Scare, Shame, Scare, Shame!
This is my first attempt at a public narration of the bullying and gender discrimination I faced at Wynberg-Allen, a boarding school in Mussoorie, India, where I completed my four final years of high school. This narration is consciously selective and incomplete. Most major instances of bullying that were directed individually at me I am yet unable to narrativise. However, I do feel ready to talk about some of the general structural and ideological forms of gender discrimination and abuse carried out towards children, and particularly towards girls, in Wynberg-Allen that left deep scars on me. There are few disclaimers I would like to give out before I begin. I am not updated with ideological framework of Wynberg-Allen at present. I write strictly about the four years during which I witnessed that space. I hope it has evolved since then. This is my story and my perspective. I am well aware that many students who attended Wynberg-Allen with me do not share my views. It is possible for different people to experience the same space at the same time entirely differently. In fact, they always do. They are entitled to their realities, and I will lay claim to mine.
Contemporary feminist struggles are focusing intensely on the moral policing of women’s bodies. Many women have begun to expose the severe scrutiny and surveillance of external attire and physical movement they were subject to during their school days. Innumerable educational institutions are guilty of this form of sexist disciplining, and Wynberg-Allen was no exception. Skirts had to be right below the knees and socks pulled high up so that not more than an inch of skin showed between the hem of the skirt and the rim of the socks. Hair had to be tied and pinned flat with no possibility of any wayward strand running amuck causing the world to shut down. I remember these particular months when plaits became compulsory. PT shorts were to be more than halfway below the thighs and socks had to stretch to the knees - a particular requirement we constantly attempted to disobey for fashion’s sake! Swimsuits were positively dangerous. No girl dared to bring a V-cut swimsuit to school. There wasn’t a rule that demanded that. One wasn’t needed. Our sense of shame and consciousness towards our own bodies was sufficient for us to buy frock swimsuits in an unsaid agreement. The girls hostel was higher up along the hill and it was called “Wynberg”. The boys hostel was lower down and it was called “Allen”. All senior school classes were held in Allen so girls were required to go back and forth, up and down, to it everyday. Sometimes in the evening we would go to Allen for extra play practice or some such thing. It was compulsory at such times for all girls to wear salwar kameez. The kameez had to be below the knees and a “chunni” was compulsory. A kameez without sleeves was forbidden. Even our farewell “sari” could not have sleeveless blouses. They had to be long and the saris could not glitter. I do remember boys wandering about in bathrobes sometimes after swimming or before baths. I cannot imagine a girl doing the same before the opposite gender in school. The excessive scrutiny of girls’ bodies was institutionalized and the burden of implementation was placed almost entirely on the female teachers. This is not surprising. The stereotype of the older woman passing on the pearls of patriarchy to the younger woman bloomed to its full potential in Wynberg-Allen. These were efficient agents, entirely skillful and effective. They shamed, humiliated, commented upon, monitored and disciplined young girls for the way they dressed, walked, sat, stood, spoke, breathed with total precision and enthusiasm. And it worked. It really worked. A publicly well regulated female body was only the superficial goal, the heart of the mission went much deeper. Even within our own hostel and dormitories, where there were none of those mysterious, wayward, precious boys, our bodies were still a cause of anxiety. We could wear jeans but tops had to be long enough to cover our behinds. No skirts, dresses or shorts were allowed to enter the boundary walls of the school. No legs ever. For the purposes of sleeping too we could not wear nighties. There had to be pajamas with tops with sleeves. Nights were very scary sometimes. Wynberg-Allen was founded in 1888. It was an old campus with massive, high-ceilinged dormitories that thrived with ghost stories passed down generations. At night it was dark and cold winds would often whistle through the forested mountains making the night whistle. Logic would go right through the rattling windows and all ghosts seemed to be sitting right around me. I remember spending endless sleepless nights in fear. I wanted to snuggle in with one of the other girls but that was not possible, firstly because most of the girls seemed to entirely dislike me and secondly, because it was entirely forbidden. The matrons, supposed to be a substitute for a parent, supposed to be “maternal” and nurturing, were possibly the most unapproachable, cranky, irritable women in the entire school. In the morning they would wake us up with these endearing phrases, “Wake up, you insolent girls!”, “Wake up, you shameless girls”, while beating steal rulers on our steel bed posts right next to our heads ensuring that the day began with a headache. They would get wild if they discovered that two girls had slept together in the same bed. I deeply suspect that they expected some hidden homosexual fantasy to materialize out of the closet and swallow the entire school down whole. Obsessed. Wynberg-Allen was obsessed with girls and their bodies. Visually, linguistically, structurally, everything possible was done to control our bodies until no more external control was needed; until we had become entirely self-sufficient in morally shaming ourselves and judging each other; until we had internalized the discipline and would not conduct any bodily movement without being entirely conscious of it. It is hard to describe the impact of living day in day out in a space where one’s body is so holistically objectified, sexualized and hated. It’s powerful, to say the least.
