By Vaidehi Gautam
TRIGGER WARNING: The following content might be triggering for some readers due to mentions of words like “rape”, “assault” and “harassment”. Please continue accordingly.
When was the first time you heard about rape cases and sexual harassment? When was the first time you came across conversations around consent? I would go on to assume that your answers for these two questions are years apart and in the same order as that of the questions. Now, when was the first time that you realised that you learned the meaning behind inappropriate touches much earlier than the concept of consent and its nitty-gritties? Again, I would assume that this must have been much later, and for some of the readers, it must be this very moment. These three questions when put together goes on to showcase the tragedy that is our foundational years of schooling and how it has failed us collectively as a society. The school curricula across all the educational boards of India share one thing in common with each other – the seeds of rape culture.
Schools are meant to prepare children to go out into the world to make a life of their own when they are old enough. However, for reasons that are discussed further in this piece, our schools end up doing more damage than good. This might sound a little absurd to the readers, some may even take offense but this needs to be laid out in the open in order to hold our skewed system of education accountable. Before investigating how schools perpetuate rape culture, it is important to understand the meaning and implications of this phrase. A quick google search suggests that rape culture is a sociological theory of a setting (environment) in which rape is pervasive and normalised due to the existing problematic attitudes towards gender and sexuality. Hence, certain practices and behaviours, usually regarding women, facilitate the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment. What makes things worse is the presence of rape culture within the system in which schools not just operate but also aid in its growth. When I say facilitate, one must understand that this occurs in very small steps. While picking these practices apart, it might look irrelevant in terms of the subject of concern. However, this process happens in stages and every stage, no matter how irrelevant it sounds when looked at individually, plays a significant role in planting and furthering of rape culture among the psyche of students.
I would like the readers to take a trip down the memory lane in order to pinpoint the instances where your school too was participating in rape culture. Let’s start with gendered segregation of students in school systems. The practice of regulating the seating arrangement of students in classrooms on grounds of assumed gender is something that most of us have gone through. Forcing students to sit in separate rows of girls and boys is the first and foremost step towards school’s role in perpetuating rape culture. The idea that after reaching a certain age, boys and girls need to start “maintaining distance” promotes rebellion within students. The said rebellion becomes problematic when it is acted upon without a proper understanding of the concept of consent; another problem for which school education systems are to be blamed. Such regulation of proximity on the basis of assumed genders without a proper and formal conversation around consent and sex leads to an increased dependence of students on inappropriate sources of information to quench their curiosity regarding their own bodies and the feelings associated with puberty. An open conversation around both sex and consent would not only help students deal with puberty but also instil the value of mutual respect for each other. Simply adding a bare minimum chapter on reproductive processes is neither an open conversation nor is it enough.
Another instance where schools contribute to rape culture is the teaching staff’s tolerance towards body-shaming and bullying of students. The discourse around these grave issues is never discussed in a professional and strict manner due to which these problems go on to take violent forms of harassment and abuse, both mental and sexual. A lack of concern for students’ mental health and absence of professionally trained guidance counsellors to help students navigate through their emotions play a huge role in facilitating the culture of abuse and assault in not just schools but further into the adult lives of students.
All of this brings us to the gendering of dress codes in schools. Boys and girls are advised to present themselves in a certain way in order to promote an environment of discipline and uniformity. Boys are usually instructed to keep their hair short, faces shaved and uniforms in shape to avoid looking like goons. Girls, on the other hand, are given some extra attention when it comes to how they present themselves and the reason for this extra attention has less to do with uniformity and more to do with their affect on boys. Policing the length of skirts; making them wear an extra layer of clothing to minimise the visibility of the shape of their undergarments beneath the shirt; reprimanding girls for their choice of clothes on casual days or birthdays, etc. – are some of the many instances where the onus of distracting boys (and as a result making them commit sexual violence) falls on the female students. Moreover, if an unfortunate incident of sexual abuse does take place, the questions that usually come with it often carries the tone of victim-blaming.
These practices have led to a failure of the school system in terms of making schools a safe haven for their students. Places where such a culture thrives cannot be even thought of while talking about queer awareness and related concerns among school-going teenagers. The teaching staff has a huge role to play in perpetrating gender violence and rape culture, no matter how passive and latent their contribution happens to be. And sadly, it is just the tip of the iceberg. Prevalence of casteism among students, and the teaching staff’s ignorance and sometimes perpetuation of the same only deepens these issues. Schools are meant to prepare the next generation to take on the challenges of adulthood, but such a failure of the system on the front of basic human decency only dampens the hope for a safer and more informed youth of the 21st century.
Vaidehi Gautam is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Gender Studies from Ambedkar University Delhi. She is interested in politics, public policy, gender, pop culture, and loves to stay caffeinated and revisit basic mathematics from her school days. She can be reached out on [email protected]. Presently she is interning with kractivist.org.