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Indian schools often take active part in moral policing/ honour-based abuse, especially of girls who are not just shamed for their dressing choices, but can also be in real danger for talking to boys and 'falling in love'.
Indian schools often take active part in moral policing/ honour-based abuse, especially of girls who are not just shamed for their dressing choices, but can also be in real danger for talking to boys and ‘falling in love’.
Recently, I watched ‘What will people say?’ on Netflix, India. This 2017 movie revolves around a girl named Nisha, who belongs to an immigrant family from Pakistan and lives in Norway. The movie highlights the continuum of honour-based violence prevalent in our society that often straddles from slut-shaming to killing.
Nisha, a 16-year-old girl growing up in Norway, in keeping with her adolescent sexual desires, asks a guy from her school to visit her house. But soon, Nisha’s conservative father catches both of them together and starts beating her. However, when the child support system of Nisha’s school gets to know about this, they keep Nisha in a safe house and provide her with all kinds of social, emotional as well infrastructural support.
This might be just a movie scene, however, falling in love during adolescence is a very common phenomenon. However, what was astonishing to me was the way the Norwegian education system supported Nisha, who was caught with a boy by Nisha’s father. She was kept in a safe house when the neighbours reported that Nisha’s father was beating her, the school arranged for counselling sessions with her parents, and was given complete autonomy to be a part of decisions that concerns her.
How the Indian education system reacts to love and femininity is a critical question here, to the natural sexual instincts of teenagers, as well as to such instances of honour-based abuse. Are our schools ready to provide a support system like the Norwegian/ Finnish education system for their students who are victims of such violence?
Falling in love in India is often considered an act of transgressing the honour boundaries of the family and society. Criminalising love in schools hence often becomes a gateway to safeguard the ‘honour’ of the family/society.
In simple words, honour refers to “The morally correct deeds of an individual which can give respect to the individual, family and society”. The strict boundaries of these honour-based ways of living often transform into practices of moral policing in the society that tries to control women’s lives within the limits of the sanctioned honour codes.
Schools often become the active sites of moral policing/ honour-based abuse in India. Girls in schools are often ridiculed and humiliated for applying nail polish, makeup, wearing a short skirt, or even for a fancy hairstyle. Furthermore, talking to boys and falling in love often hits another level of honour violation in Indian schools.
What if Nisha was studying in an Indian school and her teacher would have got to know about her affair with a boy? Not surprisingly, there are many Nishas in Indian schools, who instead of getting any support from the education system, are either suspended from school or are reported to the parents.
For instance, two high school students in Kerala were expelled from school for exchanging a hug, as the teacher comprehended the hug as a sexual slur. Abira Banerjee, a class 11 girl from Kolkata was not allowed to participate in the school fest because she was caught talking to a boy backstage. Such instances of honour-based violence/abuse are so entrenched in our society that they may even lead to serious crimes like killing. For instance, a class 11 boy in Haryana, who fell in love with a girl in his school was beaten to death by his girlfriend’s brother.
Vilification, slut-shaming, or even killing are all patriarchal tactics to confine women’s sexuality within the limits of the honour-based way of living. Such tactics often become the foundations of moral policing in schools within the lieu of “ what will people say”.
The phrase ‘what will people say’ itself has a very public connotation, highlighting the everyday societal surveillance over girls. However, why does our education system that is often involved in appropriating private discourses as a public moral correcting agenda, shy away from such conversations when it comes to child support?
Research suggests that students do well in school if they are provided with a supportive and enriched environment at their homes. Yet, there are strict boundaries in the Indian education system between the home and school lives of the students. Teachers and the school administration hardly follow up any problems a child might be facing at home, often tagging it as a personal issue.
During my teacher training days, I got to know about a girl who had been beaten by her parents as she was caught talking to a boy over the phone. I told the class teacher about this. But she rejected the problem by saying “what can we do in this, it is their personal matter”.
This raises the question: if what happens inside a student’s house is a personal matter, how come the length of a skirt becomes a public matter? The ever-changing dynamics of the public-private boundaries further creates the paradox of honour, and it becomes an act of convenience to shy away from the problem of honour-based abuse and its manifestations in a student’s life.
A child spends much of their time in school. However, often the Indian education system abandons the child in misery and perpetuates the vicious cycle of honour-based abuse in society.
“I am sorry Papa, I won’t do it again,” said Nisha in the movie, during the counselling sessions with her parents.
One of the most important aspects of honour-based violence and moral policing relies on the premise of blaming the victim itself. A report by Human Watch titled “Everyone blames me” illustrates the perilous conditions of women, whereby, sexual assault survivors are blamed and humiliated for being the victim of such offences. The report highlights numerous barriers to justice and support services for sexual assault services in India.
Lack of gendered guidance through the school curriculum, constant moral policing by teachers, lack of emotional and psychological support from the education system often make girls feel guilty of their doings that tends to justify honour-based abuse in society.
Despite the guidelines by the Central Board of Secondary Education that makes it mandatory for schools to have counsellors, according to a report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), only 3% of private schools have any appointment records. Moreover, the situation of government schools is even worse.
Furthermore, however, the Child Rights Commission provides provisions for grievance redressal and filling a complaint but I do wonder – who will file such complaints; the child, who is mostly unaware and incapable of handling the red tape mechanism, or the teachers who are mostly themselves involved in guarding the morals and honour codes of the society? In addition, does a child even know whom to reach out to, or does our education system provide any kind of guidance for what to do in such situations?
Another crucial question remains that, even if somehow a complaint is filed against the parents, do we have enough resources to take care of the child? Nisha ran away from her home, at the end of the movie as she knew she had a support system available. But can a girl in India even think of firstly defying the honour codes, then taking a stand to move out of the continuum of everyday abuse?
Under section 34 Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, there are provisions that “The State Government may establish and maintain either by itself or in association with the voluntary organizations, children’s homes, in every district or group of districts, as the case may be, for the reception of child in need of care and protection during the pendency of any inquiry and subsequently for their care, treatment, education, training, development and rehabilitation”.
However, most often the availability and conditions prevalent in such children’s homes are very miserable, including poor security, infrastructure, and basic facilities. A confidential report by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences highlights that girls in a children’s home in Muzaffarnagar (Uttar Pradesh) had no access to open spaces and are literally being locked up in their wards. Several girls further reported sexual assault and violence inside the children homes.
With innumerable structural barriers and a lack of support from the Indian education system, girls often remain trapped in the vicious cycle of honour-based violence. What to do, where to go, whom to reach out to; all these questions often remain unanswered that further perpetuates the constant moral policing in the education system and the fear of “what will people say” in the society.
Finland’s education and child support system sets a remarkable example for many countries in the world. Protection of private and family life is an important aspect of Finland’s education system. The Finnish Child Welfare Act in 2008, was a landmark judgement that emphasizes child protection as well as child participation. The child is allowed to influence the matters that concern him/herself. The strong in and out of school monitoring and support system strengthens the protection as well intervention provisions for the Finnish students.
In order to protect a child’s dignity, mental as well as physical health, and break the continuous gendered violence of “what will people say”, it is high time to call for action against moral policing and honour-based abuse in India, whereby the Indian education system can play a pivotal role by raising awareness, and proper psychological, emotional, and infrastructural support to the students.
Image source: a still from the film What Will People Say?
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Namrata Shokeen is Research Author at Department of Sociology, Monk Prayogshala read more...
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions at all times.
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