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For many of Nepal’s schools, a ‘good’ girl is one whose hair is neatly parted in the middle and plaited, whose skirt is long enough to cover her scandalous knees, is clad in camisoles and bloomers over her underwear, with no ‘distracting’ mehendi and piercings, non-threaded eyebrows, has limited interactions with males, and is generally submissive, meek, and obedient.
Anyone who does not conform to these rigid standards is often scolded, publically humiliated, and even slut-shamed. Under the guise of discipline, schools create arbitrary moral standards, propagate a culture of victim blaming, and encourage repressive gender binary norms.
As children, we are taught that our clothes and mannerisms reflect our moral dispositions and dictate our worth. Even a slight deviation from this ‘standard’ appearance invites unwarranted accusations of ‘distracting the boys’ or ‘showing off to them’. In doing so, schools normalize the degradation and humiliation of young girls for our appearance, which is already under assault in the outside world. They implicitly blame women for any acts of sexual harassment, defend the objectification of women, and justify the male gaze -- the notion that women exist and assert themselves to cater to the sexualizing gaze of a heterosexual man. When women are taught to take the responsibility for the male gaze, because ‘boys will be boys’, no responsibility falls whatsoever on the men.
This culture of victim-blaming, fed to us in our formative years, can manifest into a more pervasive rape culture. If children are taught that a 13-year-old girl ‘lacks character’ because her skirt ends above her knees, they can grow up to become adults who ask ‘Why was she wearing a short dress?’ or ‘Why was she outside during such late hours?’ to any instances of harassment or rape. Our teachers themselves introduce us to the notion of ‘she’s asking for it’, normalizing rape culture, the institutionalization of which is perhaps the biggest failure on the part of our schools.
Along with moral policing, schools also exercise strict gender policing -- they actively perpetuate traditional gender norms and gatekeep the ideals of femininity and masculinity by not allowing girls to cut their hair short, having skirts for school uniforms, and delegating girls to decorate any school event. On the other hand, boys are burdened with physical tasks, are expected to excel in sports, and are the primary victims of corporal punishment. Once, a teacher condemned the girls in our class for behaving like boys -- we were playful, noisy, and not agreeable.
“When I begged my sports teacher to let me play cricket, my teacher refused, saying that cricket was only for guys,” recalled Priyata Bhatta, a graduate of St. Xavier’s School, Jawalakhel. “There was no effort to form a girls’ cricket team and I was unable to convince them to form one despite having pushed really hard for it during my school years.”
Similarly, an alumnus from Graded English Medium School (GEMS) said, “One of my female friends was actively discouraged by a teacher to take up guitar lessons for her extracurriculars.”
Such gendering also seeps into academic spaces. Anudit Basnet, an alum of Capital College and Research Center (CCRC) said, “Teachers labeled girls as dumb because most of the physics toppers were boys, as if they were not expecting answers from those students simply because they were girls.”
Gendering in schools is not only based on the orthodoxy of what constitutes gender performance but also, more perniciously, operates on the gender binary, which completely erases non-binary or gender fluid identities. In our uniforms, toilets, exam forms, assembly lines, changing rooms, and the spaces we (are allowed to) occupy, students are categorized into either side of the binary -- a girl or a boy. This refusal to recognize anyone outside of the binary adds to the transphobia entrenched in our cultural sensibilities at schools. Hence, entitled cis-gendered, straight students callously use derogatory words to reduce the entire identity of a closeted classmate to a slur.
Schools have also failed to draft an inclusive sex education curriculum, blatantly ignoring sexual and gender minorities within the student body. Although, we were lucky to receive some form of sex education, we were taught that sex constitutes intercourse between a male and a female, to the exclusion of everyone else.
“There was only a cis-gendered heterosexual abstinence-based approach in sex education,” said Bhatta from St Xavier’s. “That is perhaps why I do not know anyone who came out of the closet in my school years.”
A student from Brihaspati Vidyasadan told us that their sex education classes consisted merely of contraception, while concepts such as consent, good touch and bad touch, pedophilia, and what constitutes abuse were not taught.
