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Liberal ideology and gender stereotypes

The conversations around the introduction of unisex uniforms have seen another school in Kerala breaking gender stereotypes. The Government Tribal Lower Primary School in Attathodu has become the first tribal school in the State to embrace gender-neutral uniforms. While gender equality was the dominating factor in the decision taken by the Balussery school, convenience and utility lie at the heart of the one taken by the tribal school.

SHEYA KURIAN AND MALAVIKA SURESH | New Delhi |

To make issues and create controversies by taking gender as an issue has become passé. This time it is with the school uniform. The Balussery Government Higher Secondary School has created history by becoming the first such school in Kerala to adopt gender-neutral uniforms for its students. The decision, which was lauded by many, was taken after girls from the 12th grade demanded that they be allowed to wear the same uniform as the boys. It can be viewed as a step away from propagating gender stereotypes, a trope often witnessed in schools worldwide.

However, the definition of gender equality has come under heavy fire from several quarters of society. A uniform’s entire purpose is to ensure equality. This promise gets erased due to the enforcement of gendered dress codes. The length of the skirt or the ‘churidar’ becomes a tool to further harass girls who eventually end up ingraining the idea that they are inviting lewd comments and stares due to the choice of their clothing. The new uniform, which comprises purple trousers and a white and-blue striped shirt, has made plenty of students feel less self-conscious. It has provided them more mobility while taking part in extracurricular activities as well as while cycling to school.

In turn, it has helped students feel confident. Freedom to choose one’s gender identity is another important factor dictating the need for a unisex uniform. Clothing items aren’t born with a specific gender attributed to them. These attributions are motivated by historical and social factors and keep evolving with time. Gender-neutral uniform helps students from confining themselves to a box that society has created for them since time immemorial. It allows children to reject regressive norms at a young age and grow up in a society free of gender bias.

However, the introduction of gender-neutral uniforms has been criticised by numerous Muslim organizations. They feel that the school is secretly promoting a liberal ideology. However, these claims were dismissed by several others at the same time. We live in a society that values masculinity over femininity. In such a world, the term gender-neutral usually refers to the adoption of masculine qualities.

A trend that is often observed in schools is that in order to make clothes more gender-neutral, skirts are usually done away with and replaced with pants. It is highly doubtful if schools would opt for traditionally feminine clothing as their choice of uniform. While the move made by the Kerala government should be celebrated, it should also make us sit up question the meaning of gender-neutrality. Students would benefit less from sameness and more from being given the opportunity to make a choice that better helps them express their identity.

The conversations around the introduction of unisex uniforms have seen another school in Kerala breaking gender stereotypes. The Government Tribal Lower Primary School in Attathodu has become the first tribal school in the State to embrace gender-neutral uniforms. While gender equality was the dominating factor in the decision taken by the Balussery school, convenience and utility lie at the heart of the one taken by the tribal school.

The decision to shift to these gender-neutral uniforms was one that arose out of common sense as most students had to traverse almost 40 km or so to reach school. The students had to travel through forest ranges daily, a feat that proved especially challenging for girls due to their skirts. The idea was conceptualized based on the initiative taken by the Balussery school. The fight to shatter gender stereotypes is far from over.

However, we cannot deny that these decisions made by both Kerala schools are paving new paths towards creating a more progressive and rational mindset among students. It breaks down the social construct of clothing being assigned to create identity. These positive changes ensure that we are a step closer to a society that provides equal rights to people of all genders.

(The writers are from Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Symbiosis International (Deemed University), Pune)