#Personal Stories

From Clothing To Hair: How Schools Police The Bodies Of Female Students

Lessons in Feminism, Priya Prakash Varrier Check Nithiin
Over the years, I have had the displeasure of attending several schools (and one college) that enjoyed policing female students that attended the education institutes. From describing an 11-year-old’s knee-length dress as ‘vulgar’ to banning female students from tucking their shirts into their pants as it “shows off their shape”, there is no shortage of attempts at policing female students.

Female students often have to deal with their bodies being policed in schools. They’re told to sit a certain way, wear only certain types of clothing, and maintain their hair in a particular manner. If the female students don’t comply with each aspect of the outdated rules, the teachers and staff attempt to police them and humiliate them.

My previous school had a policy where students did not have to wear the uniform when it was their birthday. When an 11-year-old student dared to wear a dress to school on her birthday, her mother was called to the school and teachers informed her that the dress she wore was ‘vulgar’.

The now 20-year-old Aisha* is still enraged by the incident. She said, “It was my birthday and I was wearing this dress that I really liked. It had a square neck and I don’t even think the length was an issue. They [teachers] called my parents and said ‘your daughter is wearing vulgar clothes to school'”.

Classifying the clothing of an 11-year-old girl as ‘vulgar’ wasn’t the only policing that the school took part in.

An airline recently earned the praise of netizens when they unveiled their cabin crew uniform which consisted of sneakers and trousers for all crew members. In a similar fashion, the aforementioned school also changed the uniform of female students from skirts to trousers. However, a group of teachers decided that tucking the shirt into the trouser shows off the shape of the female students. In response, they decided to outright ban tucking shirts in for female students.

Schools Stop Policing Girls

Picture Credit: The Conversation

I’ve heard the same teachers that implemented that rule tell male students to tuck in their shirts as they looked “shabby” with untucked shirts. But suddenly, untucked shirts are no longer an issue? While the school attempted to promote uniformity in their students, the implementation of the dress code feel short.

Prioritising Policing Female Students Over Education

Not only are women and young girls constantly shamed for how they are dressed, but schools are also constantly telling their female students that their value as a person depends on how they are dressed.

Educational institutes prioritise their ‘reputation’ and the dress code ahead of the student’s education. There have been multiple cases of schools sending girls home for dress code violations. The female students are not only shamed for their clothing, but they also miss out on their education.

Wearing certain kinds of clothes ‘vulgar’ clothes somehow means you are a bad person. The clothing a person wears is not indicative of their morality.

Why are young girls being judged so strictly and being sexualised by their teachers?

Suggested Reading: Skirt Or Pants At School: Can We Let The Students Decide?

Policing Female Students Doesn’t Stop At Clothes

The policing of bodies does not stop at clothes, because hair is also an integral part of a girl’s value in the world.

A female student in my class had gotten a haircut that left it an awkward length, it was not long enough to be tied but it was not short enough to avoid the dress code.

So naturally, a female teacher saw that she did not follow the dress code to the tee and decided to call her ‘gawar’ (uneducated). I do not know how hair and education have a connection, but according to that teacher, not tying your hair instantly erases years of schooling and education.

I spoke to the 20-year-old design student Gauri, the girl who was called ‘gawar’ by her teacher. Gauri was only 14 years old when the incident took place. She said, “Calling me uneducated just because I didn’t have my hair tied according to school conduct really brought down my self-esteem.” Gauri then sarcastically thanked the teacher for “managing to humiliate me in front of my friends”.

Why Are Female Students’ Clothing Making Male Staff Uncomfortable?

In the aforementioned cases, the female teachers had been the ones to police female students and humiliate them. However, male teachers were also involved in policing female students. A common reason for policing female students is that it made a male teacher or staff member feel uncomfortable.

The Head of the Department in our college saw that a female student was wearing a skirt. Rather than informing the student that she was violating the dress code himself, he asked a female staff member to do so instead. Creating and implementing the rules used for policing female students was not a source of discomfort for the male teacher, but telling a college student that her dress did not comply with the dress code made him uncomfortable.

If a male staff member feels uncomfortable around female students if they wear clothing that doesn’t fit into their narrow view of what is appropriate, then maybe they shouldn’t be around female students.

Being called out in public is always an embarrassing experience, but being called out on because of physical appearance as a 14-year-old really impacts the way young women see themselves.

Schools are supposed to be a safe environment where all students can learn. The learning shouldn’t only be restricted to education, but schools are also meant to teach young children how to be sociable and respect each other and themselves. How can children be taught to respect others when they see teachers and faculty tear down and humiliate other students?

The views expressed are the author’s own.