is also in many ways a straightforward ethnography of the secular Bhutanese education system. Roder begins the dissertation by contextualizing Bhutan as a country with a relatively short history of providing higher-level degrees, especially in the secular tradition. This relatively new institution is undergoing rapid changes and Roder’s dissertation captures the ambivalence and tensions surrounding theses transitions.

Roder explicitly identifies her research project as nested within feminist theories of sex and gender. Roder approaches gender as a social construct which is thus immanently flexible though often perceived as natural and rigid. Further, Roder calls upon theories of “cultural production” to understand the context of tertiary education in Bhutan (p. 15). This approach recognizes that schools are sites of meaning-making where understandings of social categories are constantly made, challenged and re-made through social interaction. Thus, Roder emphasizes that the meanings attributed to various people (male and female students, teachers, social superiors), places (public and private spaces, classrooms) and things (concepts of cooperation and success) are made real through repeated articulations and actions. This process of meaning-making is particularly problematic for women and girls, who face heightened scrutiny both inside and outside educational institutions

In sum, Roder’s dissertation aims to answer two primary questions: 1) what defines the Bhutanese secular education system?; and, 2) what are women’s experiences within secular Bhutanese higher-education institutions? In answer to her first question, Roder finds that current pedagogical emphases produce students ready to work in particular types of administrative jobs that may no longer be available. This reality leads to disappointed expectations and exacerbates “growing differences in wealth and opportunity” in Bhutan (p. 163). In answer to her second question, Roder argues that female students face a persistently hostile atmosphere that both constrains their movement and makes academic success a greater challenge compared to male students.

In Chapter 2 Roder gives a detailed account of her methodology. Roder uses a number of traditional and non-traditional ethnographic methods in addition to archival research to come to her conclusions. Roder primarily employs formal interviews, participant observation and focus groups. In addition, Roder video-recorded several class sessions and later asked students to verbally annotate the recorded sessions. By eliciting feedback on videos, Roder is able to collect nuanced data about how students see themselves within the classroom context. Interestingly, this chapter also describes Roder’s own struggle with becoming a faculty member at her research site and the complex dynamics this caused with her informants, especially as it formally institutionalized her as her interlocutors’ direct superior.

In chapter 3 Roder provides an overview of the educational system in Bhutan and contextualizes her particular research site. The secular education system is less than 50 years old and formal education was historically limited to monastic education, which by definition excluded women. Roder notes that the introduction of schools in remote and rural parts of Bhutan and the overall expansion of access to all levels of education throughout the country has catalyzed previously unimaginable social mobility for the populous. However, such expansion has only gone so far and those in the most remote areas continue to struggle to access even basic educational resources. Roder states, “household poverty and living in rural Bhutan have a clear and negative impact on educational access” (p. 44).

While the college is a well-regarded liberal-arts institution, it suffers from what Roder describes as institutional newness evidenced in the scattered approach to administration, chronic teacher shortages, a lax attitude towards student attendance and a high dependency on rote memorization as a pedagogical approach. In addition, the personal politics on campus, which informants describe to Roder in terms of “cooperation,” are inflected with a high degree of hierarchy. Cooperation broadly refers to “promoting camaraderie,” but more specifically describes the group-oriented social organization of campus life, which places significant peer pressure on students to conform to group norms (69). The normative socialization at the college thus leave some students (especially younger students, women students or students from rural and poor backgrounds) especially vulnerable to oppressive practices akin to hazing (p. 70).

Chapter 4 narrows in on the classroom experience, especially in regard to female students’ experiences. Roder draws upon a theoretical and methodological tradition of classroom ethnographies to undertake a rather unique approach to eliciting feedback on the classroom experience. By having students watch and comment upon video recordings of their own class sessions, Roder illuminates some of the ongoing social dynamics that shape the learning experience at the college. Notably, Roder identifies several core dynamics in the classrooms she visits. One important characteristic is the non-dialectic nature of the classroom. Students are loathe to ask questions as a result of earlier socialization and out of fear of embarrassment in front of peers. Female students are especially unlikely to contribute or ask questions as they experience disproportionate teasing from both students and teachers alike, even when making legitimate contributions to the discussion. Roder identifies an “unfriendly atmosphere” that effectively shuts down female students’ attempts to meaningfully participate in class (p. 97).

In chapter 5 Roder focuses on women’s experiences of space and normative gender roles at the college. In particular, Roder points out that women self-regulate their actions inside and outside the classroom in order to avoid hostile and damaging gossip and other forms of gender-policing such as harassment. Women at the college are well aware of their precarious reputations and the clear double-standard for men and women’s behavior. For example, women avoid walking alone on campus as it invites both harassment and gossip about what kind of girl (e.g. an immoral girl) she might be. Roder notes that it is not just fellow students that enforce normative expectations through gossip and harassment, but also school faculty and administrators. This chapter demonstrates that women who press these boundaries, that is, attempt to “come up,” may face real social censure.

The sixth chapter returns to a broader look at tertiary education in Bhutan by examining the aspirations of students in comparison to the shifting realities of the Bhutanese labor market. Specifically, this chapter discusses the long tradition of the college’s graduates entering civil service occupations and points out that such labor flows are swiftly changing as the number of graduates outpaces the number of available posts. The college’s students have yet to adjust their expectations, leading to a period of waiting for the right job to come along. However, this informally institutionalized waiting period has the unintended affect of directing students who can afford to wait for the right job into the civil service, while directing students who cannot afford to wait into lower tier jobs. Roder convincingly argues that the current mismatch between student aspirations and actual opportunities is fomenting further class stratification.

In the concluding chapter, Roder synthesizes the arguments made in the previous chapters and argues that the idea that women have chosen not to “come up” in educational settings and beyond ignores the reality of ubiquitous sexism and gender-policing that saturate her field site. Roder demonstrates that women who try to “come up” or even slightly improvise upon and challenge normative gender roles are subject to a variety of social sanctions. Gossip, ridicule and harassment all serve as boundary maintenance tools, effectively blocking women from “coming up” by keeping them down.

The intellectual contributions of Roder’s dissertation are several. First, as Roder points out, her discussion of non-monastic education settings in Bhutan is unique. Research on Bhutan has tended to ignore secular aspects of every day life in Bhutan. Thus, the dissertation is an important corrective to this gap. Second, Roder’s research is important because it counters the claim that school is a “neutral resource,” a frequent claim in anthropology of education literature (p. 4). She does this by shedding light on how schooling may actually exacerbate existing inequalities of gender, class and geographical origin amongst others. This is especially important in terms of better understanding women’s higher education, which is frequently touted as a panacea to women’s so-called disempowerment throughout the global South.

Barbara H. Grossman-Thompson
Department of Sociology
University of Colorado at Boulder

Primary Sources
Bhutan Observer Archives
Tarayana Foundation Report. 2009. Alternative Report for Bhutan from the Commission on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. 44th Commission on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women session
Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB). 2008. Education for All: A Mid-decade Assessment for Bhutan.

Dissertation Information
Arizona State University. 2011. 209 pp. Primary Advisor: James Eder.

Image: Two college student volunteers at convocation. Photograph by author.

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