Girls to Girls, Boys to Boys

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.


  1. I doubt that it’s a phenomenon that people who have never set foot in rural India can fully imagine. On my first visit to Chitrakoot, for instance, I was overwhelmed with the impression that 50% of the population were absent from the discourse. I spent five days there, and was approached socially many, many times, but NEVER spoke with anyone who was female (except for some brief interactions with the professional staff at Arogyadham). The boys who came into the street to greet me at Vidya Dham Secondary School (leaving the girls within the schoolyard) wished me well, on our leave-taking, saying “Come back and see us! With a beautiful wife! And two sons!” I would like to return to Chitrakoot and see those boys, with a self-respecting, intellectual wife and two confident, inquisitive, venturesome daughters. These boys cum men (or perhaps men cum boys is a more accurate description) are nice people but they’ve been twisted by a social system that never permits them to experience girls as human beings; to them, girls and women remain mysterious objects, one of which, someday, one marries. So, I can see the impetus for segregated schools, and believe that these ought to happen. But I also can see the tragedy of segregated schools, which in a way will only reinforce this terrible status quo.

    • Seeing the tragedy of segregated schools is not difficult — indeed, the School Council is loathe to aid the process by creating gender-based classrooms (plus, there’s all that paperwork) — but if masculinity is the unchallenged norm even in mixed-gender classrooms, most of which are frequently led by men, where might the girls find, quite literally, a room of their own?

      One of the more recent ‘solutions’ that the Ministry and Departments of Education, and the Depts. of Family Welfare and Women and Children, I think, have come up with are residential schools for the daughters of people below a certain level of income. This means daughters of migratory labourers, who usually travel with their families and hence miss out on enormous chunks of the academic year, would have a place to live in while their parents travelled during sowing and reaping seasons (and on other temporary/seasonal jobs). They wouldn’t have to worry about safe commutes, threats at home, being denied the time to study because of housework, and so on. It sounds like a great model, but we all know how badly things can go wrong — or be made to go wrong — even in posh boarding schools catering to rich and powerful families, right?

      On a completely unrelated note, is Chitrakoot really overrun with monkeys?

  2. Of course, when we are talking about kids who are already 12, they are perfectly capable of making a decision what school to attend and their reasons for doing so should be respected. The girls you are talking about are obviously very bright, independent, and they know what they need best.

    The kind of gender-based schools I object to are the ones where kids are pushed to by parents who do it either because they are afraid the kids will start having sex “too soon” (whatever that means) or because they are following some outlandish theory of parenting. Such theories crop up like mushrooms after the rain in societies where people have nothing better to do that control their kids’ every move.

    I’m a great believer in individual rights. If a child makes an independent decision on which school to attend, I don’t think parents shouldn’t mess with that. If they do, they shouldn’t complain later on that their kids are immature and dependent well into their 30ies.

    • “I’m a great believer in individual rights. If a child makes an independent decision on which school to attend, I don’t think parents shouldn’t mess with that.”

      The opposing point of view, of course, is that children don’t have a wide or deep enough knowledge or experience base to make such important decisions for themselves. And then there’s the other valid objection, that children in authoritarian societies — or from strict, rule-bound families or cultural groups or neighbourhoods — tend to make pro-hegemonic, pro status quo choices, simply because their socialisation has excluded the possibility of alternatives.

      I am all for children making choices and demanding they be met, especially when these choices are not about the dinner menu or back-to-school shopping lists, but the problem here, I think, is the stark — and frankly quite alarming — reality that no matter how confidently these girls insist their demands be met, the state simply hasn’t the resource or the political will to meet them. The message these girls are getting from us, basically, is “A for effort! Well done! Now shut up, sit down, and don’t make trouble”.

  3. Thanks for your insight, I had only thought about this in the context of North American schools, and this helped me think of it in a broader context.
    When I was about age 12, I was in a private Catholic school, and for sex ed (which was a joke I assure you) they separated us by sex into different rooms. One of the lessons was “advantages and disadvantages of an all girl’s school”, and I imagine the boys got the same lesson about all boy’s schools. At the time, I was being bullied in a sexual and psychological manner by boys at the school, and that was definitely at the forefront of my mind when I gave my answers for the pros. I was bullied by girls too, but the way they did it was more aggressive and frightening.
    But I realize as an adult that in the long run, if sex-segregated schools were the primary or only option, that kind of behavior wouldn’t go away. It would just be a chance for sex offenders to plead ignorance as to how to interact normally with women.

    • “But I realize as an adult that in the long run, if sex-segregated schools were the primary or only option, that kind of behavior wouldn’t go away.”

      Absolutely. This is why these girls’ demands make me feel stupid and conflicted and dithery — not that my oh-so-deep ideological conflicts matter in the face of the realities these girls live. What bothers me is the hierarchy of power here, which, as someone higher in the hierarchy, I am not inclined to relinquish — not because I have eventual world domination plans, but because I cannot stop myself thinking that I know better than these girls what is good for them.

      These girls desperately want segregated classrooms. They also want complete social change, but realise segregated classrooms are easier to achieve than that.
      I, at more than double their age, more widely travelled and far betted educated, think introducing segregated classrooms would be disastrous in our already-segregated society. But I cannot deny that mixed classrooms hurt these girls physically and emotionally every single day. No decision, in this situation, can fail to hurt the girls. The only question is, do we hurt them by giving them what they want, or do we hurt them by denying it?

      It’s not exactly chicken soup for the soul.

      “a chance for sex offenders to plead ignorance as to how to interact normally with women.”
      Is this a legitimate defence? Dear god in heaven.

  4. Maybe you should follow this post up with a description (maybe a drawing) of an acceptable school building layout. From experience, I’ve learnt older boys need showers near playing fields, gilrs need clean toilets near classes. The toilets need to be enclosed enough for privacy without being so sheltered that they are vulnerable to people hiding in them.

    This was a good article, by the way.

    • A drawing is a very good idea. I’ll see if I can manage a not-too-awful sketch.

      The trouble, Sunny, is that these are primary schools or Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’s ‘small schools’ in rural areas. Some of these are one-room affairs, even when they house four Classes. That’s the level of space and resource crunch we’re talking about. There are no playing fields and absolutely no question of showers, and all loos are one tiny out-house style room, frequently without running water (there are buckets and things).

      The discrepancy between our schools and these are almost too wide to be mapped on the same scale, which is probably why most urban and suburban middle-class folks don’t get the straits our public ed is in.

  5. “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. ”

    I have zero expertise as well, but I think the variance in learning styles *among* “men” and “women” will be much larger than the variance in learning styles between “men” and “women”. If the former does not necessitate separate spaces, why would the latter?

    But I agree with your acceptance of ground reality and necessary tactical compromises.


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