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“Don’t let your foot slip!” : Messages On ‘Appropriate’ Femininity By School Teachers In Mumbai    

Comic panel. A school teacher offering an apple to a girl and a boy student, while both of them look at it skeptically.

“In Hindi, though there is a word for rape (balaatkaar), it is rarely used by women. Instead they say izzat lootna which translates as ‘losing one’s honour’” Viswanath (1997:323).

The above quote illuminates the importance of the concept of honour or izzat in Indian society. Crucially, honour is a gendered concept as women are repositories of family honour; of their own family as daughter, and of their husband’s family as wife and mother (Chakravarti, 2003: 151). Moreover, the responsibility of maintaining honour and respectability of the caste, community and religion primarily rests on women. In everyday life, the concept of honour translates into an everyday control and regulation of women’s bodies and sexuality.

In recent years, researchers in India have noted that such control and regulation is exercised chiefly through an unrelenting gaze on women, especially unmarried women. They have emphasised that this gaze shapes women’s public demeanour and behaviour in particular ways. Specifically, most women, aware of the gaze, engage in a daily performance of docile femininity (Phadke et al, 2011; Khan, 2007). In their research, Phadke et al and Khan have looked at the diverse ways in which urban communities monitor and discipline women’s dress, conduct and behaviour in public spaces. This exploration of the role of communities has provided interesting insights on the prevailing culture of sexuality in urban India. However, very little is known about the role of schools and teachers in shaping the sexuality of young girls. As Kehily (2002: 49) observes, “Within the context of the school much informal learning takes place concerning issues of gender and sexuality; the homophobia of young men, the sexual reputations of young women, and the pervasive presence of heterosexuality as an ‘ideal’ and a practice mark out the terrain for the production of gendered and sexualised identities”. She then identifies three areas of discursive practice that serve to shape sexualities in school settings: the official curriculum, pedagogic practice, and pupil cultures.

My doctoral thesis which was an ethnographic exploration of the sexuality of adolescent girls (between the ages of 15 and 22) living in a Mumbai slum also examined the nature of informal messages sent out by teachers in schools. I probed both girls and teachers about the messages related to sexuality in in-depth interviews and focus group discussions. Girls in my study revealed that they were frequently instructed by teachers to stay away from boys and to remain ‘alert’ and ‘cautious’ at all times. Teachers commonly used phrases such as “use your power (to resist boys)” and “don’t let your foot slip” to emphasise the importance of sexual restraint before marriage. Furthermore, girls were also urged to ignore boys who ‘teased’[1] or harassed them. Sarika (15 years), Mansi (19 years) and Aradhana (17 years) elaborate on the messages sent out to girls by school teachers:

Sarika: “(Our teachers tell us that) girls have more power compared to boys. Girls come to know the intentions of the person coming to them. For example, I told you about an incident where a girl saw a boy coming towards her. She realised he was going to brush against her but before he could do that, she moved aside.”

Mansi: “Teachers also tell us about ‘what a good girl is like’. They tell us about the culture outside and men outside. Girls should stay safe for protection….right now there is HIV and one should protect oneself from HIV. They also tell us how a girl should talk to boys, they should mix with boys but they should be within their limits, both boys and girls should be within their limits. They tell us that these days girls and boys mix so much that the result is something else ..that’s why, [laughs] … Don’t do this (sex) because you will lose honour and the family will lose honour.”

Aradhana: “They (teachers) tell us to wear clothes properly, to pin the dupatta properly and in place, do not bend in front of boys, do not touch boys, do not initiate a conversation with boys, do not allow boys to touch you.”

The above quotes reveal that school teachers actively endorsed a protective discourse of sexuality. Elaborating on the subject of adolescent sexual culture, teachers in my sample spoke disapprovingly of girls who were ‘bindaas’, ‘daring’ and ‘shameless’. They felt that girls needed to be instilled with the ‘correct values’ so that they refrain from engaging in sex before marriage. As one high school female teacher put it, “These girls should be told that these (body/sexual organs) are your ornaments as well. Keep them safe, don’t show them. Our body is so pure. But these girls do not understand (this)”. It is perhaps not surprising that teachers did not pass on any such instructions to the boys. According to teachers, it was more important to give such messages to girls rather than boys because, “If the girl does not give a chance, the boy cannot do anything.” Interestingly, most girls also stated that it was ‘futile’ to advise boys on this issue because boys are ‘dumb’ and they ‘never listen’ to the teachers.

In associating appropriate femininity with purity and chastity, school teachers are reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes. Moreover, these messages by teachers are both ineffective as well as dangerous. They are ineffective because, as my study found, a majority of school girls are bending dominant norms to explore love and intimacy before marriage. And they are dangerous because, in an event of sexual abuse or harassment, girls are unlikely to receive any empathy or support from the school staff. On the contrary, girls will face blame as well as criticism for inviting harassment through ‘provocative’ dress, speech or conduct. In future, policy makers need to take into account the prevailing discourse of sexuality in schools before they plan and roll out a program of sex education. A crucial first step would require experts to work with school teachers in order to help them reflect upon the dangers of a protective discourse of sexuality.


Chakravarti, U. (2003). Gendering Caste; through a feminist lens, Calcutta:Stree.

Kehily, M.J. (2002). Sexuality, gender and schooling: shifting agendas in social learning, London: Routledge Farmer.

Khan, S. (2007). Negotiating the Mohalla: Exclusion, Identity and Muslim Women in Mumbai. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol xlii, No.17.

Phadke, S., Khan, S. & Ranade, S. (2011). Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

Viswanath, K. (1997). Shame and Control: Sexuality and power in feminist discourse in India in Thapan, M. Embodiment: Essays on Gender and Identity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1]Chhedna or chhed-chhad was a local term used to refer to cover a range of acts including ‘teasing’, ‘flirting’ and ‘aggressive harassment’.

Illustration: Farzana Cooper | Source:

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