The impact of such an attitude towards the girls was not lost upon the boys. Their gaze was just as unnerving and discomforting as that of many of the teachers. It was a piercing gaze, the sort of gaze that robs you off your privacy. The degree to which girls became conscious of themselves in front of the boys feels almost unreal now when I look back. Only a space of severe gender segregation and discrimination can allow for such discomfort to grow between genders. I remember one day when I got to know from someone (whom I won’t name) that a group of my class boys had been discussing the shape of my legs. I was so embarrassed and humiliated; I felt dirty and degraded; I didn’t realize that the rot was in their gaze and their mind, not in mine, and that I had no reason to feel shame. Those feminist ideas were strangers to that space. In my world back then, the girl was to blame for everything, for anything men thought, spoke and did. And I too blamed myself. Shame, blame, break and silence, it’s the usual pattern but it works, and it worked on me too. I was a child with a lot of acne. On one friendship’s day, my class boys gifted me an anti-pimple cream. If a boy liked a girl (no matter whether the girl reciprocated or not), a group of boys would take up the mandate of teasing each with the other’s name. The girl received the additional bonus of having her own surname replaced with that of the boy’s. I don’t know how many times my surname changed. Many times as I walked in a corridor or a common open space in school, minding my own business, a voice would call out to me by the name of some boy. If the voice source happened to be particularly averse to me on that day, he would generously add “prostitute” and “slut” to the names, just because. There was another time, in my very first semester in school, when I received a chit in my desk from some boy/boys (I never got to know who) that read, “We’ll fuck your mother upside down”. That was another incident that shattered my sense of reality and self-confidence. I don’t think I could look up straight again for some time afterwards. Let’s really think, what was that chit trying to articulate? A rape threat? A rape fantasy? Rape as humour? Shaming for entertainment? Disregard for consent? Entitlement over the body of another? Sexual violence turned into a practical joke? Of course no sexual violence was going to happen within the school. That’s not the point. This is the point: Imagined or real, they were successful in making me feel very embarrassed and very afraid for the next four years. This is the point: What does that chit reveal about the way those boys perceived girls? Or is that something schools don’t need to care about as long as enough doctors and engineers are in the factory?
The female teachers, the women we were supposed to imitate and idealise, were not exempt from boiling in the rot they brewed either. I remember boys from my class commenting on the legs of a particular teacher who dared to wear some smart formal skirts, and on the shape and colour of the undergarments of another teacher who made the mistake of wearing white pants. All female teachers, matrons, wives of male teachers had to “dress appropriately” so as to not give adolescent boys with wandering eyes cause for distraction and temptation. Who was going to tell these young boys, these royal highnesses, that it was they who had to gouge the filth out of their brains and their eyes; that the burden was on them, not on us; that not one girl or woman should have to change anything because they can’t wrap their heads around the idea of basic decency? No one was going to do that because “boys will be boys”. Will be like what? Creatures who are by nature pre-ordained to sexualise, objectify and harass girls? Beings with half-baked brains that are incapable of comprehending consent, respecting another human being or treating women as equals? Have we really come to a collective consensus that boys are incapable of anything better than that? The toxic masculinity those boys in my school regularly displayed was diligently fed into their brains; it was institutionally justified and supported. There was nothing “natural” or “pre-ordained” about it. It was created. Wynberg-Allen, amongst other schools we hold in high “prestige”, was a breeding ground of misogyny and sexism. Why are we so surprised then that eve-teasing and sexual harassment is common in the world, and even greater forms of physical/ sexual violence are a daily affair? The cultural foundations are laid right under our noses in schools and families, in the most banal, everyday ways. Break the egos of the girls, amplify the egos of the boys — an ancient formula, tried and tested for centuries, works like a charm.
