13 MIN READ
On the morning of March 19, students gathered as usual in the courtyard of St Mary’s School in Jawalakhel for their morning assembly. In chequered skirts and starched shirts, the girls waited for principal Sister Mariette to make her announcements and send them to class.
But this Friday, Sister Mariette had something else on her mind. She asked the class teachers to pull out all girls with short hair, i.e., hair above the shoulders. The girls were brought to the front, where the principal proceeded to call them out for having an inappropriate haircut and that all girls with short hair needed to grow their hair out within a few months’ time.
It was a seemingly innocuous order, as most schools in Nepal have strict rules regarding hair length, especially for boys. But schools, including St Mary’s, have long tolerated short hair on girls. The students were surprised by the new directive, but more so, they took issue with the manner in which the girls had been pulled out in front of the entire school and paraded as if they had done something wrong.
“The girls were humiliated in front of everyone,” said one of the girls who was present at the assembly. “The same thing could’ve been done in private without humiliating them.”
Sister Mariette, who has been principal at the school for around three years now, told me that it was a rule that had been in effect before she came in and she defended her decision to pull the girls out in front of the assembly.
“I had to show everyone what the problem was. I cannot go to every girl and tell them personally that short hair is not allowed,” she said. “I don’t think they were humiliated.”
Upon discussion among themselves, the girls discovered that the principal’s actions at the assembly had been prompted by an earlier incident where one girl had been taken into the principal’s office and questioned about her short hair. If she wanted to keep it short, she needed a petition from her guardians. The girl, who is a karate player and had cut her hair short for comfort, brought in her uncle, who in turn asked the school administration why he needed to write a petition when his niece hadn’t done anything wrong. He was told that it’s a school rule and that it applied to everyone.
However, no such school rule is enumerated in the students’ diaries, which list all of the school’s rules and regulations. The school’s website, under its ‘rules’ section, states that “long nails, nail polish, jewellery, or the bringing of expensive articles to school is strictly prohibited” but tellingly, makes no mention of hair.
“I don’t have a problem with short hair; it is more about the style. I have a problem with stylish hair,” said Sister Mariette.
I pressed her on style, if it was outrageous like a mohawk. She simply reasserted that it was “stylish”. Would girls with unstyled short hair be allowed to keep their hair short? I asked.
Sister Mariette hesitated.
“I cannot pick and choose which hair is stylish and which is not. It is a rule that short hair is not allowed so we have to follow the rule,” she eventually said.
Not just about hair
For many St Mary’s students, the administration’s insistence on long hair displays something much more insidious -- an attempt to police gender expression and define how girls should behave and what they should look like. When the karate-playing student was initially brought in to the principal’s office, she was reportedly told, “Why do you have short hair? Aren’t you proud of your gender?” one of her classmates told me.
“Why should our femininity be tied to our hair?” she asked rhetorically in a Zoom conversation. “It seems like for our teachers, the only expression of our femininity is our hair.”
What emerged through the course of the conversation, initially held over Zoom with three current St Mary’s students and later with two more, was a pattern of problematic behavior aimed at policing behavior far beyond the bounds of schooling and education. The girls described having class teachers, all of whom were women, check under their skirts when they were in grades one to six to see if they were wearing ‘bloomers’, or long underwear. One girl reported having her skirt forcefully torn and unravelled so that it would reach below her knees. In yet another incident, a grade 12 girl was once again called before assembly and publicly berated for having her top button unbuttoned. What are you trying to expose up there, she was reportedly asked, said the girls. The ostensible reason was that “there were male teachers around”.
St Mary’s School is one of Nepal’s oldest and most prestigious girls’ schools. Run by the Congregation of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order, the school is known for the quality of its education and its very low fees. But it is a school operated by nuns and it is to be expected that a convent will have strict rules, a point that Sister Mariette made certain to stress.
“A convent is going to have strict rules,” she said. “Parents and students both know this, especially if they are joining us for Plus Two.”
But nearly a dozen current students who spoke to the Record said that the behavior of some teachers went further than simply enforcing rules. Teachers went out of their way to body shame students, calling some of them “fat”, pointing out their weight, and asking if they didn’t want to get healthy.
“Don’t you want to be beautiful?” one student quoted a teacher as saying when telling her to lose weight.
One high-school student described being segregated by skin color -- into dark and fair -- while in grade 3, an experience that she had found incomprehensible and so deeply disturbing that she was able to recall it in detail years later.
“The broader impact of schools policing students’ bodies, and controlling their gender expressions and individuality as a way of maintaining ‘discipline’, is that students will internalize those values. The shame and stigma stay with you, and you often see it manifested in dangerous ways such as students bullying and slut-shaming one another or having body image issues,” said Sadichchha Pokhrel, alumnus and post-graduate student in postcolonial feminism.
In a Zoom class, a recording of which was seen by the Record, one teacher spoke at length about “immodest” clothing, saying that the way girls dress is often the reason why they are harassed or teased on the streets. Another teacher has numerous times expressed deeply problematic views about homosexuality, calling it a “mental illness” and that LGBTIQ individuals needed “medical help”, said a number of girls from different grades.
The Catholic Church does not consider “homosexual orientation sinful in and of itself” but it does have “a very negative attitude towards it”, according to Human Rights Campaign. The Church considers homosexual acts as sinful. Although, when asked about homosexuality, Pope Francis famously said, “Who am I to judge gay people?”
I asked Sister Mariette about her personal beliefs and once again, she was reticent.
“No one has ever been expelled for being homosexual. But I believe homosexuality is a sin,” she finally said.
One current student, who identified as part of the LGBTIQ community, told me that she feels discouraged from ever coming out as her teachers openly express homophobic views. Holding hands and hugging are heavily discouraged, even though St Mary’s has long had a culture of younger girls giving gifts to older girls they “admired”. In older days, though, none had the vocabulary to talk about it.
