Why Adopting Gender‑Neutral Uniforms Helps Students
A lower primary school in Kerala has introduced gender-neutral uniforms for its students — a move that was, reportedly, supported by 90% of the students’ parents. Two other schools in the state too — one in Pathanamthitta, one in Wayanad — have had similar policies in place. So, why is it that schools are beginning to move away from conventional uniforms?
“Such an idea struck when it was noticed that the girl students were participating very less in sports items compared to boys due to the discomfort they face while wearing skirts… We spoke to girl students first and understood their difficulties before introducing the new uniform pattern,” C. Raji and T.R. Suma, the former and present headmistresses of the school respectively, both of whom worked to introduce the policy, told the media.
Moving towards unisex uniforms is also “the result of a growing resistance to gender stereotypes,” according to an article by Sitanshi Talati-Parikh on The Swaddle.
The main argument against gendered uniforms can be summed up thus: “School uniforms are meant to equalize students, so why enforce gendered dress codes?” as Sanjana Sundar wrote in The Bastion. “Although the uniform intends to dissolve social differences in the classroom, dress coding becomes a tool to reinstate and conform to different social differences [based on the gender-binary] instead,” Sundar added.
Moreover, different attires for girls and boys often become a way for schools to harass girls further by monitoring the lengths of their skirts — slut-shaming them and propagating the idea that if they dress inappropriately, they’re inviting stares and lewd comments from men and are “asking for it.”
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On the one hand, gender-neutral uniforms can allow students to not feel confined to any particular gender identity. On the other, it also addresses gender stereotypes about women needing to dress in “feminine” ways, and pants being reserved for men. As some parents point out, by challenging stereotypes around how men and women should dress in society, unisex uniforms may also indirectly teach young, school-going students in their formative years that it’s okay to not conform to regressive ideals dictating how men and women must live their lives.
“At an age when children form ideas, clothing sets the stage about what girls and boys can or cannot do… While clothing is not a direct counter to society’s stereotypes, it is a small step towards making a statement,” Esha Pandya Choksi, mother of a two-year-old girl, told The Swaddle in 2018.
However, as Talati-Parikh argued, “although widespread gender-neutral uniforms are a step in the right direction, ultimately, India needs to move towards the global trend of letting students choose whether they want to wear skirts, dresses, or trousers.”
As an article by The Independent points out that in a bid to make their uniforms gender-neutral, schools often do away with skirts completely, “sending the damaging message to its pupils that the gender to default to is male… This reinforces the idea that traditional masculinity is a crucial part of boys’ identities, and any diversion from it is abnormal and wrong.”
Even for Valayanchirangara Government Lower Primary School, the latest school in India to switch to a unisex dress code, the uniform consists of shirts and three-fourth trousers. This begs the question: what about boys who may feel more comfortable in skirts?
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In 2016, a school in the U.K. decided to allow its students to choose either a “skirt-version” or a “trouser-version” of the school’s uniform without prescribing who must wear what, or picking the conventional male uniform as a blanket option for everyone. According to authorities at the school, the overhaul in their over-a-century-old dress code was a “react[ion] to a changing society which recognizes that some children have gender dysphoria and do not wish to lose their emotional gender identities at school.”
“It ties in with my strong personal belief that youngsters should be respected for who they are. If some boys and girls are happier identifying with a different gender from that in which they were born, then my job is to make sure that we accommodate that,” Richard Cairns, the headteacher of the school, had told The Guardian.
Having said that, while India may not be ready to accept young boys choosing to wear skirts, making the uniforms gender-neutral is certainly a step in the right direction. But that’s what it is: a step.
It may be a few years — if not decades — before we truly allow everyone to dress according to their gender identity, but until then, we can work on protecting the younger generation from gender-based stereotypes.