Another Brick in the Wall: Schools are Still Letting Girls Down

Graduating from University recently has got me thinking about my school experience. How did I make it to University? How did my education, leading up to my degree, better me as a person? How did it help me to understand the gendered world?

By Freya Turner

Graduating from University recently has got me thinking about my school experience. How did I make it to University? How did my education, leading up to my degree, better me as a person? How did it help me to understand the gendered world?

Well, quite frankly, it prepared me to live in a country where gender is rigid and sexism is not only practiced but celebrated too. There are so many things that I could say about my five year secondary (state) school experience. I could talk about the lack of class time scheduled for arts subjects, or the absence of healthy food in the cafeteria, or the neglect of a student’s autonomy and independence (as demonstrated through the archaic rules, such as having to ask a teacher to remove your blazer). But in light of recent, scary statistics that a quarter of young girls have depression by the time they reach the age of 14, I think it’s necessary for me to discuss the experience that girls at my school had.

In the UK, we begin secondary school aged eleven and are prompt thrown into a new school uniform. Cumbersome, and sweat-festering, our school’s uniform consisted of black trousers or a skirt, a white blouse, a horribly synthetic blazer complete with shoulder pads to bulk you up and appear more ‘fit for work’ – i.e. masculine, which was completed with a tie. Nothing like preparing the young for the long years of professional, misogynistic work ahead, am I right… am I right? Or perhaps it would be more suitable to ask how many of us will actually end up donning this sort of pompous attire in our careers? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that from the first day at school, girls from my school, in fact, all schoolgirls have long struggled to identify themselves within an education that boxes them in a blazer and tie-d institution. Their education literally doesn’t fit them.

Girls don’t have to be at school long before other problems arise. The insults ‘slag’ and ‘slut’ begin to fly around on a daily basis, boys are continually lifting up girls’ skirts, twanging their bra straps, making unwanted advances on them, and girls will simultaneously feel the need to make their skirts shorter and shorter to appear attractive. Teachers will, consciously or not, tolerate boys’ bad behaviour because it’s just ‘boys being boys’, listen to boys more often, and involve them more than girls in classroom discussions. We can deny all this as much as we’d like, but in my five years at secondary school, I noticed this being very real and the effects of this were very noticeable.

If girls are going to undertake years of education, whether this is up to the age of eighteen or twenty-one, then they must be listened to and encouraged on an equal basis as their male equivalents. If they’re not, their confidence in their abilities are obviously going to be lower, and therefore, the likeliness of them pushing themselves and taking academic risks is going to be much lower. It would be an injustice to deny that this is linked to males generally outperforming females at University. After years of being encouraged to think outside of the box and think boldly, it’s no wonder that when faced with independent assignments at university, boys are psychologically better equipped at executing them than girls.

There’s the added fuel to the fire of sexism flouted at my school with teachers telling us that it was forbidden to wear coloured underwear beneath our white blouses. There was the girl who received the prom queen award because final year students voted for her on the basis of being sixteen and pregnant. You constantly had an ear out for both subtle and all out brash comments from boys about the way girls looked. There was the culture of girls not eating during the school day, or being on a diet because they wanted to lose weight. For me, there was the issue of wanting to wear a skirt, but wearing trousers instead, because I was worried that I’d wear my skirt too long (and not appear attractive), or too short and (and get criticised for the same reasons).

I went with trousers instead because I couldn’t be bothered with being scrutinised by other students, whilst getting into trouble with the teachers for looking too sexualised, on top of the already frustrating experience of being a girl at school. I knew that I couldn’t win. And this sentence really sums up the experience you have as a teenage girl.

We also experienced the painfully significant lack of professional sex education, which in my experience, was based on a shrewd, Victorian discourse of negative reinforcement, where it was all about ‘do not’s’. We had the school shows which often shared sexist, inappropriate themes and costumes. Even the teachers themselves were targets of differing treatment based on their gender. I noticed that female teachers were generally more likely to be interrupted, teased, and taken less seriously than the male teachers. It’s just the way it worked, and this happened whether people were behaving consciously or not. We are so wired to a gender hierarchy that we’re not even conscious of it a lot of the time.

We can disregard these issues as insignificant, trivial realities of British education, but to do so would be to exacerbate the problem of gender rigidity and disparity in the UK. Our younger years are so, so crucial to our development. They have a lasting impact, and to undo the discourses we have been taught in our younger years would be a challenging, if not nearly impossible feat. If schools are taking responsibility for addressing (whilst often fixating) on the ways in which students are behaving outside of the national curriculum, regarding matters such as attendance, punctuality, and ‘professional’ appearance constructed through a uniform, then why isn’t gender finally being treated as a subject worth taking some responsibility over? Why on earth are we teaching young people about criminal punishment, ancient scriptures, and STIs without even touching upon sexism- in classrooms, assembly halls or tutorial time?

Our education system needs to grow up, otherwise the same patterns of oppression and limitation will get played out again and again. But how likely will this be in a culture of academy schools with ever narrowing curriculum options, funding cuts, and 1% pay caps debilitating our teachers? Pretty unlikely. The urgency with which we need to change our education system is therefore pretty much a state of emergency.

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About the Author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.

Are We Choosing Marriage Consciously?

By Taniya Shandil

“So, have you been thinking about boys and relationships then?” said Kal, one of my inquisitive neighbours. She popped over to my house for a cuppa and a catch-up, which we did whenever we met up. I was venting to her about how my dad had been hinting that I should be ‘doing certain things in time’. He would occasionally joke about posting my biodata online for some suitable matches to come through, so that he can get rid of me (quite literally is own words!). He said it teasingly, as a joke to wind me up, but to me it was more than a joke. He never said it directly but to me, but I felt like he meant there was a time to do everything, namely: a time for studies, a time for career and a time for marriage.

So, I being totally unready to even have that conversation or think about marriage at 25 was something that Kal found a bit surprising too. As we were discussing our life experiences, she said, “Well, you know, I got married at 24. I didn’t know what it would be like. But I learnt to understand how my life would change, and how to understand Ravi better. And now, two kids later we know each other well … we share our own little banter and that’s what it’s all about!”

She then went on to say, “You know marrying early is good because you can have your children, play with them and see them grow up while you’re young. I have some friends of mine who were very career-minded – now they’ve turned 32, 36 years old and they can’t have all that now!” “All what? Marriage and children?” I asked.

“Yes, you know. When you turn a certain age, it becomes difficult to have children. Also, it’s harder to marry!” she said.

I listened to her intently, yet had this strange feeling that she wasn’t entirely confident in her marriage at such a young age. Surely, we need to learn a little more about marriage before we go ahead and do it – just like you learn about the job prospects of a career before entering into it. Marriage being one of the life-defining decisions that we make deserves to be thought about, and not just ventured into blindly because it is the correct age to do so.

Practically speaking, the thought of ‘marrying at a certain age’ might be somewhat true since the biological clock exists, and has its limits. However, do we need to marry to have our children? Are we consciously choosing marriage and then kids, or is the choice being made for us?

Is it easy for a person, especially a woman, to make her own decisions without being judged? What happens if a woman decides she wants to marry when she is 40 years old, when she is filled with life experiences, financially stable and comfortable with herself as a person? Not to mention, she can emotionally support her partner better! Yes, with the biological clock ticking perhaps it would be difficult to have children. But isn’t this mind-set the stability that lays the foundation of a successful, and emotionally communicative marriage?

Why does it seem easier for men over 35 to find a younger woman to marry but not so vice versa? Logically speaking, isn’t there a higher risk of the marriage not working out when the woman is young and coming to terms with the idea of living with someone, discovering herself and trying to begin her career? Or does marriage choose her because she is of a certain age and can bare children? Is it biology, or our own conscious decisions? Do we feel incomplete if we don’t marry or don’t ‘have it all’? Is it necessary to ‘have it all’?

I am not saying that we should ignore our biology or shun marriage as an institution, but I do think it is important to question whether we looking at women as autonomous individuals? Are we accepting the fact that people will choose their marriage decisions? What about same-sex couples, are they similarly restricted by the social constructs which seem intrinsic in heterosexual couples? Are we acknowledging the fact that people will grow into more evolved beings with age who can provide better emotional, mental and financial support to their partners? Or are we associating a woman’s age as old = loss of youth = not a child bearing age?

Is the idea of ‘not having it all’ and ‘being left behind’ scary?

As I sit here and wonder about what Kal said, all I can surely say for now is that I don’t know what path I will eventually end up taking. Whether I will be ready mentally or not, whether I will find a decent partner or not, whether I end up having children or not. But one thing is for sure: whatever happens, I want to make sure that I choose it and not the other way around.

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About the Author

Taniya Shandil is a recent Chemistry postgraduate student from Cardiff University who is interested in gender and feminism issues. She has recently completed her master’s in Chemistry, and has took to writing for the purpose of self expression, creativity and making a difference by challenging perceptions of gender.

She also enjoys music, dance and reading as hobbies. One day, she wants to make a difference in the chemical industry with her work, and at the same time become a writer who can make a difference.

Taniya Shandil

How Orthodox Judaism Made Me A Feminist

By Rachel Pearlstein

I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and attended an Orthodox all-girls Jewish high school in south Florida. There were many good times and many freeing things about going to an all-girls high school, like not caring what you looked like, wearing sports bras every day, and being able to shout across the hallway for a pad or tampon without any pre-pubescent teenage boys making obscene comments.

They taught us in school and in the community that men were always thinking about sex and implied that women did not think about or want sex. Since men were always thinking about sex, women were supposed to cover their bodies and be ‘attractive but not attracting’. We were taught how big a sin it is for men to masturbate and so, in order to lessen the likelihood of men ‘wasting their seed’, women needed to cover up. You know how when someone says ‘don’t look’, one of the first things you do is look? Well let me tell you that most Orthodox girls think about sex plenty (the more we were told not to, the more we thought about it), and are quite crippled from all that repression especially if they chose to stray from this lifestyle.

The entire life experience was gendered; there were only two options for being a human — male or female — and you were either one or the other. There were exact roles for what women and men should do throughout the day, from which prayers to say, to where to stand in the synagogue, to how to dress and speak in and outside the home, and how to interact with the opposite gender. In addition to being repressive to women and even men alike, this life left no room for transgender people or anyone who did not choose to fit themselves into a gender binary. We were told that women are holier than men and have an innate spirituality and so women do not need to abide by many of the commandments in the Torah (the Jewish bible). Women of many devout streams of religion are told things like this by men and other women alike to keep them in a strategic place in society. When a person is born with a vagina, gifts of spirituality from God are immediately bestowed upon her? Come on, let’s get real.

When I began to venture away from that community and ideology I saw another kind of objectification and another culture trying to take away my freedom in the new world I was entering. It is no secret that women in the Western world are overly sexualised and objectified on billboards, television, music, everyday dialogue, and through countless other means. When I attended the University of Florida there was a strong pressure to look hot all the time when going out to bars or clubs. I constantly felt the pressure to wear fewer clothes, heels (which I absolutely cannot stand), and more makeup (it’s not fun to have lots of sticky goop on your face) if I wanted to be attractive to guys.

I did not like the other side of the coin. I grew up in a patriarchal world where women’s bodies were objectified in a different kind of way and I did not want to partake in another culture of female objectification and patriarchy. In Chassidic culture, women could not interact with men nor could they dress as they please because they may arouse men. This is one side of objectification and the culture in clubs, bars, and college campuses is the other extreme. Both are designed for men and force women to be a certain way quiet and covered or completely exposed and sexualised for men.

Then I found feminism. It was a slow process. I did not know that the way of life and stream of thought I was beginning to identify with had a name. Feminism for me is a middle path; a balance I have found. It is my rejection of the objectification of women’s bodies, of my body. For me it means choice. I have learnt to reclaim what being a women means, what sexuality means, and how I want to dress, act, and move through the world. Of course I cannot completely remove myself from Western culture but I can make decisions based on feminist principles and most importantly based on the person I want to be. I can choose to dress and act how I want, whether it is socially acceptable for women in Western culture or not. I can choose to act more ‘masculine’ when I please or as ‘feminine’ as I please. I can choose tight or short clothes if I want, or loose and comfortable clothes when I want. The main point is I CAN CHOOSE: not male Rabbis, not the (mostly) men who run the music, television, and fashion industry, but me and only me. For me, feminism is not radical but an empowering, self-introspective, and balanced way of life that I found and through which I am still finding my womanhood.

For all of you out there, no matter what your stance is on these issues, I implore you to ask yourself if you are being objectified. Ask yourself if you are making choices which speak to your soul, your heart, and the deepest parts of your being. If devout religion or mainstream Western culture is giving you these things, then I encourage you to latch onto them. But decide for yourself; to me, this is feminism.