Kerala teacher resigns after being asked to ‘dress appropriately’: Sexualisation of bodies in classrooms
The school is an eminent pillar of education, transmitting all the necessary principles of a culture. It becomes a microcosm of a community and mimics bias and prejudice. The sexualization of bodies (especially female bodies) seeps into school boundaries and creates an environment of objectification and harassment.
Rani Joseph, a senior secondary English teacher from Kerala recently experienced discrimination in this context and decided to fight against it. She joined the Little Flower Public School in Kollamula, Pathanamthitta in May. The school had introduced a dress code for all female teachers where they had to wear coats over their saris or suits.
The dress code, issued exclusively to all female teachers, is said to have been put into practice to protect teachers from sexual stares and comments from students. The idea is that by covering their bodies, teachers would escape insulting comments and stares from students.
When Rani protested and suggested that students should be given sex education rather than covering up for female teachers, she was harassed by the school principal. He called out to her in public, even before her students, and reminded her to wear proper school clothes. She remembers him making her feel like he was wearing somethingâvulgarâ.
Policing women’s clothing is not a new idea, but this idea perpetuated in educational institutions threatens the very structure we are struggling to change. A teacher is a non-sexist and authoritarian person, but the scales of power change when the person in question is a woman. The students begin to see her as an object and the bases of power crumble. It is commented and reduced to an object.
Read also : Why does the word ‘teacher’ evoke a female figure by default
Exposed teachers: Sexualization, gaze and harassment
In patriarchy, each role played by a woman is associated with a cultural image; a ‘good‘woman, a’good‘mother, a’good‘girl, a’good‘ teacher, etc. A good teacher would be a woman in a sari, polite, always smiling, caring-looking and willing to sacrifice her time for meager pay.
A teacher is a neutral embodiment who works in a public place. His body is exposed all the time and becomes vulnerable to judgment. This judgment becomes narrow when it comes to women. The length of her sari, the sheerness of her costume, and the crevices of her clothes are believed to be indications of her character.
The comments are passed when she decides to own herself rather than give in to societal expectations. The drawing of a teacher in our textbooks is our parameter to measure her. She has to look a certain way to do her job properly. She is forced to mute all her sexuality to save herself from the weight of sexualization.
Many educational institutions in India have codes of conduct for women. They should wear a saree or suit, the saree blouse should be of a certain length and well tucked in. In the case of the Kerala school, to avoid any inappropriate looks, the teachers must cover themselves completely.
Schools have become spaces to accomplish what liberal society has freed itself from. Under the guise of employment, they aim to erase women’s sexuality and reduce it to an object.
Only a handful of teachers realize the distinction between sexuality and sexual harassment. While most have suffered insults and comments during their tenure, they do not report them. They rarely realize that sexual stares are a case of sexual harassment. Since it usually goes unreported, it continues to grow and censor women’s agency.
This culture of body shaming and policing ultimately blames the victim. The humiliation of victims is so prevalent in the dungeons of educational institutions that it encourages men to victimize women. Teachers and students accept the power-gender dynamic in the sense that making obscene comments becomes acceptable. If a case is ever made, it’s designed to challenge women’s style choices.
Our educational institutions would be infected with this patriarchal undertone until those in power stood up for women and their choices. These schools also monitor female students and teachers. Rather than asking women to cover their bodies or sit in separate groups from boys, they should teach boys the proper way to interact with women.
Maybe then they would stop making obscene comments and see women as teachers and not as hypersexualized bodies. Until then, many more Rani Joseph would continue to fight without any support from school, society or structure.
Read also : Sexualization and Policing of Women – Kerala “Blue-Saree Teacher” Case