When it comes to government efforts to ensure gender justice, the issues that come to mind are mostly those pertaining to preventing crime or setting up gender-neutral toilets. Kerala, however, has taken things a step further and believes in a holistic approach to encourage gender neutrality in the state. And it wants to engage a crucial section of the population which matters the most children.
So while a section of the country went up in arms over a teachers’ training manual meant to make the nation’s schools more sensitive towards and inclusive of all genders, the Left government in this southern state has announced that it would back the idea of gender-neutral uniforms in schools a concept that was perhaps hitherto unthinkable for students and academics alike.
Valayanchirangara government Lower Primary School, near Perumbavoor in Ernakulam district, which has a strength of 754 students has taken the first step towards gender neutrality and introduced a new uniform for their students– a 3/4th shorts and shirt, irrespective of the gender.
The new dress code was planned in 2018 and was introduced in the lower primary section of the school and this academic year when the schools were reopened after the pandemic induced lockdown, it has been extended to all students.
Vivek V, the current president of the PTA, who was also part of the executive committee of the PTA in 2018 which took the decision, told PTI that they wanted all the children to enjoy the same level of freedom.
“We got the backing of the students and their parents. We wanted all the students to have the same uniform so that they could enjoy the freedom of movement. This was first introduced in the pre-primary classes of around 200 students. It was a big hit which gave us the confidence to implement it for all other classes,” Vivek said.
General Education Minister V Sivankutty said it was an admirable move by the LP school and the government will promote such gender-inclusive activities.
“Ideas of gender justice, equality and awareness will be emphasised during curriculum reform. But these lessons need not be restricted to textbooks. The admirable move by Valayanchirangara LP School. Students of all genders will now wear the same uniform here – short pants & shirts,” Sivankutty tweeted congratulating the school.
He said there is a need to initiate a discussion in society whether we need to continue with separate schools for boys and girls.
“It is time to start a discussion n society whether there is any need to continue with separate schools for boys and girls. The state government fully support the idea of unisex uniform for the students which is a step towards ensuring gender equality,” the minister said.
He said necessary steps will be taken to include gender equality and justice in the school curriculum.
K P Suma, the headmistress of the school, said the students are excited about the new uniform and the girl students will now feel more comfortable and confident in taking part in extra-curricular activities.
“The PTA had discussed the suggestion put forth by the academic committee and later took the help of a designer, Vidya Mukundan to select the design for the dress,” she said.
Vidya Mukundan, a Kochi-based designer and an aspiring filmmaker, told PTI that initially, parents of the students had certain concerns including how the girls will be able to use the toilet.
“My friend, Binoy Peter, who was the academic chairman and the PTA president of the school in 2018, told me about the decision to implement a gender-neutral uniform for the children. We later discussed the matter with the teachers, and students and designed this uniform,” Mukundan said.
After considering various designs the decision to increase the length of the shorts and made a 3/4th for all the students.
“Girls told us that they feel very comfortable with the new uniform. This was initially implemented among the pre-primary students. Later, after considering the positive response from the parents and the teachers, the school introduced it to the other classes,” she said.
The girls uniform also include pockets, she added. A parent, who do not wish to be named, told that now her daughter need not worry about getting engaged in any physical activities like running or jumping or dancing or anything.
“Our parents used to tell us to be careful while engaging in several activities including sports and dance because skirts are not ideally suitable for such activities. Now I am glad that my daughter will not have to face the same situation as me and can participate in whatever she wants to without having to worry about her outfit coming in the way,” she said.
The number of students enrolling in the school has been steadily increasing in the last five years. While the school’s strength stood at 609 in the 2015-16 academic year, it increased to 681 students in 2018 and currently, it has 754 students.
A senior official from the Education Department said the government policy is to encourage gender neutrality and will fully support any school which plans to introduce such gender-neutral uniform. However, a law with regard to this has not yet been discussed.
The Kerala government has earlier this month clarified that that there was no law asking teachers to wear sari with higher education minister R Bindu saying such practice demanding to wear sari was not conducive to Kerala’s progressive attitude.
Bindu had said that one’s choice of dressing is an entirely personal matter and no one has the right to criticise or interfere in another’s sartorial choices.
The Higher Education department had in the second week of November issued a circular in this regard after complaints came from many teachers that several institutions in the state continue to practise such policing.