Rani Joseph remembers a time when she was a student of the Little Flower Public School, Kollamula in Pathanamthitta.
She studied from Class 6 to 10 in the school (1996 to 2000). Back then, during class intervals, they used to play on the school ground, use corridors and staircases, and talk to each other freely.
Rani has pleasant memories of school excursions and sex education from Classes 7 to 10. And she also remembers teachers who weren’t wearing an extra layer of coat over their sarees.
Years later, when she joined her alma mater as an English faculty in May 2022, she witnessed, what she says, a world of regressive change. “From separate doors and stairs for boys and girls to ban on talking to each other; from slut shaming of girls who talked to the boys in the class to mandatory overcoat for female staff… all kinds of moral policing elements instituted in the name of ‘protection’ were aplenty,” she says.
When she was publicly humiliated by Principal Fr Soji Joseph for not wearing the coat - as it was neither delivered on time nor stitched in the right fit – it was the last straw for her, says Rani.
Not only did she send a detailed resignation letter to the school’s manager explaining the gender discrimination in the institution, but she also decided to bring it out to the public.
Rani has been openly talking in the media about the school’s peculiar norms since she called it quits.
“My friends, who are Little Flower alumni, were shocked to hear how the school has changed,” she says. “The administration is now engaged in character assassination and claims that I’m being ‘vengeful’ as a former student when they felt the media has taken up the issue seriously.
This is after some members of the PTA visited me a few days ago, assuring that they will look into the matters,” she tells Onmanorama.
“Well, I have no reason to be vengeful, and I’m not against the school. My three kids are studying here. At first, my impression was that the restrictions were due to the COVID pandemic. I’m just raising my voice against certain injustices I witnessed,” she adds.
The gender-biased rules in place
The trigger for her resignation was the public humiliation she faced at the hands of Principal Fr Soji Joseph, for not wearing the “teacher’s coat”. But that is just one of the gender-biased rules in the school.
“In my experience, the female staff are oppressed to silence. They do not raise their voice fearing the loss of financial security and lack of family support. Students are also harassed and sometimes, girl students are openly tagged ‘sluts,’ even in front of their parents. There are instances where adolescent boys, who have facial hair, are forced to shave each other. Even Science teachers support this, instead of helping them come to terms with their changing bodies! If their hairstyles aren’t as recommended by the school, they are taken to barbershops.”
There were instances when students were suspended alleging link-ups. “As for the instance of separate corridors, teachers are also yelled at if they don’t report following their ‘corridor’ duties,” says Rani. Interestingly, students are not allowed to play on their ground or be outside the class during intervals. “All they are allowed to do is to use the loo. Teachers question students if they are found outside the class during recess,” she says.
Interestingly, it is believed that the ‘coat rule’ was brought in place after a student discreetly took pictures of teachers using a pen camera in 2005. “How weird is that the school put the onus on female teachers and made them wear an overcoat?
Such instances point to the need for proper sex education and awareness,” she says. If a boy and girl are found talking to each other twice, it is labelled as unhealthy. “Often, the PTA applauds these rulings in the name of ‘protection,’” she says.
The way ahead
As many schools have similar systems in place and so-called ‘rebel’ teachers aren’t entertained, Rani says the chances of her getting another job are slim. “I know that well. However, I believe in what I raised my voice for. My husband Jikey Chacko and the rest of my family have been extremely supportive of me. I am also not interested in letting my children continue in this school and am thinking about homeschooling options. Come what may, I want to do what I can to raise a generation that isn’t scared to react when warranted,” says Rani.
Response of the school and its alumni
When contacted, the school's principal Fr. Soji asked us to get in touch with its manager Fr. Mathew, who in turn refused to comment on the issue on phone. They have earlier justified the rules claiming it was for the protection of the students and teachers.
On social media, many former students declared their support for Rani, narrating their experiences. “The school ruined 12 years of my life. It's better to study in Hitler's camp,” was one comment, while another said, “I was mentally tortured by this system. It was real hell.”