Sex education, which is indispensable in teaching students about rape culture and consent, is often reduced to a class on human anatomy, filled with giggles and taboos. The abstinence-based approach, especially in Catholic schools, fails to fully educate curious adolescents in their formative years. Virgin-praising, laced with religious ideals, is gendered, conflating young girls’ dignity with their virginity. The resulting value system not only compromises the sexual autonomy of women but also extends the narrative to shame and humiliate survivors of rape and sexual violence.
In school ‘counseling’ sessions, girls are taught to protect themselves.
“We used to be told that no one but our husbands can touch our private parts and that we must protect it from everyone else,” said another St Xavier’s alum. “No similar session taught consent and choice.”
Such values imply that our partners are entitled to our bodies.
The fact that these sessions are only targeted towards girls also creates the impression that they are solely our burden to bear. This builds an extremely gendered narrative around human rights issues like sexual abuse, harassment, and marital rape while makes it easier for men, more so than it already is, to shy away from their responsibility to fight sexism and systemic sexual abuse against women and gender minorities.
Menstruation classes too are only aimed at girls, exempting men from conversations surrounding women’s reproductive health. When schools intentionally distance boys from menstrual awareness, and fail to normalize periods, they grow up to stigmatize menstruation. These topics become taboo and ‘period’ becomes an unutterable word, expressed through uncomfortable gestures and newspaper-covered pad exchanges.
“A male teacher teaching Health Studies told us that period blood is black and impure,” shared Isha Sharma, an alum of Pathshala School.
“Male teachers would shy away from teaching about female reproductive health, saying female students already know better than them,” an alum from Paragon Public School said.
When almost half the population is kept in the dark about menstruation since schooling, it is no wonder that workplaces today fail to endorse female-friendly policies.
A gendered divide
Today, as adult women, when we explore and assert ourselves by expressing our femininity and sexuality, even through make-up and fashion, we are crippled by a deep sense of guilt and embarrassment. Perhaps, this guilt stems directly from the same sexual morality and body policing that schools unabashedly exercise in Nepal.
We occupy the same physical spaces in schools as our male counterparts; yet, our experiences in these spaces are invariably different. We are bound by contrasting gender norms and we face different sets of discriminations. Discourses sharing these different perspectives are necessary, and more importantly, normal. Interactions to understand each other’s positions are important for us to unlearn our subconscious, internalized biases. These conversations help us deconstruct the stereotypes and false narratives that have been fed to us. However, we are not allowed these discussions as interactions between girls and boys are unnecessarily stigmatized and heavily discouraged. Girls with male friends are often labeled promiscuous and targeted by teachers for ‘shameful behavior’.
“Boys and girls were separated by columns in class and talking to the opposite side would place one in the teachers’ bad books,” said an alum of Paragon Public School. Another alum from the same school added, “Boys and girls were separated into separate sections, taken to trips separately, and even borrowing stationary from one another was disapproved of.”
An alumnus from Triyog School said that their school field trip to Pokhara was cancelled with teachers saying that “they did not want to return from the trip with grandkids.”
Discouraging healthy interactions promotes ignorance about prejudices and the subtle microaggressions encountered by women and gender minorities. At the same time, we remain unaware of our male peers’ struggle with toxic masculinity inside the stoicism of changing rooms, competitiveness within sports teams, the pervasiveness of physical punishment, and the shaming of displays of emotional vulnerability.
Girls should be encouraged to interact with men from a young age, so that we learn to negotiate and assert ourselves in the patriarchal structures of our future professional lives, especially in politics and non-conventional careers where women have to challenge the existing system in order to succeed. By stigmatizing normal interactions, our schools are creating another glass ceiling.
Our schools have shied away from responsibilities, as the primary institution of socialization, of fighting the patriarchy and enabling students to deconstruct and unlearn patriarchal conditioning. They are instead complicit in creating a culture of gendering, and ingraining sexism and misogyny in children and young adults. And with this reality, what hope can we have for the creation of an equal society -- one that belongs equally to women and all gender minorities?
After all, half the sky belongs to us too.
Arya Gautam Arya Gautam is an undergraduate student of biology at New York University, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. She is an alumnus of St Xavier's School, Jawalakhel.
Ameesha Rayamajhi Ameesha Rayamajhi is a law and social science student at NALSAR University of Law, India.
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