Dear School, We Refuse to be Morally Policed

By Sarah Koul

DOMINANTLY, we link school life to a part of our lives which is stress free and is all smiles. It seems, however, that this connotation attached to school life is limited. The experiences of students run quite contrary. Students generally feel relieved and liberated when they finally leave school because what should have been the best experience of their lives is often mentally exhausting and horrifying.

Coming from the system itself, I cannot help but wonder about the horrors I have had to witness as a school captain, while having to implement the school ‘decorum’. The system of schooling precisely lacks almost everything but disrespect for every student’s self-image. Even when the underlying impulse is to ‘guide’ students, the ways are often outmoded and inappropriate. Although some ‘reputed’ schools have given up on physical punishments, the discipling of students remains violent as ever.

Schools here may rationalise this disciplining model but to the aware eye, it is mostly driven by a culture of shame and moral policing. Schools play a significant role in every individual’s life as they spend their developmental and formative years here. However, schools have taken upon a role beyond them and often end up being the purveyors of morality, sometimes at the cost of doing the actual work of educating students in real sense.

In one instance, in my school, a 16-year-old girl’s hair was forcefully trimmed by the teacher herself because her hair wasn’t braided. In another incident, a male teacher asked a 15-year-old girl to take off her hijab and give it to him. He then used the hijab to clean his shoe and justified this harassment by guilt tripping the girl into thinking that since she wasn’t wearing it ‘consistently’, she was hopeless and “characterless”. Emotions aside, this amounts to harassing women and stripping them. It is not only inhumane but also illegal. It is not only inhumane but also illegal. It tantamount to physical and mental harassment of girls.

As a woman, I can speak for the negative fallout of such exercise on women students. They’re morally policed to the extent of being slut shamed. They’re classed into groups of “good girls” and “bad girls” – a shameful alienating exercise for children in their adolescent years.

Shockingly, it is not confined to mental harassment through words alone but actions too, especially for girls. They are often reduced to their appearance and are told that they don’t deserve respect and won’t achieve any success in life because they look or dress a certain way. Their caliber is reduced to dust irrespective of their merit and metal.

While the same schools organise extravagant events in the name of women’s empowerment, numerous debates on women’s rights and long speeches about gender equality; the hypocrisy is clearly evident.

In the name of ‘discipline’ and ‘decorum’, school teachers and administration usually label girls “characterless” for wearing something as normal as kajal/eye kohl. While it is true that students should follow a proper uniform and attend school in a formal style, teachers should know of better ways to deal with it rather than restorting to character assassinating young girls.

It is deplorable  how young girls are treated in schools. They are brainwashed into thinking that they are somewhat inferior and are internalised with the notion which makes them think they have no control or stake on their bodies. Even as the educational system in the rest of the world is advancing in science, technology and techniques of teaching, our system is still stuck on promoting patriarchy and misogyny.

Such behavior towards young girls isn’t detrimental to their growth and self-image alone. This treatment leaves an impact on young boys who learn such violent and misogynist values. We often wonder what cultivates tendencies in men which make them treat women unfairly. It is in schools that literate men learn that women are secondary, should be “shown their place” and “controlled” through whatever means available. This is how most end up committing the worst crimes against women.

Why is it that highly educated men have little to no respect for their peers from the other gender? It is because school teaches young boys that women exist to be under constant supervision by practically policing women and showing young boys that girls should be ‘pulled by the leash’ if they cross patriarchal boundaries. When young boys see teachers who are the idols of righteousness in their eyes scrutinizing young girls, they learn the same sexist values.

Add to this the culture of hostility that schools breed between girls and boys. Socialising between girls and boys is considered so out of question that schools end up raising youngsters who have no etiquettes to respectfully engage with each other.

