With the judgments on triple talaq and right to privacy and the verdict in the Gurmeet Ram Rahim case, the past few days have reinvigorated the conversation on women’s safety and gender equality. These cases have shone the light on some of the social structures and practices that work to threaten constitutionally enshrined principles of equality and justice.
In the midst of numerous such cases of discrimination and oppression on the basis of gender and the discourses that ensue, the question that we as a society need to ask ourselves is: Why and how do so many people think of one gender as inferior to another? The practice of one gender dominating over the other and, of one’s gender dominating one’s entire self, needs to be looked into. We are not born patriarchal; we are socialised into becoming so.
The process that imbues patriarchy into our minds and subsequently in our attitudes and behaviour begins early in life. It starts before we can even make sense of our existence. It starts when we are assigned blue and pink before we learn to recognise colours. It starts when we are barely able to speak and boys are asked not to “cry like girls”. It starts when little girls are handed kitchen sets and boys are mocked if they show interest in pots and pans. It starts when some enter school wearing skirts and some shorts and both are taught to act differently from each other. It goes on when girls and boys are made to take up subjects based not on their interest or aptitude, but their gender. Perhaps the deepening of such a gendering of subjects has led to one of India’s premier universities, the University of Delhi, having Psychology Honours offered in most women’s colleges while boys wanting to study the subject are left with little choice. This is why we need feminism in our schools. Places where we learn the basics of grammar and science should also be places where we learn the basics of co-existence. We need children to know that equality of all genders should be a reality. We repose our faith for a better tomorrow in the young. More importantly, they deserve to live their lives as naturally as they want to, and not by norms made to hierarchise their existence.
Schools are the first places where children are exposed to and interact with people with various identities. At these abodes of learning, enforcing gendered identities and roles is detrimental to not just children but also to society as a whole. Conveying to girls that their bodies serve as “distractions” tends to alienate their physicality from their being. They begin to question, undermine, and negate their own selves. Schools, thus, become agents of violating individuals’ sense of dignity rather than upholding it. The absence of such scornful comments for their male counterparts drives home the essence of patriarchy. On the other hand, it makes boys aware that they are in a privileged position, for their bodies are not meant for scrutiny or reprimand. The moment when children enter primary classes should be when a conversation on gender must start. Acknowledging this identity is the first step to doing away with false assumptions and generalisations based on it.
Moreover, the separation of girls and boys as two distinct groups as soon as they move out of the classroom (in some cases even in classroom sitting arrangements) needs to be reconsidered. Whether in the science lab or on the sports field, choices, opportunities, and affiliations cannot be pre-determined by gender. Students of all genders working or playing together as a team shouldn’t be an unusual spectacle. It must be seen as natural because it is natural for human beings of different identities to cooperate and coexist. I recollect being called to the school’s seminar room in Class V, along with all girls, and being spoken to about menstruation. On returning to the classroom and being asked by the boys about why we had been called, we found ourselves being secretive about the meeting. It was not because all of us instinctively thought of menstruation as something to be hidden; it was perhaps the result of the segregation that took place before a conversation on a normal bodily process. To keep boys out of the room that day probably led to keeping a lot of them away from understanding a gender other than their own.
The existence of stereotypes makes it very difficult for innovation and reason to find space. Feminism could be a powerful tool that lets children shed stereotypes that they may hold and question those of others. A world free of prejudice and generalisation would be amenable to progress in the truest sense.
The need of the hour is to introduce feminism in schools, both in terms of curriculum and practice. Sessions on principles of mutual respect and equality must be made a regular affair in schools. Inculcating gender equality in children could go a long way towards ridding society of regressive mindsets, attitudes, and behaviours. Needless to say, this shall prepare the ground for children to not just be better students but also better citizens and eventually better human beings. That is the least we can do to be able to call ourselves citizens of a “free and equal” nation.