May 2004

Does culture play a role?

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The cultural settings
The towering minarets of numerous mosques in the area are indicators of the role played by religion and the clergy in the lives of the community. Traditional customs still play a powerful role especially with respect to gender. Women are expected to be good housewives, look after their husbands and in-laws, procreate and take care of children and the house. Education is not considered to be important for them. They are not encouraged to move out of the locality independently and the 'Burqa' (veil) system is prevalent. It may be noted that several studies done in India among other religious communities also suggest very strong gender related norms such as on mobility, marriage and education. Many other traditional practices are also still adhered to like with respect to kinship and arts, handicrafts and learning.

It was considered that for the initiative to make inroads into the lives of the women it may be useful for the ICT centre to be located in their midst. Thus a collaboration was formed with the Babool-Uloom Madrasa. It is a Madrasa (a place of learning) and Masjid (the place where prayer is offered and is also the centre of other religious activities) headed by the Maulana (refers to leader of prayer, Muslim caliph). The Madrasa is not only a place of prayer but also of learning. The Babool-Uloom Madrasa is a religious residential school providing learning to about 200 boys from humble backgrounds. A majority of students aspire to take up advanced religious studies so as to become Imams (teachers). They lead simple frugal lives, living in dormitories that double up as classrooms. The parents are happy in their circumstances of extreme poverty as the basic needs of the child are taken care of and the child is likely to become an Imam in the future.

The Babool- Uloom is also a mosque, where the devout gather five times a day to offer prayers to Allah. Women are not allowed entry into the mosque. However they do come to the Maulana for advice. He arbitrates on social disputes and religious matters. He is also believed to have healing powers.


Permission was sought to start the ICT centre at the Madrasa and for this purpose space was also requested. The factor that played a positive and decisive role was not that the key people viewed ICTs as important but that they felt a strong need to create some opportunities for women in the area. Indeed, it was much later that they began to understand the utility of ICTs.

The ICT center provides an open learning center for girls and women. They receive training on computers and Internet and also obtain information on varied topics. Interactive multimedia content is developed and used to support vocational and life-skills training and provide rights-based information on various areas to poor girls and women. The marginalised women use ICTs to learn marketable skills and build their awareness of health issues, their rights and livelihood opportunities. In contrast, the Madrasa has its own philosophy, where it seems to isolate itself from the outside world and the teachings have little influence of the outside, changing world. Movement of the students is restricted; there is no radio and no television

. For ICTs to establish their appropriateness, an overall evaluation is necessary. In an ideal world, universal access to information would create global information society yet the mode of interpretation will depend on the culture and traditions of the people and societies. A study (Ryckeghem 1995) shows how information technology and culture interact, wherein culture provides the condition for interpreting the utility of information technology. It is also believed that some 'cultural beliefs' are a hindrance to the adoption of ICTs though the reverse may be true in many cases. Computers are a product of industrialised civilisation not from this particular cultural context. Yet the endeavour in community-based interventions has been to be sensitive to cultural differences which was also the point of departure for the present initiative. The decision to set up the ICT centre in the annexe (one room) of the Madrasa gave it immediate legitimacy. Appreciating the socio-cultural scenario and the importance of the Masjid and Maulana in the lives of the community helped to harmonise that with the technological tools.

In today's information age of globalisation, computerisation, Internet and virtual world, there are fears that the global media is fast promoting a global monoculture that denies diverse socio-cultural realities. It is felt that this process of globalisation may swamp the not so strong cultures. English is the predominant language of the information age. The majority of the material on the Internet is from the developed and industrialised countries. Thus, there are fears that the local cultures would be eroded so the tendency is to further isolate themselves.

The global village is not global for most of the world's poor not simply because technology is not available to them but because with or without these technologies the poor are likely to remain marginalised from the benefits of society if they are excluded from the benefits of over-all development. Apart from this is the issue of language and content because of which even if computers may be physically available they may continue to be 'out of reach' in crucial ways.

Thus, the intervention was located within this fraught relationship between the modern-global and the traditional. There is an interesting contrast between the possibilities of globalised culture that the computer/Internet represents while being at a place that fiercely protects the local culture. What have been the experiences?

Cultural adaptations

How the intervention has adapted to cultural values

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