Gender is a construct created to differentiate between males and females based on a set of identity traits. To start, it is important to acknowledge its difference from sex, where the distinction is made based on ‘genitalia … or chromosomal typing before birth.’ In our society, almost all behaviour can be described in terms of masculinity and femininity. The way we define such traits is the result of centuries-old patriarchal traditions of asserting male dominance over female submission. This means that bravery, innovation, strength, etc- traditionally masculine traits- tend to be respected more than the feminine ones of humility, docility, vulnerability, etc.
From considering arts and humanities more feminine and science as a ‘breadwinning’ occupation and therefore more masculine, to educational materials and media propagating submissive girls and heroic men, we can see the role of gender everywhere. While gender-based roles tend to vary between cultures, this divide is a fairly universal one, and the blurring of these lines tends to be punished by a society obsessed with definitive stratifications between genders. Women showing attributes like aggression in sports or assertiveness in her education are often told to ‘go back to the kitchen’ and return to their places in society. The term ‘little girl’ is quite often used as an insult towards men having more ‘feminine’ traits, such as showing vulnerability or not living up to an impossibly high standard of masculinity- especially in sports. This issue, as we can see, is not confined to one group of people or one particular gender- it’s something we all deal with, and is something that starts in our education.
Gender in school plays a huge role in shaping young children. In an Indian context, such disparity plays an even bigger role. From our birth, these differences are clear: a boy’s birth is often celebrated while female infanticide rates remain high, for example. Especially in rural areas, girls are very often pulled out of school once they hit puberty, due not only to menstrual taboos about ‘impurity’ but also because they are not thought to need education (with the more worthy pursuits being domestic). Beyond the more blatant forms of sexism in education, urban environments show more nuanced differences.
Modesty, for example, is a deeply rooted word used to police girls in school- the shame associated with a short skirt, the stories about ‘bad girls’ who wear revealing clothes, etc. But it is also important to point out the effects that the Indian school system has on boys as well. There have been many stories of homophobic slurs thrown at boys who wear earrings, or anyone who doesn’t fit into gender norms. Gender-based segregation is a very prominent part of education, especially for secondary school and further.
Our understanding of gender and its impact is also informed by the kind of sex education our school provides. This environment separates those with male and those with female sexual organs as soon as puberty hits- with each having a separate talk on the changes in their bodies. This system means that neither side has a full understanding of the other, and it reinforces an already obvious divide and misunderstanding between the two groups.
While there has certainly been more understanding and equality in terms of gender, especially in urban schools, the gap is still quite large. However, progress has and will continue to be made, for both co-educational and same-sex schools. Problematic systemic issues like the patriarchy, though deeply entrenched in our society, can be dismantled one step at a time. And this process starts in the classroom.
This blog post was written by our intern Nayantara Narayanan, a 12th grade student of Mallya Aditi International School.