I have vague memories of ‘punishment’ — made to sit next to a person of another gender, teachers calling students in for ‘the talk’, or should I say threat, if they get wind of teenage relationships, glossing over the reproductive organs chapter in Biology lest we’d have questions to ask and, even worse, keeping the notorious boys out of the class just to be safe, and an hour worth of namesake and sanitised sex-education modules that was held singularly for boys and girls. And I went to a reputed co-ed school in the city.
Of course, we are told that some colleges still have separate stairways for men and women, segregated seating on buses, spies that report birthday handshakes, and strict dress codes. Memes and memoirs have represented this, as have jokes about deforestation to prevent the digression from academics that trees have to offer. Even recently a Kerala school was in the news for defending its suspension of a student for a ‘long hug’ and in support of its decision, differentiating between a ‘hug of appreciation’ and ‘long hug’.
But somehow, I had, guilelessly or optimistically depending on how one sees it, thought these were one-off instances and more would’ve changed in the years I have spent out of school and college. I realised how grossly off the mark I went twice this week I was struck by the thought that educational institutions were shirking the responsibility of being a seeding ground for healthy social interaction.
One was in interacting with a group of schoolgirls from a small town in the state. In speaking about a whole range of subjects, I stumbled upon the fact that these girls were not allowed, as a school rule, to befriend their male classmates. Nope, they are actually forbidden from speaking to the boys from class 6 onwards, which if they were caught doing would be met with dire consequences, including reporting to parents and possible suspension. Coming to middle school meant cutting off friendships with boys that had been formed before then.
For how many more years, I wondered, would we continue to suppress sexuality simply because its easier to dismiss its existence. How will students forge platonic friendships across genders, re-learning and unlearning what they have assumed, crying and swearing in equal measures till they realise they are all just human students, if they were told talking to each other is ‘bad’? And how is one supposed to navigate love, care, affection, romance, friendship and relationships if interacting is ‘bad’, and ‘bad’ can only mean romantic/sexual interests? If a man is brought up to believe that he can only fall in love with a person of the opposite sex, and has been kept away from that very specie all his life, how can we expect that he will fall in anything but love with the first woman he gets to know or not feel entitled to her?
Why so much rage you wonder? Because the second instance came from reading a report about Aswini’s murder. It states “The 20-year-olds were the ones who had beaten up Alagesan immediately after he slit Aswini’s throat. They say they would have prevented the incident if the college rules didn’t stipulate female students to leave 10 minutes ahead of the male students.” I don’t know the reason behind this rule but my wild guess is that it may keep girls from being followed, or deeming it hard for the men to get on the same buses and trains. Of course, college students who want to will find a way to wiggle out of such rules, but with duress from an uncontrollable attack of ‘what if’, I ask if Aswini would have been alive today had it not been for this rule?
Institutions justify these rules by claiming it prevents anything ‘untoward’ from occurring — even get parents on board by selling the idea of keeping their daughters and sons safe. But safe from what, I ask. Sheltering students from sex, sexualities, social interaction, policing their bodies and behaviour, and continuous campus vigilance is the opposite of safety. What educational institutions need to do is step up their game, stop this shaming culture, facilitate free thought and friendships, and take on the responsibility of churning out safer people for the society — those who are not entitled murderers, subjects of patriarchy, mute by-standers, victim blamers, conspiracy theorists or murder apologists.
The writer is a city-based activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton