The Sexist School Culture

Graphic by Prajwal S D

Educational institutions serve as important agents of socialization, especially for young children, and remain so well into their late teenage years, therefore whatever they learn here has a lifelong impact on them. However, educational institutions as socializing agents are not isolated, in fact they are often shaped by and mimic the world outside, so it is only normal that the norms defining the society get passed on to institutions such as schools. Astoundingly, this logic is often used to justify the patriarchal standards of judgment, hypocrisy, sexism, and misogynistic practices actively taking place in schools from the smallest of things like boys being asked to carry notebooks or move chairs, to the bigger things like not having a girls cricket or football team, it is not uncommon to see instances of sexism in schools. Even girls-only schools are not absolved from this accusation.

While the environment in school affects different students in varying degrees and this experience is often dictated by various factors, out of which gender plays an important role. The toxic environment created by sexism and misogyny often becomes a traumatic event for girls, be it in terms of moral policing, body-shaming, consequences of similar activities that only girls have to bear, or in the worst-case scenario, losing out on opportunities because of your gender. 

Schools, which are supposed to be safe spaces for children, become perpetrators of patriarchy. We’ve all been through the skirt length ordeal, pulled aside for wearing a skirt too short, having too many guy friends, or having too much fun with the boys and at one point or another, our characters have been assassinated simply because we refused to stick to a norm. We are also taught to be ashamed of perfectly normal things like menstruation, a bloodstain on the skirt used to be so damning, and the secret workshops surrounding menstruation and menstrual hygiene which involved girls sneaking out of classes to attend these and carry sanitary napkins like secret weapons back into the class, away from the prying eyes of the curious boys and being penalized and reprimanded if they ever stumbled upon this secret. 

Perpetration of sexism doesn’t only happen through actions but also through language. Even when there is a lack of actions, everyday vocabulary, usage of demeaning terms, objectification of girls ensures exclusion in terms of pursuing activities that would be seen as not affirming to the assigned gender, shame and body-image issues associated with not matching up to the beauty standards and low self-esteem and confidence based out of everyday interactions. Not so surprisingly, even school textbooks are implicit in the perpetuation of sexism by defining how women should be, what is inherently feminine and masculine, and often with examples that solidify sexist beliefs. 

Some would say, considering how women didn’t even have space in schools until very late, we’ve made great strides in the department, however inclusion of a gender in a public space, a space that was their right, to begin with, isn’t enough, that is the bare minimum. We need to drop the guise of equality and actually strive towards it by actively calling out and engaging in discussions that question patriarchy every step of the way. We need teachers who are sensitized to the nuances of sexism and equipped with training to deal with it when it comes to the forefront because, at the end of the day, the onus of breaking the cycle in schools falls onto the teachers. We need to revise the language we use both in everyday life and in textbooks. 

I once heard my geography teacher say, ‘change is the only constant’. Of course, he meant that the Earth is constantly changing and nothing’s ever static but I look at the phrase in a slightly different manner. If change is the only constant, why are we so hell-bent on adhering to and enforcing the same norms on generations after generations, despite realizing the harm it does, if change is the only constant, shouldn’t we evolve from our experiences and inculcate them in learning for others, if change is the only constant and if even the Earth cannot stay static, then mustn’t we strive for change as well? The point being, the notions of patriarchy have dictated every aspect of our lives but we have a chance at seeing a slightly less patriarchal world around us by breaking the institution in schools. 

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