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National Girl Child Day 2023: Why school uniforms need to be gender-neutral

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When Kochi-resident Vidya Mukundan was asked to design a gender-neutral uniform for Valayanchirangara government Lower Primary School in Ernakulam, Kerala, she was excited because she had experienced the difficulties of performing extra-curricular activities in skirts.

“Girls are body conscious, and the idea was to offer them comfort. The most important aim was to allow girls to be free by enabling freedom of movement,” shares the self-taught designer. The two piece ensemble she came up with — 3/4th shorts and a shirt — earned unanimous praise.

“The uniform treats them as kids, not discriminating between them as boys and girls. Many female students seem more confident, and they are especially happy about having pockets,” adds Mukundan. Her friend Dr. Binoy Peter, former academic chairman and Parent Teacher Association (PTA) president of the school, had roped her in for the assignment. She researched international schools with gender-neutral uniforms and attempted to iron out common problems faced by them.

Valayanachirangara first introduced the uniform in 2018 for lower and upper kindergarten classes. “Parents and children were comfortable and we received positive feedback. We then decided to implement this for everyone till grade 4. The pandemic stalled the execution, but now all students have been wearing the same uniform and the response has been good.”

School uniforms are among the most prominent visuals most people recall when they think of school. However, uniforms are much more than a tool for identification or an imagery of kinship—they are gendered. Most uniforms have enforced societal constructs of gender for centuries now in areas of work and education across the globe.

Questioning the nature of school uniforms is critical, because of the multi-faceted significance of clothing, from appearance to function. For example, wearing trousers means increased mobility, and individuals regardless of gender might simply prefer them.

In Mumbai, Andheri East school Tridha has in place a gender-neutral uniform—a kurta for regular days and t-shirt on sports days. Students from kindergarten to grade 10 can choose bottom wear of their choice (provided it is comfortable and knee length). “When we were to decide on a uniform, our priorities were very simple–it had to be comfortable, joyous, and gender-neutral. Why gender-neutral? Because all the activities done at the school are gender-neutral.  Be it sports, handwork, woodwork or cooking,” explains Ruth Mehta, the trustee and acting head of Tridha.

Students of Tridha, a school in Andheri East, are free to wear whatever feels comfortable. Pic/Tridha school 

“I think gender-neutral uniforms are a good idea. Wearing skirts really bothered me in the beginning. In skirts you can’t run fast, it decreases agility. It’s harder to sit in them as compared to pants where you don’t need to cover anything. In our school (Poddar International), the skirts are knee length, we have a wrap-around skirt with a belt but when the wind blows, the skirt lifts so we need to wear beige shorts. We even had pink clothes for girls and blue for boys but after the students protested, the school introduced blue for all,” shares 12-year old Dishi Parekh.

Dishi’s father Neerav Parekh voices his concern, “My daughter generally has a very strong opinion about uniforms. My wife and I both believe uniforms need to be gender-neutral. Girls have to be conscious all the time that their skirts will fly with the wind blowing. Trousers are much more comfortable, my daughter doesn’t wear skirts at home. We need to keep in mind that these young kids have been at home for two years. I’m worried as a parent, she’s not used to skirts and she travels alone in an auto. Not having a pocket is also troublesome because they carry phones since they commute by themselves. We would have preferred that the school allowed kids to wear what they want. Society needs to acknowledge and talk about this.”

Experts agree. “The freedom to wear what one wants allows an individual the choice of comfort and utility while at the same time expressing their individuality, creativity, and freedom,” explains consultant psychiatrist and de-addiction specialist Dr. Sneha Sharma. “That’s why when one has to conform to social norms some individuals can feel restricted, uncomfortable, and unauthentic which can impact self-esteem and personality. This may also lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment if the culturally appropriate demands are not met.”

Outlining the impact of school uniforms, she adds, “In one’s formative years this can force gender roles and stereotypes which can impact an individual’s potential and further strengthen prejudice. For example, wearing skirts makes it difficult to compete in physical sports due to the fear of being exposed so boys have a certain advantage in participating in physically challenging sports, hence reinforcing the belief that boys are better at sports.”

Besides functional use, clothing plays a huge role in gender expression. “Traditionally clothes have played a strong part in defining gender norms. It makes sense that a challenge to conventional clothing is a normal part of asserting independence and creativity in gender expression,” observes Sharma.

“Gender-neutral uniforms should be the norm. If we say that both girls and boys have the same rights, then in every single way this should be adapted. I feel girls would feel more confident and comfortable when they have pants and shirts in their daily school rather than wearing a dress or skirts which restrict their physical activity,” says Payal Pobari, mother of three-year-old Yuveer.

“I was in a convent school, with a pinafore dress, shirt and tie. While that was a default way of life for me, now as a mother to a young girl, I often wonder how it is always the girls who are expected to restrict their movements, and body language in certain ways to fit society standards. Being a designer I have also realised that a simple switch in clothing choices makes a world of difference in the freedom we offer them,” observes Yaman Banerji, mother of an eight-year-old.  

“We should let the kids be kids, and enjoy their childhood while keeping away the urge to apply gender roles even subconsciously. We are also lucky that a lot of stigma around the LGBTQIA+ community is being lifted and acceptance is on the rise, along with a lot of open communication about the same. On the same lines, it would be a welcome change to have gender-neutral uniforms in schools. After all, after the home, that is where the child spends a substantial time of their life and builds their value system,” concludes Banerji.

Also Read: Transgender Awareness Month: Dating as a gender queer person in India

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