When schools make cross gender interaction impossible for children as small as 8-year-olds, they start to think that the other gender is somewhat alien. Should someone dare to have a casual or even formal conversation with a fellow student from the other gender, they’re chided scornfully. In essence, this teaches students that the other gender is nothing more than their sexual selves. Adolescence is a sensitive age. You and growing children start their journey into adulthood with new experiences that they have no control over. By assuming that completely isolating girls and boys is the way out for reducing unwanted and unsurvellied interactions between them, we are fooling no one but ourselves. School is the only place where interaction between boys and girls can be monitored. There can be healthy interactions which may take different forms but will eventually stay just that – new adolescent experiences. It is especially more relevant for boys, who do not know how to productively channelise their feelings and end up making stalkers out of themselves.

Additionally, had schools facilitated healthy and decent ways for girls and boys to interact, we’d have a bunch of men who wouldn’t have to rely on our society’s skewed views of women. They would have learnt how to decently interact with the other gender and to respectfully engage or disengage. Boys should not be left to learn about women from popular culture which objectifies women and stereotypes them. When young boys grow up alongside intelligent and confident girls – they’d not have to borrow their view of women from such harmful sources.

We can have our own views about the extent to which we want girls and boys to interact. These kinds of restrictions can infact be right as well. However, reprimanding, slut shaming, and character assassinating is not going to make the cut. It just makes adults look spiteful and ignorant.

Schools have a very different meaning of morals. Their fixation on student’s sexual morality is almost perverted and sexualising. They care less about imparting the ideals of humanity, like the virtues of kindness, mercy, humility, sympathy, justice, truthfulness, tolerance which the human beings of today lack the most.

Isn’t it bad that a place full of girls, instead of cultivating in them a sense of solidarity and sisterhood, encourages them to demean each other? Why are young girls who are yet to figure out anything about themselves dismissed as “bad” girls or “good” girls; as though there is something intrinsically irredeemable about them?

While the stereotypical ‘good’ girls are oppressed in a way they don’t openly understand, the ‘bad’ girls are openly and evidently criticized and practically abused. They are forced into thinking that they are somewhat inferior to others because they dress or talk or behave in a certain manner. The school authority or teachers pronounce this judgment not understanding that school is entirely a place of learning and no judgments should be made for someone who is still in the process of discovering themselves and has a long way to go.

This kind of labelling and discrimination is extremely discouraging for young girls. We, as a society, should pave the way for women to be leaders and teach them the right values in a meaningful and positive way.  What schools do instead, leads to them thinking that they are not capable and are in fact outcasts. This embeds in them a lack of self-confidence and gives them a lifetime of trauma.

What we don’t realize is when we blame girls for provoking boys, we make boys think that they are not accountable for their actions, and somehow end up justifying their actions. This kind of apologia is not unfamiliar to our society as it is the same thinking that goes on to blame women for every crime against them.

Yet another negative aspect of contemporary schooling in Kashmir is that it does not acknowledge the concept of mental health which even small kids are aware of now. The school counselors who claim to be the epitome of psychological knowledge and present themselves as the flag bearers of mental health awareness in Kashmir, often aid school authorities in their quest of demeaning little girls. They often sully the sanctity of secrecy and aggravate the process of shaming girls. Instead of providing students a safe space, free of judgment, they end up being a cog in the machinery of naming and shaming.

It is very easy to blame impressionable youngsters for falling prey to substance abuse when they find the entire process of growing up so isolating and hostile. Where are school authorities when students stray a bit? Why do schools have one and only one way of guiding – punishment?

Students of today are aware. Yes, we do have easy access to risky content through our phones. However, we also have access to information that teaches us to value ourselves and let one abuse us in the name of discipling. We refuse to play by the sexist, patriarchal and unethical books of schools which cannot step up to treat students respectfully. We need an education that teaches us values in a positive manner and trusts us with our choices. We want schools that raise women who uplift each other rather than shame each other. We are young girls of today and we refuse to watch ourselves or our friends being harassed and labelled ‘wayward’. We deserve better. Guide us better. Step up!

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

  • The author is an intern at Kashmir Observer and has graduated 12th standard recently. She was her school’s Head Girl and is writing the student’s side of the story at Kashmir Observer 

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