Gendered School Spaces

Kavya Bhola is the founder of Transformative Actions for Reformed Attitudes (TARA), an organisation which gives impetus to the growing voice to bridge the gap of gender disparity. She is extremely passionate about gender equality which lead her to found her own organization TARA. She has worked with various organizations pioneering gender sensitivity.

By Kavya Bhola


When I walk into any classroom, as a gender sensitization facilitator, my first instinct is to glance at the number of men and women and their spatial distribution in the class. Fortunately for my career perspectives, and unfortunately for the Millennium Development goals of achieving Gender Equality, women are mostly less. Interestingly, not even one school has men and women sitting together on a desk except as a form of punishment.

As an organization, TARA aims to build bridges between the gendered upbringing of individuals, and we know that dealing with children is fundamentally, our point of departure. We believe that the earlier we attempt to reconfigure the gendered socialized mind, the more empathetic, inclusive and confident individual we have in this world. But who bells the lion, and tells the schools that they aggravate the gender inequality? Here is an attempt to do so.

As a facilitator who has traveled the boundaries of a tribal, residential tribal, urban slum and urban schools of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi by now, practicing a comparative approach was not only beneficial but also revelatory.

To start the journey as an individual in a tribal village of Rajasthan, Doytra, I often met children with their bags hanging over their shoulders, walking upon the hills to reach the school. They all walked together, the boys and the girls. Often the girls would join late, if they ever would, after they had assisted in the house. The children would sit together and they shared comfortable equations with the other genders. This was the case uptil grade 6th, post which the girls were married off. Often the women of the village would tell me a folklore, that is, "if the cattle comes back in the evening after the graze alone, we understand the boy and the girl have eloped”. I asked if that is why they resent sending children to school, for their girls would elope with their classmates? But they wittingly would reply, ”A girl running away is better than having no money to pay for their weddings”. It was their lack of understanding as to how education would help the women later on, that didn’t interest the children to go to school.

Moving on to Madhya Pradesh, I lived in a residential school for tribal children with 115 boys and 16 women. The owners of the school informed me of the parents’ apprehension regarding sending their daughters to far off places, which led to this largely skewed gender ratio. On the basis of number and requirements, the two genders were segregated into dorms with separate bathrooms, different spaces to defecate openly, for food distribution etc. Since the school premises were upon a hill, this segregation was blurred as they roamed freely, went to markets, cooked together, in classes sat together and meditated together. The only restriction we could see was not a rule per se, but a subtly understood imposition; girls would be in their dorms as soon as they had dinner at 7:30 pm, and were scolded if not, while the boys could and did roam freely at the same time. As a consequence of this tangible segregation and subtle yet stringent control, the girls, for instance, developed a very peculiar disposition. They were very protective of their dorm and absolutely disliked and despised the entry of boys in their space. They would cling to me like I was their favorite doll and treated me as one of their own; they felt comfortable dancing in front of me but would begin to nibble their thumbs or chew on their hair if a male figure would enter the picture. Even for the sessions on Gender, the women would never speak considering their few numbers in the class, which would further impact their already low levels of confidence. The boys believed that the girls are shy but they never made an attempt to question why they actually were so quiet. Another space where the impact of gendered socialisation and control was largely visible was the Frisbee field. As a fan promoter of Ultimate Frisbee, which is a gender neutral and inclusive game, I would often try to integrate men and women equitably in the evenings only to notice that boys were extremely aggressive, free with their body movements, loud and often condescending towards the girls' game. This was a major area of distinction that I noticed between my previous experience at Doytara and here at MP, despite both of these being tribal communities. Men and women would equally learn the throws, catches and the game, and they would teach each other. Yes, there was a minimal hesitation but this was the case among both boys and girls. In the residential school, with many men, and countable women, half the women never came to play, they would prefer being in their room or play with mud, or they were on a kitchen duty, while the boys assertively threw the frisbee around. In my understanding of the residential facility, the segregation of men and women was further bolstering these gender differences.

