Schools and Gender Norms have an interesting relationship. These norms are in fact present implicitly in classroom settings and are imbibed by students both consciously and unconsciously.
Judith Butler, the writer of ‘Gender Trouble’ has said that notions of masculinity and femininity are not fixed, they are socially constructed. For school-going children, these notions are learned through gender-based stereotyping, problematic syllabi, and implicit norms.
In this article, I will be exploring the three P’s of Patriarchy- Privilege, Power, and Purity, drawing from my own personal experiences at school.
Gender Bender? – Stereotypes And Privileges In Classroom Settings
It all begins in your eight forty-five class when the teacher enters and says “Good morning, boys and girls”. This simple greeting is loaded with heteronormative bias.
When a teacher calls on the boys of their class to move furniture and a girl to prepare a dance for an assembly, that’s where stereotyping starts. It’s that simple. This minor detail is important because it gives us an idea of how cognitive structures develop. Back in school, due to such incidents, I would be forced to think that men are physically stronger than women, even though that statement has a little biological basis.
And that’s not all. Teachers often use gender as an important label to differentiate between and organize students. An implicit stratification takes place in classrooms when boys are told to sit with girls and vice versa as a punishment. It is taken for granted that boys don’t want to befriend girls and vice versa. This creates an implicit division which then leads to the formation of homogenous groups. Having limited interaction with the other gender, we can’t defeat the stereotypes given to us by the world. We also lose out on understanding appropriate modes of behaviour (by appropriate I mean, making sure you don’t make someone uncomfortable).
Implicit To Explicit Patriarchy: From Privilege To Power
Males often end up commanding power in society as a result of what happens in educational institutes. Firstly, the example of how it’s assumed that a male will be physically stronger than a female ends up reinforcing the idea amongst males that they have the edge over their female counterparts and can exercise dominion over them.
Secondly, girls aren’t allowed to stay back in school for functions or practices because a parent is more likely to allow a boy to come back home late than a female. This takes away the myriads of opportunities they might have had if they were allowed to stay a little later at school, their office, etc. Power then is accumulated because of these opportunities.
Thus, who is more likely to go for competitions, get better posts, participate in functions, or even get a pay raise? Men. Spaces like the office, schools, public transport are made unsafe for women and girls on account of sexual harassment. Males of a family tell a girl that it’s risky to stay out late in these spaces, and then these opportunities get taken over by men themselves. Hence, the cycle of patriarchy rides on.
Another arena where gender differentiation takes place is the P.E. period or even the lunch break. It’s common to see girls flocking to the canteen, while the playground is a space dominated by boys. This could possibly happen because young women are exposed to “ideal” beauty standards from a very young age. The idea of “feminine beauty” dissociates itself from all things “masculine”. They are told that keeping short hair or hanging around in the sun for too long is ugly and unladylike. Thus, they resort to staying indoors during breaks, conforming to the ideal standards laid out for them. The idea of femininity is used to control girls from doing things that are considered “masculine” like playing a rough sport, for instance.
Men, too, are disallowed to partake in anything outside of the confined popular notion of “masculinity”. Applying nail paint, growing out their hair over a certain length, or even participating in the Home-Management club is looked down upon by their peers. Boys are often told to “man-up” when they complain about bullying to their teachers.
Learning Patriarchy Through Textbooks (Or The Lack Of Them)
In a country like India, where textbooks occupy a central place in classrooms, we must write them more inclusively and sensitively.
A recent study by the American Economics Association found out that women are underrepresented in economics textbooks. Three-quarters of the people mentioned in the textbooks are males: real and imagined. It’s also important to notice that when these textbooks do end up mentioning women, they are usually passive and are doing secondary tasks unrelated to economics, while men perform the more active part. Often since women don’t find models in these textbooks, they are uninspired to get into subjects that are seen as male-dominated.
Many times, the language used in these textbooks is also sexist. The problem with sexist language is that if sexism is a disease, sexist language is both its symptom and its cause. This kind of language includes exclusionary words. You automatically associate the word ‘chairman’ with a male head, even though chairmen can also be women. Using “man” to mean people causes a lot of confusion and ambiguity.
Sex Education is also absent as a proper course in all schools in India. Sex education will be a monumental step towards gender equality since it will enable people to dispel notions of purity about menstruation, virginity, and sexual intercourse.
Schools are imperative contexts for socialization; we learn our attitudes and behaviours in the school itself. Unfortunately, teachers receive very little training in firstly recognizing their own unconscious biases and secondly in combating them. Despite the suggestions of the NEP, we still have a long way to go. We need massive efforts from civil society and organizations like Pravah and Unlearn that work on gender to help make more inclusive curricula, train teachers, and do workshops with students.
Going from a co-ed school to an all-girls college, I had to unlearn a few things myself. LSR (Lady Shri Ram College) was a totally different, egalitarian space. “Come on girls, let’s pick up that sofa,” said my sociology teacher while we were gearing up for a function, and at that moment, I had power- a kind of power I had never known before.
Feature Image Credit: World Education Blog