“Boys and girls have equal freedoms”: Kerala relies on gender-neutral uniforms | India
There is a break in the primary school in Valayanchirangara and the students run freely under mango trees and palm trees. Girls race against boys and pull up their knee-length shorts, cargo green for girls and teal for boys as they walk.
It’s been three years since this small state primary school introduced gender-neutral uniforms for its students, starting a silent revolution that is now sweeping across the southern Indian state of Kerala.
âI feel very enthusiastic and feel comfortable with the uniform. It’s very different from my friends who study in nearby schools. I can play well with this dress, âsaid 10-year-old Sivananda Mahesh.
Inspired by the Valayanchirangara model, more than a dozen schools in Kerala have switched to gender-neutral uniforms, and the ruling Communist Party of India has pledged to support the state-wide movement. Several women’s rights groups have also spoken out in favor of the unisex uniform initiative and stated that it will help bridge the gender gap. Kerala has India’s highest literacy rate, but men still have a higher literacy rate than women, and gender and patriarchal expectations continue to be placed on women in society.
However, this initiative to tackle gender inequality at a young age is now facing stiff opposition from a section of Muslim organizations in Kerala who accuse schools of imposing Western clothing on their children and denying girls the right to wear what they are appropriate hold female clothes.
In December, the Muslim Coordinating Committee organized a protest in Balussery, a city in northern Kerala, when the local secondary school introduced unisex trousers and shirts for boys and girls.
Prominent Muslim organizations in the state warned the state government against enforcing gender-neutral uniforms in other educational institutions in Kerala, a 26% Muslim state, saying it is un-Islamic for girls to wear pants.
The decision at Valayanchirangara Elementary School came after Benoy Peter, the former director of the Parents-Teachers Association, noticed the difficulties girls often faced when wearing skirts in the playground and doing sports. The school enlisted the help of local fashion designer Vidya Mukunda to create a gender-neutral uniform with “style and elegance”.
The school, with 756 predominantly Christian and Muslim students, said only one parent had objections to the uniform and after explaining the benefits of the initiative, particularly how it would make it easier for girls to get around, resistance was dropped.
âWhen the idea came up, we were concerned about the reaction from parents who prefer their girls to wear skirts. But we were able to implement it without any problems and without protests, âsays KA Usha, the school’s former headmistress.
Usha said the uniform not only improved student performance, but parents flocked to send their children to school as well. “Parents are very keen to be accepted here because the new uniform has generated a lot of benevolence,” she said.
The school has also pushed its gender equality initiatives beyond uniforms. After fears that the school materials were filled with content âoften in contradiction to gender parityâ, they created their own gender-neutral textbooks, which are intended to sensitize children to gender equality from an early age.
âWe created our books with teachers who wrote the content and a former student who made the drawings. The books contain pictures of drivers and men cooking in the kitchen. The books convey the message that no job or task is gender specific, âsaid Usha. The school also designed a new logo with a picture of a girl and a boy to spread the message of gender equality.
KP Suma, a teacher at the school, said, âNow boys and girls have the same happiness and freedom. The uniform has boosted her confidence. Gender sensitivity is at the heart of the school, and we make sure that boys and girls mix easily without worrying about gender. “
Following the successes of the Valayanchirangara elementary school, State Education Minister V. Sivankutty said he was determined to see the introduction of unisex uniforms across Kerala. âWe expect similar trials at every educational institution in the country. For its part, the state government is committed to promoting gender equality in education and other areas, âhe said.
At Balussery School in Kerala, the site of the male-only protests this month, the principal, R. Indu, said students who heard about the Valayanchirangara experiment encouraged them to develop gender-neutral uniforms. That year the school introduced the uniform with the approval of the Staff Council and PTA.
Indu said Balussery students who wish to wear scarves for religious reasons are allowed to continue to do so and there would be no interference with religious identity.
âResistance to gender-neutral uniforms won’t last long. My Muslim neighbors feel nothing wrong with this. Only Orthodoxy is against it. My children can easily do any activity in this uniform, âsaid V Vivek, President of the PTA. Many Muslim female students also praised the unisex uniforms on social media.
But Jafer Neroth, a leader of the Islamic organization Sunny Students’ Federation, which led the protests, said the uniforms were “political tools”.
âThe government helps implement liberal ideologies among students and without consulting religious leaders. Biologically, men and women are different, and it’s the denial of diversity, âhe said.
Sivankutty said protests by some Muslim groups would not stop the government’s plans to make gender-neutral uniforms the norm in Kerala. “We are not paying attention to the protests of Orthodoxy,” he said.