• Prarthana Lumba

Gendering Educational Institutes: What It Means for Menstruators at These Sites?

Gender in Educational Sites

Fundamental spaces for learning and growth, our educational institutions shape and prepare us for the world. Known to be spaces for socialization, they help shape our social realities and understand the world around us. However, while these spaces facilitate knowledge and safe space for the growth of children, it is also a workplace that is hierarchically designed. The employees include both teaching and non-teaching staff. This article acknowledges an educational institution as a workplace. Using menstruating teachers as the focal point sheds light on the neglected nature of teacher's menstrual health through the lens of gendered workspace.

More often than not, educational and organization research neglect aspects of gender, and are instrumental in essentializing and constructing gendered identities. ‘The patriarchal structure and social setting operate within the education system to reproduce the divisions between females and males' (Clarricoates, 1981). Often seen as unsexed, neutral spaces (Sevilla et al, 2021), educational institutions are honed for their egalitarian and democratic nature. Therefore, it is important to point out how such institutes are built on hegemonic, androcentric biases and values. Fundamentally patriarchal spaces, these sites constantly reproduce gendered identities (McGregor, 2006).

Gender, as argued by Judith Butler, is a performance (Butler, 1990). Keeping this in mind, we gather that gender and sexuality are socially constructed through institutions; based on normative understandings of what it means to be female or male through everyday performances and interactions.

By rendering gender and its issues unproblematic, organizational rules enforce more substantial control over female staff members. With sexism built into their very framework, these institutes become unfriendly spaces for menstruating employees.

Educational Institutes; Organisational Structure & Hierarchies

Most of the time, the hierarchical structure in educational spaces replicates that of broader social organizations (Clarricoates, 1981). Much like other institutes, they too reek of hegemonic masculinity in the realm. Women are overrepresented in teaching occupations; due to the 'feminine,' caring nature associated with the work. Adhering to these stereotypical beliefs, 80% of teachers in kindergartens and elementary schools are reported to be females (India Today, 2021).

While women dominate at the elementary level, the All India Survey of Higher Education (2019-20) reveals contradictory data as carried out by the HRD Ministry. Only 42% of female teachers were found to participate in higher education. Men, it was seen, dominated that sphere, with close to 57% participation. The managerial and administrative positions, too, are occupied by men who make decisions regarding the administration of the school (Press Trust of India, 2019).

Due to the feminization of the profession, educational sites are often seen as places of female power and dominance. However, these institutes emerge as hotbeds for gender-typing by reproducing the sexual division of labour (Deem, 1978, as cited by Clarricoates, 1981). In a bid to maintain patriarchal power and dominance, menstruating employees constantly feel the need to conceal their menses. A highly neglected and undermined issue, menstruation lacks educational and health support in low and middle-income countries (Sharma et al, 2020).

This neglect plays out in the material and spatial structure of university and college spaces. The unequal hierarchy, lack of availability of bathrooms, inadequate sanitation facilities, and support for menstruating individuals 'create a bodily experience that is remarkably unwelcoming to menstruating bodies’ (McGregor 2018).

Spatial Politics

The refusal of the organizational structure to accommodate the needs of menstruating staff accentuates the problem. By assuming a standard body, they perceive periods as 'undesirable bodily events’ (McHugh, 2020). A culturally and socially unacceptable phenomenon, a menstruating body, especially the teacher's, is seen as an aberration. In this manner, their bodily wastes become monstrous, impure and disgusting (Young, 2005).

The schedules and bathroom facilities of these institutes do not take into account or consider menstruating needs. The problems faced by them due to this gender-blindness and non-acceptability are numerous. Using the restroom between classes is a struggle, for they have to keep in mind the time and avoid the shame of being 'called-out’ as a menstruating body (McHugh, 2020).

Worries about accidentally leaking onto chairs, afraid of menstrual smell, lack of facilities in bathrooms, the need to mummify their unused sanitary pads, lest anyone should see them, make up the days of menstruating staff at the workplace. Therefore, the patriarchal, material structure of educational sites refuses to accept menstruation as a normal biological process by not being sensitive to menstruating needs.

‘Despite the prevalence of female bodies in these material spaces, the structures of the schools themselves, from the bell structure to the location and availability of restrooms for teachers, are not intended to accommodate menstruating bodies’ (McGregor, 2018).

Image Credits: The Guwahati Times, Bidisha Saikia

The Patriarchal Bargain

By hiding menstrual products, sticking them up their sleeves, and stashing their pads at the bottom of their purse, rather than throwing them in the school bathrooms, teachers act out their own suppression (Kandiyoti, 1988).

Growing up, having faced stigmas and marginalization due to their menses, teachers eventually internalize and become one with patriarchy. This cyclical nature of women’s power is better understood through Deniz Kandiyoti’s concept of 'The Patriarchal Bargain.' In this context, women, particularly as teachers, unwittingly yield power and exert control over their female students.

'Ironically, through their actions to resist passivity and male control, women become participants with vested interests in the system that oppressed them’ (Johnson, 1985).

Due to the constructed nature of period-shaming, lived experiences of exploitation, and having to follow an enforced menstrual etiquette, menstruating teachers adhere to the patriarchal script (Kandiyoti, 1988). Behaving as passive spectators and unable to liberate themselves from their own oppression, they reinforce a 'desired silence' surrounding menstruation.

Origins of Sexism

Despite the prevalence of female bodies in educational institutes, why are they built only to suit androcentric needs? In this context, it is crucial to understand the patriarchal value system always comes first (Clarricoates, 1981). This sexism, accordingly, finds its origins in the larger societal inequalities. By creating an unfriendly culture for menstruating individuals, educational sites as workplaces become inherently patriarchal.

Several times, teachers adhere to institutional guidelines of hiding all evidence of their menstruation to sustain their position. Those willing and wanting to break free from the shackles of patriarchy, too, cannot do so for fear of being reprimanded. The domination of women is a feature of patriarchal society, which subsequently finds expression in all social institutions. Breaking generational taboos, therefore, is no easy task.

Rethinking Masculinities, Overcoming Gender Blindness

The non-neutral, sexed nature of education leads to the creation of embodied workers, the social construction of power and unequal gender relations. By systemically privileging one gender and repressing the other, these sites engage in constructing essentialist identities. One can therefore refute the fact that educational places are egalitarian institutes. The administration must broaden the educational scope by implementing policies through a gendered lens.

In the Indian context, there is a dearth of research on the needs of menstruating teachers. The deeply embedded stigmas and menstrual taboos create an atmosphere of silence. Academicians and researchers should look at menstrual health issues for menstruating employees and students in all educational sites. Lack of menstrual hygiene awareness, inadequate water, sanitation & hygiene (WASH) facilities, and absence of menstrual products in washrooms create unpleasant experiences for menstruators. Rather than increasing their trauma, anxiety and humiliation (Pathak et al, 2018), one must locate and realize the needs of menstruating individuals. Understanding their lived experiences through a historical and social context is of prime importance (Mastari, et al, 2019).

Concealing gender differences and menstruation must be done away with. In doing so, the androcentric nature will be challenged. Teachers, non-teaching staff and students, regardless of their gender, must be trained and sensitized, making way for proper implementation and dissemination of knowledge. There is an urgent need to look at power dynamics, keeping gender relations in mind while understanding educational sites as workplaces. By constructing non-hegemonic male identities, (Sevilla & Sanchez, 2020), the needs of the menstruating teacher should be acknowledged and incorporated into educational policies and programs.

Image Credits: School training on MHM in India. ©WASH United


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