Girls and boys formed cues separately, they sat and ate in different parts of the dining hall, played in different parts of the sports field, sat in different columns and rows in class. If at all a girl and boy happened to sit together, they were immediately conspicuous. It had to be because they were “in a relationship”. During short break and lunch break, boys occupied most of the school while girls instinctively confined themselves to a small area towards the back of the building. This too wasn’t a stated rule but we organically arranged ourselves to take up the least amount of space while the boys felt entitled to greater claims. Some girls like myself sometimes dared to cross the invisible line and walk around the rest of the school. It felt daring and subversive. Boys and girls hardly ever hung out together during breaks. Sometimes, if that happened, it again meant the two were “in a relationship” or building towards one. They were immediately the center of attention, the whole damn school’s attention! Anyone (student or teacher) who would pass them by would generously offer an unwanted judgmental or observing look or smile. To speak to a boy, one had to risk becoming the most conspicuous being in town. My mother was actually informed by the school once that her wayward daughter frequently indulged in conversations with boys. The possibility of boys and girls getting to know each other as individuals. equals and peers, of building healthy friendships and relationships was structurally removed. The extreme distance forced between children of different genders was fertile for any number of misconceptions and misunderstandings to grow. Schools have functioned as institutionalised moral policing brigades forever.
Frequently the authorities indulged in conducting surprise “raids”. These could happen any minute, any day, anywhere — in classrooms, dormitories, locker rooms. The process was such: a group of teachers or wardens would enter the concerned space, ask all of us to make a formation, and begin searching our belongings. There wasn’t a minute’s notice. The search was usually conducted to confiscate “illegal” belongings such as perfumes, food, technology (This made authorities very ecstatic because it led to suspensions and expulsions). However, the most sought after objects, also because they were most frequently found, were objects of romantic interest: a card, a letter, a flower passed from some lover to some beloved. These promised gossip, scandal, slander, shame, humiliation and maybe even punishment. Sometimes raids were conducted entirely without our knowledge. We would return from the auditorium after assembly to learn that our desks or lockers had been raided, and return from school to know that our trunks and beds and lockers in the dormitories had been raided. One had to be on high alert always, always, always. It took me many months to understand how to navigate such an ontology. The most effective way is to have no love interests, which is what the school basically wanted. However, young hearts don’t give in so easily. So the other efficient way is to destroy any loving missive there and then, no delay. But the heart also desires to preserve happy objects. Such hearts, all set and done, had only one bulletproof option: carry the happy objects in the bra. I remember a few raids when, in the half a minute between the announcement and lining up, many girls stuffed things into their shirts while other girls surrounded them inconspicuously to conceal what was going on. We were efficient and swift. Human beings are capable of displaying various hidden abilities in distress situations. Anyway, all these skills one learnt later on. When I came to the school I had never experienced a raid. I had never even experienced a parent trying to read my personal diary, or prying into my phone, or eves-dropping on my conversations, or questioning me on my friendships and various decisions I usually made quite independently. My father knocked before entering my room! Yes, I grew up in a family with a fairly ardent respect for the space and privacy of another human being and I couldn’t have imagined that I had been sent to a circus masquerading as a school. So when I experienced my very first raid during my second or third month in school, a bunch of romantic cards I had received from one particular boy who appeared to have fallen for me from the first day I stepped into the school, got caught altogether lying entirely unprotected, unhidden in my school locker. I remember my classmates were shocked that I had been so careless. How was I supposed to know? No. It is NOT NORMAL to live in conditions where one’s privacy is regularly invaded. It is pathetic that that had gotten normalised. I, along with another new girl whose name was mentioned in one of the confiscated letters, were ushered to the office of the school’s matriarch, its greatest female flag-bearer of patriarchy, the woman championing the crusade to discipline all girls to eternity, the principle’s wife! Most ex-students will know exactly whom I am referring to. No name required. She is legendary. Being called to her office was every girl’s greatest terror. My peers told me that I was going to have my worst experience yet, hinted that I only had myself to blame since I had displayed unusual carelessness, wished me all the best before I went in, somewhat reassured me that they would wait for me, and were very curious to know what happened when I returned. I was shivering to my bones when I entered her office. She probably went a little easy on us that time, compared to her usual standards, because we were both new. We were told that we needed to avoid the company of girls who were “characterless”, that more was expected from us because we were “good girls from good families”, that, as new students, we could either select the correct path now or lose our moral centers and tarnish our reputations forever. Finally, we were told that we were becoming “giddyheaded girls”, that we were not to become “giddyheaded girls”, that “giddyheadedness” was to be avoided by girls. That was when I learnt this very profound phrase, “giddyheaded girls”, and it has stuck. I have thought about it many times. I do understand why she liked it. It has a narcotic ring to it, doesn’t it? Giddyheaded girls!
