How the Indian School System Reinforces Gender Norms

Like a lot of us, the lockdown provided me with a chance to ponder over the irrational body standards set by our institutions and how they influence our perception – of both society as well as ourselves.

My primary school played a huge role in making me and other young girls feel uncomfortable in their own bodies. Like most educational institutions, my school associated shame with a spotted skirt or a short-length skirt and normalised the usage of sexist and homophobic slurs.

Of course, straight boys were not spared when it came policing, but the idea of modesty was deeply rooted in the policing of girls and other students who didn’t conform to the gender binary. My younger brother, a feminist-in-progress, often narrates stories about his teachers insulting boys for wearing earrings to school. He says the teachers would often reprimand those boys by saying, “You’ll become a housewife”.

Secret workshops

I finished school in 2014, but nothing much has changed since then. While students now have more access to online resources to understand their rights, the Indian school system continues to objectify young bodies in ways that are unacceptable.

In most cases, the othering of female students begins with the onset of their menstrual cycle. My school would conduct workshops with brands like Stayfree or Whisper to ‘increase awareness’. However, the teachers would ask us to sneak out of the class and leave the boys behind. We were told to carry the free samples like secret bombs by tucking them deep in our backpacks – the idea was to not let the boys know at all.

Also read: My Classroom Was Sexist and Undemocratic – And I’m a Product of It

The sense of shame would then follow us back into the male-dominated world of shopkeepers, fathers and brothers.

According to historian Joan Brumberg, young girls in trainings and workshops like the one mentioned above, learn about their body and its place in the social order – and often internalise it. “When a girl has her first period, our response is rarely an invitation to welcome her new womanly status, but more commonly a knowing smile and a scramble for menstrual products,” she writes.

To put it simply, we are always taught to treat it as a ‘problem’, a sentiment which the FMCG brands capitalise on, which in turn normalises a prejudiced attitude towards women’s bodies.

Length of the skirt

Apart from these secret workshops and being at the centre of various misogynist slurs, it was unnerving to be repeatedly shamed for the length of our skirts. Our sports teacher would often stop girls who wore “short skirts” from playing on the pretext of “what if a guy saw you in this skirt?”. My school never had a female cricket or football team, and even the little access to sports was heavily surveilled. This led to an almost unsaid mathematical equation in our minds – ‘the length of your skirt is directly proportional to your immoral attitude’.

Also read: Schools Need to Stop Shaming Girls for the Length of Their Skirts

The problem with such biases is that it gradually seeps into the social and individual conscience, hampering the process of creating an inclusive society. When femininity in itself is considered a sin, and young boys are policed for not performing their ascribed gender roles correctly – how and from where do we even start the conversation on trans-inclusion?

Sadly, the community outside school – instead of questioning –  validates this sexist, transphobic and anti-LGBTQIA+ stance in every way. The watchdogs of the school, namely: the teachers, administrators, educators, principals, along with other people in positions of power become enablers of this othering. It is no surprise, therefore, that we live in a patriarchal society that only accepts one idea of masculinity and rejects anything outside that.

How do we fix this?

The common discourse around fixing the school system is mostly – and rightfully so – focuses on the need for sex education. However, we also need to recognise how the micro-aggressive practices towards those who do not perform his, her or their ascribed gender role – could cause them severe mental distress.

Many students also come from broken or toxic households and schools need to provide them with adequate support and resources to help them cope, instead of mocking them for asking “dumb questions” or not scoring well.

Since the institutional restrictions mimic the larger society in one way or the other, the onus therefore lies on our teachers to break the cycle by not acting as agents of patriarchy. Both public and private schools need to work towards creating an environment where students don’t feel excluded or shamed. This will also discourage students from bullying and shaming each other, knowingly or unknowingly.

Once we start having these conversations, we’ll automatically start heading towards a more acceptable society where no child feels like they aren’t good enough because you are and will always be.

Gauri Awasthi is an Indian poet. When not writing, she runs ‘The Vegan Wardrobe’ for conversations around sustainability and ethical fashion. 

Featured image credit: Barry Pousman/Flickr