November 14, 2013

The “Unspeakable Inequalities”: Gender-Neutrality and Educational Spaces

Some educational institutions in India follow a policy of gender equality, but in practice there exist subtle forms of gender power relations and a disciplining of the female body. Despite the fact that boys and girls study together, play together, have access to the same resources, gender socialisation plays a role in ways in which certain disciplinary norms are at work.

When I turned 21, in my final year of college, I was gifted my first mobile phone. It was a very basic model and only allowed me to make and receive calls and messages among a few other basic functions like the calculator, alarm clock etc. Some of my friends too had a mobile, and as young people in the first decade of the 21st century, we gladly exchanged jokes via the medium of messages. Some of these jokes which circulated among my friends and me during that time – mostly girl friends and a select few boys – were ‘non-veg jokes’ or jokes with a certain degree of sexual content. One day I sent one such joke, a witty one at that, to a girl friend. When she received my message, she was intercepted by a male friend who on reading the message, immediately exclaimed with much shock along the following lines “what a dirty joke, oh my god, she sends these kinds of jokes!” And the news spread.

Before I knew, everyone knew that I sent and received non-veg jokes via sms. I was immediately told by some friends that the jokes that I sent to a male friend in the hostel was read by all the boys there. Boys started telling me that I sent dirty jokes, and that they would not communicate with me through sms. It came to the point where boys refused to have my mobile number because I sent ‘dirty jokes’!

At that time I was amused at the whole incident. It did not really strike me as basically problematic. But now I can read the complexities of the whole ‘harmless little’ incident.

The reaction to the message came from the young men. And suddenly these same young men who would watch porn slyly on the side, were scandalised by a young woman exchanging a witty joke with sexual material with another woman. It was almost as if, for the men in question, the woman who was worth keeping in touch with or considering part of one’s social circle was someone who was devoid of any interest in sexuality or sexual material. It was a subtle process of ‘slut shaming’[1] and excluding women who have any interest in sexuality. It brought to light the Madonna-whore complex at work in the young men’s minds and how this binary of the good woman/bad woman orders everyday interactions.

And this took place in a college which prided itself on being ‘equal’ to men and women, which believed that gender identity was not imposed on any of its students. If one were to ask the women, I am certain one would hear of of many more such incidents. But because of the gender neutral policy, the space to talk meaningfully about prejudices was missing.

Merely having a policy about equal access to resources does not make any space gender-neutral or even gender-less, or equal. The socialisation of students among themselves often betrays some amount of misogyny. It does not change how a boy perceives women and categorises them into the binaries of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ woman, or the Madonna-whore complex. For instance in a heterogeneous group comprised of boys and girls, boys might prefer the fairer girls and thinner ones and might exclude or shame the ones who do not adhere to a normative sense of the feminine. When this happens, the space to protest, resist or seek some form of equality and justice is suddenly missing. This is so because the school space, which is supposed to be ‘gender-neutral’ or ‘gender-transcendental’ does not recognise these every day acts of the disciplining of the female body. At the same time, having a gender-neutral policy makes one incapable of literally speaking about what has recently been coined ‘slut shaming’. ‘Slut shaming’ in a gender-neutral college then renders the very act unspeakable. Those who protest or dissent then carry the burden of being gendered, or worrying too much about gender in a gender-less world, just like those who talk about caste discrimination suddenly carry the burden of caste, absolving the higher castes of any caste identity.

One way to think about such acts of “slut shaming” that one cannot name is by thinking through the ideas associated with postfeminism. Postfeminism is a term used to herald a time when equality is supposedly reached and when feminism is then no longer required. Postfeminism can be thought of as an epistemic break from the second wave, but most importantly it is played out in the context of media culture and is often bemoaned as lacking a political agenda. Postfeminism is contextually located in a neoliberal and globalised first world space where there is a constant emphasis on choice and empowerment through a language of the media and globalisation (Gill 2007a). Rosalind Gill and Angela McRobbie warn us against taking this ‘choice’ discourse at face value and try to critically think about the problems and implications of the constant occupations with the self and the body. This move from sexual object to sexual subject is not totally unproblematic (Gill 2007a). Rosalind Gill (2007b) argues that one needs to look at the way power works in these contexts. One needs to be wary of being celebratory of this media discourse of ‘choice’ and unpack the ways in which it interpellates women into normalised roles.

Following from Bartky’s reading of Foucault’s modernisation of power, Rosalind Gill (2007a) looks at how the female body is overly sexualised and why one needs to be critical of this move. At the same time, Gill observes a returning to the traditional pleasures of femininity: the heterosexual family, giving up work, taking the husband’s name among a few other things. Gill sees this as telling us two things: one, the ‘return of the repressed’ and second, as prefeminist ideas being repackaged as postfeminism. These do not challenge normative heterosexual femininity. The danger that Gill reads into it is that all of this is packaged in the language of neoliberal individualism.

It is in this postfeminist context that Rosalind Gill (2011a) argues that it’s time to use the word sexism again and recover it from its previous meanings. She looks at the new forms that sexism takes in the present context, where equality is assumed and yet where men are privileged in various ways. These inequalities are those which exist outside the strategies which are used to challenge these inequalities: like anti-discrimination laws etc. Rosalind Gill calls them unspeakable inequalities: “largely unnoticed and unspoken about even by those most adversely affected by them” (Gill, 2011: 5). Talking about it in the contemporary media workplace, she says that the new and mutated form of sexism which exists works precisely through “the invalidation and annihilation of any language for talking about structural inequalities. The potency of sexism lies in its very unspeakability” (Gill, 2011: 5).

My own experiences of the unspeakable inequalities that play out in spaces which have a gender-neutral policy, especially in educational spaces reflect precisely such postfeminist notions. What happens when one has formal equality between boys and girls in educational institutions? What are the spaces for resistance then based on gender discrimination? How do women and men negotiate with these in such an environment?



Gill, Rosalind (2007a) “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility”. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10 (2): 147-166.

Gill, Rosalind. (2007b). “Critical Respect: The Difficulties and Dilemmas of Agency and ‘Choice’ for  Feminism”. European Journal of Women’s Studies. 14(1): 69–80.

Gill, Rosalind. (2011) “Sexism Reloaded, or, It’s Time to Get Angry Again”. Feminist Media Studies 11(1): 61-71.

[1]  ‘Slut shaming’ is a way in which women who do not confirm to gender expectations or who act on/acknowledge sexual feelings are made to feel inferior and/or are discriminated against. This is done in multiple ways and needn’t involve the use of the word ‘slut’ or any other related word.


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