It is recess time at Valayanchirangara Primary School and the students run freely under the mango trees and palm trees. The girls run against the boys, pulling their shorts up to their knees, the cargo green for the girls and the turquoise blue for the boys, as they go.
It has been three years since this small government primary school introduced gender-neutral uniforms for its students and in doing so set in motion a silent revolution that is now sweeping through the southern Indian state of Kerala.
“I feel very excited and comfortable in the uniform. It is quite different from my friends who study in nearby schools. I can play well in this dress, ”said 10-year-old Sivananda Mahesh.
Taking inspiration from the Valayanchirangara model, more than a dozen schools in Kerala have switched to gender neutral uniforms and the ruling Communist Party of India in the state has pledged to support the movement that is being rolled out across the state. Several women’s rights groups have also supported the unisex uniform initiative, saying it will help close the gender gap. Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India, but there is still a higher literacy rate for men than for women and patriarchal and gender expectations continue to be placed on women in society.
However, this initiative to tackle gender inequality at an early age is now facing strong opposition from a section of Muslim organizations in Kerala, who accuse schools of forcing their children to wear Western clothing and denying girls the right to wear whatever they deem appropriate. womenswear.
In December, the Muslim Coordination Committee organized a protest rally in Balussery, a city in northern Kerala, when the local high school introduced a unisex uniform of pants and shirts for boys and girls.
Prominent Muslim organizations in the state warned the state government against applying gender-neutral uniforms in other educational institutions in Kerala, a state that is 26% Muslim, saying it would be anti-Islamic for girls to wear pants.
The decision at Valayanchirangara Elementary was made after Benoy Peter, a former head of the PTA, noted the difficulties girls often face when wearing skirts on the playground and playing sports. The school enlisted the help of a local fashion designer, Vidya Mukunda, to create a gender-neutral uniform that had “style and elegance.”
The school, which has 756 mostly Christian and Muslim students, said only one parent opposed the uniform, and after the benefits of the initiative were explained, in particular how it would make it easier for girls to move around comfortably, the resistance dropped.
“When the idea came up, we were concerned about the reaction of parents who prefer their girls to wear skirts. But we were able to implement it easily and without protest, ”said KA Usha, former head of the school.
Usha said the uniform had not only boosted student performance, but parents were flocking to send their children to school. “Parents are eager to be admitted here as the new uniform sparked a lot of goodwill,” he said.
The school has also pushed its gender equality initiatives beyond uniforms. Concerned that school materials were full of content “often in conflict with gender parity,” they created their own gender-neutral textbooks, which are designed to sensitize children about gender equality from the beginning. an early age.
“We made our books with teachers writing the content and a former student drawing the pictures. The books contain images of women driving vehicles and men cooking in the kitchen. The books convey the message that no job or task is gender specific, ”Usha said. The school has also designed a new logo with the image of a girl and a boy to spread the message of gender equality.
KP Suma, a teacher at the school, said: “Now boys and girls have the same happiness and freedom. The uniform has increased their confidence. Gender sensitivity is at the heart of the school and we are ensuring that boys and girls mix easily without worrying about gender. “
After the successes of the Valayanchirangara primaries, State Education Minister V Sivankutty said he was determined to see unisex uniforms deployed in Kerala. “We anticipate similar attempts in all educational institutions in the state. For its part, the state government is committed to promoting gender equality in education and other fields, ”he said.
At Kerala’s Balussery School, the site of the all-male uniform protests this month, principal R Indu said it was students who had heard about Valayanchirangara’s experiment who pushed her to develop gender-neutral uniforms. This year, the school introduced the uniform with the approval of the staff council and the PTA.
Indu said Balussery students who wish to wear shawls for religious reasons can still do so, and there will be no interference in religious identity.
“The opposition against gender neutral uniforms will not last long. My Muslim neighbors don’t feel anything wrong with it. Only orthodoxy is opposed. My kids can do any activity with ease wearing this uniform, ”said V Vivek, PTA president. Many Muslim students also praised the unisex uniforms on social media.
But Jafer Neroth, leader of the Islamic organization Sunny Students’ Federation that was leading the protests, said the uniforms were “political tools.”
“The government is helping the implementation of liberal ideologies in students and without consulting religious leaders. Biologically, men and women are different, and it is the denial of diversity, ”he said.
Sivankutty said protests by some Muslim groups will not stop the government’s plans to make gender-neutral uniforms the norm in Kerala. “We are not aware of the protests of orthodoxy,” he said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism