Most Indian schools have strict rules about uniforms – and invariably, different guidelines apply for boys and girls. From a young age, girls are taught to be cautious about their clothing, especially the length of their skirts. Failure to comply with the school’s standard for ‘decent’ skirt lengths often leads to severe punishments, and the guilty party is almost always labelled an attention-seeking trouble-maker by none other than her teachers.
Similar logic leads to young girls being publicly shamed for hanging out in predominantly male circles. In most cases, a boy caught in a group of large girls is deemed a ‘Casanova’. The repercussions for a girl spotted in a group of boys are drastically different. Girls are taught to limit their time with large groups of boys, for two possible reasons: a) even the teachers internally seem to concede that a large group of boys may be unsafe for the girl, or b) a girl among a large group of boys fails to meet the moral standards she is held to. Both these narratives fit into a larger culture of misogyny, and both are immensely toxic.
Let’s examine both cases. When the teachers justify their judgment and intolerance by saying they just want to look out for the girls and protecting them – they contribute significantly to rape culture. This is done by enforcing the idea that it is primarily a girl’s responsibility to be safe, and by implicitly telling all young boys that they can get away with anything in a culture that supports victim blaming.
When you tell a young girl that her short skirt is enough to get her suspended her or that it poses an obstacle to her education – you are telling her that your perception of her decency and need to not ‘distract boys’ is more important than her education. When a girl is forced to put on several extra layers of clothing – slips over their bras, or shorts under their skirts, despite the weather – they are essentially being told that there is no space for them to express or educate themselves unless they look appropriate. The same institutions hardly ever hold boys to the same standards. These practices have drastic consequences on the mental make up of young girls and boys, ones that follow them into adulthood.
When a girl is shamed for the length of her skirt, both boys and girls grow up thinking that a girls character is tied to her clothing. Most girls face a lack of support when talking about issues of consent and harassment, and thus find it easier to stay mum. A girl wanting to come out and talk about her experience is highly discouraged from doing so for two primary reasons; a) she is shamed and humiliated for indulging in a relationship in the first place, b) she is accused of over dramatising the incident, or in some cases, deprioritizing her school responsibilities.
The only way rape culture and the forceful imposition of patriarchy can be combated is if there is a radical transformation of the schooling system. Schools need to accept and understand the consequences of their moral policing on girls and pledge to engage students in dialogue about consent, mutual respect and safety.