The recent spate of debates around the rape and death of an O-level student has yet again illustrated the problems with Bangladeshi schooling and the chronic need for sex education in classrooms. When I was going to school, I remember that the only formal sex education we had was in the class five biology textbook, with a picture of a bare man and woman. Having menstruation in those days and leaving the "evidence of shame" on the school uniform and the seat amounted to stares and laughter from other students. These were the least cruel reactions. The teachers punished girls for wearing eyeliner, the wrong colour hairband, nail polish, or having longer nails. Teachers hovered with their piercing vision and fixed the girls' uniforms or drew them out of the class in a whispering command to go to the bathroom to fix their uniforms. Boys had their share of trials for low hanging pants and gel slapped hair, but the questions, scrutiny and curiosity always landed on the girls' bodies.
Dear teachers, who think that regulating girls would produce a righteous society, dear students, who laugh and bully, and dear school administrators, who choose to help maintain the status quo for the cadre of influential elites in the education system and beyond, I respectfully ask you, what is the point of punishing and micromanaging girls' and women's bodies? When children and adolescents spend the most productive hours of their day and life in classrooms, can we solely blame porn culture and parents for children's upbringing and its monstrous consequences? Pedagogy steeped in puritanical disciplinarian norms cannot instill moral values. Our curricula are bereft of substance. Superficial disciplining does not help our students to develop the moral and spiritual compass that education should inculcate. We need to engage in critical social thought along with mandatory sex education, and this is only one of the many changes necessary for us to move forward.
Whilst most of our efforts and school resources are expended on producing doctors, engineers, lawyers and heirs to nepotistic business dynasties, we severely lack critical education in civics, history, geography, philosophy and ethics. How many more BBA holders do we need to run our economy? When our chemistry and physics books fall out of our knapsack as we struggle to lift their heavy weights onto our straining adolescent backs, our ethics classes are non-existent. There is zero discourse, and zero tolerance for alternative viewpoints. My 12 years of Bangladeshi schooling were an utter failure. The political consciousness and moral education that I received were outside of classrooms. Schools train students to compete, to gossip, to scapegoat people who are different, and to be the passive recipients of a system that serves the elite. We cannot even fathom entertaining thoughts or conversations that speak truth to power. Rape is not only a gender issue and it does not happen in a microcosm—the entire society takes part in the rape. Somehow questioning injustice becomes radical, unpatriotic or just another "women's issue" that is pushed under the rug. In the end, mechanistic, regimented and score-based education becomes a tool to create more inequality, to further marginalise the ones living on the margins. Great strides in girl's education fall egregiously short of creating a just society if the girl's journey to womanhood is so harrowing, and in cases like this, if the girl pays for her freedom, her mobility and her education, with her life.
We police our girls in schools to protect our boys. We cover our girls, so our boys don't lose their integrity. There is something abhorrently odd about girls' school uniforms. As girls hit puberty, they are made to put on designated cross drapes over their breasts as a part of the uniform, as if to deter the outlines of new breasts from titillating infantile boys from committing crimes or "acts of pleasure". Even these drapes on the girls' chests are not enough to appease the prudish gaze of disciplinarian teachers. The drapes on the chest mark the girl's body as territory that is off limits, only to be vilified and violated at inopportune moments. The death penalty and jail time will not deter acts of gendered violence in a society where the education system fails both its men and women. We needed this well-publicised death of an English medium school student to pull our fleeting attention back to the topic of the preposterous curriculum and toxic school culture. Although this is part of a larger ongoing national conversation, I want to bring your attention to how coercion and gendered policing and sexualising of girls are normalised in schools through petty disciplining.
We need to put an end to the culture of penalty and shame in the education system and create brave spaces to practice critical social thought, emphasise social sciences and liberal arts, practice communal values and empathy, expose ourselves to ideas and people we disagree with and teach and learn to critique social orders, learn to listen, and have a dialogue. Rape is about power; we must question and unite to uproot age old institutional practices that are stifling our education system. Let us remind ourselves that school must be a place for learning, rooted in compassion, faith, love and empowerment. Education cannot exist in a space that routinises and inflicts trauma and I can attest to that as a student and as a woman who remains troubled by the experiences of bad schooling. We must duly and respectfully do away with petty disciplinary practices and social hierarchies. With the one-dimensional focus on test-grades and micro-disciplining, we cannot hope for sustainable change through empty promises of blind pieces of legislations.
Sex education is necessary, practicing critical social thought is existential, and change must start from a place where youth spend the most time—the classroom.
Sarzah Yeasmin is a Boston-based Bangladeshi writer and graduate student studying education policy at Harvard University. She is the program coordinator for the university's innovations in government program.