“There was definitely attraction between girls and there was a trend of junior girls giving cards and flowers to senior girls they liked, but there was no acknowledgment of sexual/romantic attraction,” said journalist and writer Shradha Ghale, who is an alumnus. “The term homosexuality hadn't come into use and neither teachers nor students could think outside heteronormativity.”
A generational problem
Ghale graduated more than 25 years ago so things were different, as hand holding and hugging were common, she said. But the body-shaming was as much an issue then as it is now.
“I feel the whole system was inclined towards making girls uncomfortable with their bodies and sexuality, though we were not aware of it at the time, and it wasn't even seen as a problem,” she said. “I guess this would apply to most institutions in our society.”
Previous generations might not have had the vocabulary or even the awareness to call out problematic behavior but the younger generations are much more savvy. Having grown up in the age of the internet, they’re “woke”, to put it in the parlance of the times, as the young teenagers who spoke to me for this story exemplified.
Indeed, for most of these students, it is St Mary’s that has played a large role in equipping them with the critical faculties to question authority figures and take a stance on what they believe is right. This point has been hurled at these girls like an insult by many of their critics on social media. Whenever these issues surfaced, as they have time and again on social media, some alumni have taken to dismissing all allegations as attempts to “tarnish” the school’s reputation and make it look bad. Those who’ve spoken out have been accused of being “ungrateful” towards the very school that educated them.
But the school’s critics don’t want to destroy St Mary’s -- they want to help it. Any institution becomes ossified and out of touch if it doesn’t change with the times. Body shaming and victim-blaming have always been problematic but it is only recently that people have begun to call out this behavior.
“Students should speak out if they are being unfairly treated or harassed. This is how we are raising young people, to speak, to question and seek accountability,” said Hima Bista, a rights activist and former student. “I am glad that these young girls are fearless. [It is] ridiculous and shocking of former students to accuse the current students of giving SMS [St Mary’s School] a bad name! I call that bullying by former students.”
Closed to criticism
Both current and former students who’ve spoken out say that they wouldn’t have had to resort to social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit if the school was receptive to criticism. Complaints are almost always dismissed by the administration and students are told to “leave the school if they don’t like it”, said many of the current students.
In extreme cases, the school has even resorted to legal action to stifle criticism. In July last year, Aakriti Ghimire, a St Mary’s graduate of 2015, posted an open call for stories about St Mary’s on Instagram. Articles about Budhanilkantha School and its problems with racism and sexism had inspired her to introspect into her own alma mater, she said. Her post was widely shared and she began to receive dozens of responses, which she catalogued in a Google document.
Then, she received a call from the Nepal Police’s Cyber Bureau, she said. The school administration had filed a police complaint against her for her Instagram post saying that it had “defamed” the school.
“I thought it was ironic that the first thing they told me was ‘legal issues aside, we are really hurt’,” Ghimire told me over the phone.
She was threatened with legal action, forced to take down her post, and issue a public apology.
“I asked them to at least take a look at the document but they refused to do so,” she said.
The document catalogs nearly 90 responses including body shaming, sexism, racism, and homophobia.
“I remember teachers and sisters saying that girls wearing short dresses are character-less and they were asking for it. It didn't feel good, but I could never speak against such orthodox dictum given to girls in the name of value education,” says one response.
“I was given a half an hour lecture just because I asked for a pad to male staff. Apparently asking for a basic necessity of a female body to a male staff was prohibited in Mary's,” says another.
“As a 15 year old who was just beginning to get comfortable with her sexual identity, I was advised by the then principal, through the school counselor, to ‘suppress my thoughts’ as they did not align with the belief of St. Mary's High School as a Roman Catholic institution. I was told repeatedly what I believed my sexual identity to be was actually just a ‘result of me overthinking things’ and that ‘it is just a phase’,” says yet another.
Changing with the times
As a pedigreed school with decades of history, St Mary’s has become an institution. But that does not mean it is beyond reproach. There are numerous issues not just with the Nepali education system but also with the institutions themselves and it is a generational sea-change that is calling out the problems. Some institutions are just resisting the tide.
Sister Mariette herself doesn’t agree with body shaming or victim blaming. In our conversation, she explicitly stated that clothes have nothing to do with harassment or rape, and admitted that body shaming young girls is not right. But she insisted on modesty.
“One needs to be modest in dress and modest in behavior,” she said.
If students came to her with specific incidents involving specific teachers, she’d be able to address their concerns. But there was nothing she could do about generalized complaints, she said.
But the students are pointing out exactly that -- it is not just one incident but a prevailing atmosphere of casual sexism and problematic beliefs that are incongruous with prevailing morals.
“Sexism and harassment [is] taking place in a school that calls itself one of the pioneers of education for girls and women empowerment,” said Pallavi Payal, an alumnus and artist. “This cannot be called women empowerment. This is encouragement to rape culture and victim blaming. It is time we change our education system to more liberal thoughts and ideas, especially in terms of gender and sex-related topics.”
I asked the girls what changes they envisioned and whether they were optimistic that the school would respond positively.
“We are quite pessimistic actually,” they said. “They’re scared of what is different. They want everyone to become like a certain type of St Mary’s graduate. But we want the school to accept people from all backgrounds.”
All of the current students who spoke to me insisted on anonymity because they were certain that if the school found out who they were, they would most certainly be expelled. And yet, they spoke out with abandon, risking their places at an institution that thousands vie for every year.
I asked them why they were doing it.
One of the girls replied: “What is the point of being educated if you can’t call out right and wrong?”
Correction: An earlier version stated that St Mary’s School is a Jesuit school, which was inaccurate. It is a Roman Catholic school administered by the Sisters of the Congregation of Jesus.