Exeats, one day outings to town (the mall road in Mussoorie), were interesting days. Boys and girls could not move about town together. Female teachers would spread themselves across the town to keep any eye on the girls. Every time we would spot one we would quickly stop laughing, smiling and start walking rigidly. Our bodies would react this way instinctively in their presence. During these exeats, boys and girls had to seek permission to have a meal together at a restaurant, which would either result in the teacher joining the meal and ruining it or in keeping an eye from somewhere close by like a creep. A Cafe Coffee Day in particular had become very troublesome because boys and girls would/ could meet there to sip coffee and converse! So they came up with a simple sexist rule — girls could not go to the CCD unless a teacher accompanies by a teacher. Boys were free to do what they pleased. After the exeats we would walk back to our respective hostels. Before entering the hostels all our shopping was checked. There could be no clothes, food, jewellery, or anything that indulged any pleasures. Every single greeting card purchased was read. Cards to parents and teachers, thank you and birthday cards were alright. But if a card indicated a romantic inclination or an object had (for example) hearts on it, it was confiscated and an explanation was asked for its purchase in the first place. The talents of these teachers were wasted in Wynberg-Allen. Their little “morality-check” was more thorough than security-checks I have seen at some small airports. I am confident that the world could have benefited by deploying their skills in more high-risk, high-threat zones than a school.
Excursions, class trips spanning over a few days, caused levels of concern that fail language entirely. How is an institution to ensure that perfect discipline and surveillance is ensured outside its walls without any lapses and loopholes? The slightest slip and a girl and boy may share an unsupervised conversation or, the horror of horrors, they may just TOUCH. A lot had to be thought of but not to worry, these were well-trained professionals. In the bus, boys sat and the back, girls sat in front, teachers sat in the middle. In the accommodation, boys took cabins on one side, girls got cabins at the other extreme, teachers got cabins in the middle. I remember one night we spent at a hotel in Chandigarh. The teachers asked the hotel to connect the landlines in their rooms with those in the students’ rooms lest girls and boys talk to each other on the phone at night. Girls wouldn’t have dreamed of attempting anything but some boys, since they inhabited a somewhat greater sense of freedom, called our landline at night. Pronto a teacher arrived. Had I not been so frightened, or had I had one-tenth of the sense of humour I do today, I would have provided the teacher a standing ovation. One has to give it to her, that was impressive.
Shame, humiliation, fear are weapons of controlling, silencing and oppressing others. They have been used against children and against women eternally. Wynberg-Allen had perfected the art of wielding these weapons. But why do it at all? The question can be explored endlessly I suppose. The only insight I can offer as a witness is that, ultimately, the school was deeply terrified. Young children, there developing sexualities, and particularly that of girls (of thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old girls!), was fearful and threatening to the institution, to the authoritative, tyrannical and aggressively patriarchal foundations upon which it was built. Everyone was constantly in a state of frenzy and paranoia. But I suppose, in the endless struggle with memories and emotions, there’s always room for humour: to cause such an impact, my goodness, we girls really must have been devastatingly sexy!
Probably if I had understood how gender, sexuality, ageism, discipline, authority, shame, fear were mixing together in Wynberg-Allen to brew an infernal broth, I would have been less traumatised. But I understood none of it. Of course I negotiated and subverted in my own ways, but I also surrendered deeply at emotional and psychological levels. All I felt was lost, confused, afraid and entirely alone. I tried so hard to match their standards. So I worked harder and harder and excelled at everything I touched. I wrote and directed a play; I played major roles in all productions; I danced; I reinvented the school journal; I became a national level debater; I trained junior students; I excelled at all academic subjects; I organized events; I filled every waking minute with so much work that I was left with no time to think or breathe. I ensured nails were cut, hair was pinned, skirt was below the knees, socks were up. I decided I would like no boy, have no crushes, give no reason to anyone to judge me. I stopped trying to make friends altogether. I became silent and I stayed alone. The world around me slowly became a backdrop and I found a way to retreat into a world within myself made up of my own thoughts and my own imagination. It was a safe world and I don’t think I have ever really left it. But guess what, at the end of all that, I was still not good enough for Wynberg-Allen. I didn’t understand back then that it didn’t matter how much I coaxed and beat myself into different shapes and sizes, I was a girl, and a girl is an existential problem. There’s no way to win. One particular female teacher never ceased to pass comments such as, “isko toh bas ladko se aankhe mein aankhe milani hoti hai” (She just wants to make eye contact with boys), and “adayein toh dekho is ladki ke” (Just look at her coquettish behaviour”). My peers continued to invent creative forms of bullying. Those incidents of acute bullying I have chosen not to enter into in this article but they happened. I never understood why I was so disliked or so ostracised and isolated. Once I received a hint that some boys had felt offended because I didn’t reciprocate their “love” which made them want to harm me. The explanation seemed ridiculous, but that’s all I have received to this day. Nothing that happened in Wynberg-Allen fit any framework of reason or logic that I had grown up with. All set and done, I had come from a fairly liberal, cosmopolitan family where I was never actively discouraged from having my own voice, opinions and personality. I could find no vocabulary, theory, concept through which I could understand what was happening. Slowly the desire to get answers faded. At some point I entered this amazing emotional zone called “No Fucks Given”. “No Fucks Given” is a skill, is a science, is an absolute art, and by the time I left that school I had mastered it. This was self-preservation. I was not going to let them have my mind. I was going to leave Wynberg-Allen as psychologically intact as I possibly could. At the end of everything I decided I could trust Time. Time bloody well will move! And if I jumped on to its back, I would move too. That’s just Mathematics, another knowledge system with calculations that could be proven, with the ability to make sense in the midst of absurdity. So every night before going to bed I would open my locker where I had pasted a hand made calendar and I would cross out the day that had ended. I told myself that if could just do that every night before sleeping, one day after another, four years would end.
