In India’s Kerala schools promote equality with gender neutral clothing

NEW DELHI: When 16-year-old Neha Prashant Abija started wearing shirts and pants to school last month, the switch from standard academic attire offered a welcome taste of freedom – and a break with the norm Indian schools have had since the 19th century Century.

Indian schools made uniforms mandatory, borrowed from the English educational system introduced during the British rule of the subcontinent.

Boys usually wear light-colored shirts and pants or knee-length shorts, while the dress code for girls is a shirt and skirt or long tunic and baggy trousers.

The norm no longer applies at Abijas High School in Balussery in the Kozhikode district of Kerala, a southern state where more than a dozen schools have broken with the tradition of gender-neutral clothing.

“It is a liberating experience to wear a shirt and pants as a school dress instead of a skirt,” Abijah said. “The ease with which we move without being self-confident is good for me.”

The Balussery Government Girls Higher Secondary School also has male upper secondary students, but from mid-December all students are allowed to adopt the same gender-neutral dress code.

“The students asked for the change, and we agreed. The overwhelming majority of students supported the move to introduce gender-neutral clothing, ”the school’s principal Indu Radhakrishnan told Arab News.

Girls who don’t want to wear pants can still wear their traditional clothes.

“We did not impose the choice,” said Radhakrishnan. “We gave the students the freedom to change the length of the dress or put on an extra coat.”

The move was not without resistance, she added, but not from the students.

“Some political parties formed a coordinating committee and protested to urge me to overturn the decision. They also surrounded me in the office, but going back was out of the question. ”

While Balussery is leading the tailoring revolution at the high school level, the move was inspired by Valayanchirangara Elementary School in Ernakulam District, whose 750 students switched to shorts and shirts three years ago.

The initiative came from former Valayanchirangara student Benoy Peter, a development expert who previously headed the school’s parent-teacher association.

“I used to see girls having trouble playing freely and sitting comfortably,” Peter Arab told News. “Wearing clothes also seemed to affect her self-esteem.”

The school also introduced textbooks to challenge gender stereotypes.

“We have brought in pictures like a father cooking in the kitchen and children sitting at the dining table and a woman driving the truck rather than a man,” he said.

“Our goal was to bring the idea of ​​gender equality closer to young people.”

Valayanchirangara headmistress Usha Ayappan said she was proud of the school’s efforts.

“The parents supported the move and that encouraged us to introduce the new dress both in preschool and later in elementary school.”

The school received social media praise from Kerala’s Minister of Education, V. Sivankutty, who announced last year that gender equality and equality would be highlighted in the state’s school curriculum reform.

In some circles, however, the ideas remain controversial. One of the opponents of the change of uniforms, Dr. Zulifaqar Ali, general secretary of Kozhikode-based Muslim social group Kerala Nadvatul Mujahedeen, said the new dress code is not gender neutral.

“They’re introducing male clothing to women,” he told Arab News. “Girls’ pants and shirts are also presented in Kerala schools. They don’t introduce skirts or saris to boys. “

He added, “The government needs to improve public school infrastructure instead of focusing on clothing that should be left to individual discretion.”

However, young students such as Sribala B. Nair, who is attending Valayanchirangara School, appear satisfied with the new uniform.

She is no longer afraid that her clothes will get dirty when she goes to the bathroom, says the nine-year-old.

She added, “It feels so nice to wear shorts.”

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