Think of what you learned in your school days and you might remember solving quadratic equations or correctly using a semicolon, learning to pass a note without detection or faking your mum’s signature to get out of PE. But our schools furnish us with other things too. Ideas about ourselves and the world around us. Attitudes we internalise and learn to see as normal. And as a teacher I am becoming increasingly concerned that the rules we give our students are perpetuating misogyny.
Of course, society itself does a pretty good job of hammering women and girls with the message that our bodies are our enemies. From hip dips to buccal fat, we’re always being told that there’s something wrong with us and that we need to comply with ever-shifting standards of attractiveness. But misogyny is written into everyday school policies too – and when we think of how much time our children spend at school, we should be alarmed.
Whether it’s scrutinising girls’ faces for hints of foundation or measuring the length of their skirts at the school gate, there is a pervading assumption that female expressions of identity are inherently inappropriate and must be curtailed in the name of discipline. Though ostensibly applied to everyone, these rules disproportionately police the behaviour of girls exploring their burgeoning identities and changing bodies.
Recently, the issue of toilet use in schools has gained attention. Earlier this month, a girls’ school in Liverpool faced backlash after it was revealed that they routinely lock the toilets during lesson time to prevent pupils missing lesson time. Meanwhile schools up and down the country from Cornwall to Yorkshire have experienced protests in response to their own “prison-like” restrictions on students accessing bathrooms.
The public outrage makes sense. After all, most of us would be equally aghast if our bosses locked the toilets at work. Even as adults, we’d struggle to train our bladders to only empty during a designated 15-minute slot everyday.
But unlike much of the public, I can’t say I was surprised. Pretty much all schools restrict toilet usage nowadays – at least state schools anyway, where the presumption of misuse hangs over students like a cloud.
Every teacher I know is under orders to refuse students use of toilets during lesson time. We use our own judgement at our peril. If we do let a particularly desperate-looking child go, we’ll probably find that same student returned by a member of senior leadership and then hear an indirect reminder in the next morning’s briefing.
But locking the toilets during lesson time is only a symptom of a wider prevailing scourge of misogyny that is rife in our schools. Spend even a day as a teenage girl experiencing her first period and you’ll know that expecting students to only use the toilets during breaktime is just as cruel as it is unfeasible.
How can we expect teenage girls who are still learning how their bodies work to preempt the exact moment they are going to get their period or when they will need to change a pad? And even if you would, admittedly, be hard pressed to find a teacher that denies a trip to the toilet in a period emergency, should children have to disclose such intimate details to a teacher in the first place? Could any of us imagine practically begging our boss to go to the toilet because otherwise we’ll bleed through our clothes, while 30 of our peers watch on?
Any teacher will tell you that schools need firm boundaries and clear rules in order to succeed, but it is also imperative that we don’t make schools into places that beat girls down before they even grow up.
What’s more, just like in wider society, misogyny and racism collide to make for an even more problematic and restrictive experience for girls of colour in our classrooms. Take a common rule that you’ll find in most state schools in Britain: that hair must be a “natural” colour or must be a “business-appropriate” style. Black girls with afros or coloured hair extensions face the brunt of policies like these while white girls with blonde highlights go under the radar.
Just like with toilets, this goes far beyond the issue of hair itself. It’s about how schools are complicit in policing girls – and especially girls of colour – before they have even entered the adult world.
Moreover, for a sector so disproportionately staffed by women, teachers are often subject to discriminatory restrictions too. I’ve heard of female teachers wearing multiple pads whilst on their period because they know they won’t get to a toilet until lunchtime and they fear bleeding through their clothes in front of their classes. Urinary tract infections are practically an occupational hazard when you can only pee once a day – and that’s before you take into account pregnancy, menopause and motherhood.
I know of a teacher who miscarried during a lesson because she had nobody to take over from her and plenty more who have had to pump breast milk in stationery cupboards with no locks because there’s simply nowhere else to go. What does this tell our young women about how they will be treated when they grow up?
We live in an age where misogyny is easily accessible to children through the screens they carry in their pockets. But while we focus on combating TikTok sexism espoused by the likes of Andrew Tate, let’s not forget to look at what schools are teaching young girls too.
Nadeine Asbali is a secondary school teacher in London