It’s break time at Valayanchirangara primary school and the pupils run freely beneath the mango trees and palms. Girls race against the boys, hitching up their knee-length shorts, cargo green for girls and teal blue for boys, as they go.
It’s been three years since this small government primary school introduced gender-neutral uniforms for its pupils, and in doing so set in motion a quiet revolution that is now sweeping across the south Indian state of Kerala.
“I feel very thrilled and comfortable with the uniform. It’s quite distinct from that of my friends studying in nearby schools. I can play well with this dress,” said 10-year-old Sivananda Mahesh.
Inspired by the Valayanchirangara model, more than a dozen schools in Kerala have shifted to gender-neutral uniforms and the state’s ruling Communist party of India has pledged to support the movement being implemented across the state. Several women’s rights groups have also come out in support of the unisex uniform initiative, saying it will help bridge the gender gap. Kerala has India’s highest literacy rate, but there is still a higher literacy rate for men than women and gendered and patriarchal expectations continue to be placed on women in society.
However, this initiative to tackle gender inequality at a young age is now facing stiff opposition from a section of Muslim organisations in Kerala, which accuse the schools of forcing western dress on their children and denying girls the right to wear what they deem to be appropriate feminine clothes.
In December, a protest rally was organised by the Muslim Coordination Committee in Balussery, a town in north Kerala, when the local secondary school introduced a unisex uniform of trousers and shirts for boys and girls.
Prominent Muslim organisations in the state warned the state government against enforcing gender-neutral uniforms in other educational institutions in Kerala, a state that is 26% Muslim, saying it would be un-Islamic for girls to wear trousers.
The decision at Valayanchirangara primary came after Benoy Peter, the former head of the parent-teacher association, noticed the difficulties that girls often faced wearing skirts in the playground and while playing sports. The school enlisted the help of a local fashion designer Vidya Mukunda to create a gender-neutral uniform that had “style and elegance”.
The school, which has 756 pupils who are mostly Christian and Muslims, said only one parent objected to the uniform, and after the benefits of the initiative were explained, in particular how it would make it easier for girls to move about comfortably, the resistance was dropped.
“When the idea came up, we were worried about the reaction of parents who prefer their girls’ wearing skirts. But we were able to implement it easily and without any protests,” said KA Usha, the school’s former headteacher.
Usha said the uniform had not only bolstered the performance of pupils, but parents were flocking to send their children to the school. “Parents are keen to get admission here as the new uniform evoked a lot of goodwill,” she said.
The school has also pushed its gender-equality initiatives beyond uniforms. After concerns that the school materials were filled with content “often in conflict with gender parity”, they created their own gender-neutral textbooks, which are designed to sensitise children to gender equality from a young age.
“We made our books with teachers writing the content and a former student doing the drawings. The books carry images of women driving vehicles and men cooking in the kitchen. The books convey the message that no job or task is gender-specific,” said Usha. The school has also designed a new logo with the image of a girl and a boy to spread the message of gender equality.
KP Suma, a teacher at the school, said: “Now the boys and girls have equal happiness and freedom. The uniform has boosted their confidence. Gender sensitivity is at the heart of the school, and we are ensuring easy mingling of boys and girls without bothering about gender.”
After the successes of Valayanchirangara primary, the state education minister, V Sivankutty, said he was determined to see unisex uniforms rolled out across Kerala. “We are anticipating similar attempts at every educational institution in the state. On its part, the state government is committed to promoting gender equality in education and other fields,” he said.
At Kerala’s Balussery school, the site of the all-male uniform protests this month, the principal, R Indu, said it was students who had heard about the Valayanchirangara experiment who prompted her to evolve gender-neutral uniforms. This year, the school introduced the uniform with approval from the staff council and PTA.
Indu said Balussery students who wish to wear shawls for religious reasons were still allowed to do so, and there would be no interference in religious identity.
“The opposition against gender-neutral uniforms will not last long. My Muslim neighbours feel nothing wrong with it. Only the orthodoxy is opposing it. My children can do any activity with ease using this uniform,” said V Vivek, the PTA’s president. Many female Muslim students also praised the unisex uniforms on social media.
But Jafer Neroth, a leader of the Islamic organisation Sunny Students’ Federation who was leading the protests, said the uniforms were “political tools”.
“The government is helping the implementation of liberal ideologies on students and without consultation with religious leaders. Biologically, men and women are different, and it is the denial of diversity,” he said.
Sivankutty said the protests from some Muslim groups would not halt government plans to make gender-neutral uniforms the norm in Kerala. “We are unmindful of the protests from the orthodoxy,” he said.