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Gender stereotypes that go on to define individuals start right in school, and must be questioned, says this deeply thoughtful post.
“pull up your socks, wear a longer skirt”
“don’t be so loud, don’t sound too bossy”
“wear a white hairband and oil your hair well”
“cross your legs. (you stupid girl), cross your legs”
“how dare you apply a deodorant again? You are such a stubborn brat”
I went to a very good school in Delhi. And I start here by not being mistaken as one who ridicules the education she got from there. What my school also gave me are memories – of how my being a girl was reinforced day after day by the way I should conduct myself, the activities I should do, the groups I should join and most importantly, the way I should behave and dress.
Since the very beginning, I used to wonder why oiling my hair and putting a white hair band was a more important issue than me coming to school. I mean, common, we all know that there is no scientific proof to showcase how great a student who regularly oils her hair, has pigtails, and socks up till knees, is. But I saw everyday how often our female teachers ridiculed the girls who challenged any of these rules. I have strong images of the events that took place during school days in my head.
Once, I was called out by my teacher after a regular period in the class and yelled at for not sitting with my legs crossed. I was told how I was being a bad girl, inviting boys to lurk on me. I was not just yelled at, but thereafter was always looked upon with suspicious eyes. As a young girl in standard 7, it confused me how my sitting down unknowingly with legs open was a reason for my teacher to judge me as a person.
As a young girl in standard 7, it confused me how my sitting down unknowingly with legs open was a reason for my teacher to judge me as a person.
In another year, I was the class monitor. And often, told to indulge in the things I didn’t like but my class teacher did. One not-so-fine day, she was out there measuring the length of the skirts every girl wore in the class. And with a compass in her hand, opening the seam of the skirts from the bottom, if found not adhering the school/class norms.
I was asked to get hold of my classmate’s arms while my teacher openly un-sewed the seam of her skirt from the bottom in front of a class of 50 students. Scared of being punished, I did as I was told. Ashamed of how it all happened, I still sit down and wonder how the length of skirt, and public humiliation, was a symbol of discipline. How my female teacher never taught the boys to not stare at our legs but told us to hide our skin. How this all was a way of making us better adults.
Meanwhile, as years passed by, I questioned marks as much as I questioned the ways the system worked in the school. Over the years, I saw our teachers giving sore eyes to the girls who were seen talking a lot to the boys. Those who were too outspoken were shunned as rude and undisciplined. I never was a very brilliant, high-scoring student. I never knew why my mathematics teacher always found a way to shun the girls in front of the ‘talented’ mathematics genius boys our school was full of.
She would often tell my mother how I would never make anything meaningful out of my life because I scored less in mathematics. Never appreciated for the other subjects I was good at. Acceptance in my school for being what you are was always low. A lot of the teachers appreciated the brilliant “rote-heads” who puked everything they were taught verbatim on their exam answer sheets.
A lot many times I sat there wondering why my class teacher would often tell me to be little less outspoken and little more committed to learning. Learning which meant less creativity, innovation, and passion. She never understood that to me, mathematics never gave any excitement.
In my last year at school, I became the head girl – the one responsibility that was only given to the top scoring girls in the school. Leadership, after all, was only linked to those who were either teachers’ favorites or scored high. I never understood why and how this happened but I do remember the smile on that one teacher from my school who always pushed me to pursue my dreams, cherishing my creativity.
That last year at school I was told again and again, silently and loudly, in front of many, that I was rude, stubborn, with attitude, and bossy – because I had a responsibility to carry.
When I stood there on the stage, our school principal proudly putting my Head Girl badge on my shirt told me, “You better study well. This badge does not mean you don’t study”. That last year at school I was told again and again, silently and loudly, in front of many, that I was rude, stubborn, with attitude, and bossy – because I had a responsibility to carry. Marks never excited me. They made me sad, because for me, they were how my surroundings defined failures and success.
When I completed my school, I got admission into one of the best colleges in the city. Happy to share this information with my teachers, when I went back, I was told how unlucky and average I was because I didn’t get admitted to any engineering or medical schools like the boys of my class did. “This course is futile for you”, said the mathematics teacher. I smiled, because I realized I was out of this cycle of constantly being reminded that being a girl meant being less.
Along with carrying out cherished memories from the school days, I carried a burden of gender stereotyping. It was not that every girl conformed to the socially acceptable roles that the school defined for them. But the way they were either accepted or rejected created a lot of confusion and imbalance in the minds of many who wished to differ from the norms.
Sex education was never given. Neither were we given any counselling during our adolescent days. Those girls, who talked about it, became the talk of the school. Instead of talking about equality and respect, we were taught to keep our instincts off in the name of conduct. Those girls who had short haircuts were taken to be like boys.
A lot of the reports have suggested that children learn gender from being constant subjects of society’s expectations. I don’t think that putting pressure on children to conform to the traditional expected roles that society has made for them is what will make them better humans.
While the girls were given this, I am sure there were a hundred boys who wanted to cry but never did. Those who wanted to say they appreciated pink, but were ‘demeaned’ and ‘laughed on’ to be girly. ‘Boys will be boys’: we can never know what psychological impact this statement causes on the ego of the boy who turns into a man in few years.
Teaching a girl that shorts are for boys, cross-legs is for girls is not how she has to be taught about femininity. Similarly, teaching a boy that to be loud and sporty means to be masculine is equally wrong. Girls are pretty and quiet and boys are sporty and loud, does not make a good impact on the ‘power dynamics’ that we as children grow up with, into adults in this society.
What is education? Shouldn’t it be more than mere learning from books and getting marks? Do we promote equality from the start?
I know times are changing. I know schools are changing. But I do feel that there is a majority of educational institutions that have conditioned girls and boys to grow up as they are in this present era, patriarchal victims and criminals. What is education? Shouldn’t it be more than mere learning from books and getting marks? Do we promote equality from the start? Gender equality?
I was lucky my college shaped a lot of my present being. But do we have such structures for the rest to re-condition this gender stereotyping they gain in homes and schools? Just food for thought!
A Development Communication & Social Work professional working in the field of gender, health and
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