‘Gender neutral uniform’ leads to howls of protests in Kerala

Students at the Balussery Govt school in the new uniform

A decision by a government school in Kerala to introduce trousers and shirt for both girls and boys has led to protests and demonstrations, especially from Muslim religious and cultural organizations.

These organizations have alleged that the move amounts to imposing patriarchy and liberal values on women, and accused the school authorities of denying the right of self-expression to the students.

A protest march was also organized to the school under a hastily formed ‘Muslim Coordination Committee’ against the so-called gender neutral uniform.

Among the organizations that have risen up in protests are Indian Union Muslim League — the second largest constituent of the Congress Party-led United Democratic Front, its student body Muslim Students Federation, both of the prominent Sunni organizations of Kerala, Jama’at-e-Islami and a host of what are called Mujahid organizations.

The head of the protesting group spoke at length to the media in front of the school, and called the move an attempt by the Left Front government to “impose liberal ideas” on everyone.

He asked why male clothes were chosen as the gender neutral option when nearly 75% of the students were female.

He also expressed worry about the psychological impact that forcing girls to wear ‘male clothes’ can have.

“Please do not see this as a religious issue. The issue is that of freedom, and the imposition of an ideology,” he pointed out.

Sunni Students Federation too came out strongly against the ‘patriarchal’ move to impose male standards on women.

“Forcing girls to wear boys’ uniform is not only undemocratic, but also aimed at reaffirming male domination,” it said in a press statement.

It said uniformizing the clothes of students amounted to denying the right to the individual to decide what he or she wanted to wear.

Former student and women’s rights activist and lawyer Fathima Thahilia too opposed the move to impose the same style of clothing on all students.

“Given that everyone has the right to demonstrate their identity, any move to impose a single uniform cannot be encouraged under any circumstances,” she said in her reaction to the development. “It is dangerous to resort to the same dressing style for everyone.

“What is needed is not to bring about a uniformized uniform, but efforts to encourage respect and acceptance for everyone and every style of clothes. This represents a tendency to remove diversity. [Having a uniform clothing style] will lead to a closed mentality among the students,” said Fathima Thahilia, former national vice president of Muslim Students Federation, the students’ wing of the Indian Union Muslim League — Kerala’s third largest political party.

Despite being gender neutral, the school has given permission for students to use scarves and hijabs.

Meanwhile, Dr R Bindu, Kerala’s minister in charge of higher education and social justice, strongly criticized those who opposed the school’s decision to introduce trousers and shirt for female students.

“Girls grow up in our society amid a lot of unwritten rules. While boys and men are able to choose whatever is comfortable for them, it’s not the same for women. Women are forced to wear such clothes as are considered suitable and beautiful by others. They are forced to be objects of display, while at the same time harboring all kinds of insecurities about their looks and bodies.

“It is important to enable our girl children to interact without feeling conscious about their bodies so that they can focus on developing their innate abilities and talent. That is the atmosphere that should be obtained in a school, and this is a step in that direction.”

She also pointed out that such uniforms are common in professional colleges, and that those who have risen up in protest now have not raised even a finger against more exotic uniforms imposed by many schools and colleges.

“Why are we imposing blazers and waistcoats on female students when these do not suit our climate at all? If you don’t have any problem with that, then why are you opposing when we have brought about a uniform that is actually more convenient for the wearer?

“Those who love their children will instead help them choose these clothes that are not only suited to our weather but also offer more freedom of movement and sets the students free mentally. Indeed, it is one of the duties of the school to free the students from feelings of inferiority related to their physical appearance and body and feelings of gender inequality,” she said in a Facebook post.