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Moral Policing and Patriarchy in Schools and Colleges

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The bail of a rape-accused student, Utsav Kadam from IIT Guwahati on the grounds of him being the state’s “future asset” has sent shockwaves across the country. The case is a grave reminder of ruthless patriarchy in schools and colleges. A lot of citizens and activists have condemned this phallocentric ruling made by the single-judge bench of Justice Ajit Borthakur. This is, moreover, not the first time a student has been convicted of assault. India has seen numerous cases of male students violating the rights of their female classmates. 

Why do Educated Male Students Fail to Respect their Female Peers?

Along with this judgement, what also needs to be reflected upon is why literate students end up committing such brutal and heinous crimes. The answer is quite straightforward – schools and colleges often become enablers of misogyny through teachers who frequently moral-police women and unconsciously teach male students to do the same. In fact, instances of patriarchy in schools are an incredibly common sight. 

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Schools and colleges are not always a rosy mosaic of happy memories with friends. It is a bitter truth that manifestations of our patriarchal society can be traced easily even in educational institutions – places that are meant to nurture and enlighten young minds. In a country where the majority of men, including ones as qualified as advocates, blame a woman’s choice of going out at night for a heinous crime like rape (M.L. Sharma and A.P. Singh on Nirbhaya case), it becomes important to analyse the role of schools in shaping thoughts on gender. After all, an average person spends a considerable portion of their formative years in school and also begins to develop critical thinking there.

How is there a Systematic Enablement of Patriarchy in Schools?

A place that should illuminate people often reinforces prejudices. The virtue and sincerity of female students are tied to the length of their skirts. A short skirt is meant to “impress” male students and bangs or mascara are a clear sign of women “going astray”. Men are ridiculed for keeping long hair and their masculinity questioned. Teaching male students and teachers to not stare at a woman’s legs is never considered, and skirts are often changed to kurtas instead. 

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Girls are always told to put their legs together and “sit like a lady” because there are male teachers on the campus according to whose choice a girl’s body has to be tailored. A girl is often reprimanded for going alone into a male teacher’s staff room due to safety concerns, but are equal efforts made to run background checks on male faculty members before hiring them? Intrusions into a student’s personal space run so deep that sometimes school bags are raided and if “questionable” objects like a lip balm or comb are found, they are confiscated because, in patriarchal confines, something as necessary as hydrating your lips could be an invitation to men. 

Schoolgirls are often categorized into “of poor character and reputation” or “good” based on how much they speak to their male classmates or comply with the set patriarchal standards. The ones who choose to comply with them, consciously or unconsciously are lauded and cited as examples of ideal students.

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As a result, the viciously constructed categories of “good” and “of poor character” pave their way into the psyche of a woman and hampers meaningful friendships. Not only do such remarks rob female students of their agency and individuality but also condition them to frown upon other women who choose to adopt different sets of ideals. Thus, a systematic breakdown of female solidarity often ensues in schools and the infamous saying “women are women’s worst enemies” gets institutionalised.

What do Schools Teach Male Students by Controlling Women?

The worst consequence of moral policing female students and enforcing patriarchy in schools is that it makes male students believe that a woman’s choices about her body are purely governed by her fascination towards men and that she is the sole catalyst for a crime that may happen to her. Frequently made sexist statements in the classroom like, “as a girl, you should behave decently”, “girls should not misbehave“, make male students believe that they are entitled to behave in any way they want and that their gender is not accountable for crimes against women.

In Mumbai, a prestigious IB (International Baccalaureate) school suspended a group of 14-15-year-old boys for making sexually explicit and violent comments about their female classmates on a WhatsApp group. The chat even had brutal words like “rape” and “gangbang”, afraid of which some female students had stopped attending school. It could be attributed to the way male students often see teachers trying to control women and their choices.

A fragile young mind tends to quickly internalise everything that is fed into it, which is why sexism or moral policing in school in the name of decorum can have deep consequences. 

Schools Hamper Healthy Communication Between Genders

Often, schools also give no room for different genders to participate in a healthy conversation and subsequently respect, understand each other. Male students and female students are asked to sit in separate rows in classrooms, play on different grounds, not have lunch together, etc. Teachers act like spies, waiting to “catch” a couple or a male-female duo and moral police them. Even innocent signs of affection between them like shaking hands are viewed through a sexual lens. 

In 2017, a private school in Kerala suspended two high school students for a “prolonged hug”, months before one of them had to appear for board exams. A strict enforcement code like that suppresses genuine feelings and gives rise to a dangerous and inflamed curiosity. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that such a code could lead to students becoming extremely judgmental. 

Sex education is the Need of the Hour but Schools Continue to Deny it 

The school curriculum has not been able to enlighten students properly either. While the New Education Policy 2020 is praised for its practical approach and flexibility, it excludes a comprehensive sex education that could help students in learning about their own body, consent, safe sex and break the taboo around sex. Sex education, in fact, seems to be far from being realized in a country where some schools even tiptoe around the subject of menstruation.

When I was in 7th grade, my school had organized an awareness seminar on menstruation for middle school. However, the purpose of initiating such a seminar was completely lost as no male teacher or male staff was allowed to attend it. Given such ignorance, it isn’t surprising to see boys using menstruation as punch lines or responding to a woman’s strong assertion or disapproval of an opinion with, “Calm down, seems like it’s that time of the month”.  

Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s blackboards were supposed to make a student’s life “bright”. Given such toxicity and patriarchy in schools, are educational institutions really enlightening us or are they metaphorically blinding us?

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