Is talking about feminism necessary in schools?
When we come into this world as babies with bald heads, think about it, we have no biases, no social constructs. As we grow up, we start acquiring ideas, forming beliefs, and developing attitudes. From the way we sit to the way we talk, we take up the gender roles and stereotypes that the environment around us teaches. As adults it becomes hard to unlearn patriarchy but as children it is far easier. I’m going to use the good-old, cliche here to substantiate why feminism is necessary in schools - ‘Children of today are citizens of tomorrow’. And that’s why patriarchy must be nipped in the bud!
From the uniforms girls are made to wear to the nature of roles they are asked to take up in school-related activities, there is an underlying bias. A subtle undertone of patriarchy can be felt. Knowingly or unknowingly, we are expecting young girls to conform to gender roles and thereby reinforcing age-old beliefs. Have we taken time out of academics and told them that gender is beyond biology? Have we exposed them to the differences between being born a girl and being a girl?
Take for instance, Anu - a 5th std student who studies in a Kannada medium Government school. She is as smart as her brother who studies in 3rd std at an English medium school. But her parents didn’t find it significant enough to fulfil her dream of studying English. But one day, on a usual evening, when they were watching television, a black screen appeared with a box. It had something written on it which Anu’s parents couldn’t read. Anu confidently read it aloud that the subscription had ended and needed to be renewed. That changed a lot of things for Anu and her parents.
Being feminist teachers
Anu is Simi’s student. Simi is an unconventional teacher who strongly believes that children ought to grow up in gender equitable environment in children. She says, “The emphasis, as teachers, we must lay it on their skill set, their strategies, and not on their gender.” Simi is conscious of the choices she makes for her students.
“Children, these young minds, are like sponges. They pick up verbal and non-verbal cues,” says Saritha, a teacher with 20 years of experience. She tries to inculcate values of respect and equality inside her classrooms. Srimati, a Gender Studies professor, echoes Saritha’s thoughts - “I firmly believe that we need to be role models. We must not only preach but also practice feminism in our lives. Unless we do that, nurturing feminism in classrooms can’t happen.”
As a teacher, it becomes imperative to think of ‘Why we need feminism’ because it’s not a chapter in the textbook that one can explain and forget all about it. It is a way of living that a teacher needs to embody failing which the student will look at it as an outsider and forget all about it.
“Nurture is what we do with this little individual and that has a bigger role to play. What we say, they say. What we do, they do. What we watch influences them; how we react influences them,” points out Sarita. The current generation is extremely quick on the uptake, she adds.
The scope for a teacher to strengthen feminism and equity in schools is vast. Here are few things that a teacher can do:
As teachers, check if you have hidden gender biases. Evaluate yourself if you are unconsciously displaying these and making children internalize the biases. Sarita stresses upon this - “When we speak about different topics to children, we need to ensure it is gender-neutral. The stories we tell them, the examples we quote, math number problems…it is always a John and Jacob…have you realised that? Have you even thought about your textbooks?” Srimathi resonates with this thought - “Language plays a very important aspect in our everyday lives. The way we address the students matters. Usage of words like chairperson must be encouraged. Why cling to chairman? Why not chairperson?”
Start a feminist club. Let it be peer-driven. Adolescence is a fragile age when learning is more from each other than adults.
Discuss and dissect pop culture that promotes sexism, misogyny, patriarchy. While younger children look up to parents, teachers, other adults as their role models, adolescents tend to seek role models in celebrity circles. They admire a certain pop singer, an actor, a comedian. But are they healthy role models or are they advocating abusing girls during a break up, homophobia and the like?
Initiate the ‘Why we need feminism’ conversation with children and become a catalyst for this conversation. Share with them your beliefs about feminism. Encourage them to have theirs. Encourage students to share about their experiences. It could be in the form of blogs, videos, or club meetings. Srimathi suggests, “Have conversations with them - about equality, feminism. Let it become an important attribute in their lives.”
Find out if their lives have been affected by gender biases. Feminism may look different to each child. Explore with them. Help them articulate their perceptions. Engage in conversations around how feminism can be intersectional.
Do they feel restricted about their gender? Ask them. The best thing to do is to address challenges that are unique to each individual rather than professing an ideology. Srimathi raises an important question, “Boys are seated to one side, girls on the other. If we’re to supposed to talk to them about feminism, this kind of segregation itself is discrimination. Allow them to mix up. As a teacher, we need to take up this kind of responsibility.”
Once you initiate conversations about feminism and unlearning patriarchy, children might experiment with their surroundings, the familial unit, they might face challenges at home, be there for them if they want to come back and discuss.
Eliminate gender-based physical spaces. Srimathi explains, “More conversations need to happen with children. When it comes to sensitising children about various topics, say, menstruation, there is a demarcation that takes place in schools. Girls are put in one room and the boys in another room. This may not nurture feminism as such.”
Avoid gender policing and gender-based punishment. Also, keep a check on gender-based normalization in your words and actions. Eliminate dress code for girls. Dismiss the “good girl” “decent boy” titles.
Expose them to feminist leaders and change makers. Bring out all the unheard voices of historical feminist figures. Highlight the role of women in STEM. Emphasize about women who have broken barriers. “The story of Hima Das has changed at least 2 lives in every class,” Simi says. Give them feminist role models.
Classes about good touch, bad touch are great. However, it’s time we progress beyond that. Talk about rape culture. I know, it’s an intense and sensitive topic to broach with children but that’s a challenge that can be overcome.
Make them believe about the power they have and that their age has nothing to do with their gender. Simi opines, “I strongly believe that given the right opportunity, everybody, irrespective of gender, they can shine. And it can be given to them.”
Involve other teachers, educators, academicians and parents. A good team with various passionate individuals is way better than a single person trying to bring about a revolution.
The change won’t be quick but surely effective. Srimathi emphasizes, “As teachers, we need to help them with identifying how children must talk about responsibilities along with rights. It’s a big challenge for us. It can’t happen in a day or two.” But ain’t no challenge so big that a teacher can’t tackle! Right? Ain’t no problem so big that passionate youth can’t solve.
“People who are treated fairly develop confidence. Equality plays a role in the economy. It enhances growth - growth for the individual, organisation, family, environment, everybody,” declares Saritha.
Can’t agree more!!