In Singapore, the Gender Gap Begins in School

It’s a familiar sight at the start of every new school year. A man walks on stage brandishing a cane, and the older students settle down into an eerie silence. Soon after, the man introduces himself as the discipline master, and everyone is informed that this man is to be feared.

What most students might not realise is that if you’re in a co-ed school, this fear is an unequal one. Because Section 88 of the Education (Schools) Regulations forbids female students from receiving any kind of corporal punishment.

The reason commonly given for this is lame and outdated: That girls are “weaker” than boys, hence such discriminatory rules. But we’ll come back to this in a bit.

When I was still in school—again, this might just be a co-ed school thing—it always puzzled me how sexist teachers could be when it came to resolving conflicts. Of all the fights I had been in and witnessed, not once did I ever see a girl punished. Now I’m not saying any of them should have been caned. But really, not even a rudimentary telling off?

In one instance, I was made to write lines (500 lines!) after rather vehemently demanding the return of something a female classmate had stolen as a prank. Nothing happened to said female classmate. In another instance, I watched a friend being marched to the principal’s office, right after having a filled water bottle thrown at his head by some female maniac (you know the crazy ah lian type; every school has one). If you’ve never seen an 8 year old bawling as he clutches a swollen eye, trust me, it’s not pretty. And again, nothing happened to that crazy girl.

I witnessed such incidents at least a few times every week. Female students constantly got away with things boys never would have. In one exceptional case, a male and a female classmate both forgot to do their homework. The girl was made to write 25 lines while the boy was given 200.

The teacher’s excuse: “Girl hands are not as strong as boy hands.”

female students internalise these biases, and begin to believe that they’re the weaker gender, fragile creatures who need taking care of

Back then, these biases didn’t seem worth questioning. I thought, maybe teachers just like girls better. And while I did grow up nursing a grave disrespect for authority, I just accepted that life was unfair. Today, I have very little patience for girls or women who try to be cute or charming to get their way.

What I didn’t know then, was that Section 88 existed. That perhaps my female classmates were never punished because of some antiquated ruling informed by gender bias. And now that I’m a little older and a little less bitter, I do wonder if it’s institutionalised biases like this that push students in co-ed schools to internalise sexist attitudes from a young age.

For starters, most if not all girls would have no idea that they can’t actually receive corporal punishment. For teachers, this perhaps translates into the assumption that girls shouldn’t be punished at all.

The result then, is that students begin to see girls as the more “fragile” gender. They learn (wrongly) that girls cannot be punished and therefore cannot be wrong, and that they have to be treated delicately and sensitively, lest they burst into tears. They learn that girls are “just different,” and not just biologically.

All of which, of course, is complete horse shit. And it’s also dangerous because female students themselves then internalise these biases, and begin to believe that they’re the weaker gender, that they’re fragile creatures who need taking care of.

visible actions from teachers then go on to reinforce inaccurate and potentially harmful gender norms

As we grow up, these perspectives can begin to manifest in all sorts of ways, from beliefs about women being more emotional and less physically capable, to men accepting things like “happy wife, happy life” and nursing their suppressed resentment in the process. Even my irritation at women who try to use their gender to their advantage is not completely rational.

So the thing is, if corporal punishment cannot be administered on girls, why allow it on boys? This isn’t about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Instead, it’s about an approach towards discipline that is problematic because it misguidedly privileges female students.

These very visible actions from teachers then go on to reinforce inaccurate and potentially harmful gender norms. If male students grow up to become men who believe that women can or cannot do certain things, it’s probably because they’ve witnessed preferential treatment since they were kids.

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