Editor’s Note: #ChalkfullBullying is a campaign that resolves to tell stories about gender-based bullying that happens in school, where students, especially non-binary and girl students, are subject to harassment, moral policing, severe disciplining and punishment, and routine bullying. Their fault being: for not conforming to outdated gender stereotypes, the repercussions for which can scar us for a lifetime.
Systemic sexism, prejudice and discrimination exist in almost all Indian schools. Being a girl, my existence in my school was laden with discrimination, humiliation, sexism, and intense misogyny.
Although this isn’t my story alone. Many girls in schools across the country are victims of this subtle or sometimes even outward sexism. Many shrug it off because we are conditioned into believing from a young age that discrimination and prejudice are an inevitable part of life. We are taught we are inferior and different from the boys we know and it is necessary and acceptable that we are treated as such.
I attended a private institution, Bhavan’s, for ten years. Though I have encountered numerous instances of sexism, inflicted by my peers and the teachers and management, one instance stands out in particular and incidentally, it occurred two years after I left the school for good.
If there is one embodiment of misogyny and sexism etched in my memory, it has to be my vice principal. There are numerous and varied instances of her sexism that she publicly displayed. From asking girls to tie-up their hair so that they can have long, healthy hair which will help them in their marriage prospects, to telling us to get a degree and get married – the instances of her sexism are varied and often laughed at by my peers, but my experiences with her was often far less subtle and outrageous.
The last time I spoke to her was a year ago when I accompanied someone to school. Knowing her disdain for women who didn’t cover themselves up and not wanting to be an obstacle in my friend’s way to getting what she wanted, I wore one of my mother’s outfits that showed no skin at all. But this encounter that I was naively hoping would be uneventful soon went downhill from there.
After engaging with my friend she asked me what I was planning to pursue. Upon being told that I would like to pursue a career in criminal law, she stared at me intently and then asked me if I wanted to bring criminals to book. Upon receiving no answer, she went on to ask me if I was falsely led by movies into believing that I could make the world a just place by sending criminals to prison.
She went onto say that a courtroom or the very field of criminal law is no place for a woman. Then she said she is deeply disappointed in me because she thought I was the “kind of woman who would do a ‘normal’ degree and get married soon after that”. I chose not to answer because I was fully aware of the futility of any attempt to get her to see that men don’t have the monopoly in the field of law or any other profession.
Then she went on to tell my friend that we couldn’t possibly be related in any way because of how we dress. She said someone who dressed so conservatively and modestly could never be associated with me.
With a history of shaming women for what they wear, this remark was outrageous but not surprising in the least. It seems to be lost upon her that policing and shaming women, especially young girls, about what they wear stem from our culture of victim-blaming and laying the onus of preventing sexual crimes and sexual attention on women instead of the perpetrators.
She also took issue with the fact that I had a chequebook and my own debit cards, which I happened to accidentally drop on her office floor. She asked me if they belonged to my mother and if I had taken them without permission. I told her they were mine and I was at the bank before I came here.
She asked me what work could I possibly have in a bank. I told her I don’t just take care of my own accounts but also my mother’s because she works a 40+ hour week and isn’t left with any time to take care of the finances. She told me that this is how women go astray, when they are allowed unquestioned access to money.
My vice principal also took issue with the fact that I had a chequebook and my own debit cards.
She told me she was surprised any mother would give a daughter control over money. She was visibly enraged not just by the fact that I was failing to conform to her standards of what a ‘nice’ woman should be like, but also by my mother’s evident indifference to whether I conform to this standard or not. After that, she was openly rude and demeaning towards me. The heat of her disdain towards my non-conformity was also felt by my friend who she wasn’t too pleased with for associating with me.
I call her out today because she is supposed to be a teacher who is responsible in providing a safe space for us to grow in, to be responsible adults and not bigots who contribute to the patriarchal sport of oppressing women. She certainly isn’t an ally in the feminist cause, in fact, she is an obstacle. She is a sexist bully masquerading as an educator, thus not calling her out for her sexism and misogyny, is in some ways, condoning her.
She is a bully who feels the need to police, shame and humiliate women and girls who did not conform to her patriarchal and toxic ideas of what women can do, say, believe in and be. If our schools cannot be safe spaces for us to be who we are without being met with abusive and demeaning behaviour, all the girls across this country can never claim school spaces as their own. As long as things are this way, school spaces belong to boys and girls exist on the sidelines where they can be silenced and controlled.
Featured Image Credit: The Absolutely True Adventures of a School Librarian