I’ve just come across a link to Feministe‘s post on gender-segregated classrooms. Eesha, the author, has just discovered that the practice of separating the genders at the elementary level is on the rise, and is understandably concerned at the trend. Quite apart from forcibly dividing all children into two genders when most cultures traditionally recognise at least three, this system forces children to identify themselves — and more importantly, each other — as gendered entities, rather than as people, peers, or in fact, as friends. Most commentators agree with Eesha that sculpting masculinties and femininities onto elementary school children is a worryingly regressive practice, as is the attempt to consolidate gender as a binary.
I don’t disagree. Indeed, I find the decision to segregate young children on the basis of post-pubescent gendered behaviour irrational, arbitrary, and the sign of an unhealthy social obsession with other people’s genitals. And I am not entirely sure the ‘men’ and ‘women’ in kindergarten need separate spaces to accommodate their different learning styles. This might be true to a certain extent — I have exactly zero expertise in this field and couldn’t possibly comment. However, if the different way girls and boys are socialised makes it difficult for them to study together, then changing the way — not encouraging it with segregated classrooms — seems to be solution. But the emphasis here seems to be on familiarising children with a teen/adult problem, probably so they can adapt better to its inequalities when they grow up. Solutions are messy, controversial and hard, after all. Indoctrination is easy.
What does one do, though, when four twelve-year olds stand up in front of educators, policy makers and a feminist Nobel Laureate economist, and demand they be assured of girls’ only schools in the immediate future, or they would have to consider dropping out? Absolutely every single urban feminist I’ve spoken to have, at this point in the narrative, declared the poor girls brainwashed patriarchal subjects, complicit in the politics of their own subjugation, because as poor little village girls, they are weak and disempowered, and know no better. These men and women are a large part of why I’m so contemptuous of modern feminism.
These twelve-year olds from the villages of Bengal are not ‘disempowered’ little puppets, peering blindly at the shiny modern world through the clouds of their rural stupidity. These girls are the daughters of agricultural labourers and owners of tiny, struggling local businesses, who cannot afford to live in or commute to places which have good, safe roads and an array of schools to choose from. So they attend the closest public schools, most of which are located a few kilometres away from their poor/low-caste neighbourhoods, and closer to the village centres, where the high-caste or affluent people live. Mostly, they have to walk to school along the ridges of paddy fields, or along lonely mud tracks, which become little muddy insect-infested streams during the monsoons. Nearly all these girls — especially once they move towards the end of middle-school and no longer look like asexual children — are harassed on their way to and from school, which they try to combat by moving in groups. However, street harassment — except in individual cases — is nothing compared to the harassment from their male classmates.
“I was asked to repeat a few things they say to us, so you understand”, said one girl, “but I won’t because I think you understand anyway”. And we do. It’s not merely sexual taunts that these pre-teens face. It’s also gendered slur — constant mockery and ridicule because they’re girls and they’re in school, and how everyone knows girls are too stewpid to understand any of the serious stuff that is being taught. They’re just taking up space, because the government sees fit to coddle female fools with things they can never master. “It didn’t use to be this vicious,” a teacher told me. “It just gets worse the better girls keep doing at the elementary, secondary and high-school level. There’s so much anger and frustration amongst the boys — even little boys — that female students do better at almost all levels. Those too young to understand why their older brothers and cousins are furious with their female classmates, copy the pattern anyway”.
There is also a strong element of class. Tapashi, who is now in her final year of college, described how her parents had been insulted and abused for not taking their impractical and thoughtless daughter in hand. Tapashi’s waywardness was in insisting on an education past the legally mandatory 5 years of elementary ed (as it was then). Not everyone who opposed her plans was angered by her class-inappropriate aspirations. Some thought her remarkably selfish, making her parents pay for books and examination fees when they couldn’t even feed the family regularly. Others were angry that she stood in the way of her brother’s education — supporting a high-school education for both children was impossible for her parents — because, as they said, “At least a boy will do something with his education. What will you do with yours?”
“It’s not that they thought girls shouldn’t study,” she explained, “their own daughters are finishing school — some of them are working. It’s because I am a lower-caste woman. We are only supposed to work in the fields and brick-kilns, right? Or in cottage industries. How dare I want to be a school teacher? That was their problem”.
And finally, there are the teachers and administrators. Most state primary and secondary schools are still built with a male student body in mind, although an all-male student body has ceased to be the case for a century. The administration’s opinion is that ‘these are all children’, which is an admirably egalitarian point of view, except that they’re not physiologically the same kind of children. Some feminists demand we reject even the differences in our biological engineering in our quest for equality, but this is difficult for some final-year elementary school girls, and most middle school girls, who begin their menstrual cycle suddenly — sometimes for the first time — while at school. And these schools don’t have a separate girls’ loo for the girls to go into and change, or wash up a little. When funds for building a girls’ bathroom were sanctioned recently, terrible planning built these loos far away from a water source, so a girl would have to signal her need to use that particular apartment by walking to the well or hand-pump, and drawing water for her needs. One might call them coy or claim they have an unhealthy relationship with their bodies for shying away from broadcasting every instance of defecation or menstrual onset, but such amateur diagnoses does nothing to solve the culturally-embedded embarassment associated with such acts.
And then there is the usual problem of lack of female teachers in the interiors and hinterlands — many women refuse transfers to these areas because they feel unsafe, thus populating schools with male teachers who call upon boys in class more often than they do girls, and openly ignore girls in maths or science lessons.
So when these girls demand an all-girls’ school, they’re not trying to alienate or segregate themselves into an invisible disempowered minority. They’re demanding a safe space where they won’t be harassed or discomfited or ignored, and worse, publicly shamed and reprimanded or even assaulted when they fight back. They are, in fact, demanding the tools of empowerment. And they’re unapologetic and forceful in their demands. When told that the School Council thinks segregating classrooms would affect future generations of female students negatively, one of them retorted, “Ask them to think about us first! We are already here!”
And so they are. It’s a difficult proposition to be faced by determined young girls who want to use the tool of segregation to their own advantage, because the state and society has failed spectacularly to provide them with it. And it takes a lot of nerve to then tell them how they’re playthings of patriarchy for wanting something that essentialises them, because the way they see it, they have been so utterly essentialised and reduced to their gender already, that only a homogenised gendered space can allow them to be full human beings. And they intend to get this space and stay in it, till they’ve armed themselves with enough education to face the world, and stare its harassments down.
And then they want to step out.