Young people’s experiences of gender, sexuality and schooling in New Delhi, India

We invited all our conference speakers to submit a blog post on their paper after Tuesday 13th May’s successful conference.  Below, Padmini Iyer presents her emerging research findings.

Padmini Iyer is in her second year of a PhD in International Education at the University of Sussex. Her PhD research explores young people’s experiences of gender, sexuality and schooling in New Delhi, India. This post presents emerging findings from this study, and is based on papers given at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference, University of Leeds (April 2014) and the Annual NGender Conference, University of Sussex (May 2014).


Much is made of India’s youthful population – with half the population under the age of 25, young people are often positioned as crucial to the country’s political, economic and moral well-being. While young people in India are often ‘talked about’ in these dramatic terms, they are rarely listened to. However, following the gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in December 2012, young people were prominent among those who took to the streets and demanded to be heard, protesting that something had to be done about violence against women, and vocally challenging restrictive gender and sexuality norms.

So where does education fit in? Schools are often seen as regulatory spaces, in which restrictive gender and sexuality norms are reproduced1; however, schools are also potentially transformative spaces, in which gender and sexuality norms can be challenged2. During fieldwork last year, I spent five months in three Delhi secondary schools, exploring young people’s experiences of gender and sexuality at school. As part of the study, 180 students (15 – 17 year olds) filled out questionnaires, and then 30 of these students (15 girls, 15 boys) volunteered to take part in focus group discussions and individual interviews. Through my PhD research, I am keen to put an emphasis on young people’s voices, their gendered and sexual experiences at school, and how their schools could become transformative spaces.

In order to present some of the emerging findings from my study, I’m focusing here on the experiences of two particular students – Aaliya, a 16 year old girl studying at a Central Government School in Delhi, and Tornado, a 16 year old boy studying at a private school in Delhi. The real names of the schools are not being used to maintain anonymity and confidentiality and, as you may have guessed, the students who participated chose their own pseudonyms.


Aaliya was in the Humanities stream at her school (in the last two years of higher secondary education in India, students are divided into separate Science, Commerce and Humanities streams); her father was an electrician, and her mother was a housewife. Aaliya’s experiences reflect the restrictions faced by many of the girls who participated in my study – however, the way in which she exercised her agency within these boundaries also reveals how girls negotiated gendered expectations in their everyday lives, both at home and at school.

One of the main restrictions imposed on Aaliya by her family centred around talking to boys. She told me that her mother and elder brother (aged 17) explicitly instructed her not to talk to boys, and her younger brother (aged 11) monitored her interactions with boys at school. However, Aaliya suggested that she was not completely bound by these restrictions:

My [elder] brother is also strict. And he asks that – “you will not ah, talk [to] any boys, any class boys” – but I discuss with the boys! [laughs] And my younger brother is also strict – more than the older one! When I – when he, when he see any boy, when I discuss any topic then he go to home and tell about that, “she did discuss with the boy in many topic”. My mother will say that “you don’t talk [to] any boys”, but I talk though! [laughs]

Aaliya told me that she relied on her own judgement to determine whether boys were ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and made friends with or avoided them accordingly. So the school did provide a space in which Aaliya could exercise some agency and make her own decisions – but it was far from a liberating, boundary-free space for her, or for any of the other girls I spoke to. As well as the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ boys at school, there were similar notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girls which prescribed appropriate feminine behaviour. Students in the more prestigious Science and Commerce streams were quick to label girls in the Humanities stream as ‘bad’; I was told that Humanities students were more interested in flirting with each other than studying, which meant that they were not ‘serious’ or ‘good’ boys and girls.

Aaliya’s experiences suggested that that even as she challenged the boundaries imposed at home, she was being judged by a similar form of gendered and sexual morality at school. From what Aaliya told me, it seemed that she was most frustrated and upset about restrictions at home. She ended our interview with a moving plea that parents should not be allowed to restrict their daughters’ behaviour, and that the country should be made safer for women.

Ma’am, I want – I want that in our country ah, that […] government make a rule which, which every parents ah, are also allow to girls that you are – that […] your children go everywhere, and security is also available in our country.


Tornado was in the Commerce stream at his school; his father was a technical assistant with a national airline, and his mother was a housewife. Tornado’s parents had notably liberal attitudes towards gender in comparison to Aaliya’s family – and indeed, in comparison to most of the other students who I spoke to. Nevertheless, even as Tornado seemed to embody a form of masculinity which challenged more negative gender norms, he also faced gendered restrictions at school.

Tornado explained his parents’ attitudes in the following quotation:

[…] my parents think that if ah, […] the way we nurture girls, if we nurture the boys in the same way then it would be a very good example. […] they just want to make the boys […] also have the behaviour like girls. Means, mostly girls are considered as disciplined, and more sensitive towards anything, then – our parents make us like them only.

This does appear to reproduce gendered binaries to some extent (i.e. girls are like this, boys are not) but it also suggests that Tornado’s parents (and Tornado himself) have moved beyond the idea that boys have to conform to dominant masculine norms to truly be ‘men’.

However, Tornado’s experiences seemed to suggest that he and his fellow male students were nevertheless restricted by dominant masculine norms at school. This was particularly evident in relation to corporal punishment, which was almost exclusively targeted at boys. While this was referred to at all the schools, it seemed to be the most widespread and the most accepted in the private school.

And [boys] only get beating from the teachers, male teachers – and every time the girl… ah, she stays sitting[laughs] So that time [laughs] every time, male teachers hits [boys] ah, very strongly. But not – it’s not too much physically. […] And ah – in most only, we get beating on hand only. But today only I got on face [laughs].

Almost all the students I talked to at Tornado’s school viewed corporal punishment for boys as acceptable, and moreover, they also described this state of affairs – where boys are beaten and girls are not – as ‘fair’. Combined with stories of boys regularly getting involved in physical fights – including ‘good’ boys like Tornado – this gendered approach to discipline seemed to reinforce associations between violence and masculinity.

Concluding thoughts

I focused on Aaliya and Tornado in this post because their experiences provide specific examples that relate to wider themes emerging in my research. It is clear that family is an important factor in relation to young people’s experiences of gender and sexuality, whether gendered boundaries are being imposed at home (as in Aaliya’s case), or parents are challenging gendered binaries (as in Tornado’s). But gendered boundaries were also firmly established by fellow students and teachers at school – particularly through the idea of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and the gendered sexual morality that this brings with it.

My findings so far certainly suggest that the schools in which I worked were reproducing rather than challenging restrictive gender and sexuality norms; however, there are also exciting projects which suggest that schools all over the world can act as transformative spaces. The High School Feminism project, started in New York by Ileana Jimenez, is an exciting example of this – and High School Feminism is even taking place in Delhi. Tagore International is one of Delhi’s top private schools, and students and teachers there are implementing ‘Breaking Barriers’, a project to raise awareness and challenge stereotypes about LGBT issues.

Restrictive norms may have been highly influential in the schools where I conducted my PhD research, but the work at Tagore International is an encouraging indication that it is possible to engage critically with gender and sexuality issues at school, even within a highly conservative atmosphere. This is the kind of work that will lead to schools becoming transformative spaces, and which will hopefully mean that in future, students such as Aaliya and Tornado will not have to negotiate restrictive gender and sexuality norms in their everyday lives.



1Nayak, A. & M. J. Kehily. 2008. Gender, Youth and Culture: Young Masculinities and Femininities. Basingstoke: Palgave.

2Verma, J.S., L. Seth & G. Subramanium. 2013. Report of the Committee on Amendment to Criminal Law. New Delhi: Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law.





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