“Feminism is not about individual men and women, but about understanding the ways in which ‘men’ and ‘women’ are produced and inserted into patriarchies that differ according to time and place.”
-Nivedita Menon

Consider this: you are put into one of the two dusted, ageing boxes to house in where you dwell, with fellow unquestioning beings without interaction with the other box, for as long as you live. What if, one day, you decide to traverse to the other box, or what if you understand that you do not have to be contained in either of the boxes? What if you question?

Digression is not a common term. To move away from the “identity” you were born with, is an act of offense, and offenders are met with punishment. “Policing” is done to ensure no transgression happens, guarding the shaky structure of subordination.

To move away from the “identity” you were born with, is an act of offense, and offenders are met with punishment

Gender policing can be defined as restricting the gender performance of an individual who is perceived to be transgressing the identity they were assigned on birth. Performers are rewarded for playing their assigned parts well, and meet with punishment for breaking the mould they were placed in. What pushed a late observation to the white of your screens, was questioning the authority schools hold in forming a student’s initial base of knowledge; and are supposed to be spaces of total inclusion and safety. Spaces whose very boundaries that are meant to protect, sometimes eat away the insides.

When a boy is repeatedly shamed for having long hair, mostly in the form of punishments and derisive remarks, the implicit socialisation of associating tresses with femininity surfaces. Forcing girls to wear skirts of a designated length because short skirts invite unsought attention, pinning every strand of their hair with colour-coded clips and bands, shaming of boys wearing skinny pants, and looking down on girl-boy interactions (because pollution of minds, duh!), are various ways through which school authorities enforce normative gender expression in students. Threatening with punishments of suspension, calling parents to school, sometimes even resorting to physical violence solidifies the gender mould (rigid stereotypes) for students.

To understand the effort that is spent in maintaining the gender binary, I asked friends and acquaintances to share personal experiences of policing during their stint in school.

“Girls weren’t provided with the choice of opting Physical Education as a subject in 11th, a choice only extended to boys”, says an acquaintance whose schooling in the state of Haryana forbade wearing skirts after sometime (replacing them with trousers), where girls were labelled as “bad” by teachers if they interacted with or befriended their male classmates. She also remembers a boy receiving flak for getting his ears pierced. A friend tells me about a classmate with waist length hair who was shamed by teachers for voluntarily cutting her hair short.

There was also an experience of a female friend whose teacher disliked girls so much that she let absolutely notorious activities of boys go unnoticed, but slapped girls even if they yawned in class. “There were segregated staircases and water coolers for boys and girls in some schools”, remembers another friend.

These, I later realised, weren’t just a collectivised account of getting punished for not according with school’s uniform codes but iterating the consequences of swimming against one’s assigned stream of sex, or trying to assert a voice which doesn’t resonate with the mainstream. We often do not realise we are being gender policed because these instances do not (or rarely) come with explanations which further creates that hush-hush around debates of gender and sexuality. “Why must I sit like this? With my legs closed all the time when my brother can sit however he likes?”

Performers are rewarded for playing their assigned parts well, and meet with punishment for breaking the mould they were placed in.

When I hear about a girl sporting a tunic dress and stockings on her 17th birthday in school getting reprimanded and forced to change her dress to a kurta; or revising the number of times fellow students were a source of jokes for being either “too feminine” or “too masculine”; or hearing about a trimming/shaving room in an all boys school where unless their beards are trimmed, students are not allowed in class, I cannot help but look around to see solid but internally crumbling products of patriarchy who have devised ways to belittle themselves before someone else does.

These, you may initially think of as harmless, well-meaning measures taken by schools to promote growth and safety of students but squint a bit, if you may, and you’ll find underlying productions of adults who might never revisit their primary learning and continue to burden and be burdened by their roles as men and women. Students who question are ridiculed for having smudged their identities and shamed for being a sissy, asked to man-up or be more girly. We don’t, in our naivete, consider how in the first place we were forced into gender based stereotypes in ways that were cleverly hidden in everyday conversations.

*Mission accomplished*

Gender policing unlike moral policing in schools (and otherwise), works in remarkably secret ways which might even be passed as appropriate. What I, with this piece, would like you to think about is the continued practice of punishments for not being girly enough or not being man enough in schools. It’s important for schools to, step by step, unlearn their notion of how a boy or a girl should look like to promote more inclusivity and a safer environment for all identities to co-exist; and I urge all to keep making holes in our assigned boxes until everything spills and there are no more boundaries.

Also Read: Gender Stereotypes In My 7th Grade Classroom


Featured Image Credit: ACLU

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