Moral Education Classes in Indian Schools Are Steeped in Patriarchy and Need to Change

Recently, the Madras High Court, while granting anticipatory bail to a man arrested for viewing child pornography, suggested that it can be tackled only through moral education. Justice GR Swaminathan, in his verdict, said, “…It is only through moral education, there can be a way out. It is only the Bharatiya (Indian) culture that can act as a bulwark.”

If “traditional” Indian values are to go by, everything related to sex is considered taboo. How do we even begin to address sexual deviancy if all of sex and sexuality is swept under the carpet in the name of morality? The argument that child pornography can only be tackled through moral education is flawed because Indian morality is against all kinds of sexual expression, leaving no space for a public discourse and course correction on it. Instead of having urgent conversations around safe sex and why child pornography is wrong, we immediately label all sex as immoral, unless it’s between a heterosexual married couple for the purpose of childbearing. One only has to look at the kind of moral education provided in Indian schools to understand this.

Moral education is something most Indian children experience in the school system and one that is either a free period used by teachers to catch up on other subjects or to extol the virtues of Indianness. In high school, moral science classes became less about the virtues of honesty and compassion, and more about reinforcing traditional Indian values in teens. In my senior year, a chapter in my value education book expounded on the sanctity of marriage and the purity of women.

While our moral education teaches us how to be good Indian women; sex education, or the lack of, in most most Indian schools is a joke. In grade six, our teacher hastily walked us through menstruation and female reproductive systems. My classmate asked why sexual intercourse is painful for women, and our teacher declared that the person should be ashamed of this question and ended the discussion.

Moral science classes also present teachers with the perfect opportunity to chastise “rebellious” girls and when you’re a teenager in a missionary school in India, it doesn’t take much to be branded as one. All you needed was to carry a lip balm to school or wear colourful hair-ties and your character would be questioned, your upbringing criticized.

Anisha, who requested that her name be changed to protect her privacy, went to a missionary school in West Bengal. She was singled out by her principal during a moral science class in grade 7 and shamed for laughing at a joke cracked by a male peer. The principal used this as a lesson to teach other students not to indulge in the “shameful” act of interacting with people of other genders. “She called me a vicious, dirty woman,” Anisha told Re:Set, adding that, “because of her comments, for the next one year I had to bear the brunt of being called a whore and a prostitute by seniors who disliked me and classmates.”

In the absence of proper sex-ed, and with a moral education that taught us that even looking at people of other genders was sinful, so many of us grew up with a heightened sense of shame for things that are only natural.

We were constantly told to be “good girls,” and we carried this weight well into adulthood. Indian women with a certain amount of privilege often spend years unlearning the years of patriarchal conditioning and to accept their bodies and sexuality without shame. One woman told me how a particular incident from her moral science class stands out to her even today. “We were told that if we accidentally brushed past a man while walking, it was our duty to apologize, otherwise it would seem like we were inviting them,” she recalled.

It might be tempting to dismiss this as absurd and inconsequential, but these are the values that are carried forward across echelons of society whether it’s the judiciary or the country’s leaders, who are ever ready to chastise survivors of sexual assault. Our understanding of moral education needs to go beyond ideas that simply perpetuate the existing heteropatriarchal social order.

We need to bring conversations around sex out of the bounds of immorality. We must forego arbitrary, orthodox notions of good and bad to actually spell out what healthy sexual behaviours are like. We can’t talk about the elephant in the room if we refuse to acknowledge its existence.

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