“Discipline” is a powerful concept. Schools such as Wynberg-Allen appeal to it frequently to justify their “rules” and behavior. Parents buy the narrative without question. I have repeatedly heard people say, “It’s just some roughening and toughening that will help her tackle life later on.” Seven years after enduring the “roughening and toughening”, I would like to say, it was just bullshit was what it was. Such discipline produces robots that are obedient, hardworking and well regulated. They preserve the status quo; they don’t critique or question authority. They make for “ideal” students and workers and wives and mothers. They can always accommodate, adjust, fit themselves into small spaces. Women from such institutions are particularly attractive. Demure, soft spoken and well mannered with perfect diction and body movement, appropriately dressed and obedient, non-subversive and unthreatening, they are trained to ruffle no feathers, offend nobody and to silently efface their own identities and individualities. The appeal of such women is aesthetic; it’s a violent sort of aestheticisation of femininity and the female body. The charm comes at a severe psychological and emotional cost. However, this is a cost that cannot be “seen” and so it is easily becomes inconsequential and forgotten.
Today as a feminist activist and research scholar, I am well aware that what I have faced is only the tip of the iceberg of what millions of children are enduring everyday. Children are tackling bullying, abuse and violence of diverse kinds and degrees everyday, trying to make sense of it, trying to respond and survive within it. All children have the right grow up in spaces that are at least safe, emotionally and physically. As adults, we have failed entirely. Fortunately for me, I spent only the last four years of my childhood in Wynberg-Allen. My formative years were already over by the time I was sent there. However, children come to Wynberg-Allen and similar such “premiere” institutes since the first grade. What is the experience of spending one’s entire childhood in a space that is ideologically and politically so disastrous? Where in such a space are children supposed to go to share their thoughts? Internet and phones, the only ways to access families, are removed. The adults within the school are indifferent, if not actively hostile. Where are children to look for healing? They are locked day in day out in four walls; they can’t access music, movies, internet or games at leisure even after school hours. There’s no home to return to, no room of one’s own to escape into, no individual space or privacy. We weren’t even permitted to write personal diaries. They were confiscated, read by the authorities and then punishment or humiliation was meted out on the basis of the content. Knowledge of this was enough to ensure nobody owned a diary. Sometimes if I wrote on a sheet of paper, I immediately tore it and threw it. How are children to evolve into psychologically, emotionally and sexually healthy beings while growing up in such a circus? Family and school, these are two institutions that primarily control the formative years of the human species. Unfortunately they, more often than not, work hand-in-glove in furthering patriarchy, oppression and abuse. Families and schools, particularly our presetigious boarding school “cloisters”, have immense introspection to do. It is necessary to probe these secluded, fortified spaces and provide platforms to those who have experienced bullying and wish to speak out. Countless children enter adulthood deeply emotionally and psychologically, if not physically and sexually, fragmented and hurt and embark on a difficult journey to reconsolidate their sense of self and build healthy relations with others. Some find safe spaces, some never do.
I left that school with one single friend — Jessie. She was a day scholar and I would only meet her during school hours. Every evening I would come back to hostel and wait for the next morning only to meet her again. She was always by my side. Consequentially, she frequently became a casualty of the ostracisation and bullying directed primarily at me. It was an experience she could have avoided but chose not to. She was my rock, and kindness itself. She taught me friendship, and how to support another human being. She showed me that even a single ray of light in what may feel like all-consuming darkness might just be enough to survive. For that, she has my heart always