On one occasion, I was faced with a very strange dilemma - I was asked to solve a fight between the boys and the girls. The boys had made fun of the girls after seeing a pink underwear hanging behind the women's dorm. I was shocked to hear this because men's underwear were strewn all across the fences like christmas decor. Yet, they chose to ridicule what was very strategically placed, not to show for the same fear. So, we set a proper courthouse and started a trial which continued for a long, long time. The complaints aggravated quickly to include things other than those at hand, such as the tendency of men to ridicule women, not talk softly, shoo away the women when they play on the ground, and not take up duties in the kitchen, forcing the girls to take those responsibilities. The men on the other hand said that the women equally ridicule them and would not let them enter in the spaces that they occupied. Further, they would complain to the teacher that nobody asked the women to lift heavy weights, or make them responsible for extra duties such as going to the market, and when the women dance for the annual day they would exclude men. Their rants made me realize why they despised each other. As an attempt to understand if they hated the other in other social settings, I tried recalling my homestays. But I remembered how during their tribal dances and festivals, they would dance together, and at home, both help their mothers equally, and in the villages the scene was similar to the one in Doytra. So I reconfigured the question into - Is it the school that is perpetuating the gender gap? In all circumstances, that day the issue of the underwear did not get solved, only to be very provocatively ended by a little boy of grade 7. I asked him why he would ridicule women for wearing underwear when he wore the same. He shamelessly put his pants down in front of everyone and said, “Now you can make fun!” Oh how the children laughed. It was a riot, and the meeting was adjourned with my statement, said out loud, "Imagine a woman in the same setting. Would you have just laughed seeing it?"

As a very elite mass of people would say, “This gender gap is an issue in the villages and not in the cities”. I have a few learnings from city schools too. Most sessions on Gender, will always have men speaking more and freely, than women. Boys in these schools as well, assume and take it for granted that girls are shy. Some girls have the courage to say that this assumption is false. If we notice, often teachers subsume more responsibility on a girl than a boy, to keep the class clean, to behave “properly”, to stand out from the boys. Boys are left to be mischievous and hopeless under the garb of the phrase, “boys will be boys”, while the appropriate complaint of a girl remains, “she is too talkative”. It is important to understand the upbringing of individuals, and in terms of various social institutions where women are often taught to listen, understand, adjust, be soft, give space to other people to grow; and schools are spaces that are no exception to this social fact.

The infamous dialogue "Ek ladka aur ek ladki kabhi dost nahi ban sakte" (A boy and a girl can never be friends) is grossly solidified at school. The act of interacting and engaging with the opposite sex is considered an insidious act. A discussion among the team about our school days took us back to censored corridors with teachers spying on us if we would talk to the opposite sex, sometimes to the extent of getting debadged, hit with a cane or the worst, calling the parents. When we go to schools for sessions and ask the children to stand in a circle, you’d see a clear divide of boys and girls. If asked to make a circle while holding hands seems like a tough job, one can only imagine what happens when we ask them to stand alternatively (a boy and a girl.) Invisible wedding bells start playing, veils are attached to girls and the children make fun of their own classmates by pairing each other up. The school further grazzes the gap when girls are taken away secretly to talk about menstruation and boys left with curiosity only to realize later, they already knew. This perpetuation of such curiosity about the bodies of the opposite sex, and regarding bodies of women (per se) as a dungeon of secrets and treasures, deepens the mysogynistic outlook and mindset, where boys take it for granted that commenting on a woman’s appearance or physique would let them win in any situation. Even girls scare each other off by traveling in groups, nudging about blood spots, aloof bra straps and usually maintaining no eye contact with any boy.

The observations of our each session is very enriching as we see how strongly biases are formed even at this early stage of life. It’s often fun to ask men and women why are they proud of being of a particular gender. And if they became the opposite one, what would happen. As an answer to which women would always point out to being responsible, caring, empathetic and men to being able to roam freely, lesser restrictions and having great aspirations. In the later question, women would claim they’d be happier to be men for all the same reasons but men! Men never like doing the opposite because they don't want to live that life of a woman. This makes me think that if at school, where we claim equality in opportunity and treatment, the kids still consider one sex to be disadvantaged than the other, maybe it is time to question our system of education and bring in true equity in spaces that run predominantly for welfare of the “future of the nation.”


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