Patriarchy in the Classroom

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Smug patriarchal pronouncements about “dented and painted” women and “rape in India and Bharat” brought back to me an experience I faced in the classroom some years ago.

I teach English in grades 11 and 12 in a co-ed school in Delhi. That year I had this rather “difficult” boy in class. I can’t remember now how the discussion really began. The discussion got to the point where students were talking about the amount of freedom available to girls and boys and why girls have far less “freedom” than boys. It was somewhere at this point that this boy stood up (unlike the regular practice of standing to speak in the classroom, I insist students should sit and talk in my class) and stated with complete confidence that  “if girls dress so provocatively boys can’t help themselves.”

I remember being completely aghast at this blatant show of patriarchal arrogance. I went all hot and cold in the same moment. I had this red mist in front of my eyes. I can’t recall ever being angrier in my life with a student. I wanted to strangle the boy. I don’t know what really riled me the most – what he said certainly, but it was also the manner in which the young boy (he was not more than 16 or 17 at that point) with complete self assurance and self-righteousness, believed he could make this declarative statement. He was so smug in the “rightness” of his viewpoint.

My instinct was to crush him immediately with a cutting retort using my “teacher authority”. Better sense prevailed and as I waited to calm down, there was a howl of protest from the young women in the class. There was an angry and acrimonious discussion around the issue. Many of the boys remained quiet; a few were in quiet agreement with the girls who were insistently pointing out reports of minor girls being raped and killed wanting to know if they too had been “provocatively dressed” if they too were “asking for it”. This boy was taken aback by the anger of the girls. I don’t think he was expecting them to hit back at all. Probably expected them to feel shamed or something.

The discussion in the class did not appear to have much of a lasting impression on him.

Sometime later in the year, the same boy followed me out of the class one day (students often do it to ask some question). Again it was not what he said so much as how he said it that angered me greatly. He said he had a problem. I asked him what it was. In a quiet, hushed, almost embarrassed tone he said he felt I should wear a dupatta in class. I couldn’t believe I was hearing him right! Here was a young male student of mine telling me how he felt I should dress.

With great restraint I asked him why he felt I should wear a dupatta. He said because it embarrassed him to see me without one. Then he added some other boys in the class also felt embarrassed. It made me angry but I kept hold of my temper. I asked him if the other students had nominated him the spokesperson and if not then he should ask them to come to me with their complaints. I also told him if it embarrassed him he could shut his eyes in class or stay out of class.  After that even more determinedly I refused to use a dupatta in class. Maybe a rather childish reaction but it made me feel good.

I usually do carry a dupatta to school/class, but often drape it on a chair because it gets in the way when I am writing on the board, which I do rather a lot. I think I dress very modestly and neatly if not exactly very smartly, one because that is me and two I feel my appearance should not be a distractor in class. Probably it is also an unconscious result of years of conditioning at work – constantly being told as young girls and young women not to draw attention to oneself.

Both these incidents got me thinking about what we can and need to do as teachers. As a middle-aged teacher I couldn’t escape the offensive, patriarchal gaze of a 17-year old boy. Please do not misunderstand me – this was not a sexual gaze, a result of rampaging hormones. This was a patriarchal gaze born of a sense of power and entitlement that society has sanctioned and conferred on those born and raised as a male.

How does one tackle the deep-seated sense of entitlement that so many young boys/men have just because they are male?

As a teacher I don’t have any easy answers. The way education is being shaped today, classrooms are little more than teaching shops. There is little room for meaningful discussion on important issues. How do I simultaneously empower my female students while sensitizing my male students?

Snehlata Gupta

first published on kafila.org

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