I remember my first day in school when two rows on the left were for boys and two on the right were for girls. They took us in separate lines, friendships across the same gender were endorsed, while friendships with the other gender were shunned. As we moved up in grades, these clichés also increased– “Boys, get your hair trimmed, you are not a girl, don’t keep long hair” or “Girls you should wear skirts, not pants, follow girls’ uniform”.
From the seating arrangement to the bag design, from assembly lines to uniforms, everything about a school is gendered. It is one of the most gendered and policed spaces in society. By maintaining these strict gender norms in the name of “respectability”, schools re-endorse a culture of gender shaming and preservation of gender binary. Though school administrations might believe themselves as cultured for preserving this binary, they, in reality, create a social order of learning which praises aspects of toxic masculinity and patriarchy.
Growing in a space that runs on the binary of gender makes children closed, unaccepting, and violent towards gender and sexual fluidity. It is the need of the hour to break this pervasive concept of gender in schools and move towards a genderless education.
Gendering in Schools: Actions and Consequences
Schools always assume the gender of a person thereby creating a belief in children that their gender is public and is open to public interpretation and judgment. They as individuals will be treated according to public perception of their gender. This perception, however, is limited to the binary of man and woman. There is a men's washroom, a women's washroom, a boys’ uniform and a girls’ uniform. There is no space, no fit for a person who doesn’t belong to this binary.
Children grow into tweens and teens and they start exploring their gender and sexual orientation. This is when this binary conditioning comes into play. Children who begin to identify as gender non-confirming feel out of space and confused. Having only seen strict boundaries of the gender binary, they might become hostile towards themselves, feeling something is wrong with them. To make things worse, gender policing becomes even stricter in these years of schooling to police sexuality. Intergender mingling is shunned to maintain the respectability of the schools. Therefore, gender becomes a more prominent and visible line with even clearer demarcations of men and women. Consequently, gender becomes the force to police sexuality and sexuality is blamed for policing gender. In this dichotomy of gender, sexuality, and respectability, queer children get crushed by both administration and their fellow batchmates.
It is no shock that this policing of sexuality on the lines of “opposites attract” is again a very heteronormative concept. The entire notion of sexuality is streamlined into heterosexuality, and therefore, it is heterosexuality that emerges as a force for gender policing in schools.
There is a hidden irony in this foreplay of gender, sexuality, schools, and respectability. Through heavy policing schools try to create a wall between “the private” and “the public”. However, schools take it upon themselves to transgress from the private to the public while dealing with gender.
There is one space in a school where this dichotomy, irony, and confusion take the most tangible form-Washrooms—separate washrooms for men and women. Women aren’t allowed in the ‘male’ space and men are not allowed in the ‘female’ space. Why? It is private. Washrooms are private spaces for people of the same gender that other gender cannot know of. There is the lesson of privacy, schools talk about. Yet in the very construction of a gender demarcated space, gender becomes public, your access to that area makes your gender and everything about your gender, public information. Has anyone asked why schools create gender-segregated washrooms? Sexuality and respectability are your answers. They use gender again to police sexuality, after all, washrooms are publicly private spaces. In this heteronormative play of social forces, what happens to that queer child? What happens to the child whose gender does not align with the board on the wall? If they access either washroom, their gender is interpreted accordingly (public), yet they cannot be themselves within those walls (private). In this ignorance of schools, washrooms become a space for harassment and bullying of queer children.
Where do we go now?- A Genderless Education
We have to move towards progressive genderless sites of education to groom and build a sensitive generation. We can achieve this by primarily deconstructing the walls of the gender binary in both infrastructure and administration. Whether this means either merging rows and lines in schools, creating gender-neutral washrooms, or making the uniforms and school activities gender-free. Secondly, gender education must be introduced from grade 1, the difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ must be made clear and there should be a safe and confident space for children to talk about gender fluidity. Thirdly, adults in a school have to be sensitized to gender-neutral language, vocabulary, space, and actions so they can comfort the students. If we put in the effort, we can hope that the upcoming generation doesn’t make gender a public discourse, but rather multiplicity of gender a normal discourse.