On a sweltering hot day, sometime in 2005, I entered the gates of what has been referred to as the ‘best school in Anna Nagar’ (my opinion of the school doesn’t matter, I am told); The registrar pointed me in the direction of class 11 - I. With a strength of 45 students, the classroom had been neatly divided into two sections — girls and boys. Sure, there wasn’t a physical reinforcement in place per se, but there were far more formidable machinations in place — in particular, a mindset bred from patriarchy.
As an outsider, a newcomer and as someone who was made acutely aware of linguistic inadequacies, I chose to conform, fit in. There were no free spots available on the girls' side of the classroom. Defeated, I sat on the last entirely empty bench in the boys' section. Our mathematics teacher, who at the time was writing down an equation on the blackboard, dropped the chalk, picked up her saree and ran towards me; she yelped:
“Illa ma... inge ukkarakudathe (No! child, you cannot sit here). How can you sit near boys?! Idhu ellam thappu (This is wrong)”
I felt dirty and as if I had done something shameful. She then proceeded to push four teenage girls and made sure I sat with them and not on the empty bench near the boys. Never mind that my buttocks barely got any room. When the class teacher announced a new classroom for us the following week, I was overjoyed, I could finally claim a space for myself and not have to share it with four other sorry girls.
Spending two years in the ‘best’ school, I had to unlearn many habits and behaviours. I learned that it was wrong to giggle and “give high-fives” to boys. I learned that a co-educational trip to Mysuru and Coorg was actually a trip with girls. I learnt that girls could not wear jeans on the trip. I learnt that girls couldn't laugh too loudly. I learnt that we will always be placed in a cocoon of stifling, unwanted protection.
After reading the list of rules at Aloysius pre-University College, I am not surprised. I am also not surprised that though the rules are for the students — girls and boys; most rules view the girls as agents provocateur.
- No girl students should be found inside the campus with intimately close with boys
- No student should be found near the parking area, near the park, near the book store, pretorum, bus stand, degree block and science block museum hall with boys
- During the break times girl students should not visit the boys of the other class
- No girl students can leave the campus for afternoon food
According to authors, Peter Ronald DeSouza, Sanjay Kumar, Sandeep Shastri in Indian Youth in a Transforming World: Attitudes and Perceptions, nearly half of the youth group they surveyed had limited interaction with the opposite sex. Unfortunately, Aloysius isn’t the first college to put such rules in place, nor will it be the last. St Xavier’s College, Ranchi decided to divide its reading room between girls and boys after the 2012 Delhi gangrape. According to The Telegraph, there are also different staircases for girls and boys. If this isn’t enough, one of the professors quoted by the news report said that the rules were in place because, “Yeh sab boyfriend banate hain aur dikhate hain ki padhai kar rahe hain (These girls make boyfriends and merely put up appearances of studying).”
The principal quoted in The Telegraph chimed in saying these rules are after all for the benefit of the female students. Satyabhama University in Chennai also has rules that do not allow boys and girls to mingle or even talk. In Aligarh Muslim University, students of the women’s college cannot access the Maulana Azad Library because according to the vice-chancellor, their presence would attract “four times more boys,” as reported by The Times of India.
An article in The Hindu, Where boys and girls don't talk to each other, by Vasudha Venugopal and Lavanya M is rife with examples of the ridiculous ways in which students, especially girls are policed. Working on a project with a male student calls for public shaming and is called a “bad habit”. “Trees have been cut off, say students, to make sure boys and girls do not gather under them,” write the authors in The Hindu. Girls violating rules by talking to boys become 'characterless'.
More often than not, draconian rules are conceptualised to ‘help’ women; what they end up doing is reifying stereotypes, ill-formed mindsets and give a giant thumbs up to the concept of controlling/taming women’s bodies and thoughts. The common recourse is: Let’s not teach our children about the perils of unprotected sex, appropriate interaction with the opposite sex. Instead, let us paint women as the ones prone to straying and therefore bring up the need for them to be tamed. Let us oppress women because it is too difficult to tell the boys not to be boys.
When I was asked to sit with the other girls in class 11, the teacher was sending out a larger message — that, girls need to be careful, their bodies are vulnerable and that boys are a necessary evil to be protected against. And, boys will never be responsible for their actions. When the teacher pulled my classmate and I out of class to tell us how we couldn’t “giggle” and “high-five” another boy because we are “characterless”, he was telling us that we are only a sum of our “characters” that will get dirty by speaking to boys, giving “high-fives” to girls however is something that boys do, it is the girls that must protect themselves from that ‘evil’. Here is a Telugu saametha (common saying) that is a great example of the patriarchal concepts that dominate our educational spaces: “Aaku yegiri mullu meeda padda, mullu vachi aaku meeda padinaa, chirigedi aakae (Even if a leaf falls on a thorn, or a thorn that falls on a leaf, it is the leaf that gets torn).”
This battle isn’t a battle of the sexes, it is a battle against a problematic structure that is oppressive to women. This structure is in place to police women’s actions, behaviour and to limit their freedom.