When gender based violence erupts on our TV screens, as it did recently with instances of molestation in Bengaluru, we react in shock. What does it say about a society where such acts have become routine? The shell of silence surrounding sexual violence needs to be shattered. As a first step towards a more honest conversation, we bring you “Talking Gender”, a series of articles on the fundamental problems of the collective mindset on gender.
Rosary beads, not wanting to recite the Our Father prayer or sing Jingle Bells, daydreaming during morning assembly and defying school rules sums up the moments of nostalgia surrounding my days in an all-girls convent school. With the fun times also came the rigid rules on how ‘elegant young ladies’ should behave, to always wear skirts that covered our knees, and to never have sex before marriage.
On a chilly morning when I was in class 9, our class teacher came in and told us to move to the classroom next to the long jump track. Everyone knew that that specific classroom was meant for sessions that had nothing to do with academics. Expecting to have a great time, I huddled up in the corner seat of the room. I had not noticed the black board yet and a few seconds later, I saw ‘sex education’ written in capital letters.
The sound of shocked whispers picked up and in walked Sister Anastasia. Petit in form, she had a bright smile and radiated politeness. The class went quiet and the LCD screen was drawn down. All of us were expecting to watch a movie - but what we ended up watching was a documentary and some pictures, that left most of us disturbed and doubt the existence of sexual pleasure.
We watched young girls narrate regretful stories of what happened when they "chose to explore their sexuality before they were married". Stories of young unmarried girls giving up their babies for adoption poured out on the screen.
The taboo surrounding the word sex was heavy and the silence in the classroom was uncomfortable. Not one girl questioned what was being show to us on screen. Of course, they couldn’t. We were all just 14 years old, and many of my classmates had already believed what they had seen.
The disturbing stories of girls regretting their decision to be free, regretting their decision to make choices was a hard one to watch. Some of my classmates were driven to tears and just when we thought the class was done, we were shown pictures that made one of my classmates run into the washroom and vomit.
The first one was a picture of a bloody condom and we were made to believe that exploring the world of sexual pleasure before marriage would always be painful. But one image still remains in my memory, and rather vividly.
When I looked at it initially, all I could see was blood. Sister then told us that those ‘babies’ (aborted foetuses) died because their mothers chose to have sexual intercourse before they were married and that the mothers were left with no choice but ‘kill their own children’.
This was not the first time any of us in the class had heard the word sex or condom or pregnancy. But the gory content had shocked us. I remember questioning why we were not being told about condoms or contraception. The dainty sister was shocked at my line of questioning and told me not to ‘utter that sort of rubbish’ again.
Even as I felt angry at being called an ‘uncouth urchin’ for questioning what was being taught, some of my classmates were looking at me in disgust. Of course, questioning why we were not taught about contraception or why we were not talking about the changes we experience in our bodies and even thoughts, was labelled 'rebellious and slutty'.
My teachers were worried that I was taking the ‘wrong path’ and lectured me on how young ladies should not be thinking about sex at all before marriage. My questions only grew and I can still picture the expression of shock and disgust on their faces. I remember the loud 'you will not say another word young lady’ and also being made to kneel down next to the dustbin for an hour.
A few days later, some of my classmates told me that they too had similar questions in their mind but were scared of being picked out of the crowd. A few others told me to stop questioning everything that was being taught. Some of them called me ‘slutty’ for being curious.
Our school, however, did celebrate women and their right to have equal opportunities, but only in the speeches made by our Principal every year on Annual Day.
The assignation of gender roles began at school. Not being given sex education but rather being told that abstinence is the only way to stay safe had a horrible impact on some of us. One of my classmates had trouble being intimate for several years as she feared she would be hurt immeasurably.
The stigma surrounding the idea of a woman having sex before marriage is still prevalent and this can only be changed through sex education at school level. Providing young people of all genders information about bodily development, sex, sexuality and relationships is important as it teaches young adults about communication and making informed decisions about their sexual health.
Everyone has a right to make their own choices and inculcating that idea has to begin at school.