Skirt, pants or ‘skorts’: Students of this Mumbai school can choose their uniform, gender no bar

A male-at-birth child may choose to wear a skirt as his uniform if he so desires, says the Aditya Birla World Academy

Updated - May 26, 2022 05:46 pm IST

Published - May 26, 2022 03:15 pm IST

Gender-neutral uniforms designed by ad agency Ogilvy Taipei for a school in Taiwan.

Gender-neutral uniforms designed by ad agency Ogilvy Taipei for a school in Taiwan. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Among my fondest memories of school is having the hem of my PE skirt ripped with a blade by the head girl.

I grew up in cosmopolitan Mumbai of the 90s and went to a popular convent that took pride in educating girls from all social, religious and economic backgrounds. Our nuns weren’t so strict about homework, but we were certainly interrogated if spotted talking to a boy. We shared a sports ground with two other schools, one of them an all-boys academy. And the mini PE uniform was our attempt at snagging a boyfriend at 15.

In the coming academic year, a leading Mumbai school, the Aditya Birla World Academy, is introducing gender-neutral uniforms. Children of any birth gender will be able to choose from trousers, skirts or ‘skorts’ (a bad marriage between skirts and shorts) as their uniform. For example, a male-at-birth child may choose to wear a skirt as his uniform if he so desires.

The Aditya Birla World Academy in Mumbai is planning to introduce gender-neutral uniforms in the coming academic year.

The Aditya Birla World Academy in Mumbai is planning to introduce gender-neutral uniforms in the coming academic year. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In an email to parents, principal Radhika Sinha says the school aims to prioritise comfort and freedom of expression. This step is toward breaking stereotypes about gendered clothing, and ensuring an environment of inclusivity. The email says the school hopes to “reduce the gender differentiation in uniforms so that students of various genders, gender non-conforming, or questioning gender can feel safe discovering and expressing themselves at school”.

Gender-neutral uniforms have existed in schools aiming to be seen as liberal for a few years now. The skirt is entirely done away with here, and the girls wear trousers like the boys. This move has been welcomed by many who see it as an effort to remove gender stereotypes. It is also meant to encourage more girls to take up sports. Ironically, some parents were buoyed by this so their girls didn’t have to expose their legs. Uniforms were meant to take away social barriers, so why should they allow for gender barriers? But the trousers-for-all is problematic, as it considers the male dress code as the default.

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With increasing awareness of gender identities such as ‘non-binary’, where people do not identify as either male or female, and ‘gender dysphoria’, where their biological sex and gender identity don’t match, the need for a more inclusive or non-discriminatory school attire becomes imperative.

In 2016, a U.K. school did away with its century-old uniform laws and allowed its students to choose a trouser or a skirt for their uniform, instead of mandating the male uniform as the main one. In 2019, the mayor of Mexico City put forth a proposal that allowed boys to wear skirts and girls to wear pants to school if they wanted to, creating a furore in the Roman Catholic city.

The same year in Taiwan, among the more progressive countries in Asia, a school initiated a day when students could wear uniforms from the opposite sex to curb gender stereotyping and bullying. Inspired by this, ad agency Ogilvy Taipei and designer Angus Chiang created a uniform that comprised a long skirt for boys and girls alike. In Tokyo, several high schools give students the option to choose between slacks and skirts.

Medium of self-expression

It’s interesting to see how the uniform is changing its own rules. Where it once stood for a disciplined school system (with children routinely sent back home for an unironed uniform or a missing tie), or an egalitarian classroom, its role is changing. Uniforms are now turning into a medium of self-expression.

Some schools in India allow for Casual Fridays when the children can come in their regular clothes. Some schools take an anti-bullying stand by asking their students to dress oddly, mismatched socks or wrong-way front shirts, in a bid to accept everything that is different or unusual.

One may argue that these new ideas are rather metro-centric, and only take place in fancy schools. In much of India, nothing really changes. But the uniform itself is an elite concept. The first recorded use of it was in 1222 England, when the Archbishop of Canterbury mandated that students wear a robe called the ‘cappa clausa’. In the U.S., private schools have uniforms, most public (state-funded schools) don’t.

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Earlier this year, in a Karnataka junior college, Muslim students who wanted to wear a hijab, or a headscarf, were denied entry on the grounds of violating the college’s uniform policy. The Karnataka High Court upheld the ban and the Supreme Court denied the appeal an urgent hearing.

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In her astounding book Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World, Mineke Schipper writes, “Those in power make use of dress to confirm, debate, or overturn existing power relations”. In 1979, President Bokassa of the Central African Republic had hundreds of schoolchildren slaughtered because they refused to wear uniforms prescribed by him, made in a factory owned by one of his wives.

A new coalition government in Scotland is considering a proposal to “force” pupils to wear a gender-neutral uniform as a cost-cutting measure and to bring equality in classrooms, according to an article in Daily Mail. Scotland already has a grant that pays £120 per child to help parents pay for uniforms.

The idea of a uniform as a diktat is on its way out. Why not upchuck the uniform in entirety? In an environment where we are encouraging the world to buy fewer clothes to declutter the planet, why promote consumerism via school uniforms that need to be replaced ever so often?

The writer is a seasoned journalist who believes a mum’s work is never done.

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