Kerala school's uniform row: Is there such a thing as 'gender neutral' clothes?

Clothing does not have an inherent gender. We attribute gender to it, just as we do for colours, hairstyles, toys, footwear, makeup, rivers, mountains, countries and objects.
Gender neutral uniform in Kerala school
Gender neutral uniform in Kerala school
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A Kerala government school in Baluserry recently adopted a 'gender neutral' uniform for students —pants and a shirt. While many have lauded the move, a few Muslim organisations have objected to 'forcing' a liberal ideology on children. The furore has spilled over to social media where people who are aligned to Left-liberal politics are celebrating the uniform while those who believe in conservative politics are bemoaning it. But, is there such a thing as a 'gender neutral' uniform?

Clothing does not have an inherent gender. We attribute gender to it, just as we do for colours, hairstyles, toys, footwear, makeup, rivers, mountains, countries and objects (languages like Hindi and French, for instance, assign gender to inanimate, non-living objects too). How we gender is also influenced by sociocultural and historical factors. While many citizens refer to their respective countries as 'motherland', to suggest the image of nurture and nourishment, Germans use 'fatherland' — a hark back to the country's history of muscular nationalism. 

These attributions also change with time and place. Till the beginning of the 20th century, pink was considered to be a masculine colour while blue was considered to be a feminine colour. The reasoning was that pink is a relative of red, which is a strong, bold colour. Blue on the other hand, is a cool, soothing colour. Today, however, the opposite is considered to be true and clothing and accessories for girls are awash in pink while boys' items are in 'masculine' blue.

People of all genders now wear pants and shirts across the world, and it has become a 'unisex' or 'gender neutral' attire (not entirely in terms of design though). But in 1852, American women Emma Snodgrass and Harriet French were arrested by the Boston police for wearing pants. Harriet's reasoning was that men had more job opportunities and dressing like one would help her find work. Her friend Emma was arrested repeatedly for trying to wear pants as were many other women. In fact, several states in America employed legislation to stop women from wearing pants. 

It was only during the World Wars, when women were required to work in factories due to the severely depleted male workforce, that wearing pants acquired grudging acceptance. It was not practical for women to work with heavy machinery (they were previously prevented from doing so because they were deemed 'incapable') wearing long gowns, and pants became a viable option. The idea of women wearing pants everywhere was not normalised automatically; historical events, active resistance and globalisation made it possible.

In patriarchal societies where masculinity is valued above femininity, the term 'gender neutral', more often than not, means a traditionally masculine quality or bastion that has been extended to or embraced by women. The opposite is seldom celebrated or demanded in equal measure. For instance, women entering the armed forces in greater numbers is seen as emancipating but very few men are interested in fighting for their right to paternity leave. 

Similarly, while we're ready to see several articles of historically masculine clothing as unisex now, it's doubtful that we would have celebrated a comfortable, practical yet feminine garment like the skort, divided skirt or leggings as uniforms for all genders. It's difficult to imagine that most parents in a patriarchal society would be delighted to see their boys going to school in what is considered as feminine clothing, even if by choice, because there is nothing more insulting for a person assigned the male gender than to be viewed as 'woman-like'. On the other hand, many progressive parents take pride in saying they've brought up their daughter like a son. Even now, the phrase 'she was the only man in the cabinet' is used to praise late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi while 'he was the only woman in the cabinet' will hardly be used to describe a strong male leader. 

The Kerala government's move conforms to more modern gender constructs around clothing that permits girls to wear traditionally masculine clothes, but this doesn't mean it should be rejected. Allowing all genders to wear the same uniform, especially if it is more comfortable, is a welcome change. It may also come as a relief to transgender children who are forced to conform to a certain dress because of sociocultural expectations on them. In fact, in the UK, there are schools that allow children of all genders to wear pants or skirts, whichever be their choice, keeping trans and queer children in mind. 

While the Kerala government's move is a positive step, it must be read with the understanding that 'gender neutral' does not mean sameness; people of all genders do not have to look and behave the same way to be treated equally. Rather, 'gender neutral' means having equal access to rights, irrespective of your gender. For that to happen, we have to go beyond what's on the surface. Clothes do not have gender. We gender them, and it is within our power to change this, and much more. 

Views expressed are author’s own.

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