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Misogyny And Sexism Often Start Young And That Is Why The School Systems Need Change

Posted: May 26, 2020

Changes that may ensure that a more gender inclusive and sensitive culture exists, where a child does not grow up with a sense of entitlement and toxic power.

The Nirbhaya case verdict against the four convicts made me introspect a lot. While the entire nation celebrated, I had mixed thoughts and a lot of questions to ponder upon. Was I supposed to be satisfied that it took more than seven years for the final verdict and even then, one criminal still roamed around, scot-free?

As society, are we trying to numb the sharp and painful jibes of rape and gender violence by categorising Nirbhaya’s case as the rarest of the rarest? Do we not consider all rapes as rarest?

Aren’t they all equally heinous?

I still remember what my driver told me about what he felt about the rape of Hyderabad doctor last year. He was saddened by the heinous crime but what he said next really surprised me. My driver told said at least the criminals could have left her after raping her rather than taking the ‘extreme step’ of burning her body to ashes.

Have we normalised rape and consider a case an extreme one only when the victim is killed? Isn’t every rape, child molestation, sexual assault, mental harassment rare and extreme in their own way? How tolerant is our society to accept that marital rape is a crime?

Would Indian laws and society recognise that men can also be raped and not limit to the concept that men can be sodomised but not raped? Is our society open to the concept that men especially in the LGBTQIA+ community are vulnerable to such crimes? Would death penalty send a clear message? Is it a sustainable solution which would ensure no more incidents like these to happen again?

Amnesty International and The International Court of Justice condemned the death penalties of Nirbhaya’s convicts and pressed for systemic changes. Despite death penalty, the recent COVID-19 lockdown saw a spike in domestic violence cases against women. We also witnessed incident of ‘Bois locker room’ clearly showing the rampant sexist culture prevailing in every institute of our society.

We need to ask ourselves these questions

This further asks questions like why does someone commit a crime like rape, objectifies a teenager and what systemic changes are still required? Is rape an outcome of only lust and sexual desire? Or is it an exclusive outcome of patriarchy? Is it because power dynamics seemingly have gone out of control?

Considering that anyone from children to men and women can be sexually abused, shamed and raped, I would safely conclude that it is the feeling of entitlement. This feeling is associated with toxic power dynamics and the lack of fear of being caught that drives someone to commit such crimes.

Next, I would move to systemic changes required. Does change only involve tightening up our legal, judiciary and police forces? Is it only sensitising them so that the perpetrator does not feel they can get away so easily? Or is it also giving the survivor the means to report crimes without running from pillar to post, going through the ordeal of a never ending legal web?

A bigger, possibly effective systemic change would be the change of mindsets and elimination of the culture of entitlement that a rapist grows up in. This means apart from reflecting our family and social practices a lot needs to change in schools, teaching practice and the mindset of educators.

Maybe it stems from when they are young

As a former teacher I will strictly restrict this article to systemic changes that needs to be inculcated in school ecosystems. Changes that may ensure that a more gender inclusive and sensitive culture exists, where a child does not grow up with a sense of entitlement and toxic power.

Now many would ask what about poor children who don’t go to schools or parents who prefer home-schooling? Well the answers to those could be taken up in another article. Hence this limitation to my area of expertise that is school systems.

To understand the changes that needs to be incorporated in schools one needs to dive deep in the various stereotypes prevalent in schools. These often provide a fertile ground for the rape mindset to breed.

Patriarchy prevalent in India’s society translates into a hierarchy-based culture that is quite common in schools. It is always the adults and teachers who are right. And good children are those who listen and mutely obey. They do not question the adults, this sows the seeds of a docile character and pander to power dynamics since childhood.

Coupled with the rigid and archaic practices of isolating girls and boys from one another, lack of a gender sensitive curriculum, and unquestioned teaching practices adds to the toxic culture. But that isn’t all. What further fuels this culture is also the thought process, lack of gender sensitive teacher recruitment and the taboo around sex education. Combine all this and you get the toxic culture of veneration of machoism as the supreme power.

Acceptance of refusal

One of the most popular life lessons teachers impart is ‘sharing is caring.’ Nothing wrong in it but there is a nuance to it that I never thought of till I faced it.

I had a student who was very organised but one day she forgot to bring her pencil box. So she asked for a pencil from her classmate who had an extra one and he refused to share it. On a normal day, to save time, I would have cajoled him to share, considering she was not a regular defaulter and sharing stationary is no big deal. But that day, the girl did not accept his refusal and went on to elaborate that good friends share and care.

That’s when I understood how important it is to equally respect refusal. What that boy taught me was that his stationary was extremely personal to him and he had a right to refuse even though he had an extra pair.

To make the girl understand, I asked her how she would feel if I asked her to donate her favourite toy to someone who has no toys at all. That made her reflect.

Physical pain is not the only form of pain. Pain can also be emotional in nature and parting away with something as harmless like pencil can be emotional. Today it’s a case of sharing a small pencil to look benevolent among friends and teachers. Tomorrow it can be expecting to share one’s sexuality to look good as per society.

So, before it’s too late, we should also teach kids that accepting refusal without any grudges, and respecting consent goes hand in hand with ‘sharing is caring’. They also need to be taught to hear the word NO without expecting explanations

Punishments

Consequences and punishments are an integral part of the school routine. Some follow the archaic maxim of ‘spare the rod’ and spoil the child and promote corporal punishment that many schools have banned. Meanwhile others have shifted to giving consequences in terms of taking away privileges like playtime, art classes etc.

Amidst all this, we need to ask are we also teaching the misbehaving child important skills like reflection? Do they come to a point where they acknowledge or understand the wrongs that they did on their own and feel guilty? And if they grieve about their wrongdoings rather than us forcing our judgement and definitions of morality.

Self-reflection, self-acknowledgement and self-grievance can be transcendental in the journey of self-correction rather than guilt imposed on them. What’s the point of scolding kids and lecturing about morality when they will just listen to you because of your authority and do the same mischief again in a more cautious manner?

Also, another life skill would be to negotiate the corpus of punishment rather than punishing just for the sake of punishing. So, kids should understand that the quantum of punishment is proportionate to the seriousness of their crime.

Ask them what they did to deserve this

And this can only happen when teachers tell them that there is a scope for the punishment to be negotiated. That if they share their learnings, their plan to prevent future temptation and evidences of improvement post implementation of plan. This requires immense patience and non-biased conversations which even I failed on countless occasions.

However, the key learning would be important life skills like self-acknowledgement, self-guilt, self-healing, negotiation and self-correction. This often prevents kids from growing up as authoritative humans.

Lastly as teachers, we should also reflect about the issues that we punish kids for. What message are we giving the students when we pull out a girl during assembly just because the length of her skirt is above her knees? The message that goes out is a girl’s character is directly proportional to the length of her skirt. And skin show is beyond modesty which explains how nudity is used as a medium to objectify a woman’s body.

How many times have we seen boys being pulled out during an assembly for the length of his shorts? If skin show is equivalent to obscenity, then even boys should be asked to un-hem their shorts till knee length or below.

Thus, reflecting on the subtle messages sent to students will help teachers understand what issues need to be dealt with and what does not need fuss.

Separating Mars and Venus

Some schools practice the norm of having separate classrooms, separate sports period for boys and girls. Home science classes for girls but how many Indian boys schools offer this subject? What messages are the kids getting from this system?

Similarly, in almost all co-educational schools, the practice of making girls sit in separate rows from boys. And the girls’ rows often being the farthest from the classroom door is a very common practice. In fact, when we punish a boy, we punish him by making him sit with a girl!

On one hand, we teach children theories like all ‘humans are equal.’ But on the other, we contradict the same theory by segregating humans on the basis of gender. And by letting out the subtle message that yin and yang are meant to be in a different space of operation and cannot work together as equal partners. An outcome of this can also be the inculcation of male supremacy that boys are better than girls. Or even the opposite, which may lead to power dynamics from a young age.

Gender sensitisation of textbooks and lesson delivery

A lot of our teaching practices and resources like textbooks, toys need a rethinking of to how they promote sexism indirectly. Most textbooks and story books on prince, princess, and fairies have pictures of men in colours like black or purple associated with power and royalty. And the women are  dressed in softer colours like pink, blue and even silvery white associated with purity.

Indirectly the colour psychology being imposed is- men are the source of power and women that of purity, virginity and softness. Toys we give young toddler girls are generally soft toys like teddy bears in white or pink. And boys have access to robots and toys painted in metallic black or neon colours.

While teaching ‘professions,’ several textbooks portray a stereotypical image. For professions that require a higher physical strength like construction, farmers, truck or bus driving we almost only see men. Very rarely have I seen books or even teachers showing pictures of female scientists, male nurses, female military officers in combat roles, or even female pilots, or female construction workers.

The trend may be changing. But, as educators until and unless, we become conscious of the inherent sexism we are flooded with, the more time it will take to break the trend.

Teacher recruitment

Teacher recruitment in most Indian schools is not gender inclusive. In a society like ours where women are considered supplementary earners and not the primary breadwinner, teaching has seen a feminisation of this profession.

Female teachers are often considered easily available and affordable as staff at school. Quite often, this is because of the societal pressure of women with young kids having to stay home and not work erratic corporate hours.

So, what subtle message goes out to children in this case? That even though, mom works, she still has to rely on dad for financial comfort. Because dad earns more money as compared to the salary that teaching pays. This indirectly translates to power being shifted to the male earning member of the family.

Do you see men teaching literature in high school?

Even if some males joins teaching out of passion or the lack of options, how many male teachers have we seen teaching social science or literature? How many high school female math teachers have we seen?

We are a country where parents are obsessed with making their children either doctors or engineers. And in such cases, science takes precedence over liberal arts. It is considered the subject of intelligent kids and humanities the subject for academically weak or nonperforming kids.

That we rarely see high school female math teachers and male social science teachers gives birth to the power dynamics that STEM subjects are for boys. This leads to the belief that STEM subjects help boys prove their masculinity and their prowess to pursue well-paying STEM related careers. And that thoughtful liberal arts are meant for girls.

I am not saying that women should give up studying humanities and take up science to prove their power. However, educators, parents and children should understand that all subjects have their own level of tenacity and leads to well-paid careers if one pursues them passionately.

The first step starts with teaching being a well-paid job to make it lucrative for all. So the next time when you visit a school to admit your child, don’t just check on the infrastructure and swimming pool. Also subtly how much a teacher is paid and what part of your child’s school fees forms a part of teacher’s salaries?

But more importantly, know about the gender ratio of teachers in the school. If you admit your child in a school which charges a bomb but pays its teaching staff peanuts then you are equally responsible as a parent to promote misogyny in schools.

Editor’s Note: This piece is a part of a two-part series written by the author highlighting issues with the school systems. The second and last part of the same will be published soon.

Picture credits: Pexels

An educator and a dreamer, I dream about a society where human beings are a

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